FROM THE FUCKBUCKET: “Have you given up on guilt?”
Have you given up on guilt? If so, when did you do that? If not, why not?
First, let’s clarify: guilt is not the same thing as shame. Guilt is when I feel bad about my actions affecting someone else, and shame is when I feel bad about something that I’ve done, whether my actions have affected anyone else or not.
Both guilt and shame can easily be misplaced or learned: I can feel guilty if I think that my actions are harming or inconveniencing someone else, even if in actual fact they aren’t (see guilt trip). I can also feel shame about something that is not actually worth feeling shame about.
So, returning to the question: I pay attention to when I’m feeling guilty, that is, if I feel like I've done something wrong to someone else, but I also keep a keen eye out for guilt trips, both giving and receiving. I don’t automatically dismiss feelings of shame; I want to be a better person, and shame is one way to tell myself that maybe I’m straying a little from my own moral path. But I don't assume that either of those feels are legit, and when it comes specifically to sexual shame, then I toss that shit out the window, as far and as quickly as I can.
I started rooting out sexual shame when I left the Mormon church, at the tender age of 13 or 14. Since I was still living at home, this was not easy, but I was bolstered in my resolve by long late-night phone calls with my friend David, about why the church shouldn’t be any kind of moral authority in my life, in any sphere. I’m sure our conversations were absolutely cliché emo drivel, but those 2am reality checks really did keep me strong through five years of bullshit at home.
Of course, one can’t divest oneself of those notions all at once. Fourteen years is young, but not so young that I didn’t absorb a lot of bullshit, and since then I still live in a society where women are shamed for their sexuality all the time.
Back in college, when I was exploring sex with wild abandon, I tripped over shame quite frequently. When I hit one of these snags, I usually responded by swinging wildly away, along some totally other path. What. I was young, and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it. I hadn’t discovered counseling yet. Or not drinking. I dealt with shame by just pivoting on my heel and going in some other direction.
Over time, I’ve gotten better with shame when it pops up. I breathe deep and sit with these two questions:
- Am I trying to put an actual guilt trip on myself, by making myself think that I’m harming or inconveniencing anyone?
- What are the underlying messages about me that the shame is trying to convey?
Here's a real-life example. When I learned how to squirt at the age of 40, my first worry was that I was peeing (underlying message: totally out of control). Also I was concerned about making a mess on people’s beds and just generally making a mess on THEM and otherwise grossing them out. I got with enough people who said this was actually not a problem, so over time any potential guilt feelings went away, especially as I started taking prophylactic measures for containing the juice (towels and/or puppy pads).
If I wasn’t injuring anyone, or causing property damage—at most an extra load of laundry, which my lovers insisted was not a problem—then all that was left of those negative feelings was shame, around how “out of control” I clearly was. Well, again, finding partners who loved how turned I was, how turned on they could get me, that took aim at that shame and obliterated it.
I haven’t given up on shame as an abstract principle, but when it’s sexual shame, I dig it up and expose it to the cleansing sunlight whenever I find it.
Haven't done any studies about it yet, but I'm pretty sure, based on anecdotal reports, that my work in sex-aware theatre and storytelling supports the reduction of sex-related shame by at least 25% in the viewing population. When you become a patron of mine on Patreon, you are helping me to creates spaces and places for this important work. Pledge today!