Gadfly: Shame in the age of Freedom

When it comes to sex, we live in a society of seeming contradictions. On one hand, ours is a permissive age: there is little under the umbrella of consensual sexual behaviour that our institutions do not officially endorse or tolerate. Casual sex, masturbation and diverse sexual positions are no longer seen as vices to be legislated against or ‘fixed’ by the medical establishment; indeed, outside the realms of the more conservative religious organisations, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in a position of authority willing to condemn such acts today. Sex is written about, discussed openly between friends and simulated on film and television. On the internet, pornography is near ubiquitous.

In theory, this might be the description of a sexually liberated society. In reality, it is something of a facade. While the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s helped bring about significant improvements in the sex lives of ordinary Westerners, the spectre of sexual shame continues to pervade our culture. It prevails through the practice of slut-shaming, in which teenage girls and young women are vilified for their promiscuity or choice of attire. It prevails in popular magazines and tabloid newspapers, in which prurience is presented as disgust. It prevails in aspects of the legal code, in which teenagers are treated like criminals for engaging in mutual sexual interaction through electronic communications. Likewise, it prevails in the difficulties faced by former sex workers in seeking employment.

Broadly speaking, there are two possible explanations for this discrepancy: the first is that progress of any kind is slow; that we still have people in positions of power in our society whose coming-of-age occurred in a much more conservative era; that this sort of shame is a slowly-fading remnant from times when the religious right were more powerful. The second, more troubling, possibility is that the sexual revolution is long since over; that, rather than being in the midst of positive change, a new puritanism has set in for good.

One of the more supposedly humorous stories of the Australian electoral campaign was the revelation that a Queensland State MP, Peter Dowling, had taken a photograph of his penis in a wine glass. It was this accusation, coupled with some minor allegations about misusing travel allowances (later shown to be erroneous), that resulted in Dowling stepping down from his role on two parliamentary committees. What was only casually reported at the time was that the images in question had been sent by Dowling privately to his then-lover during the course of a consensual sexual relationship. The fact that she later disclosed these matters to media outlets and the Queensland Parliament seemed to provoke little consternation from mainstream media outlets; most preferring to fulfil her apparent goal by participating in his humiliation instead.

This astonishing lack of respect for the privacy of public figures – crystallised a few years back in Channel Seven’s disgraceful ‘outing’ of New South Wales politician David Campbell, and also present in the Liberal Party’s hounding of former speaker Peter Slipper – may be fodder for further topics, but what it shows most clearly is that sex-shaming is as insidious as ever.

As a footnote, let us return to the phenomenon of teen sexting. Those who push for stronger regulations in this area cite the negative impacts endured by the victims – depression, loss of self-esteem and, in a few tragic cases, suicide – but, in doing so, they miss the point entirely. It is not the mere act of sending intimate photographs to a partner or friend that brings about such devastating consequences; nor could the dispersal of such images, devoid of cultural context, ever be sufficiently harmful on its own to lead young girls to kill themselves. The primary cause of these deaths, of most of the other forms of damage caused by these incidents, is a culture in which shame and stigma are attached to sexuality; in which people – particularly young women – are bullied and derided as ‘sluts’ if they are seen to engage in sexual behaviour. We must ask ourselves whether or not that is an ethos that we are comfortable perpetuating.

David Heslin

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