Half pity half smirk,
Like sympathy, cringing and
Glee all at once.
I recognized that look, maybe
Gave it to someone sometime
Myself, but tonight I was the
Target of derision; “Just kidding,”
He said of course, after insinuating
I was not acting my age or regressing
To some teenage former life. He
Mostly likes me, I think, not one to
Put me down, but there it was.
And I was struck with a hint of
shame, or something close to it, in
My smudged jeans and t-shirt, the
Swept back unkempt hair, and
Stained sneakers, and this place, I
Know I need to let go of, just take
That leap, brave the chance of more.
Uncertainty: this sudden pride, I lost
Not long ago and never missed til now,
not even noticing its disappearance,
Undeserving and unwarranted, so now
After tonight’s blush–pride–have
I fallen backward or forward?
I am sorry.
I brought her into bed with us again, she who worries
too much about her breath and her b.o.
all the wrinkles of offense, she who cringes at the thought,
the very idea that she may be seen,
imperfect as the smoke hiding the fireworks the other day,
left a trail of sooty stink looming,
threatening to mar our view, dim the shiny glee of us.
And now you know.
Though the end is not the all, not the being or culminating cause,
we were groomed to believe so,
such that her presence stays me, stems the flow, ebbing waves,
impenetrable shield, a barrier, firm and illusory, still
and empty as the notion that we need to be THE image
the key to keyhole fit
when with a flick of a switch, lights on to view the truth
veins and skin and twisted mouth
invisibly drawn to be erased in one full sweeping hearty sigh
honestly gut-of-the-mind uttered
by body belief in beauty larger than sight
holier than the mountain
we delve in for deliverance in undeniably desirous delight
release and respite, fulfilling
in its wholeness, this acceptance, this release,
this trust in blind care
for the principle, for the knowledge of us we share
enfolded, in threaded limbs
that nothing but fear she wedges between permeable doors
open-shut as the thought leaping over the falls
cascading down an embracing grip caught in the pupils’ deep
in careful sense, fragile fortitude as the spine of a lover.
photo credit: static.yourtango.com
I saw her picture first
A regular contributor of comments to this blog, MPM, shared with me the rumination below in context of an ongoing discussion about the historical and modern day role and conceptualization of the mistress. It bears reproduction here in its entirety for another perspective and invitation for response.
Ruminations on “King Charles II of England and His Mistresses”
Everyone – and I mean everyone, including me – should have a mistress or be one. You can tell a mistress things that you can’t tell your so called life partner and vice-versa. For some it provides emotional stability. For others perhaps an emotional release. It’s obvious that the need for mistresses (and ‘misters’) has endured throughout human time, perhaps as long as the oldest profession. That is not to equate the two, but to state that the need for one or the other seems to be intrinsic. Perhaps even those who do not participate in such activity at least have the thought of taking on one or the other, if only in passing sometimes. The human mind is probably too complicated for some to burden a single person with all that it contains. Perhaps engaging with one or the other relieves a partner of a burden too heavy to endure.
But then again, perhaps I am wrong.
Earlier I posted this comment to the blogger’s article, “King Charles II of England and His Mistresses”. That the comment is full of “perhaps-es” is a clear indication of my own self-doubt regarding the certainty – no, the validity – of what I was stating. After rereading my reply I felt compelled to expand upon it in an attempt to answer, for myself, the questions I openly asked.
So that the reader may better understand the questions I raised in my initial reply I will share with you my current situation.
I am currently a “mister” to a married woman who is herself a mistress to a married woman. I have met her husband and we appear to get along fine. I only use the word ‘appear’ because I am ‘fine’ with it, but obviously I cannot vouch for nor ascertain his true hidden feelings. Indeed, no one else can be aware of the feelings all of us have decided to keep secret. The circumstances of their marriage allow each to have this type of open relationship. I will not divulge why this is so to protect their privacy, although admittedly this certainly opens the door for one to peer into. Why I chose this particular woman knowing about the circumstances she was in shall also remain private except to say that we genuinely are compatible. Interestingly, each of us has been involved in non-monogamous relationships in our pasts and are so now. When I asked her how she felt about the wife in those circumstances she provided different answers for each situation. Some were because the wife no longer desired to have sexual relations with her spouse. Others were for more personal reasons. However, the answer to one of those situations surprised me a bit. Although the initial intent of involving herself in this relationship was not to do so, she stated that she was certain that doing so saved his marriage. He is in fact still married to his wife yet maintains a fond and friendly bond with his one-time tryst mate. I have not been as fortunate. Each of my circumstances has ended with a bang or a whimper and I have “lost” all – partners and mistresses – I have been involved with except one. I’ll conclude this backstory by stating (admitting?) that, going back some 40 odd years to junior high school days, I have never had a completely monogamous relationship. In some it took me longer to stray than others. But the constant has been that I always have strayed.
In my original comment in reply to the article I declared that, “everyone … should have a mistress or be one”, and I gave my reasons why I believe this. But upon reflection I decided to take a step back to observe the issue with more focus from a distance. I realized I was only speaking for my narcissistic self. My grandparents had been married for over 67 years and neither of them ever strayed. Ironically, I always set my sights on finding someone with whom I could strive to match their record of monogamous longevity. Why then have I never been able to commit to a single partner? Why does anyone allow themselves to play this way or even stray but once? Is it really an intrinsic need as I suggested in my reply or is it more than that? Perhaps (there’s that word again) the “intrinsic need” idea is a vain and selfish rationalization proffered to attempt to assuage feelings of guilt and shame (see this blogger’s article “Shame, Shame on You–and Me” for more on this topic) for branching outside of society’s accepted standards. After all, if the hidden relationship is discovered there are always feelings of hurt, anguish, and betrayal felt by the one who has been deceived, and we are the reason, and suffer the burden of destroying or altering the course of another’s life, as well as our own.
But then I took a further step back and was faced with examining the reality that some of the world’s best known and most followed religions now have, or once had, traditions of allowing plural marriages. Although it was never an original part of Western culture, Islam is the most obvious example as polygamy is still practiced today. And even though it has been outlawed (and to be fair discredited by), the Mormon Church also preached and encouraged polygamy. And is it more than simply interesting to note that both Islam and Mormon allowed the male to have wives younger than what (our) society has deemed to be a legal age for such unions? Doesn’t our society and culture view these versions of polygamy to be child abuse and rape? I’ll save the reader the tedium of reviewing every instance of child sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and simply go straight to the top – the Pope – and cite but a few that have been historically documented to not only have had mistresses but children they fathered with these concubines: Pope John X; Pope John XII; Pope Benedict IX; Pope Paul II. And Pope Leo X had a homosexual mistress relationship.
There is also the circumstances of hut dwelling tribal cultures still extant throughout remote areas of the world today. Their communities of miniscule populations probably, in some cases we can at least speculate, allow for not only polygamy but also a fair degree of incest simply to keep the tribe alive.
With these examples in mind it seems logical to question why our culture decries the mistress. It appears it could be argued that our culture is actually an aberration for doing so.
Then I began walking backwards to take a closer look at and examination of “our culture”. In keeping with the blogger’s theme of political figures with mistresses, most historians now accept that Thomas Jefferson, our third president, had as his mistress a slave he owned named Sally Hemings. This fact was established in 1998 with DNA evidence. It immediately discredited all the historians who had denied it for the previous 200 years. In modern times we now know that JFK had Marilyn Monroe as his mistress. We know that William Jefferson Clinton had Monica Lewinsky as his, and before that Jennifer Flowers. We also know that presidential aspirant John Edwards fathered a child out of wedlock.
Turning now to sports figures, no one can provide an accurate account of the number of athletes who have had or still have a mistress in every town their team visits, and let’s not even try to imagine the number of children born of these couplings.
At this point I felt I no longer had to seek or cite examples of the mistress in culture, politics, religion, or in any aspect of man’s contrivance. It is indisputably obvious that mistresses have been around “forever” and will continue to be a part of being human. Although my own grandparents demonstrate that there may not be an intrinsic need for everyone to have or be a mistress, history demonstrates that the opposite is equally true; which, I feel, at least partially validates my declaration that everyone should have or be a mistress.
What to do, then, with the guilt and shame?
Trying to find some clues as to the usefulness of shame in love, I came across this article, “In the Name of Love” by philosopher Aaron Ben Zeev, that quite frankly did not help me at all. Maybe I am missing the point, not reading well. I did find some portions of the article interesting but I did not understand much more than shame and love are both powerful emotions that can either build or destroy. Am I missing something? Does this article clarify the relationship between love and shame? It’s short, so feel free to read and comment, educate me.
A time for telling truth has come upon us now.
We needn't lie to get us through these times
You see it in my slain eyes and tensioned brow.
I don't pretend freedom's guilt in these rhymes.
What is guilt of freedom but knowing another suffers unjustly or that injustice exists and society closes its collective eye to it? I am not a proponent of guilt as one of the healthier emotions and certainly not as an effective tool of justice. I do, however, live in a guilt and shame justice culture.
Cultural anthropologists define a shame culture as one that controls its populace or maintains social and familial order through shame as opposed to a guilt culture which controls its populace and maintains order through guilt or fear of retribution (Wong & Tsai).
China, with its Confucian-infused culture, as well as Japan are shame cultures whereas the United States is clearly a guilt culture with punishment the primary tool to deter crime and slake the revenge thirst of victims and their families. Shaming is sometimes used in the American judicial system, though sporadically and sometimes tyrannically. Particular judges, exasperated with repeat offenders, look for alternative ways to stop criminal behavior where incarceration has failed to deter.
Thus, there have been news flashes old and new of shaming as justice. For example, the earliest one I recall is the repeat offender of child abuse/neglect, pregnant with her fifth child, who was given the choice to do time or do Norplant, the contraceptive implant. Holy hell broke loose in the media and public opinion as to bodily rights, Nazi judges, and the like. People do go on. Funny thing is, if memory serves me, the woman took the Norplant, but later reneged and hired lawyers.
Then there were the cases more recently of people having to stand by crowded public thoroughfares carrying shaming signs, like the Ohio woman who was sentenced to hold a sign that said, "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus." While that strikes me as a fair amount of burning shame and better than going to jail, other signs are not such a measured singe. Around the country, convicted sex or violent offenders, as conditions of parole or terms of sentencing have been required to post signs on their property that warn the public of the danger of entering the property of a convicted felony rapist, batterer or child molester.
However, the ostracizing as well as the collateral damage to innocents in cases of more severe crimes, ones deemed morally reprehensible and not a mere moving violation on steroids, may be too disruptive and destructive. One can imagine angry communities burning down houses with those signs or children of offenders suffering the crimes of the father or mother.
Some offenders suffer enormous shame and abuse in prisons just by the conditions of unending days of boredom, violence, degradation and isolation. So, the result, to some, of those conditions-of-parole shamings or shaming sentences may be an unending prison of ostracization. One might think certain offenders should be forever imprisoned--or capitally punished--but it depends on the offense and the offender, doesn't it? Some offenders can be rehabilitated and returned to the community as productive citizens; some crimes are worse to the community and in their heinousness than others.
The competing concerns of the community, the larger society (for revenge, retribution and safety), and individual offenders (punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation) are always at the heart of the debate, the two always in tension. What role should shame play in mediating the two, from both a retributive and communitarian perspective?
The communitarian view of punishment endorses the use of shame by the community as an alternative solution to incarceration with rehabilitation back into the larger community as the aim. In communitarian-inspired programs, community members, including victims, express their concerns, experiences and feelings to the convicted in hopes of yes, shaming, but not with blame as the terminal goal but reintegration. Retribution advocates, on the other hand, put the responsibility of punishment in the hands of the state to mete out just punishment based on proof of culpability or responsibility and the sentences appropriate to same, largely incarceration and fines.
Shame justice anticipates that an offender is motivated by or demotivated to repeat offend to avoid the loss of status in a community. Retributive justice focuses on society's rights to be unmolested and protected. Retribution is the root of an individualistic society founded on guaranteed freedoms as opposed to a more communitarian-minded society that uses shame not to ostracize but to exercise empathy, identity with the victim, and a sense of honor, in order to reintegrate the offender into the community.
Shame and remorse are the primary motivators in communitarian programs geared toward battling recidivism; empathic ability is a prerequisite. This obviously doesn't work for the sociopath or the disassociated from the main community, such as some ghettoized populations that adhere to the values of subcultures or anti-cultural creeds rejecting the larger cultural norms (See shame prediction for felon reoffending)
Shame is always present in meting out justice, conscience, empathy and guilt its associates or core components. But its effectiveness as a deterrent is certainly debatable precisely due to its power to destroy and deflect. Shame, which is a potent emotion, focuses on the person as bad whereas guilt is more targeted toward the act. In other words, an offender might think, "I am a bad person" instead of "I did a bad thing."
According to Ryan Jacobs, Associate Digital Editor of the Pacific Standard, in an article exploring shame's role in predicting felon recidivism, shame is less effective in diminishing recidivism than guilt. He claims that is because shame is so potent it produces in many the defensive reaction that blames others for the offenders' transgressions rather than directing shame upon themselves; it is hard for them to accept that they are bad people.
Jacobs notes that "blame transference" is a coping mechanism for "the intense self-doubt" caused by shame. He concludes that rehabilitation by shame is dicey due to the susceptibility of any program to this transference tendency of its participants. He recommends "goal-oriented" programs like those of the German and Dutch who allow prisoners to channel their energies into productive work--unlike the American criminal justice system.
"With excessive sentencing, extreme isolation, and little in the way of structured re-entry programs, inmates are practically invited to blame the system and believe that the forces of society have conspired against them." He concludes that this sort of system does nothing to reduce recidivism: "Once released and faced with lower economic prospects and no voting rights, U.S. ex-convicts are treated to the same sense of shame and worthlessness they encountered in prison. Full of blame, that’s probably where they’ll return."
Richard Lovelace, the poet who wrote from prison more than 350 years ago states that "Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage."
While social justice, its efficacy and humanity, is and has been a concern of mine, from both sides of the law, my larger preoccupation has always been on the personal, individual level. A society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals contractually living. I also subscribe to the beleaguered notion that social change begins within each society member, his or her ability to be compassionate, loving, accountable, responsible and forgiving.
So what about personal relationships? How do individuals exact justice in their familial and love relationships, and what role should shame and guilt play? One doctor, Dr. Dan Gottlieb of WHYY radio in Philadelphia believes more in the communitarian approach to personal justice, restorative justice in the family, community and larger society, and his general principles of personal justice lend support to my belief that we affect a society one person at a time to create a more effective and affective, empathic practice of justice in a judicial system--using shame.
So what about love relationships? Gottlieb only lightly touches on fair argument-understanding strategies. When lovers claim "unfair," that one thinks "I should be able to cheat if you do," or a spouse believes the I-should-take-up-the-same-amount-of-responsibilities-as-you argument, what kind of justice are they calling upon? What about when spouses or parents use shame: if you loved me, loved me enough, were a good person, you would do x, y or z? Should shame be used in personal relationships to exact justice, revenge, discipline? This inquiring mind would like to know what you, my dear reader, thinks.
Serendipity. I was writing about shame the other day when a friend emailed me an article by Jeanette Geraci titled “Unwanted Arousal & Sexual Shame,” appearing in elephant journal on August 7, 2012, with the subject line, “Shades of You.” A reliable source so I read it.
In this article, the young female writer struggles with the shame of her fantasy life, one comprised of debasement and humiliation. The shame, she explains, quoting from Carolyn Shadbolt’s “Sexuality and Shame,” is “the result when the inner meets the outer,” referring to the inner fantasy life meeting societal expectation and the inculcation of “…moral edicts about what is sinful, the chastity of women, the sanctity of marriage, the moral degeneracy of homosexuality, the superiority of male heterosexuality, the deleterious effects of masturbation, gender roles, sexist imagery, biological determinism and so forth…” which form and influence consciousness and sexuality (Geraci quoting Shadbolt in the above-referenced article).
With embarrassment, Geraci admits she is aroused by debasement, images of the female form exposed and humiliated, something she confesses as uncomfortably anti-feminist. She reveals that her former therapist echoed popular social attitudes and normative constructs–as well as the writer’s inwardly adopted critical “voice”–that self-debasement, anti-feminist self-loathing-laden imagery was evidence of illness; she even feared she was a “demented pervert.”
“Reading” her, it occurred to me that she was in a three-way relationship with herself, her fantasies and societal dictates: she (subject) gazed upon her mistress (object), which was arousal, fantasy or desire, both of whom/which (Geraci and her desires) were seen/judged (subject and object) against societal norms, and in this triple gaze, she found shame.
I have to admit my friend was right. I identify. I also enjoy deep, dark, delicious and salacious fantasies about masochistic debasement, cages, leashes, whips, confinement, exposure, humiliation…sure. I have a rich imagination, always have. Why these fantasies? I could psychoanalyze and conclude that my life and my ego-produced self-idol as an overly burdened, overly responsible, overly worked mother, lawyer, daughter, teacher, sibling, community member and leader are the cause.
My life-long focus and long hours spent working for others, trying to solve their legal problems, carving spaces in young minds for some critical thinking and civic responsibility, volunteering my time to build others’ dreams and financial success, care taking of husband, children, parents and siblings (the go-to volunteer and legal advisor) needed counterbalance–a place of rest and surrender commensurate with the output and idol of my own making just shy of martyrdom. Extremely responsible people require extreme fantasies of complete irresponsibility–maybe.
So I could say the body/mind needs balance and self corrects. I could say I have guilt that I believe I need atonement for, something that happened in my childhood and has been buried. Perhaps it was growing up in a Jewish family (enough said) or being sexually molested by trusted family members. I am no psychologist and can only rely on what I have read and heard anecdotally throughout the decades to understand the possible effect.
But I am not going to concede my fantasies as deviant or the result of psychological trauma and therefore unhealthy. When asked about my theories as to the origin of my masochistic arousal, I have often responded that I thought my fantasies allowed me to safely dabble in the taboo. Long before me, Freud wrote that the taboo has a complex position in human lives. He defines the taboo in Totem and Taboo as a concept that “diverges in two contrary directions. To us it means, on the one hand, ‘sacred’, ‘consecrated’, and on the other ‘uncanny’, ‘dangerous’, ‘forbidden’, ‘unclean'” (75). So the taboo is extraordinarily both profane and sacred, the apogees in the unconscious.
I recall reading that ancient societies created taboos for organizational purposes, when heredity and genetics were unknown, from pre-psychology days. They served practical necessity: living in tribes where birth defects were observed or jealousies endangered lives led to the conclusion that sleeping with a sibling or parent should be a no-no. Survival of the tribe and society depended upon it. The numerous generations since have swallowed without questioning such practices or forbearance of behaviors deemed taboo, behaviors inscribed in flesh after so long.
However, it is in the human spirit to test limits, to yearn to know all there is to know, even what has been proscribed. There are those who need to go further or deeper than others. To complicate matters, in Judeo-Christian influenced Western societies, the bible with its begats and siblings procreating to get the world kick started confuses matters even more.
So many airy filaments to tie together, all invisible floating conflicting inflections of morality out there in a culture, in the consciousness of a culture. I have never thought of my fantasies as abnormal. Nevertheless, I have not wanted to share particular details of them to lovers or friends because I have a strong need to be liked and respected. Perhaps that need is an offshoot of shame, a byproduct or the source. But I never thought the having of them was wrong. I always knew that it was society’s prerogative to judge but that did not make having those fantasies wrong. That did not cause shame in the having.
I think the biggest reason I didn’t share my fantasies was to preserve that treasure trove of the deeply private, simply for the keeping. It is the deepest layer closest to the core, layered upon semi private space to the all too public space of daily life.
I was gifted time with my daughter today, my sorrowing baby with a broken heart, her first at 15 and 1/2. She reminded me of the beauty of aching sadness. I took her to the beach rather than school, and as we sat on the ridge of a small bank of sand overlooking the ocean, two dolphins slowly passed by, swimming leisurely, sometimes in sync, sometimes not, but they cruised the shoreline easily. She seemed to know what it meant.
There is texture to a day when the sky and the sea are only a few shades apart. Despite the subtle sameness of the two, the horizon is in sharp relief. The outline of each tittering tern or gull is charcoal black.
This was the backdrop of my soft discussion with her, both of us on the edge of tears for the pain, holding back the overwhelming flood of feeling, the sublime, the knowing that there is something more, as I spoke into the horizon of what I knew about staying with someone who pushes you away despite his needing you, the nature of depression and feeling.
There is a pain that measures and balances pleasure that reaches perfection. We need to go where there is no holding back sometimes–we practice the path in our dreams and fantasies.
I never felt that I wanted to live out all of my fantasies. Some are going-solo utilitarian, some are sexual enhancers, some I don’t want to experience and some I do. The striata is based on acceptability to myself and society, yes. But there are so many communities within which to be accepted, one to fit every fantasy one could possibly have: bdsm, bestiality, scatology, fetishism, necrophilia, you name it. There are societies of all flavors of the erotic or pornographic. The key is to uncover, recognize and deconstruct the “normative” voices in your head. Undoubtedly, some fantasies, if enacted, would injure me so survival instinct and pain threshold define my boundaries.
Trite, but we all come to this subject of fantasy with all that we have been and all that we are. The internet teems with those who have weighed in on the subject of so called “deviant” fantasy and arousal, professionals and lay people alike. The consensus seems to be that such fantasies are “normal” and instrumental to a healthy sex life, improving, enhancing and enacting sex with them in the safety of a relationship or the mind.
Unfortunately, it appears Geraci did not have the benefit of internet assurance and validation, or a bereaved daughter to show her the horizon on an overcast day. But she figured it out nevertheless. Her conclusion to an intriguing subject and a touching vulnerably written piece is that with age and support she learned not to judge herself and that others should not do so either, not on one’s sexual cravings and arousal source; she concludes that all is fine so long as no one gets hurt. Of course, the self is a someone, and I bristle a bit at Geraci’s title after such a conclusion. “Unwanted arousal” still implies a critique based on social mores. She apparently wants her arousal and to not be judged for it, enough to work hard to un-sublimate it, discuss it and defend it.
Arousal and shame have a rocky relationship. It’s like society and the police, necessary evils we want, support and hate–hate that we need them. They impinge on our freedom and remind us that we are susceptible and un-free. But anarchy is less predictable. We trade off. Our fantasies are trade offs too. We keep them to police, uncover and secure our socio-genetically formed psyche. But we also need them to give us, some of us, pleasure and rest, profound desire–and a rich sex life. They teach us who we are, ever mediated in the gaze.
A natural corrollary or perhaps foundational exploratory precursor to the analysis of sex and shame is anthropological and historical–the taboo.
I remember reading Freud ‘ s Totem and Taboo as an undergraduate Comparative Literature student. Thought bits have remained with me in the succeeding decades since that first read and have returned with the advent of my current meditations on sex, shame, arousal and discipline, the text, though ancient by modern standards, warrants another look.
The following excerpt begins a delving deeper into that relationship, which I will continue in fragments as they multiply and mature:
Chapter 2: Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence
Taboo is a Polynesian word. It is difficult for us to find a translation for it, since the concept connoted by it is one which we no longer possess…
The meaning of taboo, as we see it, diverges in two contrary directions. To us it means, on the one hand, ‘sacred’, ‘consecrated’, and on the other ‘uncanny’, ‘dangerous’, ‘forbidden’, ‘unclean’. The converse of ‘taboo’ in Polynesian isnoa, which means ‘common’ or ‘generally accessible’.
It may begin to dawn on us the taboos of the savage Polynesians are after all not so remote from us as we were inclined to think at first, that the moral and conventional prohibitions by which we ourselves are governed may have some essential relationship with these primitive taboos and that an explanation of taboo might throw a light upon the obscure origin of our own categorical imperative
p.86 Anyone who has violated a taboo becomes taboo himself because he possesses the dangerous quality of tempting others to follow his example: why should he be allowed to do what is forbidden to others? Thus he is truly contagious in that every example encourages imitation, and for that reason he himself must be shunned.
But a person who has not violated any taboo may yet be permanently or temporarily taboo because he is in a state which arouses the quality of arousing forbidden desires in others and of awakening a conflict of amibivalence in them… The king or chief arouses envy on account of his priveleges: everyone, perhaps, would like to be a king. Dead men, new-born (page 87) babies and women menstruating or in labour stimulate desires by their special helplessness; a man who has just reached maturity stimulates them by the promise of new enjoyments. For that reason all of these persons and all of these states are taboo, since temptation must be resisted.
Not surprisingly, the article I posted here two days ago about public humiliation of Chinese mistresses has caused a measurable amount of reaction and debate among commenters on the blog as well as in my personal life. The article sparked a long, ponderous mood and meditation for me over the last few days, ranging from the political to psychological, and finally resting, as so often is the case, in the metaphorical and metaphysical.
It all started with the question of the relationship between shame and arousal. What would have caused these women to become violent, a mob of thugs? I thought about the rage, the human condition, biology. Humans are seething animalia and Mistress-dom, in all of its instantiations, brings out all that is human: love, sex, passion, loneliness, family, revenge, disgust, shame, justice, oozing, seeping masses.
I have been attracted to the mistress, intellectually and experientially, for a long while and so write about it in its broadest range and sense. On my blog, I toss the randomly acquired tidbit in with the big pot of stew of boiling thoughts over time, current curious human behavior in the news mixed with the rangy human theoretical concerns of graduate school professors and wannabes, and contribute to the expansive umbrella of my topic. I guess that is the structure of this blog, as much as I claim to have any.
But back to my musings, my next question concerned the relationship between shame and discipline. It is no secret that humiliation and shame are tools of the American “justice” system. Ask anyone who’s been in jail. She knows the systemization of acts, speech and design–from the guards’ avowed disgust, continual shouting and the panopticon vis a vis inmates–of degradation of the human spirit and person, of the human. Martha Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity queries the effectiveness of penal discipline performed through humiliation, claiming it degrades human-ness. Nietsche also believed shaming another is a deprivation of his humanity. Might the risk of dehumanization be measured against the efficacy of shame as a deterrent?
And what of the relationship between sex, shame and fantasy? It seems that much of fantasy is about domination and submission, often humiliation being one form of psychological control. What has been learned or experienced in childhood, in growing up in a culture, that compels people, some people, to combine shame, sex, power and control? It is not as easy to see this enactment of the prison guard-inmate relationship in our daily relationships, though it exists. Seizure of control by one or the other in a couple, whether by force or manipulation–or humiliation-is often one sided but also a constant shifting, or something in between. The power roles may be patently obvious, the dominant one apparent as the dominatrix, for example, but the inside workings of the couple-hood is not always clear.
When the drunkard comes home and beats his wife and the neighbors send the police to intervene, why does the wife defend the abuser against the police? One might surmise that she is afraid for herself and her children, perhaps, should the police interfere and the crazed eventually returning man believes it her fault. But one could also postulate that she is used to this kind of abuse and would rather have the father of her children around than have him hauled away, absolutely useless to her. She may know how to put up with physical violence, believe she has him under control because she knows what sets him off, knows what his limits are, and what the resulting damage will be–all of which is known.
Fear of the unknown is greater motivation than the shame she experiences in her debasement by another, in the eyes of her neighbors. But shame is a powerful emotion. Borrowing from a conversation with my recovering girlfriend, shame keeps you from being whole, causes cracks and are the cracks, the seepage. Shame is ubiquitous. Jane Bolton, Psyd, MFT, CC in Psychology Today writes about “What We Get Wrong About Shame,” and lists the following as manifestations of shame:
• Shyness is shame in the presence of a stranger
• Discouragement is shame about temporary defeat
• Embarrassment is shame in front of others
• Self-consciousness is shame about performance
• Inferiority is all-encompassing shame about the self
According to Bolton, these unsuspecting traits or emotions are associates of shame: embarrassment, discouragement, self-consciousness, inferiority and shyness. How often do these come into play? Shame is a powerful motivator and de-motivator and manifests itself in many contexts derived from biology and culture. We are programmed with shame from the stories told to us to regulate our behavior from birth: religious stories with fear and morality, codes of behavior that transform beastie children into civil adherents to a perceived orderly society.
All of those synonymous terms are conceived in the presence or eye of the others. Shyness is experienced in the presence of a stranger and discouragement is experienced as defeat due to shortcomings of the actor in the eyes of others. Embarrassment, self-consciousness and inferiority are all attributions of others’ perceptions to self, unworthiness, incompetence, and unattractiveness, perhaps. The byproduct and/or the foundation of these emotions and assessments is shame.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines shame as “A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Shame is first a feeling. It is a physical and emotional experience. As Oxford exemplifies, one can be hot with shame, a physical heat resulting from the stabbing emotion that flushes one’s face and felt bodily. The cause of the physical sensation is a realization or “consciousness” of defying or being misaligned with some standard, moral or otherwise, deviated from it.
Notice the definition is devoid of agency. Who is judging the behavior as deviant, self or other? As created beings, biologically and culturally, moral codes of behavior or societal codes of conscience, are dictates that precede human existence. One is born into an ongoing culture with established laws and principles. Those become conscience, form conscience. “Wrong” or “foolish” is a judgment measured against those inherited codes, whether they be right or wrong.
Sex is tied up with morality and behavioral dictates more than any activity or aspect of the human. Everything is about sex and death. Freud got that one right. So, shame (a form of public death) and sex, of course, are integrally linked, inextricably. Think: slut shaming, walk of shame, wall of shame. These are expressions of shamed-sex, deviance, socially unacceptable, judged, and not unsurprisingly, attached to women, harkening back to Victorian attitudes (and long before) of chastity as the creation of desire.
Shame is encoded emotion, powerfully influencing conduct and thought. As such, it is culturally differentiated. And because cultural mores are inherited and amassed over time punctuated with archaic notions of wrong and right, anachronisms, they are often arbitrary and illogical even as they are organizational and self-policing sources for a society.
Take for example, China’s concubine culture historically as well as its modern day mistress culture–the acceptance that wealthy men, at least, have mistresses–(See Jeffrey Hays’ facts and details; the Daily Beast on concubine and mistress culture in China; and chineasy.org)
and juxtapose it against the social “norm” or trend (I claim ignorance) for mistresses to be publicly shamed and beaten for being a mistress. Those two dispositions appear contradictory and hypocritical. Nevertheless, shame is the unifying factor and violence the universal expression in these public beatings.
All parties to this public spectacle are shamed, ashamed or shameful, the beating wives/girlfriends, the mistresses, the onlookers who do nothing and the men who cheat silently turning their eyes from the scenes are all enmeshed in guilt, shame, regret, embarrassment, red-faced and angry.
The wives/girlfriends are beleaguered with the shame of their failings. Why did their husbands find someone else? Where did they fall short? What do they lack? The mistresses are shamed–and guilty–by the laws of marriage and the principles of honesty. Why are they not marriage-worthy? Why must they feel excitement only with secrecy and deception? Who are they hurting? The onlookers regret this public scene and ask themselves about their own motives and derelictions of duty, desire, honesty, guilty about their own inability to act to help the mistress, to take a stand somewhere on the issue, to upheave. And the missing men, well, there are so many questions they ask, don’t ask, should ask, are asked of them. Why do they cheat? Because they can.
So, while there are obvious questions about the dynamics, ethics, morals, justice and character of a society in which mistresses are beaten by gangs of women in the streets while onlookers look away, it is not enough to dismiss it as just a cultural idiosyncrasy as there are human constants underscored here that need recognition: shame dehumanizes and when is it ever acceptable in a society to dehumanize, given the world’s susceptibility to genocide (a hop, skip and a jump away from “mere” dehumanization)?
On the other hand, when judging behavior, the context is important. Part of the strategy to avoid dehumanization is understanding the causes and motivations of behaviors, not necessarily to excuse, but to come to conclusions (and judgments) with circumspection, respecting the complexity of the participants of such a violent practice, for participants and onlookers alike. Sensibilities, of course, are culturally predetermined too, so perhaps the violence of the act isn’t experienced in China to the same degree and in the same way American eyes experience such a display.
When we look upon and judge others, the looking itself is a cause, effect and manifestation of the behavior. Shame is caused by the gaze of others; when we separate ourselves the inner self of desire from the outer self of public expectation, we gaze upon ourselves. Shame is the mistress. Her role is shame-defined by the public but desire is her only transgression, she the victim of the violence of shame. Her “crime” was to consensually engage in love or sex with a man who desired her. She is merely a scapegoat.
The mistress is the metaphoric umbrella for all the dynamics of emotion, psychology, power, artifacts and action called human in this scenario. She is catalyst, container, and contained. In the larger contemplation, she is the metaphor of love’s mind, spirit and body–and is least blameworthy.