Male Sexual Shame and Objectification of Women
As the revelations about male sexual harassment and assault continue, many men are surprised at its pervasiveness, but women are not. Even if never overtly harassed or assaulted, they’ve experienced the destructive effects of sexual objectification, including abuse and violence, eating disorders, body shame, depression, risky sexual behavior, and sexual dysfunction. However, both men and women are largely unaware of the damaging impact on men that a culture of male dominance can cause. It causes shame to both men and women.
Sexuality brings abundant opportunities to exaggerate both our vulnerability and shame, to feel pleasure and close, but also to feel unworthy, unacceptable, and unlovable.
Shame and Manhood
Boys must separate from their mothers to establish their masculinity. To accomplish this task, they look to their father, peers, and cultural standards and role models to define what it is to be a man.
Hypermasculinity exaggerates stereotypical male behavior, such as an emphasis on physical strength, aggression, and sexuality. Masculine ideals of toughness, success, and anti-femininity are promoted. It rejects all feminine traits such as tenderness, compassion, and empathy. Being socialized this way, many boys and men have had their emotions shamed in order to conform to the masculine ideal of toughness, creating homophobia around tender feelings. It puts pressure on men to measure up to these norms and simultaneously shames other parts of them. In a culture that encourages hypermasculinity, some fathers humiliate their sons by calling them “sissy,” or “Mama’s boy.”
I was invited as a therapist to attend a ropes course that challenged young teens at risk. The challenges were designed to be frightening — even to adults. Over my objections, one of the male leaders brutally shamed any boy who showed fear, and worse, tears. He traumatized the boy, while re-enacting abuse he’d likely received growing up. This is how shame gets passed down.
In adolescence, teens strive to be accepted as equals among their peers at a time when they’re also establishing their ability to be sexually intimate. It’s a difficult period for all youth, but especially for those in the LBGT community. For a gay boy, it’s shattering to discover that he’s different. He may struggle in isolation. I’ve treated patients who suffered silently for decades and listened to sermons condemning them to hell. Gay teenagers wonder, “Can I become a man and sexually prefer men?” They’re confused, afraid, and ashamed. Because signs of femininity are despised by heterosexual boys trying to establish their own identity, gay teens experience bullying and shaming at school, which may account for a higher rate of adolescent suicides among LGBT youth and substance abuse than heterosexuals..
Objectification of Women
Countless men are socialized by their fathers, brothers, and male peers to objectify, dominate, and degrade women. Objectification of women strengthens these values and strains male relationships with women. It’s reinforced through “girl watching,” promiscuity or competition among men to “score,” having a beautiful woman as a trophy, and addiction to pornography, especially if it involves male power over for females (Elder, 2010).
The popularity of violent porn is growing, and studies show that it contributes to pedophilia, misogyny, and violence against women. Hard porn is often the basis for male sex education. It normalizes male conquest, control, and dominance and promotes the fantasy that all women enjoy what men demand, including aggression, or that they can be easily coerced to (Jensen, 2007). Teenage boys then believe that they can and should behave this way, but are disillusioned and disempowered when they discover reality differs. Power over the opposite gender is used to bolster male low self-esteem and deeply denied shame. (This includes shame for any reason, not just sexual shame.) But it comes at a price.