With the firings of executives, sentencing of Bill Cosby, and Supreme Court nomination hearings, accusations of sexual harassment and assault dominate the news. This behavior is driven by a deep-seated, abiding culture that objectifies women and damages both genders.
It perpetuates a cycle of shame in both men and women and encourages aggression against women. Even if never overtly harassed or assaulted, women experience the destructive effects of sexual objectification, including abuse and violence, eating disorders, body shame, depression, risky sexual behavior, and sexual dysfunction.
Men don’t realize how sexual shame also harms them. 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. They are also influenced by peers and cultural standards and role models to define what it is to be a man. Often, masculine ideals of toughness, success, and anti-femininity are promoted. This objectifies men to be other than themselves.
Hypermasculinity objectifies and exaggerates stereotypical male behavior, such as an emphasis on physical strength, aggression, and sexuality. Masculine ideals of toughness, success, and anti-femininity or promoted. Objectifying maleness this way teaches boys to reject all feminine traits such as tenderness, compassion, and empathy. 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.
Countless men are socialized by their fathers, brothers, and male peers to objectify, dominate, and degrade women. Objectifying men and women strengthens these male 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. But it comes at a price. Half of men feel shame about their behavior toward women, leading them to question their worth and lovability as human beings. (Elder, 2010)