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Break the Silence; Heal the Shame

When my sister was young, she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. There was just one problem: she couldn’t bring herself to say the anatomical terms for male genitalia. Which my brother and I thought was hilarious. We thought it was so funny that we were still talking about it 15 years later. Even though she had long gotten over this issue (and this career path), the theme resurfaced in our annual-homemade-birthday-parody video. The morning she turned 22, she opened her inbox to a skit on her ability to say “the p-word” before and after penis-rehab.

I just re-watched this video again. Though our videography skills could use some improvement, it’s still hilarious.

But what’s not so hilarious is the cultural tendency to be speechless about issues related to sexuality. Thankfully, the cultural voice on these issues is getting louder. Women across the world are speaking up about their realities and the world is responding. Victims of abuse in the Catholic Church are finding language for their stories and their bravery pushes for structural change. A wider array of sexual identities, orientations, and conversations around sex are being communicated in the media and politics. And while these are important moves towards positive change, the breaking of silence has revealed how much damage occurred while people were imprisoned by sexual taboos.

As these themes rippled across our society, I started thinking about my response as a therapist. Digging into a research project, I was horrified to discover that even the field of psychology is holding its tongue around issues of sex. Sexual dysfunction is currently the second highest presenting problem in clients who come to therapy[1]. Yet, most therapists don’t feel qualified to handle this.[2]. The reason is that most counselor education programs don’t require any training on sexual dysfunction, wellness, or diversity. The only programs that require training in these topics are specialized degrees in marriage and family therapy. While I’m glad they are at least receiving this important training, this just raises a bigger problem: a bias that the need to talk about sexuality in therapy is limited to people in coupled and monogamous relationships.

The deficit in counseling training programs opened my eyes to just how far the silence around sexuality reaches. Therapy felt like the place where the taboo things could be said: bizarre thoughts, depressed mood, family secrets, behavior patterns. But if people can’t even expect safe spaces in therapy, where can they? I resolved not to be part of this structural problem and responded as only any millennial nerd would: swiftly headed to Amazon and shipped myself three books on the matter and then got to work on a fiery, call-to-action...powerpoint presentation for class.

My urgency is driven by the belief that we have to break this silence in order to combat a society driven by shame. Despite the many taboos still present about bodies and sex, there is no short supply of harmful messages. These messages are heard, turn into shame, and play on repeat as “You are bad.” This is not a place people can grow or thrive from. Even though we all may disagree on which of these messages are right or wrong, I think we can all agree that they shouldn’t hurt so much. Nadia Bolz-Weber takes this idea a step further, and I agree with her. In her new book Shame-less, she posits that

“we should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people. If the teachings of the church are harming the bodies and spirits of people, we should rethink those teachings.”

And the same could be said of messages from the media, politics, and cultural traditions.

When we are living from a place of shame, we can’t find understanding or connection. Which is an unfortunate paradox, because those are exactly the things we need to heal. Brene Brown, renowned researcher on shame and vulnerability, points to a way to break this cycle:

“shame derives its power from being unspeakable…if we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”

While my brother and I have yet to patent our penis-rehab, maybe it’s time we all raise our voices to other p-words. Problems. Pain. Power. People.

And while we wait or fight for systems to catch up, we can do the most important thing: work on ourselves. We have to find the courage to speak up in the silence, and the love to create spaces that are safe enough for others to do so. Maybe we should begin looking at our own silence: what words can’t you say? And what can’t you hear?

[1] Ingersoll, R. E., & Burns, L. (2004). Prevalence of adult disorders. In E. Welfel & R. E. Ingersoll The Mental Health Desk Reference: A Source Book for Counselors. New York: Wiley.

[2] Blount, K.C. Booth, C., Webb, T., & Liles, R.G., (2017). Integration of Sex and Sexuality Into Counseling Programs. VISTAS 50, 1-12.

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