I found myself in a collection of 14-20 year olds. We were in familiar grounds: The youth chapel at my local Assembly of God church. We spent much of our time in this building, playing games, building friendships, and playing music. I was probably 15 or 16, and along with my other teenage friends and peers, was right in the middle of The Age of Sexual Discovery™. Teenagers are coming into their own as sexual beings. This means a lot of hormones
and fooling around.
Figuring out what attraction and sexuality mean to you.
And so, we as these humans, coming into our sexual reality, were divided into two groups. The boys went with the Youth Pastor, and the girls headed off with the female volunteers. I want to start by telling my story. But, I want to stress right here and now: This isn’t just about my story. Remember that. My story isn’t really about my story. Not really.
So, we went our separate ways. When all the boys were gathered and we calmed down our Youth Pastor explained what was going on. He said that tonight was a night that we were gonna “Get real” and “Be truly vulnerable” with each other. That we were gonna talk about some real issues that young men of god might have to deal with.
We were gonna talk about porn and sex.
A young youth leader (not the pastor of course) would start by opening up a confession. He would share with us that he too struggled with the demons of sexual impurity. Maybe this week it was a story about an ex-girlfriend who he went “too far” with. Or maybe it was the more typical opening monologue: one about how he looked at porn this week and how he needed forgiveness and accountability to be better. We would then go around the circle, each young man expressing guilt about their sexual experiences. Most involved a detailed breakdown of their various internet searches and masturbatory habits. Not too detailed to be crass, but enough to make us all know how bad they felt and in turn, how bad we should feel about our internet searches and habits. Once we made it around the room, we would talk about how this is only the first step. We would be told that repentance is not only admitting what you did was wrong, but that it was also the process of turning away from that thing (quick note, this is absolutely NOT repentance.) We would be encouraged to create accountability groups, with one or two friends. These small groups of two or three people were supposed to ask about our private sex lives every day. The hope of these groups (and it was made explicit when we formed them, by the pastor) was to foster guilt. Because you didn’t want to be the one guy who came back to the group and had to admit you slipped up. These were calculated efforts to create and sustain guilt and shame as a way of change.
This is not a story of one night. Throughout my time in church, I went through countless Men / Women ministry nights. My life in christian college involved a nearly weekly “accountability” group, which involved almost every dude on my all male dorm floor getting together and continuing the ritual I learned in Youth Group. I remember specifically going to a retreat with my dorm floor to an overnight campout at a local church. There the speaker, a well-known and well-respected Youth Guy™, pulled the same card as my old Youth Leaders, openly expressing his guilt about his porn habits. People in places of power, reminding you that these things are shameful. That you should feel shameful, especially if you want to become a leader.
So, I spent 4-6 years living my life with my sexual desires, impulses and actions constantly being shamed. I was marinated in it. And my journals are a testament to it. Pages and pages of entries, prayers, and even a couple of songs, full to the brim with guilt, shame and self-hatred for my inability to be “the man I was meant to be”. This was my experience in my formative sexual years. This was what was shown to me as healthy. This is what was modeled by the teachers and leaders in my life.
So tonight, when about 70% of the way through the Netflix special “Nanette”, I heard comedian Hannah Gadsby talk about “soaking a child in shame” and the tears started to flow. This was after spending all day struggling and losing a fight against my self-worth.
A battle I fight daily, and lose more days than I care to admit.
And I was the safe person in those small groups.
What about the girls, who were taken to their own separate conversation, where they were told that it was their fault we boys were so horny. Where they were told to dress modestly, to help the sex addicted boys to control their dicks. Where they were taught, week after week that boys were monsters, that they as women were responsible for us monsters, and that if anything shameful happened, it was all the girls fault. Not only did they have to feel shame for messing around with their boyfriends, they had to feel personally responsible for it. AND for their boyfriends masturbating. AND for any future unwanted sexual encounters. They were taught the responsibility was on them. So, when that older boy forced himself on you, was it really his fault, or could you have maybe dressed more modestly?
What about the gay kids, who were told this was “a place where we are gonna get real”. That this was where we put down our masks and our barriers to get vulnerable with each other. And yet they knew full well that they couldn’t. That their feelings, their emotions and attractions and urges were beyond the pale. That even in this safe space, where we were able to be truly honest, they still had to keep hidden. Their shame, their “sin” was so bad, it was unspeakable. Because they knew if they opened up in that space, their community would reject them. That community that played games and sang songs and built friendships would crumble. They knew this because on many Sundays, the senior pastor would make sure to remind the congregation of their responsibility to preach the Truth™ to the corrupt cult of tolerance. They were taught that the straight boys and girls could be vulnerable and open about their desires, shameful as they may be. But, if these poor kids opened up about their struggles, their social life would collapse.
What about the trans kids, who had to keep their gender identity and possible dysphoria secret, while they struggle to choose which group to even go with in the first place. Being forced into a group where shame and rigid gender roles would be enforced. Desperately trying to appear the way they should, while again, knowing their feelings and struggles and identity is something way beyond this conversation. Knowing that being honest would remove you from both small groups. Being trapped, by the ideologies that fuel your inner conflict about your identity.
I could go on. The point stands. I was the most comfortable. The most privileged. I had it the easiest. My story is the tip of the iceberg. What lies below breaks my heart.
See, I was the straight boy (at the time. Read my last post to hear about my sexual discovery, sans shame at 30) who was fed a constant diet of shame that still debilitates me for days, even decades after I left that world. It started with sex, but it infected everything, fueling my depression, imposter syndrome, and body dysmorphia. And I had it easy. I can’t even begin to imagine the stories, the hurt, and the recovery that less privileged people had to go through. It breaks my heart to know the damage these small groups caused to so many. Which is why I said at the beginning, this isn’t just about me. My story is real, and it affects me to this day. But, my story is just the beginning. And the best thing you can do as a human being is listen. Listen to those stories. Listen to those who had it so much harder than you. Whether they be about shame and small groups, police brutality and institutional racism, LGBTQIA+ hate and intolerance, women being open about their own #metoo experiences or any other hurt human being open and vulnerable with you. These stories have voices. Those voices belong to people. Those people are real.
And, when you listen to others share their stories, and this is especially true for my fellow men out there, just listen and connect. Listen, don’t speak. Hear, don’t judge. Empathize, don’t criticize. If you manage to find yourself in a situation where someone chooses to open up to you about their wounds, don’t you dare fuck it up. Be the loving, caring ears that person needs.
Also, go watch Nanette. It’ll fuck you up real bad and it’s important that it does.