I am erotically obsessed with shame. Shame – the emotion that Silvan S. Tomkins defined as one of the primary ‘negative affects’ – is a uniquely physical thing. Shame is felt in the pit of your stomach, and is often manifested through blushes, prickling skin and an increased awareness of the body. Unlike other negative feelings such as sorrow or regret, shame is fundamentally linked to exposure, and to others witnessing and recognising our shame. To be exposed in doing something ‘bad’ is what converts that private wrong into publicly-constructed shame. Shame is perhaps one of the most collectively understood human experiences, yet it is so often repressed and ignored because of its perceived ugliness. It is this taboo quality that makes shame – specifically as it relates to sex – such a rich terrain for me.
Sexuality has long been a fertile site for shame, as anyone who’s ever felt that sickening jolt of fear at the possibility of having your porn history discovered can tell you. A cursory glance at of Foucault’s repressive hypothesis will highlight the ways in which shame is used discursively to police any desires which fall outside sex-for-reproduction in heterosexual marriage. Woe betide any one of us whose predilections exceed the purest vanilla, for shame sticks to us freely.
Additionally, for those of us whose sexuality falls outside of normative frameworks in any way, this shame becomes inextricable bound up in our desires. Unsurprisingly, it is hard not to eroticize shame when everything you find erotic is understood as in some way shameful. Whilst acknowledging that the forces which perpetuate shame are overwhelmingly negative, I am hugely turned on by forms of shame prompted by desire. The narrative of ‘I really shouldn’t want this, but I can’t help it because I’m somehow base and disgusting’ is the recurrent thread which joins up so many of my fantasies.
But let us try, when possible, to repurpose this. Recognising and exploring the machinations of shame can be one of the kinkiest things there is. If kink is built on the differentials in power dynamics, what more intense way to explore these than to lean into shame, rather than hide from it? Baring your shame is perhaps one of the greatest acts of exhibitionism there is. There is a special rush one feels in naming that shameful desire that has been kept concealed, and in another gazing, unflinchingly at it. Shame is irreducibly bound up in how an individual feels about themselves, and their own worth. Grappling with that – experiencing the physical sensations of sexual shame and discovering that it makes you desirable, and not a failure – can be a powerfully erotic thing.
Ironically, I’m not ashamed to admit I get off on shame, and I don’t feel the need to pathologize it as inherently negative. There is something cathartic in knowingly playing with it; with finding a space in which to utter aloud that unspeakable thing. It is here that roleplay comes into its own – where we can transpose and renegotiate these feelings within a safe, consensual framework. Through this kind of play, I have come to understand the value of shame in my sexuality. Consequentially, I have no interest in trying to eradicate it completely. Not only would it be nigh-on impossible, but I’d also lose a part of my sexual identity that I have grown to appreciate immensely.
Instead of attempting to fully defang shame, it seems more valuable to identify the things that fill us with shame, and interrogate why it is that society has deemed them so dangerous. In locating their subversive heart, we go some way to reclaiming the power of shame for ourselves.