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A Taboo on Sex and Shame?

There seems to be a taboo on shame in modern societies.

There seems to be a taboo on shame in modern societies that interferes with our lives, just as the taboo on sex did for many years. The first studies of sexual behavior published by Kinsey (1948) and by Masters and Johnson (1966) met condemnation because they discussed subjects that had previously been taboo. Yet they quickly became known both to the research world and to the public at large. Suppose, however, that they had used inoffensive but ambiguous words like love or intimacy instead of the word sex, which at that time was more taboo than now. They would have caused less offense, but their work would have been little known or further explored.

Consider a study of shame that avoided the s-word in the title, but discussed it fully in the text. The psychiatrist James Gilligan (1997) contended that secret shame is the cause of violence, based on his experience as a prison psychiatrist. When he asked prisoners why they killed, most answers were similar: being dissed (disrespected). Unlike most researchers in his place, Gilligan didn’t write a book about dissing or even disrespect as a cause of violence. Instead, he related it to what he thought might be a universal human emotion, shame.

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Another example: the use of the f-word in English. It is not acceptable in polite company, even if it doesn’t refer to sex. However, there is a male subculture that allows and encourages this kind of talk.

The difficulty in awareness of shame in modern societies is that like the f-word, the s-word is still taboo. For that reason, there are many studies of the shame system, but hidden under other terms: fear of rejection, disrespect, stigma, honor cultures, revenge, etc.

Gilligan’s book was not a huge success, either commercially or academically. It was never on the bestseller lists; it stands currently around the 30 thousandth mark. According to Google Scholar, it has been cited 400 times, which is 24 times a year since its publication. It seems that it has been little noticed by the public or by scholars. If the word shame had appeared in the title, it might have fared much worse.

With a different title and approach, it might have been a best seller. The actual title, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, is not exciting nor does it adequately reveal the content. The publisher may have not allowed the use of shame in the title, as sometimes happens. Perhaps Dissing and Violence would have had more appeal. But if Gilligan had wanted the word dissing in the title, he might have had to settle for the dissing-disrespect thesis, barely mentioning his notion of secret shame. The s-word would not be appealing; but repulsive.

What could be repulsive about the s-word, since it’s only a word? One could ask the same question about the f-word, since it also is only a word. It is clear that the f-word was completely repulsive for the sixty years before 1961, at least in print. According to the Google Ngram, there was not a single occurrence in books in the English language between 1900 and 1960.

Oddly, with the f-word getting more exposure beginning in 1961, the s-word has been getting less. The N-gram shows that the frequency of use in English language books has been decreasing steadily for two hundred years (1800-2000). This fact is particularly striking knowing that there are some usages that are not taboo, such as “What a shame!” and the jokey “Shame on you!”

That these two phrases are inoffensive suggests that the s-word is still less taboo than the f-word. As already mentioned, there are comparable uses of the f-word that don’t refer to sex, (like “What the f___?”), they are still offensive to many people.

To see if the decline in the usage of the s-word in print was in English only, I checked the Ngrams for French (honte), German (schande) and Spanish (verguenza) equivalents. The decrease has been occurring in these languages also over the two hundred years. Although there is a considerable decrease in use every year, the decline has slowed down slightly in the last twenty years. Shame is still becoming more invisible, rather than less.

Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara.

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