Buttercup - Column for 9/21

Shame on Us

There are so many kinds of shameful secrets, from 'my mother drinks' and 'my father beats' me to 'I lost my virginity to that nerdy boy with acne'. Many of these secrets are unnecessary, or we could receive help and understanding if the information was out in the open. But one of the reasons that we keep secrets is for fear that we won't be understood. We'll be laughed at because we still wet the bed or we chose and undesirable sex partner or even were raped. We are afraid and our fear makes us hold a secret. It is very difficult to imagine letting go of a secret, even more so if the secret isn't just ours. A parent or spouse's drug abuse problem is their secret as much as yours, a rape, if you know the perpetrator, is their crime as well as your shame. Emotional angst over an impotent husband is a worry that you cannot share with your mutual friends without shaming your spouse. When you know these people or share any relationship with them you are bound by trust to keep their secrets, even when keeping them hurts you.

Breaking the secrecy with another person involved means breaking a trust. In some cases, breaking trust may be justified since the shameful secret is, in itself, a breach of trust already. But few cases are as clear cut as abusive behavior. When your best friend confesses she doesn't love her husband, you are bound to secrecy just by the speaking. Do you tell the husband, who is another friend? Is not loving so great a breach of trust to justify your breaking the secret? If a friend confesses they are a virgin, and this is a shameful secret to them, do you have any right to reveal that information to anyone, ever? These examples are not entirely to the point, because the secret sharer is not directly involved in the secret. Say instead that you have an embarrassing sexual encounter with someone you are dating. It isn't traumatic, but it is something you share and it would be embarrassing to him if you tell anyone. It is a matter of trust that you don't. At what point does the keeping of secrets become difficult, even painful, to the keeper? Obviously when they most need to be revealed, because the keeper is in some emotional or physical trauma associated with the secret. A little sister catches her big sister having sex and is horrified, but doesn't tell mom and dad because she knows the punishment is severe. Who should she tell, who can she tell? How can she reconcile her need for comfort with her need to protect her sister?

So many of our shameful secrets are about taboos, sex, love, or chemicals. It is so easy to use open minded rhetoric, but in real life we may find it a bit harder to practice exposing the trust of every relationship we have. It is nice to think that we could just do away with our taboos, making it possible to talk on any subject without fear of shame or recrimination. But we don't live in a vacuum and it is complete folly to believe that the rest of the world will follow you into your taboo-less land. A bare-chested aborigine can be made to feel shame when westerners stare repeatedly and fixedly at her chest. Even liking the nerd with acne won't safeguard you from the opinion of your peers when they find out you've had sex with him. If there is truly no shame then there should be no pity along with the calm understanding, no regrets or condolences. When a secret is revealed, our own actions show us how false our rhetoric is as we rush to show our support and assure the revealer that there is no shame attached to the secret, that it is healthy for things to be in the open, and that they are brave and right to have revealed all.

Columns by Buttercup