(Malachi is on leave this month.)
I have been thinking a lot about shame lately—both because it has been in the news and because it has not been.
Take former New York Mayor and Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani—the man I used to call “Bulliani” when I was one of his constituents—who said of Stephanie Clifford (more widely known as Stormy Daniels):
“So Stormy, you want to bring a case, let me cross-examine you. Because the business you were in entitles you to no degree of giving your credibility any weight,” Giuliani told an audience in Tel Aviv, adding later, “I’m sorry I don’t respect a porn star the way I respect a career woman or a woman of substance or a woman who … isn’t going to sell her body for sexual exploitation.” (ABC News June 6, 2018)
The thrice married Guiliani—who had affairs before ending each marriage (to legalize the affair—doesn’t use the word “shame,” but the bite of his words has the same effect as saying, “Shame, Shame, Shame! I can see and hear many righteous Christian women in my home town wagging their fingers, tut-tutting, and saying, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
What I have always found revealing is that the language of shame is rarely used about murder or theft or embezzlement but is so often attached to sexual acts and behavior. The shaming reflects the virulent and deep-seating sex phobia that permeates the land. And it is women who are expected to bear the shame.
Which is one of the reasons I am grateful to Pope Francis expressing “shame and sorrow” over the actions of pedophile priests (NPR August 16, 2018). For once, we have a man expressing shame about the actions of men who engage in sexual abuse and exploitation.
The words feel good, even though the lack—so far—of concrete action does not. Being ashamed, expressing shame, and remorse, is good, but the repentance and reparations have yet to come. Based on what has been revealed by the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, even more revelations are coming (New York’s Attorney General is now engaged in a similar project).
But what clearly is missing, at least in most cases, are expressions of shame by many of the perpetrators. The perpetrators include not only the actual abusive priests, but also their organizational superiors who often turned a blind eye toward the behavior or simply moved the offending priest to another location where he could start again. So, many need to express shame, remorse, repentance, and together find ways to make reparations.
Payoffs by dioceses and others to victims, with clauses that prohibit them from talking about what happened, are neither remorse or reparations, they are hush money to avoid public scandal. They keep the victim ensnared in a silence that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to deal constructively with their own feelings and find ways to reclaim the parts of their lives that were severely damaged.
Which brings us back to Stormy Daniels. She has decided to break the silence, and confront the denials by one Donald J. Trump and throw the settlement she agreed to back in the face of her former lover and his attorney. In other words, she has decided not to carry the shame any more.
One could make a case that, as “the other woman,” she owes Melania Trump an apology, but the person far more responsible for making such an apology is the man to whom Melania is married (and was married at the time of the affair). Don’t look for that to happen any time soon.
But as a porn star, indeed as a self-respecting businesswoman/sex worker who made money by being sexually available, needs make no apology—unless she over-charged for her services or performed the agreed upon acts in poor ways. No shame, no blame unless the services did not meet the standards as advertised and agreed upon.
This was consensual sex, friends. Unlike the priests and their victims, both boys/men and girls/women.
Oh, speaking of non-consensual sex, how about all the celebrities and corporate executives (men in all cases, except one so far I think) accused of abusive behavior? None of that appears to have been consensual.
Some of them have expressed regret for “any pain they caused,” and many have lost their jobs—but few, if any, are suffering any economic loss. So many have “golden parachutes” built into their contracts—and/or their employers really don’t want to go through a trial with all of its attendant bad publicity—that they seem to land on their financial feet quite nicely. Buyouts leave them with good nest eggs to cushion the loss of status. And a few already seem to be attempting come-backs of one sort or another—and I predict more will try—which surely does not feel to me like feeling any shame.
I have done some things in my life of which I am not proud, and even feel shame. I remember when I, as a county commissioner, backed down when one of our county department heads threatened to expose what he called my “strange sexual habits visiting porn stores” if I persisted in my complaint about the mistreatment of two gay male constituents who were overheard having sex in their tent at a county park in my district. I still feel the sting of that, and have spoken and written about the shame I feel. I wish I could find the two men and say it to their faces.
I acted to save my political and marital neck, at the expense of the dignity of the two men. I went on to win re-election (before deciding to hang up politics to go to seminary). Talk about a golden parachute.
And of course, there are the years of my marriage when I denied my own gay identity, and frankly the quality and quantity of sexual care my wife deserved, not to mention the pain my coming out, separation, and divorce caused her and our daughters. Much good came of all that, too, but I still carry a sense of shame. It long ago stopped immobilizing me and I have fully owned my role in all the pain, have been forgiven by all involved and have even forgiven myself, but the shame is still there. I realize it will never be erased.
The shame of Mr. Trump, the priests and their superiors, and all the celebrity and big business men will not go away either, even if they never own it. But we’d all, and especially their particular victims, be better off if they stood up like real (I am tempted to say “men” because of the ancient, and generally wrong, idea that men are the strong ones) people who own not only their glory but all the rest of their character and behavior, too.
Just think what a different world it would be if we all took responsibility, full responsibility, for all our conduct, if we all strove to be accountable at all times. Those who can lead us in that direction are the real heroes in my book.