I have written a lot about shame, and I have written a lot about patriarchy. But never before have I articulated the connection between them so clearly: shame is the lock that keeps patriarchy in place.

This realisation came to me after reading Proverbs chapter 7, verse 13, in the bible (Contemporary English Version): “She grabbed him and kissed him… with no sense of shame…” What I notice in this verse is the way that shame is posited as an appropriate or even desirable quality.

Here’s the Oxford Dictionary definition of shame:

  1. A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.
    • A loss of respect or esteem; dishonour.
    • A person, action, or situation that brings a loss of respect or honour.
  2. A regrettable or unfortunate situation or action.

How can any of these be regarded as appropriate or desirable? What does a painful feeling of humiliation or distress do for our wellbeing and self-worth? It decreases them.

Chain of events

Yet the definition recognises the chain of events: consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour triggers a painful feeling of humiliation or distress. This conditioned response has been beaten into humanity ever since the rise of patriarchy some 6,000 years ago, and is enshrined not just in the bible but the very fabric of our society.

Up until very recently, we have been shamed for not controlling our emotions. Here’s Proverbs again (6:23): “Correction and self-control will lead you through life.” Whether religious or not, most of us were raised in environments that regarded displays of emotion as undesirable—and shaming was the mechanism used to shut down those displays. Our natural emotions became repressed and, lacking an outlet, toxic.

This has led to such a staggering amount of anxiety and mental pressure that social media is awash with posts, mostly from women, claiming the right to express themselves emotionally in contravention of these age-old dictates. Patriarchy’s right to muzzle us emotionally is slowly but surely being broken.

The same applies to our sexuality. Historically, all sexual expression has been considered inappropriate and shamed—often violently. By shutting down natural sexual expression through shame we have perpetuated a distorted, repressed patriarchal sexuality that has also become toxic. In Sex in Patriarchy (first in a four-part series) I have documented the way patriarchy has moulded our entire experience of sex.

This too is changing. Society is gradually waking up to its repressed sexuality and the benefits of sexual vitality. Here again we see posts, such as the #underboob and #freethenipple Twitter campaigns, claiming the right to greater freedom of expression. Like the unknown woman in Proverbs 7:13, these women are shamelessly giving themselves the right to be themselves—and quite rightly too.

Picking the lock

By flaunting age-old patriarchal shame-based rules, they are undermining the female-negative, emotion-negative, body-negative and sex-negative patriarchal conditioning that has plagued the planet for several millennia.

To arrive at a society with genuine emotional and sexual wellbeing—as well as feminine equality—we must pick the lock of shame

Their actions clearly illustrate the truth that shame is the lock that keeps patriarchy in place. To arrive at a society with genuine emotional and sexual wellbeing—as well as feminine equality—we must pick the lock of shame. Once that lock is picked, the patriarchy must fall.

To eliminate patriarchy, we must eliminate shame.

Photo by Deleece Cook on Unsplash