June Tangney on 'Shame', USA Today

by A look at 'shame' from a clinical psychologists' perspective on the Kavanaugh case.

June Tangney on 'Shame', USA Today
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Sept. 27.

"There’s something about sex that is very much at the core of ourselves," said Tangney, who has studied shame for more than 30 years. "And if it’s not something that’s freely given … it just really hits at the core of who we are." June Tangney, Clinical Psychologist at George Mason University. 

The past few days have been a whirlwind of political power, women's rights, victim blaming and shaming occurring with the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh facing allegations of sexual assault from Christine Blasey Ford. When President Donald Trump came to his aid he said: "It's a shame, because this is a great gentleman."

Shame is a word frequently used regarding sexual assault, but not in that "what a pity" way. In a primal way, something fearsome from which we must protect our daughters, as Padma Lakshmi wrote revealing her rape in the New York Times; and a crippling way, "overwhelming" as Andrea Constand put it in her Bill Cosby victim impact statement; in a way inextricable from other awful feelings, as second Kavanaugh accuser Debbie Ramirez told the New Yorker: “I was embarrassed and ashamed and humiliated.”

Shame – the feeling that "I am bad" rather than simply "I did something bad" – is one of the most primitive, universal pieces of our moral system, said June Tangney, a clinical psychology professor at George Mason University. Just as shame is a central feeling, sexuality is a central piece of identity, which may be why sexual assault survivors feel shame so profoundly.

When someone is physically attacked or experiences other kinds of trauma, they may feel helplessness, terror and other extreme, negative emotions. However, it's likely they will be able to get support from others and unlikely they'll need to keep it a secret. But when the trauma is sexual it violates the most intimate parts of a person's body and psyche. Added to the feeling of helplessness is humiliation with a long and strong cultural history, creating a complex, potent cocktail of shame. 

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