Fortress Press

Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing

Sexual Shame

An Urgent Call to Healing

Karen A. McClintock (Author)


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This is the book that will provide pastors and congregational leadership the tools to identify the assumptions, behaviors, and structures that promote, while masking, sexual shame and to begin healing sexual shame both individually and corporately.

Chapter one provides an historic overview of theories of sexual shame; chapter two provides a theological framework for exploring issues of sexual shame; chapter three reviews Judeo-Christian biblical perspectives on sexuality; chapter four identifies twentieth century cultural shifts in perspectives and attitudes on human sexuality and marriage that provide the context for the experience of sexual shame; chapter five identifies shame-based distortions of human sexuality; chapter six delineates the congregational context of sexual shame; chapters seven and eight offer models of recovery from sexual shame for both individuals and congregations.
  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9780800632380
  • eBook ISBN 9781451412147
  • Dimensions 6 x 9
  • Pages 176
  • Publication Date February 28, 2001


"McClintock tackles the 'shame' of us all with careful, deliberate, analytical thinking that is both biblically sound and theologically challenging. Readers are called to shed the negative shaming experiences of their own lives, admitting truth and accepting a new freedom for themselves and others. Sexual Shame is so precise in its clarity that it does not create shame by its demands, but welcomes all who are willing to explore, with heart and mind, bridges of commonality."
-- Bishop Leotine J. C. Kelly, The United Methodist Church


From Chapter 1: Living on the Fault Line

The process of healing sexual shame follows the outline of the therapeutic process for individuals and families. The first stage is the assessment of the problem. What is creating the discomfort? What has been tried to address the problem? The second stage is the diagnosis, in which an attempt is made to name the problem as this and not that. By making a diagnosis, a therapist uses her or his best judgment to say what the problem is and to begin to point toward its alleviation. The third stage is the treatment plan. What needs to take place for the person or organization to be restored? What thoughts and behaviors must shift? What beliefs must change and how will they begin to do so? What resistance is likely to emerge? The person trying to treat the individual, family, or organization looks at the whole picture and suggests a way to address the problem by enlisting them in a process of change.

Step One: The Assessment. The first chapters of this book present examples of sexual shame at work in the lives of individual Christians and their congregations. We begin now to look at the sexual-shame problems in our own congregations. What are the problems? How long have they been going on? What is the extent of the damage that has been created? Do the problems belong only to this generation, or have they been handed down from one generation to another? What has been tried in the past to deal with the problems, and how has that worked?

Readers are encouraged to hold out hope during this stage of the process, despite the pain that inevitably results from the telling and hearing of the true stories of hurt and shame. Just as in family therapy, the first stages of a client's growth happen when denial and minimization are reduced, when persons can go more deeply into the layers of defense that cover their interior feelings. When congregations peel off the outer cloak of everything being "just fine" and look at the wounds they carry, it will be painful.

Step Two: The Diagnosis. The second part of the book describes how shame works in individuals, families, and congregations. It will inform the reader about the psychology of shame in general and how to identify it in congregations. The way shame is different from guilt will be described, although the two have admittedly become "strange bedfellows" over the years.

Some of this book deals with new theory in the area of organizational psychology, and this section will walk the reader through the theory in some detail. This section follows the process a family counselor might use to help a family understand what happens in the family system when someone begins to ask for or demand change.

Step Three: The Treatment Plan. My strong conviction is that spirituality and sexuality must be integrated. This integration provides the starting place for change in the entire system of congregational life and biblical and theological teaching. The third step in the book takes the reader through the process of healing. What are the actions that laity and clergy can take to heal themselves? What are the biblical stories that can be told to proclaim grace? How can congregations articulate norms and values without using shame to reinforce them? How can congregations define and communicate the sexual norms and values that they hold? A look at the role of the congregation in healing is included in the last chapters of the book.

From the Preface

Sexual shame erodes individual self-esteem, relational health, and congregational life. The parents of gay sons feel shame. People who don't live up to their own ideals as perfect lovers feel shame. Christians who live in committed partnerships without the contract of marriage feel shame about "living in sin" in the eyes of the church. Congregations that restrict conversation about sexuality or repress it with taboos and stigmatization remain shame-bound.

Within each community and congregation there are members who have been living in deep shame. Shame may be reinforced through preaching and teaching about immorality and sin. Shame may be underneath an individual's hesitance to become active in a congregation. Shame may be the reason someone sneaks into the back row and sneaks out to the parking lot hoping not to be noticed.

This book is offered as a resource for congregational discussion and for the personal liberation of those who have experienced shame in their families or in the church. I write it believing that we are all created in God's image, male and female, and that we were intended from the time of creation to live without shame. When God created the first man and the first woman, they were created in God's perfect image. They were also "both naked, and [they] were not ashamed" (Gen. 2:25).

Some of the stories you will find in this text may produce discomfort. The experience of shame is deep and can become overwhelming. I encourage you to talk with someone about reading this book and to invite dialogue with others in a church study or meeting. If you experience repressed memories or painful feelings as you read these stories, you are encouraged to call your local church or mental health help-line and seek support.

Table of Contents




1. Living on the Fault Line
Areas of Sexual Shame in the Church Today
Why Talk about Sexual Shame?
The Healing Begins
Where Do We Begin?
Questions for Reflection

2. Defining Sexual Shame
What Is Shame?
Individual Shame
Adaptive Behaviors and Sexual Shame
Family Shame
Cultural Shame
How Shame and Guilt Interact
Further Notes on Sexual Shame
Sexual Shame Syndromes
Questions for Reflection

3. Major Shifts in the Study of Human Sexuality
Sexuality Research
Procreation Only
The Church in an Age of Sexual Awakening
Questions for Reflection

4. Judeo-Christian Sexuality
The Purity Codes
Early Christian Teaching
Christians in Search of Sexual Freedom
Questions for Reflection

5. Sexual Sin
Confusing Sexual Violence and Intimacy
Pornography and Sexuality
Biblical Pornography
One Congregation's Perpetuation of Shame
Affirming Sexuality in the Christian Context
Developing Your Own Sexual Ethic
Questions for Reflection

6. Revisiting the Garden
It Wasn't about Sex
Hebrew Love Poetry
More Scriptural References
Questions for Reflection

7. Gender and Shame
Freud and Gender
Clergy and Gender
Expanding Gender Constructs
Questions for Reflection

8. When the Pastor Is Ashamed
Clergy and Narcissism
Mike's Story
Congregations and Sexual Secrets
Questions for Reflection

9. Individual Shame and the Congregation
Secrets in the Church Family
One Man's Search for Wholeness
Questions for Reflection

10. The Rules
1. Where shame operates…
2. There are plenty of rules…
3. You'll know you broke the rules…
4. In families with shame…
5. Where shame abounds…
6. Where shame is active…
Summarizing the Rules
Questions for Reflection

11. Sexual Identity Shame
One Who Returned to Give Thanks
Sexual Identity Shame
The Isolation of Shame
Families Ashamed
Questions for Reflection

12. Shame and Culture
Cultural Shame Theory
Social Shame
Gender Domination
Questions for Reflection

13. Methods of Healing
Speaking the Truth
An Assessment of the Shame
A List of Wild Ideas
Questions for Reflection

14. Ground Rules for Conversations
Select a Facilitator
Encourage the Use of "I" Statements
Invite Confidentiality
Allow Time to Tell and Hear the Stories
Provide the Option to Speak or to Be Silent
Encourage Humor
Allow the Expression of Anger
Provide Grace-Full Worship
Plan to Make Necessary Referrals
Affirm, Affirm, and Affirm
Questions for Reflection

15. Lifting the Shame
Building Self-esteem in Congregations
Committees: A Healing Asset
Leaders Set the Stage
Looking to Jesus

Epilogue: The Unbinding