The Tragedy of Shamelessness

A New York Times editorial surfaced recently concerning the death of a famous “pioneer” in gay pornography. One might have expected some skepticism about this man’s accomplishments despite the cinematic quality of his work. Producers of porn movies used to operate in society’s shadows, on the edge of the law and public decency. But the Times obituary cheerily lavished praise on both the man and his erotic art. He was hailed as a hero for changing society’s prudish attitudes about pornography. There was no hint that this individual should feel any shame or remorse for making these salacious films that are so addictive for many viewers.

One of the major casualties of the rampaging sexual revolution is a proper sense of shame. Sexual relations are the exclusive privilege of heterosexual marital love. But many people engage in errant sexual activities purely for pleasure without the slightest hint of shame or regret. Others shamelessly indulge in pornography despite the evidence verifying the damage it does to present or future relationships. The sexual revolution is quite disdainful of shame because it represses the liberated sexual libido. Repression must be vanquished so people can be free to engage in a wide range of sexual fantasies or activities that have nothing to do with marriage.

But why is shame so important and what can be done to escape from this plague of shamelessness? In his magisterial work on sexual ethics, Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla (later Pope St. John Paul II) explained that shame is an essential component of chastity, and chastity is a necessary condition of love. The sublime virtue of chastity has been stigmatized in our hedonistic society and desperately needs a revival. But chastity cannot be reduced to temperance or continence. This virtue goes beyond the restraint of concupiscible impulses that can lead to sinful behavior. Chastity liberates us from a “utilitarian attitude” that regards another’s body as merely an object for sexual gratification. The underlying moral principle of Love and Responsibility is the personalistic norm: every person is to be loved and affirmed for his or her own sake and never to be used merely as an object.

Wojtyla defines chastity as the “transparency of interiority.”1 What he means by this dense phrase is that chastity empowers us to clear away internal impediments, like lust, sensual egoism, and inordinate affection, so that we can clearly see the other as a person who is to be loved and never instrumentalized as a source of pleasure and enjoyment. In Theology of the Body, John Paul II described the rupture that occurred after the Fall between “man’s original spiritual and somatic unity.”2 The result is an “almost constitutive difficulty” in identifying a person with his or her body.3 Instead, there is a tendency to see only a sexually attractive body and overlook the spiritual reality of the person who expresses herself through that body. The other is desired as an object of sexual gratification rather than respected as a person to be loved. Chastity can quell those “interior centers” from which the attitude to use emerges, as it allows us to behave in a way that fully integrates the person and his or her sexuality. Chastity, explains Wojtyla, is all about “keeping up with the value of the person in every situation and in ‘pulling up to this value’ every reaction to the value of the ‘body and sex.’”4

Chastity is realized with the help of sexual shame and continence. Wojtyla defines shame as “the tendency to conceal the sexual values themselves” if they become “a possible object of use.”5 He differentiates between two types of shame. First, there is relative shame that is experienced when someone is subjected to a “concupiscent look” or some other behavior that is purely sexual. This form of shame is a defense mechanism against the lustful reaction of another individual. A woman, for example, will recoil from such a reaction and so conceal parts of her body as a means of protecting herself against the desire to use her body for a pleasurable experience. Second, immanent shame is felt by the subject of this behavior who regrets his disordered reaction to this person. When a man indulges in this concupiscent look, his sense of shame is awakened and he feels guilt for the lustfulness in his heart. Thus, Wojtyla underscores the mutuality of shame: a modest woman will avoid unnecessary sexual provocation and a modest man is grateful because he wants to avoid impure desires. We see here also the unity of great virtues such as chastity, purity, charity, and kindness.6

Sexual shame is quite important because it “charts the direction of all sexual morality.”7 Shame is a blunt instrument that loudly signals a serious disorder in a personal encounter. Shame guides us toward valid forms of sexual expression and away from those concupiscent tendencies that might lead us into sinful love. Without this internal moral compass, it is more difficult to consistently subordinate sexual desire to the value of the person. Moreover, sexual shame is not just an inadvertence from the sensual reaction of someone else who views my body as a “terrain of appropriation.” Shame is also an implicit longing for love. A woman recoils from that lustful reaction of a man precisely because she wants to be loved and not used as a means of sexual gratification. And a man’s immanent shame represents an incipient readiness to see the other as a person who deserves the gift of love. Hence, “sexual shame is not a flight from love, but quite the contrary, it is some opening of a way toward it.”8

The presence or absence of shame is the barometer of a healthy culture, what Wojtyla calls a “culture of the person.” Our present culture is increasingly devoid of shame, and this is a sign of its decadence. As it transitions away from shaming sex outside of heterosexual marriage and spousal love, the inevitable consequence is more recreational sex without commitment. As the consumption of pornography becomes more socially acceptable, its presence becomes even more ubiquitous. Yet sexual liberationists continue to clamor for unrepressed sexual expression and the abolition of any last traces of shame. Hence this triumph of shamelessness which disrupts the entire order of sexual morality. Shamelessness, the lack of shame or its denial, spreads thanks to a weak moral culture, an external conditioning that wipes away the innate tendency of the human person to conceal sexual values. When shame is expunged, the whole truth about the person becomes harder to comprehend.

Once again, the Polish philosopher distinguishes between two kinds of shamelessness. Shamelessness of the body represents conduct that shines undue attention on one’s sexual features in a way that shrouds the value of the person. A woman who dresses very immodestly or seductively in order to attract attention and arouse a man’s passions would fall into this category. And “shamelessness of lived-experience” represents a suppression of those healthy tendencies to feel shame about one’s licentiousness. Without shame, a person is more likely to follow his or her sexual impulses even to the point of sexual obsessiveness.

Shamelessness, however, is not to be perceived as a remedy for prudery. Prudery, which is quite different from a healthy sense of shame, involves a negative reaction to morally licit sexual expression. The prudish person stands “ready to condemn any manifestation of sex and of what is sexual, even most natural.”9 Shame does not exist when sexual activity is a sign and a means of spousal love, a total union and sharing between a man and woman at the bodily level. If there is true married love, there is no place for fear that one spouse will be used by the other. Shame rightly occurs when someone reacts to a person in a sexual manner that bypasses the person’s essential value and reduces her to an object. Thus, chastity does not imply disdain for the body and its sexual powers, but rather a sense of humility that comes with acknowledging their subordination to the value of the person.

The shameless person, who deliberately seeks to arouse the sexual passions of others or who objectifies the other and delights in using him or her for pleasure, dwells in darkness. He or she has lost that moral compass that can guide sexual expression in the proper direction. Without shame, there is no opportunity to develop the virtue of chastity, and without chastity, love is impossible. If I can’t recognize and affirm that someone is a person and not a sexual object, a relationship of mutual love can never take root.

What lies behind this pervasiveness of shamelessness in our modern culture? Wojtyla does not directly address this question, but he does hint at the ultimate cause for the dissipation of shame. He describes the tendency of some people to become resentful of chastity and faithful marital love. These individuals believe that these lofty goals are simply beyond their reach. Hence, in order to be “subjectively excused” from these virtues, people diminish their meaning and moral significance. By depreciating these goods, “man does not have to take pains to measure up to the true good.”10 Over time, the will becomes impotent, incapable of achieving these goods, and so a person settles for a life of moral mediocrity. He imagines that virtues like chastity and purity are repressive and obsolete. Hence, he casually casts them off so he can remain free to pursue sex for pleasure, whatever form that might take.

In addition, the influence of utilitarian philosophy is unquestionably a contributing factor. Utilitarianism is based on the principle that the right action is whatever maximizes happiness, and, in certain versions of this philosophy, happiness is equivalent to pleasure. Some who espouse this principle argue that every one of our desires (except those which are sadistic or perversely indifferent to another’s welfare) has an equal claim to satisfaction. The impact of this outlook on modern culture has been subtle but extensive. As Wojtyla explains, “utilitarianism is a characteristic property of contemporary man’s mentality and his attitude toward life.”11 If someone accepts the presuppositions of utilitarianism, he will seek to enjoy as many pleasurable experiences as possible. Thus, traditional sexual mores are tossed aside because they are simply too difficult to follow and because many people are convinced that pleasure is the supreme value, a condition Wojtyla calls the “subjectivism of value.” There is little room for sexual shame once this hedonistic attitude has been adopted.

If our culture is ever to recover its collective sense of shame, people must regain confidence in their ability to choose true goods like indissoluble and monogamous marriage along with chastity. No person needs to drift aimlessly from one sexual impulse to another. We have not been created for shallow relationships but for lifelong, fruitful marriage that offers fulfillment along with the great gift of new life. There is something noble and glorious about such a commitment, but there is nothing noble or uplifting about a life of sexual promiscuity. As Wojtyla proclaims, “Man must reconcile himself to his natural greatness.”12 And shame is the distant echo of that inner voice calling us to that life of greatness.

Sound moral pedagogy, which is sorely lacking in our schools and even in the Church, is also essential to expose the duplicity of utilitarian reasoning and to restore confidence in our capacity for mutual self-donation. Pleasure is not the means to human flourishing. Pursuit of basic human goods, such as marriage, friendship, life and health, and knowledge of God and truth, is the only path to self-perfection. A life of pleasure can never be a life of fulfillment. Moral instruction that speaks the truth about pleasure, chastity, and love is the only remedy for our unfortunate plight. As John Paul II frequently said, error makes its way in the world because truth is not taught. When we speak the truth, grace goes with it, and if a person needs that grace to grasp the truth it will be present. A good place to find the truth about love and sexual morality is the forgotten pages of Love and Responsibility.

  1. Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility trans. Grezgorz Ignatik (Boston: Pauline Books & Media), 154.
  2. Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media), 28.2.
  3. Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body, 29.4.
  4. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 155.
  5. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 160.
  6. J. Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books), 123.
  7. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 162.
  8. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 163.
  9. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 172.
  10. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 126.
  11. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 19.
  12. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 222.
Dr. Richard A. Spinello About Dr. Richard A. Spinello

Dr. Richard Spinello is an Associate Research Professor at Boston College where he teaches courses on philosophy, ethics, and management. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John's Seminary in Boston. He is the author of The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary, and Understanding Love and Responsibility: A Companion to Karol Wojtyla's Classic Work along with numerous other books and articles on ethical theory and applied ethics.