Stopping shame in its tracks

I was twelve. My cousin was fourteen. We didn’t see each other that often – maybe a few times a year. But she was hot. Which in retrospect, I suppose, means that she had breasts. And she did: she had a rack. She had bloomed early, and she hadn’t yet had the reduction surgery that made her simply buxom.

She was visiting for a weekend, and she was staying in our guest room, a room that had once been mine. The room had a closet behind two big swinging blue doors, separated by a small crack. At this particular moment in my development, I was somewhat oversexed. No, wait, that’s wrong: I didn’t have a single thought that wasn’t about sex. I knew that she was going to be sleeping in that room, and I knew of the crack between the closet doors, weeks in advance. I’m sure that I masturbated dozens of times to what I imagined I could see if I hid in that closet, if I watched her as she got ready for bed, before she arrived. And then, there she was, in the house, in the bedroom, about to get ready for bed.

In retrospect, the plan was insane. How did I think I’d get out? Did I seriously imagine I wouldn’t get caught?

I didn’t get out.

I did get caught.

All before I saw anything wank-worthy.

I was mortified, ashamed. She was furious. I don’t even remember the parental ramifications (I think it was treated as a childish prank – I don’t think much parental engagement was likely necessary). But I remember in a bodily way the shame I felt, shame both at the horror of being caught doing something intrusive, violating, and at the horror of being seen to harbor transgressive, incestuous desires (even if they were for a cousin, not a sibling).

Our relationship survived/recovered. We were friendly through our teens. We’re friendly today. I’m pretty sure we joked about it once or twice. But maybe not. I’m not sure.

The other day, I heard of a fifteen-year-old boy who had, repeatedly, spied on his sister voyeuristically. Who had been caught, repeatedly.

This is a different situation than mine. The boy’s older, the girl’s younger. They’re siblings. It’s been repeated a few times, each time, after promises that it would stop.

As I heard this tale, I found myself sympathizing with the boy. (The girl, thankfully, seems to have a terrifically strong sense of self, and propriety. And, to have a robust support network of people concerned for her welfare. My sympathy for the boy isn’t at the girl’s expense. It’s in the context of her being well supported.)

I don’t have a sister. The sibling incest taboo – a taboo far stronger among those with opposite-sex siblings than among those without – has always been somewhat puzzling to me. To my mind, nothing seems more natural than to harbor sexual thoughts about a person of the opposite sex in close proximity, day in and day out. I understand the evolutionary argument against sibling incest, but I don’t feel, instinctively, the revulsion toward it that most people (and certainly, most people with opposite-sex siblings) feel.

So my sympathy for this boy is simple, straightforward.

I see myself in him.

Here’s what I imagine:

I imagine that all he can think about is sex, about breasts, about pussy. And there, in the room next to him, is a pretty girl. She’s showering, nude. She’s dressing, undressing. Who knows, maybe she’s masturbating. If it were fifteen-year-old me, I know I’d find that pretty fucking tempting. And, as I just confessed, when I was (just a little) younger than he, I succumbed to a similar temptation once – 100% of the times I remember being confronted with it. (I know I used to steal the panties of the occasional visiting female guests we had. I may well have tried to spy on them, too.) Who knows whether I would have succumbed more than once, if it were a daily temptation for me. Who knows whether I would have succumbed more than once after being caught. My sense is, probably not. My own internal shame was so robustly developed that I imagine I likely would have been scared shitless of possible future exposure. But I can’t know for sure.

I do know that, from the distance at which I sit today, that all seems, if not “fine,” at least “not surprising.” There’s a thin line between the fucked-up and disastrous “boys will be boys” mentality that says it’s o.k. when boys do shit like this, and a more nuanced “boys will be boys” mentality that says it’s important to try to prevent boys from doing shit like this, but it’s equally important to respond sensitively and in sympathetic, non-shaming ways when they do.

I feel for this boy. His desires are transgressive, and when you’re fifteen (fuck, when you’re forty) it’s confusing to have transgressive desires.

I wish him parenting, therapy, friendships, and an internal sense of self that allow him to accept his transgressive desires, to be turned on by them, hell – to jerk off to them. And/but to internalize, preferably in an un-shamed way, the knowledge that it’s not o.k. to violate someone else’s privacy. It’s o.k. to want to, to fantasize about it, but it’s not o.k. to do it.

I spent much of my twenties and my thirties in a tortured, shame-obsessed relationship to my desires. Where that leads is to compulsion, and worse.

If he’s going to live in a world of choice, one in which he’s free to indulge those of his desires that are acceptable, and in which he’s free to choose not to indulge in those which are damaging to himself or others, he needs not to see himself and his desires as shameful.

I’m hoping he can find a path to that world.

Wicked Wednesday


  1. This is an interesting and thought-provoking post, and one I will have to read a couple of times before I can form my own opinion about this. For now I just think you are quite brave to have written it.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Rebel xox

  2. I completely agree with you about shame. When I caught my son a couple of years ago watching porn I was very careful not to shame him for doing so. We spent a long talking about why it was not appropriate for him to watching it at his age but I also talked about how porn was completely fine for adults to watch. I also talked about the people in the porn, that they were real people, and that they deserved respect for their choices just as anyone else. I hope I did OK, I wanted him to think and learn but I never ever wanted him to feel shame for being drawn to something that is quite frankly completely normal for a teen boy


    1. Sounds like a great approach. Your son, though unlucky to have been caught, was lucky to have you be the one who did it. Question: how old was he? Why was he watching it? Why was it inappropriate “at his age”? At what age might it be appropriate?

      My own sense – which hasn’t yet been challenged in real life – is that if a kid is interested, it’s probably “appropriate,” though it may require some contextualizing parental explanation.

  3. I think one of the most important things you said here is this; “I wish him parenting, therapy, friendships, and an internal sense of self that allow him to accept his transgressive desires, to be turned on by them, hell – to jerk off to them. And/but to internalize, preferably in an un-shamed way, the knowledge that it’s not o.k. to violate someone else’s privacy. It’s o.k. to want to, to fantasize about it, but it’s not o.k. to do it.”

    thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank YOU. I’m interested, though, which part of that is “one” of the most important things. Because the passage you quoted featured a lot of things.

      1. I was speaking in relation to the entirety of the piece you wrote and how this passage in particular really summed it up for me, delivering what I think is most important. That being understanding, compassion, acceptance and education. Obviously not a singular thing as suggested in my comment, just poor word usage on my part. 🙂

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