On Trump and Shame, and on Sex Dreams

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


Dear Roe,

In your last column you wrote that in 2017 we should banish shame from our lives, about how we should stop feeling ashamed, and stop shaming others. But isn’t that how America got Donald Trump? Isn’t shame an important part of social regulation, which helps to keep people from being completely horrible? I watch Trump and constantly think, “Has he no shame?” and the answer, of course, is that no, he has none. Are you suggesting we should all be like that, like him?

Dear Roe,

Is it ok for me to pay for prozzies to piss on me on a hotel room?

Dear Letter Writers,

I’m grouping these questions together under the heading of “Oh God, We Have To Talk About Trump Now, Don’t We?” (I’m expecting to have several rooms’ worth of writing under this topic over the next few years.)

Letter Writer 1, in fairness to me (I’m my own best defence counsel), my column about shame was specifically about and explicitly references eradicating the shame that’s attached to harmless sexual desires, consensual sexual activities, and our bodies. Which brings me to Letter Writer 2.

Now, as yet there is no evidence to support the rumour that Donald Trump hired prostitutes to urinate on each other, any further discussion about sex tapes and urination must be treated like fiction. I shall therefore be speculating about the sexual activities of a randomly selected fictional character: He Who Must Not Be Named.

Now, I’m not a fan of your language use – “sex workers” is the term to use here – but yes, I think it’s okay for people who enjoy golden showers to have them with consenting partners. In regards to the sex-worker angle, I think sex workers should be respected and protected, and that is much more likely to happen if we acknowledge that the shame that often shrouds sex work is an embodiment of society’s attitudes towards sex, power, money, and gender – and that’s society’s issue, not sex workers’.

And, frankly, being financially compensated for engaging in sexual activities with He Who Must Not Be Named makes much more sense to me than doing it for free, so I just hope they were handsomely compensated.

Basically, as with any kink, if the two (or more) people involved are fine with it, then who cares? And while I think He Who Must Not Be Named should be judged for a great many things, his personal sex life isn’t one of them.

Neither is his body, incidentally, which is why I wasn’t a fan of Indecline art collective’s naked statues of, em, Voldemort. Body-shaming isn’t right, no matter who the target is, and also using small penis/testicle size to try humiliate men just perpetuates dangerous ideas about masculinity and can be transphobic, so ironically a statue protesting a man with bigoted ideas actually inflicted some bigotry of its own.

But back to Letter 1, and shame. I didn’t make any blanket statements about shame because shame is complicated.

I think admitting shame on a cultural, national level is important when it addresses the past, because feeling shame lets us analyse out value systems. And admitting shame indicates a moving forward, an awareness of the wrongs committed, a promise not to act the same way again.

But shame in individuals is usually less helpful. Researcher Brene Brown has noted the difference between guilt and shame – guilt is a belief that our behaviours were wrong, while shame is a belief that we, as an individual, are inherently wrong, that we’re not living up to the social ideal.

And while guilt can lead to action, to apologies, to an attempt to improve, shame most often leads to silence, to self-hate, to self-destruction or to grabs for power and validation. Shame is therefore associated not with outreach or compassion or reconciliation, but with aggression, bullying, judgement, bigotry and abuse of ourselves and others.

And you’re right, shame is a tool of social regulation – but most often it’s inflicted upon those who don’t live up to society’s ideals of how a person should be, and as we know, society’s ideals are often horribly exclusive and limiting.

It’s therefore no surprise that Brene’s research found that people’s reactions to shame are deeply gendered.

Shame in women is most commonly felt when we’re not “having it all” – when we can’t effortlessly balance being feminine and pure but also sexy and desirable, and saying we love food and beer but never gaining weight, and being mothers and career women but not being too ambitious because that’s unappealing to men but not being a pushover because feminism says not to and making sure everything’s in order but never being neurotic and oh sorry my head just exploded but don’t worry I’ll clean it up while wearing heels and a pencil skirt because if I wear sweatpants I’ll look like I’ve let myself go and even with no head my body better look banging.

Meanwhile, shame in men is most commonly felt when they fear being perceived as “weak”, in that horribly gendered, heteronormative, capitalist sense of the word. Men most commonly feel shame when they don’t feel like they’re embodying traditional ideals of masculinity, when they feel vulnerable or emotional, when they aren’t professional and financial successes, when they have less social status than others.

Seeing as Donald Trump’s entire persona is based on never admitting wrongdoing or mistakes, accumulating wealth and power at the expense of others, and oppressing, abusing and assaulting people with less privilege than he has in order to maintain oppressive social hierarchies? No, I don’t want Trump to feel shame.

I want him to feel guilt. And remorse. And empathy. And vulnerability.

These emotions might, at least, cause him to think of others, to change his behaviour, to admit that he is wrong, to listen to others who know better and have experienced a world vastly different to his, to not need to feel powerful but want to empower others, and to not seek out validation and connection by exploiting fear and groupthink and social division.

Incidentally, if he did that, I think it would make it much easier for America as a whole to address the larger cultural issues that led to his election, and feel the shame necessary to move forward.

So no, I don’t need Trump to feel shame right now, and if I did, it certainly wouldn’t be about some alleged kinky sex – ahem, I mean, that Voldemort may have had. There are much, much bigger issues at stake.

***

Dear Roe,

Does having a sex dream about someone mean I really want to have sex with her?

Dear Letter Writer,

Ah, the ol’ sex dream, arousing and confusing people simultaneously since the dawn of time.

Allow me to put your mind at rest: no, having a sex dream about someone does not mean you really want to have sex with them.

Unless, you know, it does.

I hope that helped. Next question, please!

What? Oh, fine, I’ll try be more helpful.

Dreams are the brain’s way of filtering through the information received during waking hours, both the conscious and unconscious. And a lot of the times, the two combine in weird imagery and scenarios.

That’s why if people are stressed, they often have dreams about having car crashes or falling or otherwise feeling out of control. Or if they’re overwhelmed or anxious they often dream about being chased or of being unprepared for something important (recurring Leaving Cert maths exam dream, anyone?)

And then sometimes it’s all very random, a mix of images you’ve absorbed and random memories and alternate endings to Lost that really should have happened, because come on, what the fuck was that nonsense?

Basically, dreams often take your real-life emotions and create a visceral narrative for them, complete with metaphorical imagery, in order to process them. Sometimes it’s on-point, and sometimes it’s gibberish. Like I always say, science is magic, and dreams are basically your brain doing a tarot-card reading.

And like a tarot-card reading, what you read into it is usually more telling than the cards themselves.

I, for example, have had sex dreams about many people, including (but not limited to) a guy I was dating, a guy friend, and Eva Green. I interpreted all three dreams completely differently.

The first was that I actually shouldn’t be seeing him because the sex was uncomfortable and a bit disrespectful, which was pretty much our dynamic.

The second was that I was missing my friend because we used to be quite emotionally intimate, and so I read the dream not as sexual, but a desire to evaluate and mend our relationship.

And the third was just self-care, because everyone deserves to dream about having sex with Eva Green.

The point is that dreams may bring unconscious feelings to the fore, but how you consciously couple them with what you’re thinking and feeling is the real processing. Having a sex dream about someone can allow you to take a closer look at your feelings for them – but you’ll only actually do that if you think there are unconscious feelings to explore.

If you really don’t fancy them, having a random dream shouldn’t elicit more than a “Ha! That was mad!”

If you kinda fancy them but don’t want to actually go there, then having a sex dream should seem like a fun little way that you got to mentally visit that scenario without complicating your life.

If you have non-sexual feelings for them, the sex could seem like a metaphor for a different aspect of your relationship.

But if they’ve been on your mind a bit, or if your relationship has shifted to a more erotically charged place, maybe you want to analyse the sex dream. And wanting to analyse it indicates much more than a dream ever could.

So while I can’t tell you if having a sex dream about someone means that you want to have sex with them, I can ask you a simple yes/no question that should straighten things up for you:

Do you want to have sex with them?


Do you have a question for Roe? Submit it anonymously at dublininquirer.com/ask-roe

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Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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