This is a book of psychotherapy for Christian congregations wounded by sexual shame. The root cause of sexual shame is the lack of integration of sexuality and spirituality. The process of healing sexual shame, says clinical psychologist and Methodist clergyperson Karen McClintock, follows the outline of the therapeutic process for individuals and families: step one - assessment of the problem; step two - diagnosis; step three - treatment plan. The stated purpose of the book is to get congregations talking about sexuality and sexual shame as a first step to healing. McClintock uses both psychological and theological perspectives to analyze the way sexual shame operates in individuals, families, and religious congregations and to suggest ways to overcome it both individually and in Christian culture.
In the assessment of the problem McClintock defines sexual shame, describes sexual shame syndromes, distinguishes shame from guilt, and presents many examples of sexual shame in individuals, in families, and in congregations. She invites readers to examine their own congregations for sexual shame problems. She describes changes in cultural attitudes toward sexuality from the acceptance of the findings of sex researchers like Kinsey to the move away from the churches' traditional "for procreation only" stance. She roots the traditional Christian teaching in the Jewish purity codes and the writing of the early Fathers, especially Augustine. The "procreation only" position, she argues, perpetuates patriarchy and sexual abuse. The changing attitudes of the last fifty years are characterized as movements for "sexual justice."
The author assumes that within a context of fidelity, justice, freedom, and responsibility, adult to adult sexual activity should be given considerable latitude. She does however allow some room for sexual sin. She defines sexual sin, therapeutically, as "that which destroys self-worth, the use of one's body for power over another, seeing ourselves or others as only objects of pleasure, and engaging in physical acts that increase our shame or another's shame before God." Her examples given of sexual sins include adult genital contact with a child, pornography, and excluding same-sex couples from marriage or holy union ceremonies. McClintock suggests that in this culture of blurred sexual norms and expanding range of acceptable behaviors adults and teens have to be encouraged to develop their own sexual ethic and to make their own decisions. The role of churches should be to promote discussion of sexual ethics and elements involved in making sound moral decisions. Churches should not use the bible to increase people's shame ("biblical pornography").
In the second step, the diagnosis of the problem, McClintock explores the psychology of shame. She looks at how sexual shame affects men and women differently, how unrealistic expectations of clergy tend to attract narcissistic leaders and produce shame-filled pastors, how the violation of unspoken, unexamined rules provokes shame in individuals and congregations. One chapter is devoted to sexual identity shame and the isolation it causes for gays and their families. Finally she places these individual experiences of shame in the context of a whole Christian culture of shame. Cultures use shame to keep people in line and to protect traditions and laws. Individuals or groups who violate the rules, expressed or unexpressed, are shamed. "Internalized homophobia" is an example of how people absorb the sexual shame of the culture and put it on themselves. McClintock describes how church culture has used the strategies of "social shame" - naming the person deviant, belittling him or her, and silencing her or him. She also identifies several "organizing scripts" that can promote and reinforce shame. They are: perfection, self-denial, idealism, gender domination, Christlikeness, unworthiness, and condemnation. The gap between our expectations of ourselves or others' expectations of us and the reality of ourselves is the opening through which shame enters.
McClintock's strategy for healing sexual shame follows the therapeutic model. The first stage is assessing the situation and speaking the truth. Because denial runs so deep, in individuals as well as congregations, this will almost certainly involve confrontation. She offers the process of the integration of Southern churches as a political model of healing through confrontation. Once an area of shame has been identified a treatment plan can be devised using a model of addiction recovery. She suggests creating healthy community forums where the shamed and the shamers could confront one another and rebuild the self-esteem of the congregation together. She offers rules for healthy conversations in such forums. She does not say specifically how these conversations would bring about the integration of sexuality and spirituality or how the self-esteem of a congregation is related to its spirituality.
This book is more psychological than theological. Shame is thoroughly dissected but the task of integrating sexuality and spirituality is not developed. The book would be useful for its stated purpose of promoting and guiding conversations about sexuality in Christian congregations. McClintock is certainly right about the damage done by the churches' silence about sexuality in teaching and preaching. The book includes thoughtful discussion questions at the end of each chapter for this purpose. It would not be particularly helpful as a college textbook.