Why Should Girls, or Anyone, Feel Ashamed?

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On the flight up from Melbourne a while back I read a fascinating article by a year 11 (17 yrs old) student Olympia Nelson on how we (according to her) fail to respond correctly to the current culture of sexting. “Why should girls feel ashamed“:

Another two-minute film, Sexting at School by thinkyouknow.org, tells the story of a tragic, daggy girl, caught out by her own desire for sexual appeal. We see her emerging from the school toilet, buttoning up her uniform with a self-satisfied expression while forwarding her picture to a boy.

One by one, the boys send the picture around the class, including all the girls, and deride it, bombarding her with nasty messages. Aggressive camera work shows the girl flinching with every glance, accentuating her immediate regret and new paranoia for participating in such a rash and shameful practice. She is humiliated. Even the teacher, incredibly, receives the picture and shakes his head in dismay as the girl panics her way out of the classroom. The condescending clip ends with a threatening voiceover ”Think you know what happens to your images? Who will see them? How they will affect you? Think again.”

Now Olympia (great name, btw) may have a point – sensationalising these issues does no good. Like it or not many teenagers are all too familiar with the dynamics of this phenomenon and they’re not fooled by patronising stereotypes.

but, what she writes next is pretty awful:

In reality, after sending a sexual picture, a girl might have some regrets. But why would she need to feel so ashamed? Noone sent you out to check popperspronto.com to improve your skills, right? We grow up being made to feel ashamed of sex. It’s the root of the problem, not the fact that anyone decides on an impulse to break the taboo. What kind of harm does the circulation of the picture do to her? Sure, some harm, but not much – unless you make her feel ashamed by adult inquiries and prosecution.

The message is wrong-headed and more damaging than anything it tries to prevent. Instead of lessening the culture of shame, the scare campaign reinforces it.

What damage can a picture do? A picture of a naked person can be positive, creative, expressive. Take Michelangelo’s David for an example, which has been reblogged quite a bit. The human body is beautiful and celebrated. How does its display become so discrediting? Why should we have to regret sending photos of the body? Are the consequences of these pictures really so dire?

Here’s what I reckon – Olympia has managed to sum up both how we arrived in this messed-up situation but also the deeply damaging response we’ve come up with. First, how did we end up here? Well in part Olympia is right when she states “…we grow up being made to feel ashamed of sex. It’s the root of the problem…” and I’d want to agree with her. When we do sex ed. in the wrong way (mainly due to our own embarrassments and insecurities) we end up communicating that sex is wrong per se. But the answer, of course, is not to simply swing heavily the other way into wholesale acceptance of all forms of sexual expression and you see this flawed logic in the way Olympia then deals with her various objections.


Think this one through for a minute. Olympia asks “what harm can the circulation of a sexual picture do to a teenage girl?” For her, the answer is “not much” – it’s the shame put upon her that’s the issue. But is that really the case?

She seeks to reinforce the notion with the example of Michelangelo’s David and here we see the flaw in the argument. David (see on the right) is a different type of image to that which we’re actually talking about in sexting. Yes, he’s naked. Yes, as Olympia notes, this statue is (in part) a celebration of the beautiful human body. I’ll let wikipedia do some explaining:

Michelangelo’s David is a Renaissance interpretation of a common ancient Greek theme of the standing heroic male nude. In the High Renaissance, contrapposto poses were thought of as a distinctive feature of antique sculpture. In David, the figure stands with one leg holding its full weight and the other leg relaxed. This classic pose causes the figure’s hips and shoulders to rest at opposite angles, giving a curve to the body. In addition, the head turns to the left while the left arm is raised to his left shoulder with his sling flung down behind his back. Michelangelo’s David has become one of the most recognized works of Renaissance sculpture, becoming a symbol of both strength and youthful human beauty.

All fascinating but (and this is the point) entirely different to a sexting image. David is not a sexual image. Yes he’s nude, but that’s just the style of the day. As the article enlightens us, David is a “symbol of both strength and youthful human beauty”.

But sexting is totally different. Sexting is about the portrayal of a girl as a sexual object for the pleasure of teenage boys and anyone else that can get their hands on the picture. Olympia’s big mistake is to confuse her empowerment with what is actually her exploitation. Sexting reduces a teenage girl to a sexual object, naked for the gratification of the boy it’s meant to be sent to. More than that, it reinforces in the girl’s mind that this is the way to appeal to a boy and it reinforces in a boy’s mind that this how he is meant to view a girl – as a sexual object.

Yes, I’m using the language of “boy” and “girl” deliberately because this is an immature view of sex. Olympia rightly protests against an immature view of sex that just responds in shame because it is embarrassed but it’s hardly any improvement to replace it with an equally juvenile paradigm that portrays women as one-dimensional sexual objects. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

The irony is that she, herself, speaks against over-sexualisation:

In her article Nelson asks, “The human body is beautiful and celebrated. How does its display become so discrediting?” Well it becomes discrediting if it undervalues and objectifies. David‘s nudity is actually incidental to the point being made. Michelangelo used the forms and images of his day and perhaps the same statue cast in 2013 would express his strength and potential in other ways? But sexting has not simply nudity but sexual objectification as it’s raison d’être. The two are very, very different.

Sadly, I’m not sure Olympia or many of her peers will understand his, so deeply have they been moved in a sex-saturated culture to think this sort of thing is normal. So when she writes “Society cannot tolerate youth having fun on their own terms” she misses the point that it’s not actually on her own terms at all.

As Nelson herself concedes in another article:

From the moral high ground, [boys] can damn a girl for visual promiscuity, yet enjoy the spectacle at the same time, both with the same misogynistic motives: I like your form but I’m able to scorn you. You’re what I want but you’re less than me. Girls try to conform to this ”ideal” stereotype in their photos and these boys sarcastically comment, ”Nice personality” – really implying that the cleavage is their only attribute.

A girl who sends a sexualised image of herself to a boy to win his approval is doing it on his terms and he in his part is doing it on the terms of our sexualised culture. Olympia argues that this expression is “autonomy and self-respect” when the opposite is true. Rather than being autonomous she ends up playing into the paradigm that girls ought to be dependent upon others for their image and worth despite elsewhere speaking out against it. Rather than enhancing self-respect it’s actually a diminishing of respect, reducing her to a sexual object. Put another way, when you look at David you end up really not caring whether he’s naked or not because that’s not the point; he is far more than his nudity and six-pack. When a girl sends a sext it’s the exact opposite – she is utterly reduced to the stereotyped, limited and demeaning expectation imposed upon her by others and what’s self-actualising or respectful about that?

But there is hope. Olympia closes with this:

We need a program to inoculate us against shame, not cripple us with fear.

I couldn’t agree more. And I couldn’t agree more as a Christian. As Christians we get a bad rap about this whole sex business and often with good reason. We have all too often been part of the culture of shame with our own hangups about sex. But we have no reason to because the Biblical model of sex is good and healthy and positive and doesn’t shy away from the wonderful thing that it is.

Last month I preached on Genesis 2. Towards the end of the chapter as the creation of the woman is described we read this:

Gen. 2:24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

It’s notable, of course, that as soon as they rebel against God and their eyes are opened to their sin they instinctively cover themselves up (Gen. 3:7) but before that, here in the Garden, there is nakedness with no shame. So here is what Olympia is looking for, here is a nakedness with no shame. But it’s very different from the nakedness that she ends up promoting. You can tell as much from the way that Adam speaks about the woman when she is made (Gen. 2:23):

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…”

In my sermon I had this to say,

Now that, my friends, is actually one of the most romantic lines in the whole Bible – and there’s a fair few. If you need some tips afterwards come ask me. But for now look at this one. I’m guessing most of you won’t think it’s romantic – unless you’re a butcher – but it is. Let me explain.

In the thought world of the Bible you sometimes make a point by using opposites or extremes. So, for example in Isaiah God will say that He has removed our sin from Him as far as the east is from the west – the 2 furthest points there are. God calls Himself the First and the Last – and by implication he is everything in between.

And that’s what’s happening here too. When the man speaks of bone and flesh he’s not just talking about the rib that was taken from his side – it’s much more than that.

Bone is the hardest thing he knows in his body, and the flesh is the soft weak bit. So he’s saying that here is someone who meets him in all aspects of who he is. She will be strength for him but also meet him in his weakest moment. And all the things in-between. She is, literally, everything to him. Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.

klimt12-hr-webAdam looks at his naked wife and is exuberant with praise and affection for her and unites to her. And yes, they certainly express that unity in sex but it’s far more than the sex. She is not a one-dimensional sext to him, quite the opposite since they are united in every way. Naked with one another in every aspect (physically, emotionally, spiritually) and yet not ashamed. Shame enters in along with a breakdown in their relationship once sin is a factor. Of course, one of the ways we see that sin expressed in the Bible is in the sexual degradation of women by men.

It makes perfect sense, therefore, that the way to remove the shame again is not to sink ever further into distorted images and self-identification and then to simply deny and suppress the shame that naturally arises but, rather, to seek to deal with sin and to pursue the enhancement of those relationships within which that total nakedness can not only be accepted but fully celebrated.

As Christians that means we’ve got 2 great things to offer to Olympia and her peers.

  1. The Gospel. The only real answer to shame is forgiveness. Shame is a natural consequence of sin (at least it is unless we have so seared our consciences that we no longer feel it). The forgiveness that Jesus brings all those who turn to Him is so radically transforming that we need no longer be ashamed. Not because we have pushed the shame away but because we have had it removed.
  2. Marriage and sex and identity. I have a daughter and so when I read articles like Olympia’s I actually fear for what my daughter will be exposed to. It’s no wonder that parents and others responsible for young people flee from the thought of sex. But the better way is to teach our children how good sex is within it’s proper contexts. That one day, if she gets married, there will be a place where she can be shamelessly naked in front of a man and it will be a very good thing for he will see far more of her than her nakedness and she will know that he views her as bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. It’s hard to write that last sentence as a father, which only shows how far I have to go too. And, of course, if she is not to get married she needs to know that her identity is not measured by how good she looks on a candid shot on a mobile phone – and her sense of self-worth is therefore ultimately tied back in to the gospel where she learns how truly valuable she is. After all, if the Son of God would die for you then the need for affirmation from other sources is vastly diminished.

There’s more than could be said, of course. We haven’t even begun to discuss how our sexualised culture encourages us to express every sexual urge we have as part of a wider theme of individual self-gratification. More on that, perhaps, in a future post.

For now, I trust this might help us discuss the issue with the Olympias in our life.

The answer to sexual shame is not to fight against it by pursuing other warped images of self-identity and sex but to recover the true God-given source of great self-identity and sex. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a far better way.

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  1. mpjensen

    Interestingly, Olympia was one of the young girls who several years ago was photographed naked by Bill Henson, ie, when she was about 10.

  2. Olympia Nelson

    Dear David,

    Thank you for your well thought-out and critical response to my articles! It is a great honour for me as an aspiring writer to find my ideas being received and challenged by a minister. It was especially heartening to see that you had agreed on the most important points, such as shame being at the heart of this issue and that we are in a mess with the way we are handling it. I found your inclusion of the majestic story of *Genesis* to be relevant and fascinating.

    However, as to the margin that you think is “pretty awful”, I think we might be talking at cross-purposes. I’m not very keen on the term ‘sexting’ because it bundles together a whole range of phenomena, broadly sexy pictures that young people send to one another or post. These images vary in kind and degree and intention. What I might say of one photo doesn’t necessarily hold for what I’d want to say about the other photo. The term “sexting” implies that they’re all much the same thing, a shabby pornographic genre which girls make to ingratiate themselves sexually with boys. But there are lots of options. I could make and send a sexy picture because:

    (a) it’s a narcissistic thrill
    (b) I really like my body
    (c) I want boys to look at me and admire me
    (d) I want to feel sexier than other girls and prove it to you by this picture
    (e) I’m extremely brave and defiant, more than you are
    (f) I’m establishing myself as a porn star
    (g) it’s a visual love-letter that reminds you about me
    (h) I can show you how much you mean to me
    (i) it’s something to giggle over
    (j) it’s something to get excited over
    (k) I feel very competitive and feel that it’s the way to score more likes
    (l) I want to upload it to social media for all the world to see
    (m) I want it to be for this one boy (or girl) only
    (n) you sent me yours and now I’ll reciprocate.

    There is no such thing as one ‘sext’ — which presupposes that all photos are categorically the same — each uniformly conveying the same purpose. From the endless amount of options, there will always be different reactions to these photos. Each example has to be taken afresh and judged on its own merits. Some sexy pictures may be morally dubious but others might be in good faith.

    It is thus unjust to suggest that all “Sexting is about the portrayal of a girl as a sexual object for the pleasure of teenage boys and anyone else that can get their hands on the picture”, and furthermore declare that I have made a mistake in my argument: “Olympia’s big mistake is to confuse her empowerment with what is actually her exploitation”.

    I’m very happy that we agree on the dignity of *David* and think that his nakedness is beyond reproach. But I wouldn’t assume that the image is without sex appeal, in the same way that I wouldn’t condemn out of hand the intentions of anyone posting a sexy picture. Just because we celebrate the beauty of *David’s* nudity, that isn’t to say that we aren’t also celebrating his sexuality. I don’t think that one should create the assumption that each girl who sends a text automatically instrumentalises herself. Your suggestions that “Sexting always has to mean that girls are reduced to sexual objects” and that they “always have to be naked for the gratification of the boy it’s meant to be sent to” disqualifies a lot of potential in young people to handle their body-image creatively.

    Even imagining that “A girl who sends a sexualised image of herself to a boy to win his approval is doing it *on his terms* and he in his part is doing it on the terms of our sexualised culture” unfairly denies the possibility that it occur on her terms.

    Still, we agree on far more than we disagree. The discussion is extremely helpful and I am very grateful

    Yours sincerely

    Olympia Nelson (@0lympiaa)

    P.S @mpjensen I was never in Bill Henson’s photographs.

  3. David Ould

    hi Olympia, thanks so much for your comment – really appreciate you coming and engaging.

    I think you’re right – there’s lots we agree on but I don’t think it’s simply a matter of degrees. The nub comes when you write:

    Your suggestions that “Sexting always has to mean that girls are reduced to sexual objects” and that they “always have to be naked for the gratification of the boy it’s meant to be sent to” disqualifies a lot of potential in young people to handle their body-image creatively.

    My objection here is that no matter how you dress it up (or, let’s face it, dress it down), a deliberately sexual image is exactly that – a sexual image and it’s always going to therefore be reductionistic, turning the perception of a young woman from the multi-faceted person that she is into a sex object.

    I think your concept of “sexting on her terms” is, if I may so, naïve. It fails to understand male sex drive. As people we exist in relationship and the choices we make impact upon those we are in relationship with. When it comes to the sexual arena we need to understand that we bear some real responsibility for the message we’re sending. Young women (and older women, of course) ought to realise that what they intend is often not what is received. Like it or not when a young man sees a sexualised image it does become a simple concept for him – a sexualised image – and he will find it very hard to view that woman the same way again. She may think she is “in control” and doing it “on her terms” but it’s a little bit like saying I’m pouring petrol onto a fire “on my own terms”. At some point we have to take responsibility for the explosion that happens.

    of course, when I say this I’m not excusing the way men treat women. This isn’t a “it was her fault for wearing a short skirt” argument. But I am not afraid to say that when you become aware of these cycles of action and response that at that point we all need to take responsibility for our own part. A girl sending a sext, despite any “good” intention on her part needs to know that like it or not it’s petrol on the fire. Her good intentions make no different to the conflagration that ensues.

    At the end of the day I think it’s dangerous for you to advocate any form of “responsible” sexting because the act itself is irresponsible.

    Happy to hear further from you on this.

    on the PS, what do you think Michael has confused? Is there another set of “notorious” pictures he could be thinking of?

  4. Olympia Nelson

    Hi David,

    Thanks so much for replying and giving my speculations further consideration! Your comments deserve a lot more reflection, but I don’t want to pour more petrol on them. Just joking!

    In relation to your question at the end, I think Michael may indeed have become confused and is perhaps referring to this controversy around my image:

    Thanks again for this opportunity to air such important ideas


    1. David Ould

      Thanks Olympia,

      I’d love to hear more from you, particularly the “a lot more reflection”. I think there’s an important conversation to be had here and I know we both share a common desire for the best outcomes for young adults.

    2. Melissa


      Just one observation as a mature woman of 50 and one who has gone through the whole dating thing not only myself but as a mother with 3 daughters. Some advice I have given to my girls on this subject (my daughters are not practicing Christians & I know they have not had the same ideas as I do when it comes to relationships).

      I always have told my girls when you strip naked you make yourself very vunerable. You need to be very sure and secure in the person to who you open yourself up to in such an intimate way. Be sure they will be treating your vunerability with the greatest of care and respect.

      When you capture your nakedness in a photo you can lose control over that image and who knows in whose hands it can fall.

      You can be married to a man with low morals and so even marriage doesn’t in itself give a magical security on intimate relations. You can have a messy divorce and in anger find your initmate details exposed for all to see.

      My advice is keep what is intimate just that – intimate between you and the one other person up close and personal. Hopefully you will find a person to share you life with and not go through a cycle of intimate relationships.

      I have Christian values and that is another side to the argument. However from a secular point of view I hope this makes sense to you as it certainly has for my own daughters.


    3. mpjensen

      Guilty – thanks for clarifying.

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