Beyond Shame by Matthias Roberts: A Review

I first reviewed Beyond Shame: Creating A Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms by Matthias Roberts, on Goodreads 05 January 2020. As I prepare to reread this book specifically for the Sex and the Gay Christian project, I repost that review in its entirety, below.

There are certain book titles I fall in love with. In fact, I tend to fall in love with good book titles to the extent that I will often buy a book for its title, if not exactly for its cover. The types of titles I find hardest to resist are those titles which strike a chord in my heart—or a nerve. I am a sucker for a title which resonates with and promises to help me navigate deep emotional states which make me uncomfortable or hinder my enjoyment of living my life to the full. Beyond Shame was one of those books for me, especially with such a promising subtitle as “creating a healthy sex life on your own terms.” And even though some of these books sit on the shelf where I can use their titles as a reminder of values I want to incorporate into my life, I’m glad I had the opportunity to look beyond the title and experience the wisdom inside the covers of this book.

I must state, for the record, that I received an advance reader’s copy of this work for free, but I must also reveal that I pre-ordered the book before I knew a free copy would be arriving. So I suspected this book was worth buying—and I was glad to see that my impulse to get this book as soon as possible was absolutely correct!

Beyond Shame is divided into three parts, the first devoted to the three ways Roberts proposes people cope with sex and shame, the second devoted to lies about sex and sexuality and the third devoted to paradoxes inherent in sex and sexuality. At the end of the book, Roberts offers us a road map for working through feelings of shame.

According to Roberts, one can approach shame from an attitude of “shamefulness,” “shamelessness” and what he calls “autopilot.” Shamefulness is characterized by being driven by shame into both an avoidance of sexuality and sometimes into a cycle of clandestine sexual activity which leaves the participant feeling even greater shame. Shamelessness is characterized by avoiding and suppressing shame to the extent that one acts like it doesn’t exist. Through case studies and examples, Roberts attempts to make a point that none of these approaches are optimal, even though I suspect that all but a very few readers will see themselves as avoiding one of these three traps.

The way out of these three pitfalls Roberts seems to suggest, is first facing and moving past what he calls the “lies we tell about sex and shame” (53). These lies include “the Bible is clear” about sex and shame, “God invented patriarchy” and “Queerness is sinful.” While avoiding a detailed theological discussion debunking these claims (Roberts does provide several lists of resources for those wanting to explore the particulars of such specialized controversies as the debate about what the Bible has to say about sexuality, homosexuality, and gender, perspectives by women on purity culture, and how to work with shame, sexual shame and self-compassion.) he shows us a way to consider how biblical and theological traditions can be interpreted to create a positive sexual ethic, one that enhances our lives, spiritually and otherwise, and minimizes harm.

Roberts also sees a way forward by grappling with four paradoxes about sex: (1) Sex is healthy and risky, (2) sex makes us vulnerable, (3) sex requires safety and safety is not guaranteed, and (4) we will get things wrong. In facing these four paradoxes and resolving their seeming contradictions, Roberts encourages us to look at the potentials for sex to not only present problems, but to be the very solution to resolving sexual shame in our lives.

Beyond Shame comes to a hopeful and (I would say) sex-positive conclusion. Despite the prevalence of shame in our society, the pervasive and damaging lies about our sexuality that abound, and the challenging paradoxes inherent to sexuality, Roberts believes there is a way out of shame beyond succumbing to it or pretending it doesn’t exist. He insists that by boldly facing our shame, acknowledging it and working through it, that we can participate in and enjoy a healthy sexuality. As he writes in his introduction: “Ultimately, what we’re moving toward is a life lived abundantly beyond shame. Instead of covering our eyes and hiding from everything sexual, we will learn to stop turning away from our bodies, our sexuality, and our feelings, and turn toward knowing ourselves and finding freedom.” (13)

Roberts has written an incredibly useful book, one that begins a conversation that needs to be had in society, in the church, among our friends, and—most importantly—with ourselves. Although I can’t deny that the whole book had a whiff of vanilla in terms of the possible breadth and depth of legitimate human sexual experiences, the theoretical and therapeutic framework Roberts constructs is a useful tool in having that conversation in a way that is affirming of life, of sexuality, of ourselves.

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Review footer. © 2020 Jon Carl Lewis. All Rights Reserved.

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