Journey into the swamp of the soul

Journey into the swamp of the soul

In "Realm of Shame. Talking about Sex", Christine Koschmieder explores her own sexuality and recounts the evolution of sexuality in Germany from the 1960s to the present day
Christine Koschmieder
Schambereich. Über Sex sprechen

Christine Koschmieder | Schambereich. Talking about sex | Kanon Verlag | 184 pages | 20 EUR

Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, is regularly climbed. The Mariana Trench, the world's deepest point, has been explored by film director James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar etc) with a specially designed deep-sea submarine. 
Even people with less time and money at their disposal like to look for dangers or limits to overcome, and strive for personal growth. Self-optimization is the order of the day. This can range from marathon running to therapeutic fasting, lucid dreaming, ice swimming and fire walking (in other words, walking barefoot over hot coals).
Every day, success stories and memoirs inspire millions of people around the world to download apps, buy (usually superfluous) products, sleep more or less, reduce body fat percentage and flaunt newly defined muscles. 

The author Christine Koschmieder has challenged herself with a completely different task which she describes as follows: "I've had sex, I've given birth three times and had two abortions. So I know my body. But what I'm still not good at is establishing physical closeness and finding a language for it. I want that to change now". 

The biggest obstacle on this path, Christine Koschmieder suspects, is shame. By this she doesn't just mean that uncomfortable feeling we can experience in front of others. When we can only look at the ground and stutter. Our face turns red, we break out in a sweat, our heart pounds and our pulse races. She also means the almost worse agony we feel when we are ashamed of ourselves - when we feel we have violated standards or failed to meet expectations. No-one who is controlled in this way can be free. They are prisoner of a limited or distorted self-image, as though in jail.

But how does an "inner dungeon" like shame develop in the first place? To answer this complex question, Christine Koschmieder gives a brief overview of sexology. She covers the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the American sexologist Alfred Charles Kinsley, the German representative of critical sexual research Volker Sigusch, the Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel, the British author Laurie Penny, the Canadian author Sheila Heti, and the American author Erica Jong, among others. More recent developments are also discussed. Since the early 1990s, queer theory has been exploring desire and sensuality from the perspective of biological and social gender. In polyamory, relationships are open. Everyone can love several people at the same time without anyone feeling betrayed.

This overview clearly shows that sexuality is not a stable, sterile object of research, or a sport that can be mastered through diligent training.

For a long time, the misconception prevailed that sexuality was like an elusive fluid or a magical elixir. At times, it gives physical satisfaction, wonderful feelings of happiness and intimacy. At other times, it unleashes egotistical forces that can break up relationships and destroy futures. It is almost as if sexuality were a god of two parts, one loving and generous, the other sadistic, unpredictable and primitive.

One thing is certain: sexuality changes. It can wither or disappear then suddenly manifest itself, unexpectedly and violently.

Christine Koschmieder was born in Heidelberg in 1972 and has lived in Leipzig, Germany, since 1993. She works as an author, translator and literary agent. Her debut novel Schweinesystem (2014) was nominated for the aspekte literature prize.

However, whenever Christine Koschmieder writes about her personal experiences rather than social developments, it becomes clear that sexuality is not a law of nature like gravity. Sexuality is the result of our socialisation. Its so-called 'rules' were made by man and can be changed or thrown overboard by man. Take the "steam boiler model", for example, which supposes that male arousal, i.e. sexual tension, can build up to such an extent that they "explode". This has been used to justify and excuse sexual assault. Similarly absurd and unfortunately just as widespread was the nonsense of the "frigid woman", unable to feel pleasure. Or the "hysterical woman", prone to uncontrolled emotional outbursts. Thankfully, both these hypotheses have long since been disproved by scientific research.

Despite decades of sexual education, a diffuse, repressive sense of shame persists even in liberal societies such as Germany. We are all, women and men, condemned to be lead by profit-oriented bodily ideals or moral concepts hostile to the body, instead of discovering and experiencing sexuality with not fear but pleasure.

However, Christine Koschmieder has not written yet another superficial self-help book calling for further optimisation; the usual to-do lists that stay forever as nothing more than good intentions, creating the very sense of shame that they were supposed to have banished.

Instead, her superbly written literary memoir is an encouragement to embark on a journey of discovery into one's own "swampland of the soul". The stages of this journey, and the destination, remain wonderfully open.

Article series "Shame"

Christine Koschmieder's "Realm of Shame" concerns feelings of shame that are triggered by sex. What about other areas that can cause this embarrassing feeling? And is shame only ever negative or can it have positive aspects too? 
While I was reading this book and writing the review, I sporadically emailed friends to ask whether they had the time and inclination to talk about their feelings of shame, saying that they need only answer briefly or in very general terms ,or could of course ignore my email completely.
To my surprise, I immediately received detailed, insistent responses from both women and men. They talked about shame associated with the body: sex, appearance, blood, faeces, urine and sweat, as well as shame stemming from ethical conflicts: racism, lying, greed, lack of money, professional and sporting failure.

Over the next few months, authors from across the world will attempt to shed more light on this phenomenon, with a series of articles on shame in their culture, as well as how they personally experience shame.