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East and West: The Shame of Rape in Different Cultures

Updated on May 22, 2015


Confronted by society’s gaze, rape victims feel shame for a number of reasons, and embody this shame leading to long-term consequences on their wellbeing. Shame is a complex emotion that is caused by a feeling of doing something that is not normative, and the act of being caught by another that we love and desire. Scheff defines shame as ‘the feeling that results from seeing one’s self negatively in the eyes of the other, such as feeling self-conscious, rejected, unworthy or inadequate’ (Scheff & Retzinger, 2000). Shame is particularly prevalent in situations surrounding rape and this paper will discuss the causes and consequences of experiencing shame for female rape victims around the world, illustrating the similarities and differences in the experience of shame in eastern and western cultures. Shame is an important emotion in terms of regulating society as the fear of shame prevents the subject from breaking societal norms or ideals (Darab & Hartman, 2011). People may feel a sense of shame for not being normative as they are both the subject of that shame and by turning on oneself and witnessing that shame they are also the object of that shame (Ahmed, 2004). Throughout history people have felt shame for having desires or practises that are not heterosexual, for being a minority in their community due to religion, socio-economic status and various other factors.

Cooley’s idea of the looking glass self is useful in understanding shame. As we become socialised into behaving in a way that is societally appropriate, with needs and wants, we learn about ourselves through seeing how we appear to others. By seeing ourselves as a mirror image of what others see us like, we imagine their judgement of our appearance and their mortification at our actions which causes us shame (Barbalet, 2001). Due to deep-rooted patriarchal hierarchies in socio-cultural contexts, female victims of rape are made to feel shame for their victimization as they are viewed as inferior or diminutive. Masculine hegemony perpetuates ideas of what it is to be a ‘good’ man and what it is to be a ‘good’ woman, and in the situation of rape, the male is seen as exercising his masculinity and sexuality while women are often seen as failing to perform as a woman (Ahmed, 2004). By examining specific cases of societies that make sexually violated women feel shame, we are able to see the ideologies that cause this shame and the factors for doing so. This in turn leads to a better understanding of why these women embody this shame themselves as a consequence of being made to feel this way.

The Experience of Shame by Female Victims of Sexual Violation around the World

In rape cases all over the world, female victims of rape and/or sexual violation are made to feel ashamed. There are famous cases of women such as Samantha Geimer who was raped by Roman Polanksi in America in 1977 who has alternately been called an innocent victim and a promiscuous slut (Mirk, 2013), or more recently the young woman raped in Delhi who was blamed for acting inappropriately and being out at night (India Delhi Gang Rape Lawyer faces ‘Misconduct’ Hearing, 2013). In both eastern and western cultures women who are victims of rape or sexual violation are shamed for being promiscuous, called sluts, for dressing inappropriately, for being in male company, and being out at night. However there are some differences in the factors in these societies that cause shame to be experienced by these female victims, and that is based on deep-rooted patriarchal structures, ideology, and cultural and religious ideals.

There are many similarities in the factors that place shame and blame on the victim of sexual violation in Eastern socio-cultural contexts like Japan. In a study by Anderson et al of Attitudes towards Dating Violence among College Students in Mainland China (2011), it is evident that shame is particularly important in Chinese culture as shame is related to the perception and fear of others rejecting the ‘self’. Concepts such as losing face and acting inappropriately causing shame to one’s family show how shame is strongly tied to family pride. This can be seen as disgrace shame, which is a type of shame associated with public embarrassment or humiliation (Scheff, year). As shame is a marker of stigma, the individual fears the stigma and degradation their acts have brought on their family. Similarly in LA, a study of domestic violence among the Japanese (Hall, 2012) shows that there is a strong culture of self-blame in Japan and a woman who cannot endure pain is perceived as inferior, leading to Japanese women being less likely to seek help. Ahmed asserts that shame requires a witness, or the imagined view of the other taken on by the victim in relation to herself. The conflict of shame can be described as a conflict between the ego and ego ideal, as we have failed to replicate the ideal that has been passed to us through the practises of love (2004). The study found that Japanese students tended to encourage a make-believe victim to seek help from family members while American students tended to advise victims to go to the police and mental health counsellors.

Another study by Maier (2010) illustrates the difference in treatment of rape victims and in rape victims’ attitudes towards their rape across different cultures in America. The study suggests that ingrained stereotypes such as ‘marianismo’ in Hispanic culture, and the idea that African-American women are promiscuous in American History are what discount these women from being legitimate victims. Ahmed explains that shame can also be experienced as the cost of not following normative scripts of performance of gender and is perpetuated by racial and cultural stereotypes (2004). Therefore shame is crucial to moral development as fear of shame prevents the subject from transgressing these invisible borders created by patriarchal practises. Failing to live up to the Marian ideal of purity and virtue, female victims of rape may be blamed for failing to adhere to gendered norms, reducing their autonomy through the means of masculine hegemony. The tendency to blame oneself and feel shame for being raped or sexually violated is common across these three studies and suggests that these women feel shame for failing to live up to the norms of their gender perpetuated by the patriarchal hierarchy, and struggle to get the help they need from authorities due to the shame it may cause to their family.

In Western cultures, the shame caused to the family is less of a factor that results in the female victim experiencing shame. A study of the impact of sexual violence on the lives of Irish women by Kelleher and McGilloway (2009) suggest that victims feel shame related to the perceived responsibility for the attack. The attitudes of friends and family are factors that contribute to their shame and the women feel that they are not entitled to support services or justice as they do not meet the stereotypical image of a rape victim, but are abused by their date or spouse. Another study of battered women in Christian faith communities looks at rape victims in a particular religious group, with women from different races. The study by Knickmeyer, Levitt and Horne (2010) looks at how the women experienced shame due to the social pressure to preserve a Christian family image, leading to a façade, and the ideal of female submission was something they felt obligated to uphold, perpetuating their abuse. This need to hide the offending attribute, their abuse, can be explained by Goffman’s notion that the stigmatized individual tries to deal with the shame attached to their rape victim status by hiding the evidence of it and creating a façade of familial bliss (Darab and Hartman, 2011). Hence the victim retreats from the intrusive gaze of the world, accounting for their reluctance to seek help, or confide in others, further embedding their shame into their identity.

Similarly, another study conducted by Crawford et all of women in long term domestic abuse relationships in England show that this physical, sexual, mental and emotional abuse over an extended period in time results in shame becoming part of the woman’s identity (2009). The reluctance on their part to seek help from support services suggests that it is the witnessing of their abuse that causes shame, reinforcing Ahmed’s theory. The factors that result in the shame being embedded in their identity is they may feel that they have failed in their relationship as a wife and a mother, which betrays societies ideals, leading to the victim being both subject of that abuse and a witness of this ‘shameful act’ (Ahmed, 2004).

Comparison of Three Specific Studies from Different Socio-Cultural Contexts

In order to make generalisations about the differences between the perception of rape by victims in different socio-cultural contexts and the factors that result in their experience of shame, I will look closely at three examples of domestic abuse and rape from different socio-cultural contexts. Firstly, I will examine rape in Japanese culture, looking at reasons for self-blame and the cultural emphasis on family honour. Secondly I will look at rape experienced by women in England and Ireland, looking at the reasons for the victims feeling that they were responsible for the attack. And thirdly I will look at rape experienced by women in Christian faith communities and how the importance placed on religion can result in a similar experience of rape and perpetuation of patriarchal norms that are seen in Japanese culture, due to the cohesive nature of religion.

Japanese communities, whether in Japan or overseas, are extremely tight-knit and place a lot of emphasis on family honour and the endurance of pain is central to the construct of the ideal woman. It can be referred to as a ‘shame culture’ (Yamawaki, 2007) as individuals rely on externally sanctioned behaviour and the notion of shame comes from public exposure to the other. Bradby argues that shame is so central to Asian culture that there is significant pressure on individuals to remain silent and keep shameful incidents such as rape within their family. Comparing the attitudes of both Japanese and American students in advising rape victims, it can be seen that Japanese tend to feel public external-oriented shame whereas Americans tend to emphasise internal-oriented shame. The construction of the female gender in Japanese culture is based on the age-old practise of Seppuku, where an individual kills themselves with a sword as a consequence of committing a social wrong which brought shame to the community. It was either done voluntarily or as a capital offence. This can be seen as an attempt to salvage ones honour and regain the respect that has been lost, which is central to the Japanese sense of identity. Through this we can see that shame can involve the recognition of failings in oneself to live up to an ideal but may not offer a way to atone for this shame necessarily (Lu, 2008). Therefore the individual may take cover or attempt to conceal the ‘offence’ to protect their family honour, in order to retain their power. This difference between Japanese and American students’ responses is a result of the cultural importance placed on family honour and cohesiveness which is a trend that is seen across many Asian cultures and also Hispanic and Latino ethnic groups.

In a study conducted with service providers for rape victims in Ireland, it was found that their shame related to their perceived responsibility for the attack was a significant obstacle that prevented the victims from receiving help (Kelleher & McGilloway, 2009). The role of rape myths such as ‘she was asking for it’, and ‘all women secretly want to be raped’ exacerbated the womens’ experience of shame and guilt as the responsibility of the rape is attributed to the woman. While the victims were concerned about the attitudes of friends and family, self-blame for being responsible for the rape appeared to be the main cause for their experience of shame. This can be described as an ‘internal default’, due to a perceived deficiency in themselves (Barbalet, 2001). Another study of women in England and their understandings of the effect of domestic abuse indicate that a history of abuse can create a sense of shame that becomes part of the woman’s identity. According to Martha Nussbaum, shame pertains to the whole self, rather than to a specific act of the self. Nussbaum’s discussion tends to emphasize the destructive consequences of shaming practices in producing humiliation and stigmatization. It defines shame as distress resulting from a state in which someone considers themselves as inferior, defective or diminished and suggests that the woman may believe they have failed in their relationship as a wife and mother (Lu, 2008).

The findings in these two studies are supported by an in depth study conducted through interviews with 58 rape victim advocates perception of the influence of race and ethnicity. According to the advocates, victims of colour are more likely to remain silent about their victimization than White victims. They are also less supported by members of their community and are more likely to be blamed for bringing shame on their family. Both Barbie, an Indian rape victim and Kathleen and Leila, Latina victims, spoke of the importance of loyalty to their family, saying that they wanted to ‘keep the family together’, and believed that being raped brought shame to their families as they were ‘spoiled’ (Maier, 2008). However, when observing rape in Western culture that is affected by other factors that are like family cohesion, such as religion, there are significant similarities between these western cultures and the factors resulting in shame found in Eastern cultures such as Japan. In a study of Christian Faith communities in Canada, Knickmeyer found that the abused women who were interviewed endorsed traditional gender roles and the emphasis they placed on the power of prayer and faith compounded their shame as they believed that they weren’t model Christian women (2010). The ideal of female submission in religious societies steeped in patriarchy, and their husband’s godly knowledge and respectable image in the community resulted in social pressure to preserve the family image. While family cohesion is not a factor that results in shame in the studies conducted in England, Ireland and among American students, it is a strong factor in religions communities such as Christian faith communities in Canada.

Why the Women Embody this Shame Themselves

Shame is one of the most social emotions, as it is based on the recognition of society. Scheff describes shame as an emotion that is triggered by social interaction and experienced intrapersonally (Darab & Hartman, 2011). There are two parts to shame; the experience of the shameful act and the attempt to cover oneself from society’s gaze to avoid this act and the victims shame being seen. It is this turning away and the need to hide oneself that causes victims of rape to embody this shame themselves. Ahmed reiterates this, explaining shame as an impulse to take cover and cover oneself (2004). By monitoring ones’ actions from the viewpoint of another, we are internalising social norms and embodying patriarchal ideals of what it means to be a good woman or a good man. The betraying of these ideals is hence, not just a betrayal of the individual’s morals and values, but a transgression on society’s standards for their gender, established by hegemonic ideals of womanhood and purity. Rape victims experiencing shame describe their personal agency being replaced with powerlessness, and the shame being a secondary way to minimise their agency and demean them as a woman (Womersley et al, 2011).

This turning away from the self can be seen best through the story of Maria, a young woman in South Africa who was raped by her husband. In hearing how Maria cannot bear to look people in the eye, and hangs her head in front of the interviewer, avoiding eye contact, trying not to cry in front of a stranger, one can see how shame becomes part of her identity. She describes herself as a chicken bone, not a human being, as she is stripped of her power and left vulnerable and defenceless (Womersley et al, 2011). In the studies of domestic abuse and rape victims in different cultures, it is evident that these women embodied the shame themselves through their reluctance or refusal to go to authorities, some of them never speaking of their rape to anyone prior to the study, others even creating a façade of domestic bliss to cover up and conceal their abuse (Knickmeyer et al, 2010). This can be seen as an embodiment of their shame, as it is no longer confined to one incident of abuse but becomes part of who they are and their way of life. Their fear of being recognised and their shame being recognised by others causes them to take cover, like Maria, and avert the eyes of the other.

This embodiment of shame in the victims’ identity is a consequence of the shame they experience in relation to their rape and the intrusive gaze of the public eye. The examination of the different experiences of shame in specific socio-cultural contexts indicates that there is variation in the types of shame experienced by victims that may be related to the factors that are paramount in their communities. For example the shame experienced by female rape victims in Japanese communities is vastly different to that experienced by victims in English and Irish communities. The embodiment of shame by Japanese victims is as a result of family honour, suggesting an external default, that is, a shame experience arising as a consequence of a failure, preventing excess of status (Barbalet, 2001). In contrast, English and Irish victims describe a perceived sense of responsibility for their rape, which implies an internal default and a narcissistic shame stemming from a belief that one is not good enough (Weiss, 2010). The varying experiences of shame indicate that the consequences of embodiment are equally vast. While Japanese victims embodied their shame to be more stoic and silent in their victimization, English and Irish victims’ shame involved a sense of fear as they were reluctant to seek help due to a belief that they were undeserving. The experience of women in Christian faith communities shows how although they are from a typically western context, their experience is more similar to that of victims in Japan due to religious cohesion and the perpetuation of patriarchal norms in a religious context rather than geographic context.


Through the examples illustrated in the three different socio-cultural contexts, we can see that shame is prevalent emotion that is experienced by domestic abuse and rape victims. The factors that caused their shame came from a variety of sources such as family honour, a belief in endurance of pain, desire to uphold Christian ideals of submission, keeping the family together, and a belief in their own responsibility for their rape. Eastern cultures such as Japan have a strong sense of family honour and cohesiveness which results in victims experiencing shame for the loss in family honour whereas in Western cultures such as England and Ireland victims may feel shame due to perceived responsibility for the attack. The cultural differences in the factors contributing to their shame may result in different reasons why they embody this shame, and how religious cohesion can make the effect of shame in Western contexts similar to that usually seen in Eastern contexts, such as in Christian faith communities. By illustrating how women are ostracised, stigmatised, and lose their sense of self-worth, we can get an understanding of why it causes shame to them to be the victims of rape and the consequences of this shaming being internalised by the woman and embodied in their identity due to fear of public scrutiny.

Reference List

Ahmed, S. (2004). Shame Before Others. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Anderson, J., Chen, W., Johnson, M., Lyon, S., Lee, C., Zheng, F.,…Peterson, F. (2011). Attitudes towards Dating Violence Among College Students in Mainland China: An Exploratory Study. Violence and Victims, 26 (5), 631 – 647.

Barbalet, J. (2001). Conformity and Shame. Social Theory and Social Structure, 203-125. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521621909

Crawford, E., Leibling-Kalifani, H., & Hill, V. (2009). Women’s Understandings of the Effects of Domestic Abuse: The Impact on Their Identity, Sense of Self and Resilience. A Grounded Theory Approach. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 11(2), 63-82

Darab, S., & Hartman, Y. (2011). Psychic Wounds and the Social Structure: An Empirical Investigation. Current Sociology, 59(6) 787-804. ISSN 0013921

Hall, R. (2012). Domestic Violence Among The Japanese: Implications For The Psychology Of Victimization. Journal of Psychologia, 55(5), 280 – 290.

India Delhi Gang Rape Lawyer faces ‘Misconduct’ Hearing. (2013.09.16). BBC. Retrieved from

Kelleher, C. & McGilloway, S. (2009). ‘Nobody ever chooses this …’: A Qualitative Study of Service Providers Working In the Sexual Violence Sector – Key Issues and Challenges. Health and Social Care in the Community, 17 (3), 295 – 303. Doi: 10.1111/J.1365-2524.2006.00834.x

Knickmeyer, N., Levitt, H., Horne, S. (2010). Putting on Sunday best: The Silencing of Battered Women Within Christian Faith Communities. Feminism & Psychology, 20(94), 94 – 113. Doi: 10.1177/0959353509347470

Lu, C. (2008). Shame, Guilt and Reconciliation after War. European Journal of Social Theory 11, (3) 367-383. ISSN 13684310

Maier, S. (2008). Rape Victim Advocates’ Perception of the Influence of Race and Ethnicity on Victims’ Responses to Rape. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 6(4), 303 - 334. doi: 10.1080/15377930302533530

Mirk, S. “The Girl” Reflects on Roman, Rape and Media. (13.09.25). Bitch Media. Retrieved from

Weiss, K. (2010). Too ashamed to report: Deconstructing the Shame of Sexual Victimization. Feminist Criminology, 5(3), 286 – 310. doi: 10.1177/155708511037634

Scheff, T., and Retzinger S. (2000). Shame as the Master Emotion of Everyday Life. Journal of Mundane Behaviour 1(3).

Womersley, G., Maw, A. & Swartz, S. (2011). The Construction of Shame in Feminist Reflexive Practice and its Manifestations in a Research Relationship. Qualitative Inquiry, 17(9) 876 – 886. Doi: 10.1177/1077800411423205

Yamawaki, N. (2007). Differences Between Japanese and American College Students in Giving Advice About Help Seeking to Rape Victims. The Journal of Psychology, 147(5), 511 – 530.


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    • Anushka Britto profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Auckland

      Hi Luis thanks for your comment, sorry for the late reply! What are your thoughts on the difference in attitudes towards rape and the ways in which female victims of IPV deal with it?

    • Luis Mendoza profile image


      3 years ago from San Diego

      I was hoping to see some of your feedback so I would be able to see what we both have learned and how to help each other elaborate on the ideas to create a new post about an unnoticed problem that is stated through context clues.


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