Shame, the Church and the Regulation of Female Sexuality

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Miryam Clough
Gender, Theology and Spirituality
  • New York, NY: 
    , March
     218 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With the publication of Shame, the Church, and the Regulation of Female Sexuality, Miryam Clough has contributed a solid summation on the intersectionality of the socio-cultural, religious, and gender realities of Ireland. Clough uses two specific examples of the regulation of female sexuality by the state, the Kerry babies and the Magdalen laundries, to explain that “the Irish habitus seems to have been set up for shaming” (3). Both cases are famous within the socio-religious narrative of the island, the laundries arguably more so since being featured in recent films like Philomena. Institutionalized labor homes, run by the Irish state and the Catholic church, where women who did not conform to socio-religious norms were confined to the laundries against their will for indefinite periods of time. The last laundry did not close until the 1990s, so the ramifications of this institutionalized collusion are still being felt. Less ubiquitous but no less illuminative, the Kerry babies case regards a woman put on trial for the death of an infant that was proven not to be hers in 1980s rural Ireland. The themes of state control of women’s bodies and the continual reconstruction of the shame habitus are found in both examples. 

This book is especially timely for studies of shame and sexuality in Ireland and Northern Ireland in light of the recent trial in Belfast, where four young men (two of whom were professional rugby players) were on trial for the assault and rape of a young woman. All four men were acquitted of all charges brought against them, and the public conversation about the nature of the law on both sides of the border would benefit from Clough’s work. Additionally, as I write this, there is a forthcoming referendum regarding the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution which prohibits abortion. One could argue that many on the island are engaging with the habitus constructed on shame and are doing their ready best to change it.

For those of us who have spent many years researching the relationship between state control of women’s bodies and religious institutions, very little of what Clough reveals in this work is shocking. However, the work she puts into building the argument is admirable. She lays out a cohesive argument which engages scholarship around shame: exploring emotion, performance of gender, and how male ambivalence and toxic masculinity play into the particularities of female state-sponsored shaming. Chapters 2 through 6, which explore theoretical frameworks, are absolute treasures to those who enjoy deep dives into theory. For myself (more of a pragmatic practitioner), the book shone in four places; the introduction; chapter 7’s work on the Kerry babies case; chapter 8’s on the laundries, and the conclusion, which includes meditations on redemption and atonement. To my knowledge, there is not another work as cohesive as this and Clough deserves to be thanked. 

I have returned to the brief introduction multiple times since closing the book. It is underlined, annotated, highlighted, and I have typed passages in emails to colleagues and friends. Not only does the introduction serve to set up the book well (a requirement in an academic text such as this), but it explains the honor/shame culture Ireland breathes in with exacting analysis and succinct prose. I read the line quoted in the introductory paragraph to a group of Irish colleagues one day and one had a deep intake of breath: “Exactly,” she said. “That is exactly what we do. We wallow in shame—of our past, of our present, of others, of ourselves.” To understand the intersection between church, state, and bodies of citizens, this reality must be engaged with. 

I would be remiss to not admit the faults I found in the work. In particular, the book have benefited from more analysis of exactly what Clough meant by “church.” If one is speaking of Ireland, it can be assumed she means the Catholic Church as an institutional entity which colluded with the state for many decades. However, the text appears to assume the only churches in Ireland during the time of her analysis were the Catholic and Anglican churches, and that is not true. Additionally, the chapters on theories of shame could have engaged with more sociological and theological resources on ecclesiastical shame. The Protestant movements which inhabit Ireland have their own relationship with the control of women’s bodies, and that this was left unexplored was disappointing. I hope, therefore, that an enterprising researcher takes up the mantle to build upon Clough’s work. This is an important exploration, but limited as is required by the nature of academic investigations. The next steps will be fascinating to engage with. 

Overall, this work is mandatory to anyone looking to study religion on the island of Ireland; anyone engaging with state control of citizen’s bodies; anyone looking at collusion between institutional churches and state governments; and anyone engaging with shame research. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kristen Nielsen Donnelly is Executive Vice President of Abbey Research and an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Miryam Clough received her Ph.D. on shame and female sexuality from the University of Bristol, and has written on the topic of shame in a variety of contexts.


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