Book Review: The Velvet Rage
An important work on the experience of gay men // the book is often misunderstood // I recommend it, but with a note of warning
If you’ve spent any time within mainstream gay culture1 (especially American gay culture), there’s a good chance you’ve heard of The Velvet Rage. It’s a book many will say “you simply must read,” and those who’ve read it frequently report feeling completely seen and understood. It’s a book about how shame for one’s sexuality manifests in life, and how to overcome that shame.
I liked the book, but I decided to write this review because it has a fascinating relationship with many of its gay readers, for good and for bad. In the first section, I provide a summary overview of the ideas in the book; next come my own broad comments on it.
The third section of this review is, to me, the most interesting. A book isn’t an inert object that automatically transmits the author’s intended understanding, and The Velvet Rage that exists in the minds of many gay men is quite distinct from the actual book.
The final, short section gives my recommendation for the book.
The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, was originally written in 2005 by the psychologist Alan Downs; in 2012 the book was revised, primarily to expand chapter 14, “the most important chapter in the book” (xvi), according to Downs, so note the publication year if you grab a used copy.
All inline, parenthetical page number references correspond to:
Summary — summarizes the ideas in the book
Comments — some compliments, and a few critiques
This book is often misunderstood — I explain how
Conclusions — I recommend the book
Humans often feel shame, which Downs defines as “…the fear of being unlovable” (xii). If you feel shame about a vital part of your identity, either because you were rejected for it or because you fear being rejected for it, you might conform yourself to the expectations of others in an effort to forestall hate and keep love. Via this fear avoidance mechanism, you cultivate a psychology that relies on external validation, with all its attendant problems—inability to process criticism or learn from one’s own mistakes, lack of self-knowledge, and vulnerability to shame spirals .
The Velvet Rage analyzes how this plays out in the lives of gay men, during both childhood and adulthood, and how men afflicted with shame can overcome it to live an authentic life.
The book’s central analytic tool is a three-stage developmental model that describes the journey many gay men take as they move throughout life (quotes from pp. 3-4):
Stage One, Overwhelmed by Shame: “…includes that period of time when [the gay man] remained ‘in the closet’ and fearful of his own sexuality.” Downs describes how shame often originates the gay man’s childhood, when he or the adults in his life recognized that he was different, and not in an approving way.
Stage Two, Compensating for Shame: “…describes the gay man’s attempt to neutralize his shame by being more successful, outrageous, fabulous, beautiful, or masculine. During this stage he may take on many sexual partners in his attempt to make himself feel attractive, sexy, and loved—in short, less shameful.” Stage two comes after a gay man has come out. In a move of overcorrection, the gay man attempts to prove that he is valuable and lovable as he is; unfortunately this often means doing things others want him to do, or living up to expectations set by others. Although he is out, he remains trapped by a psychology that relies upon external validation, and can easily remain in this stage for his entire life.
Stage Three, Cultivating Authenticity: “Not all gay men progress out of the previous two stages, but those who do begin to build a life that is based upon their own passions and values rather than proving to themselves that they are desirable and lovable.”
The transition points between stages one and two, and two and three, require the gay man to leave behind behaviors, thought patterns, and possibly relationships, because they’re not useful going forward. For example, when a gay man comes out, he might not be able to retain relationships with individuals who don’t accept his sexuality. And when a gay man realizes he doesn’t need the shame avoidant behaviors he cultivated in stage two, he might slowly lose friendships that are built around those behaviors.
Moving forward through stage three is an organic process that produces profound change in an individual, although forward movement is not always assured. The latter third of the book describes the challenge and reward of leaving the old, shame-based way of living behind, and navigating toward an unknown future built on self-validation and acceptance. The book’s final chapter, chapter 14, is dedicated to providing concrete, actionable steps to entering and sustaining stage three.
The book’s logic seems sensible to me.
The three-stage developmental model at the core of The Velvet Rage seems to correspond well to reality, and its explanation of how shame drives behavior seems sensible. Many gay men do report experiences that match the model, and I’ve witnessed many such journeys myself. I think it’s a useful framework for understanding the lives of many gay men, and helping them to individually improve their lives.
Although, as Downs says: “Much of what I write throughout the book is influenced by my own training in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)” (xiv). I’m not familiar with DBT, so I don’t have any comments on this broader therapeutic approach; but I don’t think this impacts the obvious usefulness of the three-stage model.
The book’s thinking is clearer than most of the things I read, but could be clearer still.
One of the best things about The Velvet Rage is that it defines its terms. Words like, shame, love, and passion are all directly defined, and this brings enormous conceptual clarity to the whole work.
I know this might seem nit-picky to some, but I consider the question of definitions to be foundational. The major problem with much social science or humanities work is conceptual fogginess.
The only thing Downs could do to improve in this regard is provide a glossary of the key terms he defines throughout the book. At the moment, it’s up to the reader to note and track when and where they appear, and I think this extra friction means many of them won’t do it (honestly, a glossary probably wouldn’t change things for a lot of them, but it would certainly make the work easier to digest for more people).
Stage two in the book’s three-stage developmental model should be expanded.
The central problem in The Velvet Rage is uncontrolled shame over one’s sexuality, which Downs locates in the childhoods of gay men. While it’s true that many gay men were rejected because of their sexuality, or alienated from at least one parent and some peers because they were “different,” I don’t think this is the only source of shame (and resultant dysfunction) for adult gay men. In fact, I suspect that it doesn’t account for a significant plurality of it. The other principal sources are individual choices and peer groups acquired in later life.
Mainstream gay culture provides ample space for gay men to build a lifestyle around their shame avoidance behaviors, perpetually trapping them in stage two; Downs takes perfect note of this, and shows how an individual who grew up with shame can easily transition to an adulthood filled with it.
But it’s quite easy for a well-adjusted individual who grew up with relatively little shame to enter this social scene and acquire shame as an adult if they’re not careful. The culture of drinking, drugs, and gratuitous sex that prevails in mainstream gay culture can introduce shame into your psychology and lay new thought patterns oriented toward external validation. If you’ve ever seen someone change who they are—frog in slowly boiling pot style—because they surrounded themselves with another group of friends, you’ve witnessed the mechanism that causes this adult-onset stage two.
It’s not shame by blood, but by marriage.
THIS BOOK IS OFTEN MISUNDERSTOOD
Many gay men have loved The Velvet Rage, and it’s provided them with a great path forward in life. I’m sure that Alan Downs’ personal practice has done the same. If you read the book and take its words to heart, that’s a straightforward and understandable outcome.
However, there is a large contingent of the book’s readers—many of whom I’ve interviewed for this ongoing project—who actively misunderstand it. This isn’t Alan Downs’ fault. You can write the clearest book in the world, and people will still misunderstand it for a variety of reasons.
In the case of The Velvet Rage, I’ve noticed three primary ways this happens:
Gay men use the book to rationalize their shame-avoidance behaviors.
Men focus on the portions of the book that explain why they act the way they do, and not the parts that explain how and why to fix it. These men are stage two cases in the Downs model, and they’re only absorbing material that justifies their current behavior. Ironically, the book itself addresses how this can happen:
“Psychotherapy with a gay man in such a crisis [being unable to ignore his past mistakes] is often difficult for the therapist. The therapist may want him to examine and learn from the mistakes of his past, but this only increases his distress and feelings of shame. Instead, what the client seeks is support for his defensive behaviors. He wants the therapist to collude with him in blaming his ex-partners, ex-bosses, or former friends.” (88)
Readers, by selective focus, assume the gay experience must contain suffering, an inevitable pain that comes from society and others, not themselves. But Downs says on the last page of his book:
“Suffering isn’t a precursor for change, despite what my own story may imply. My struggle brought me to a teachable moment in life where I could finally learn to practice skills that would improve my life. You don’t have to take the same road. At any point that you are willing and ready to start practicing, you can begin. Each of us makes a choice in each moment how our lives will unfold. I invite you to consider making a change for the better.” (237)
The cocktail party summary of the book undermines what’s actually written in it.
Many people don’t read popular books, but they’ll have heard about them in conversation or on a podcast. They’ll nod along as if they’ve read it during party conversation, or say they have if they can get away without being questioned in too much detail.
This book is no different from any other in that regard; many gay men haven’t read it, but they do think they know what it’s all about, and so use the book’s cultural authority to perform a trick similar to the point above. They’ll most often discuss how childhood shame of one’s sexuality produces adult dysfunction, and stop there, because that’s the part of the book that’s most well known and easiest on the ego. The Velvet Rage thereby becomes a book that explains their behavior, and nothing more.
This is the softer version of the man who wants his therapist to collude with him, except in this case that’s accomplished by The Velvet Rage—in this incorrect cocktail summary—being silent on its remedial and self-work aspects. Downs certainly wouldn’t agree with this, as he says:
“While understanding the origins of shame-based wounds is important, this alone is not sufficient to bring needed change into our lives. Change comes by choice and practice, not from insight about our past” (xvi).
The title, unfortunately, doesn’t help. The Velvet Rage connotes being wronged, while the not-often-referenced subtitle, Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, hints at the help to be had in the book.
The book is used to bolster a gay victimhood and “us verses them” mentality.
Gay men who read The Velvet Rage sometimes allow it to feed into a victimhood complex that can be expressed something like: “Straight people/my parents/my community just don’t understand what our pain feels like. We were ashamed of such an important part of ourselves growing up, they’re the ones who made us ashamed, and this book explains how that all happened exactly.”
This is using the book as a tool to build a wall between an “us” and a “them,” and—as with the previous modes of misunderstanding—it completely neglects the most important part of the book, the part about achieving stage three. The part about the gay man no longer blaming others for his problems, and no longer relying on external validation for his self worth.
It also ignores the compassionate introduction that Downs wrote for the book, where he explains that shame works in the same broad ways for all people, gay and otherwise. He’s just exploring shame in the particular context of gay men:
“A word about the differences between straight and gay men should be included. Often people will ask me, ‘Isn’t the struggle with shame similar for straight men?’ To this, I would also answer yes, but not in the same way. Straight men struggle with their own authenticity and intimate relationships. And yes, they do struggle with shame that is created by a culture that has taught them to hold a masculine ideal that is unachievable, if not downright cruel. But as with lesbian women—and to a far greater degree—their struggles look very different.” (6)
“One should not conclude from these pages that straight men are even one fraction healthier than gay men. What is being said is that the trauma of growing up gay in a world that is run primarily by straight men is deeply wounding in a unique and profound way. Straight men have other issues and struggles that are no less wounding but are quit different from those of gay men.” (6)
I recommend The Velvet Rage, and not just for gay men. It’s a useful examination of how shame can impact one’s life, and the broad strokes are applicable to everyone. And if you’re not gay, but you want to understand that experience more, this book will help you too.
If you’re gay and not struggling with shame, this book will give you a clearer window on patterns you’ve surely noticed in gay culture and your own dating market.
However, I do have one cautionary note for gay men who read it: if you feel like you’re not living an authentic life, and if you feel like the book describes your dysfunction well, there’s a good chance that you’ll be primed to misunderstand the book in the ways described above. Recognize that you’re in a state that makes any examination of your own mistakes, and their root source, difficult. Do not let a motivated reading of this book become another way you justify a lifestyle of shame avoidance.
See my definition of that term here: “Definitions: For my purposes here, ‘community’ means a specific collection of individuals united by social ties, and ‘culture’ is the ideas and behavioral norms that prevail in that community. The use of ‘culture’ in this essay necessarily means ‘culture, and the community it derives from.’ Similar with ‘community.’”