In 2008, News of the World exposed Formula One motor racing chief Max Mosley—the son of the reviled British wartime fascist leader Oswald Mosley—for attending a “NAZI-STYLE orgy.” The outlandish article featured lurid details of Mosley’s romp with a group of sex workers and even published photos of the encounter. When Ronson met with Mosley, he wanted to interview him about how “immaculately” he’d endured his public shaming: Mosley had emerged intact. But when Ronson asked Mosley how he’d managed to emerge as a figurehead for humanity’s right to feel unashamed, Mosley struggled to find the words. At last, he ventured that his unusual upbringing might have prepared him to weather the storms of public shaming.
This passage introduces Max Mosley—a unique person who was able to escape the brutal depths of a public shaming. Ronson wants to know how he did it in order to see if there’s a template for how a person can emerge from a public shaming intact. Max’s story illustrates that even when a shaming is aimed at destroying a person based on deeply personal information, the shamee does indeed have some element of agency in how the shaming process unfolds.
Mosley’s father had founded, in 1932, the British Union of Fascists. His wife was obsessed with Hitler, and their wedding even took place at Joseph Goebbels’s house. Mosley’s first memories are of visiting his parents in prison in the early 1940s, where they’d been incarcerated for the duration of the war. As an adult, Mosley saw his parents’ deep-rooted fascist ideology as a “nuisance.” But in the motor-racing world, no one cared about Mosley’s past. When Mosley began visiting sex clubs that specialized in kink and S&M, he tried to be careful. In the 1990s, opponents of American politician Ralph Nader’s push to make seatbelt laws mandatory sent sex workers to lure him into compromising situations in hopes of attaining material that could be used as blackmail.
Because of his parents’ reprehensible and taboo beliefs, Mosley’s own reputation was publicly tarnished from a very young age, which made him acutely aware of how other people wanted to make him feel shame. This background may have uniquely prepared Mosley for his own encounter with a massive public shaming. Mosley knew that given his background, he was a target no matter what he did—and if he was going to engage in behaviors that many people still consider shameful, he had to tread carefully to avoid further entrapping himself in a cycle of shame and trauma.
In 2008, when Mosley heard that pictures of him at an orgy had been published in the news, he went on the offensive. He gave interviews on the radio and in print admitting that while his sex life was strange, sex itself was strange, and only an “idiot” would try to shame him for it. Mosley sued News of the World for claiming that the orgy was Nazi-themed; while it was German-themed, there were no Nazi scenarios being played out. The News of the World’s case all but crumbled, and Mosley won over 60,000 British pounds in damages. Within three years, the paper folded amid another scandal. The paper had a legacy of shaming people so intensely that they killed themselves.
This passage shows that by taking an active role in refuting his shaming, Mosley was able to reclaim his own narrative and stave off the full brutality of the public shaming process. This passage is significant because it suggests that shamees don’t always have to be silent victims—if their shaming is rooted in a desire for vengeance rather than justice, there is a chance that they can push back against the shame machine’s power and call attention to the inhumanity of public shamings in general. By rejecting shame, they can break the cycle.
Ronson was determined to get Mosley to identify how his behavior throughout his public shaming had in fact made him immune to the process. Mosley suggested that perhaps he was a sociopath, and that because he’d felt no shame, he had an advantage. But Ronson knew that wasn’t the answer. Ronson left the interview disappointed, but Mosley promised to think hard and get back to him. In the meantime, he urged Ronson to have a ball at an American sex club, Kink, to which Ronson had been invited as part of his research.
Like Lehrer, Mosley wondered whether there was a part of him that was deficient or sociopathic because of his experience with shame. This illustrates that public shamings are so debilitating as to disconnect a shamee from their emotions and senses of self. Mosley’s inability to identify what it was that allowed him to survive his shaming intact is noteworthy, too, as it suggests that there is something psychologically murky on both ends of a shaming—it’s hard to know why people shame others, and it’s hard to know why people who are shamed behave the way they do.
One of Ronson’s Twitter followers, Conner Habib—an adult performer—asked if Ronson was planning to research people who derive pleasure from being publicly shamed in preparation for his book. Ronson realized he should take Habib up on his offer to put Ronson in touch with Princess Donna Dolore of Kink.com studios, a famous porn impresario who’d turned an intense struggle with shame throughout her childhood into her own liberation. By being open about what embarrassed her, she set herself free. Donna missed her initial interview with Ronson, but she invited him to a public disgrace-themed porn shoot the following night.
In his interactions with Habib and Donna Dolore, Ronson was seeking to further complicate his own concept of shame and liberation. The secret to living without shame seemed partly rooted in a rejection of shame—and here, Ronson embarks on a new journey to discover what happens when people don’t just reject shame but actively celebrate it in order to break cycles of shame and trauma.
At the shoot, Ronson mingled with adult performers and listened to Donna describe the rules for the shoot, during which porn actor Jodi Taylor would be spanked, spit on, and shocked with electrodes. Taylor would later write in an email to Ronson that the shoot, and others like it, are “pure fantasy” realms in which all taboos are off, so there’s no shame involved. Ronson was amazed to find that the environment at the shoot was even more respectful and welcoming than a standard office environment. Donna’s mission, she told Ronson afterward, was to help people feel “less freakish and alone because of what they like.”
By turning shame into “pure fantasy” and admitting that shame can be a counterintuitively pleasurable thing in certain consensual scenarios, Donna and her team of actors and producers were rejecting old, destructive narratives about shame. They, too, were able to help cut cycles of shame short by actively choosing to reject shame’s negative connotations and effects.
Weeks after the shoot, Ronson received an email from Max Mosley. Mosley said that what helped him to weather a public shaming was simple: it was his refusal to feel shame. Ronson began to wonder if unashamedness was something that people could be taught and how many lives it would change if it could be.
Ronson’s research showed him definitively that there were alternate paths through our contemporary culture of public shamings. Now, he just had to pursue more knowledge of how people could more actively reject their senses of shame.