Sex Sells, Lust Extorts
Last month was absolutely full of sex-charged headlines. Obviously, the modern media is always filled with sexual headlines (and terrible, sensationalist headlines in general) because clicks = advertising revenue, and advertising revenue still drives the internet. (Here is a good article explaining the ugliness of "clickbaiting", and here is a great website/quiz which has you guess whether the headlines you're reading are from spam emails or from actual news sources. Educate yourself– the danger is real.) Perhaps these stories and scandals aren't unique. But these stories have once again exposed moral contradictions in our culture, and hopefully we can reexamine the sexual ethics of our times.
Jennifer Lawrence responded to the controversy about the stolen explicit images taken from her phone by calling the act a "sex crime". She confessed she felt violated by the extreme invasion of her privacy.
Stephen Collins, the actor most famous for portraying the dad and pastor on "7th Heaven", has been recorded confessing to sex crimes against minors. Initially the rumour was his wife leaked the audio recording to leverage a more favourable divorce settlement, but as of this writing she has denied those reports.
Gérard Depardieu, who I mainly know from such movies as "Life of Pi" and "The Man in the Iron Mask", confessed he worked as a child prostitute while promoting his recently-released autobiography.
And I saw all of these headlines on the same day.
After Depardieu's confession, it was the article right below which startled me the most. It was a guide on how to catch Ben Affleck's brief nude figure in his latest film.
I'm sure the article was written tongue-in-cheek but the headline really highlighted the irony: we are disgusted by perverse sexual tragedies at one moment, and we're voyeurs in the next. Our culture condemns very few sexual practices–essentially, anything involving minors and anything lacking consent– and it revels in just about everything else.
If our age had a sexual maxim, it would be: "Whatever you desire, and whenever you desire it."
Our views on sexuality have evolved from the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Standards of decency and chastity were condemned as old-fashioned anachronisms. Really, the only corollary would be, "make sure you don't harm anybody else." And this sort of humanistic moralizing isn't new, and in a pluralistic society, it might be the only baseline many of us can agree upon.
But is it healthy?
I'm not advocating for legislated morality, and I certainly wouldn't want to return to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policies of the past. I'm not advocating for abstinence-only education, and this isn't a sly attempt to get the Ten Commandments back into our courthouses and prayer back into public schools. I'm just seeing how our cultural permissiveness has left many people more warped and trapped within their own sex drives. I'm standing on the sidelines wondering aloud if there could be another way.
Our modern, North American approach to sexuality buys into the idea that our desires define us. Before we talk about standards of conduct and decency, we first agree to the notion that my desire for something is true because I sincerely feel attraction and then define myself by it.
But is it true?
Am I the sum of my desires and attractions?
Let's take it a step further, as many do.
If I act on my desires, am I defined by my behaviours?
In a pluralistic society, you are allowed to define yourself however you want. In certain countries, this is not the case; I'm thankful for the freedoms we share, even if others use their freedom in a way I disagree with. (Likewise, I'm not put off by those who disagree with how I'm spending my individuality either.)
But pluralistic morality has a shortcoming: the only agreed upon "wrong" is to infringe upon the freedoms of others. Self-destruction, personal misdiagnosis, and addictive behaviours are all encouraged in this kind of independence. Of course, we don't have the right to override how people choose to behave–unless they take a weapon to the food court–but does this mean our only other option is a race to the lowest common denominator?
Take someone tempted to abuse a child. Society informs such a person that their desires are wrong and perverse in an attempt to protect the child and stem the dangerous desires of the potential abuser. Aside from mutual condemnation, what hope does our culture give this kind of person? What kind of avenues do they have to rid themselves of unwanted sexual attraction?
Culture implies that our sexual impulses are legitimate because they exist–if they fall outside cultural norms, you're just plain out of luck.
I haven't figured out the perfect standard for a new cultural ethic. The one I live by is found in the New Testament, but I don't want to force anyone else to follow my standards unwillingly (and, as it stands, the New Testament acknowledges how foolish it sounds to outsiders on certain things.) But I do believe there is hope for a better perspective on sex in our modern culture.
What if we stopped defining others, and ourselves for that matter, merely as the byproduct of our instincts and behaviours?
People can, and will, continue to live how they want to live. But I believe the only offramp for the kinds of societal dysfunctions that cause certain people to abuse the privacy of dozens of celebrities, and can force children into moments or entire upbringings of sexual abuse, will begin when we stop buying and selling labels. At first, such identifiers seem liberating–and then, for the lonely and the discontent, they become entrapping.
But we can find hope when we refuse to be extorted by the labels.