The recent testimony of female celebrities and ordinary women who have been preyed upon sexually by powerful men has demanded a reckoning across many sectors of American life.
“We are finally becoming conscious of a vice that has been socially accepted,” said the actress Salma Hayek, who accused the famous Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of pressuring her to have sex in exchange for his help with an important film project. “In his eyes, I was not an artist. I wasn’t even a person. I was a thing: not a nobody, but a body.” According to her story in The New York Times, she didn’t, and Weinstein made her life unbearable.
These revelations have stirred a multitude of questions: In an age of growing gender equality, why have 30% of U.S. women experienced job-related sexual harassment? What cultural values fuel this scourge? And what will be the practical outcome — will women be safer?
Less than 20 years ago, the 2002 clergy sex-abuse crisis forced Catholics in the U.S. to face equally disturbing questions. The U.S. bishops implemented a policy of zero tolerance for abusers. Today, stringent reporting rules and background checks and screening for seminarians have reduced new allegations of clergy sexual abuse to a trickle.
Along the way, we have learned a number of lessons. Perhaps the most painful is that, even within our churches and among our pastors, sin and the power of evil are real and must be met with vigilance.
What lessons, then, should we take away from the Weinstein-inspired campaign to unmask powerful men who have abused women?
It is surely too soon to issue a comprehensive evaluation of this moment and its ripple effects across the culture. No doubt, partisan groups are looking for ways to channel anger about male sexual misconduct into a potent political force.
Such plans, however, will be complicated by the fact that influential figures from both parties, including the president of the United States, have been called out by women.
Meanwhile, Weinstein and his strain have already learned one lesson: Their power cannot match the collective witness of men and women who have found the courage to confront their tormentors. Yes, some have argued that this new movement, to remain credible and avoid overkill, must distinguish between boorish behavior and rape or other forms of sexual assault. Nevertheless, these influential men have been put on notice: If they use their power to abuse others, they will suffer the consequences.
Further, as the stories of mostly female victims are published in the media, we have also learned that differences regarding sex are real. They can’t be chalked up to social conditioning, as feminists long argued. “Recent revelations about sexual harassment, assault and abuse underscore certain blunt realities about men, women and sex,” said Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin who studies sexual behavior.
“Men’s sex drives are, on average, stronger and less discriminating than women’s. If this were not true, we would not be talking about this in the first place,” he noted in an article for The Public Discourse.
Women are more likely to “find themselves in situations of sexual risk,” Regnerus, the author of Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy, noted.
But now, he said, as women rise up together to expose and shame sexual predators, their joint effort marks a real turning point. And while many victims have placed their hopes in litigation that will punish and deter sexual misconduct, Regnerus says we should go much further.
We should begin to acknowledge that gender differences exist and need to be taken into account if we want to set high standards for behavior in the workplace. Such an approach could begin with a tough-minded review of modern social codes promoted by the sexual revolution and feminism, as Catholic authors — like Mary Eberstadt, a senior research fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute — have pressed for.
Both movements attacked the virtue of chastity as a patriarchal taboo that held women back. And once contraception and legal abortion became easily accessible, feminists envisioned a level playing field for women — in bed and at work. Their untested agenda challenged the governing principles of the old social order that tightly controlled courtship practices.
The old order opposed premarital and extramarital sex on religious, moral and practical grounds. This was a system largely policed by women, who leveraged what social researchers describe as a “cartel” of chastity to discourage and punish sexual misconduct.
In contrast, the new code of sexual behavior facilitated by contraception and legal abortion has penalized the chaste and rewarded the promiscuous. Men now expect to have sex by the third or fourth date, if not sooner, and women who don’t comply can feel like social outliers.
But if men don’t learn self-control during their formative years, why should we expect that they will exercise restraint later in life, when they have gained a measure of power and have access to more women?
The modern cartel of promiscuity, which hinges on a murky concept of “consent,” does a poor job of forming men who respect women. It also turns out that the hook-up culture also does a poor job of instilling self-respect in young women. That’s another lesson to be learned, as the national conversation broadens to include accusations of sexual assault as well as stories that bemoan the problematic elements of “consensual” sex. “This particular moment of cultural reckoning … gets at a crucial nuance that seems to have long been missing from the conversation around sexual harassment and assault: that consent isn’t always black and white,” said Jessica Bennett, The New York Times’ new “gender editor,” in a column for the paper.
“Sometimes ‘Yes’ means ‘No,’ simply because it is easier to go through with it than explain our way out of the situation. … And if you’re a man, that ‘No’ often means ‘just try harder’ — because, you know, persuasion is part of the game.”
Bennett expressed a sense of unease with her own willingness to acquiesce to pushy men who wanted sex.
Like the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water, she appears to have grown used to such encounters, until the recent news made her stop and think.
Her story should inspire Catholics to respond in creative ways to this cultural moment. While our immediate goal should be a workplace that prohibits sexual harassment and fosters the respectful treatment of women, our long-term mission should be far more ambitious. More than ever, we need a new social movement inspired by the Church’s own teachings on sexuality and chastity — chastity not as a form of social control, but as the path to an interior freedom born of self-restraint. This freedom makes it possible for a man to see every woman, but especially the woman he loves, as a priceless gift, not as an object to be used. This freedom helps us recover the distinctive value of masculinity and of femininity and their unity in difference. And in marriage, this freedom creates the conditions for an authentic sexual relationship of mutual self-gift.
Let the Body of Christ be a beacon of chastity so that men and women can learn to trust each other again. This is the lesson we are called to teach a culture struggling to regain a sense of hope.