Sexual dignity begins with respect for all
(Originally published in The Catholic Register issue of December 24, 2017, http://www.catholicregister.org)
By Glen Argan
Time Magazine’s choice of “the silence breakers” as its 2017 Person of the Year acknowledges the importance of a movement that is changing our culture for the better.
Since female actors in October began revealing the sexual harassment they suffered from veteran Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein, thousands of women (and some men) have gone public to tell of the abuse and even rape they have experienced from bosses, co-workers, politicians, hotel guests and others. Powerful men have been fired, disgraced and charged with criminal offences. What was long suffered in silence is now socially unacceptable.
The women who went public did so at considerable personal risks to both their reputations and their families. But there is safety in numbers. Now that Time has named and held up this movement as the most important person or trend of 2017, even more victims will be emboldened to tell their stories.
The main effect of razing the wall of silence around sexual harassment will be positive. More men who view women as their playthings will think twice or three times before invading a woman’s sexual territory. If the amount of harassment declines, women may begin to feel safer.
Yet, at the same time, we need to ask about the origin of sexual harassment. Why do many men feel entitled to comment on and touch women’s bodies?
In responding, we should acknowledge that sexual harassment is not a modern phenomenon. It has been present in all societies. In some regions of the world, it is perhaps a social norm to an even greater extent than in North America. Nor can we say with certainty that the amount of sexual harassment in North American cultures has changed in recent decades. The wall of silence which surrounds harassment makes quantitative assessment impossible.
However, we can talk in general terms about desire and power.
Desire is a God-given gift which can be used for good or ill. Every freely-chosen human act is the result of desire, ultimately of desire for union with the infinite. When St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord,” he was referring to the human person’s core desire for union with the living God. Desire gives birth to great human accomplishments from Handel’s Messiah to the parenting of children. Sexual desire too is good for it expresses the love between spouses and leads to the birth of children.
Desire, however, easily becomes self-centred. When a national leader anoints himself president-for-life, he has made the country his toy. Human rights and due process will soon be ignored. When a person’s possessions become more important than their relationships, their soul has gone off-kilter. Sexual desire or a desire to exert power can lead one to see another primarily as a source of pleasure or domination. A person is reduced to the level of an object. Objectifying another person raises the possibility of using violence to control them.
None of this is unique to our society. The powerful invariably use their power to repress others. What is unique is the free rein we give to sexual power. Effective contraceptives and abortion have “liberated” men and women from the consequences of fulfilling their sexual desires without permanent commitment. Self-restraint and sexual fidelity have become options to be accepted or rejected.
Free sex may begin with mutual pleasure, but it also implies that a person treats their partner as an object for fulfilling their own desires. It’s a small step from there to a relationship of domination. Over time, some men will come to see all women as potential chattels.
Sexual harassment is not unique to modern society, but our contemporary sexual culture does much to facilitate it. The silence breakers are moving our society toward a more equal balance of power between men and women. What is not being challenged is the widespread acceptance of sex as a casual source of pleasure rather than an expression of abiding love.
Women and men should not treat each other as things, but as persons, persons with an inviolable dignity. Life-giving relations between men and women involve more than achieving an equitable balance of power. Love and friendship are rooted in a free communion of giving and receiving. Each person should be treated with the awesome respect befitting a being created in God’s image.
(Glen Argan lives in Edmonton and has been an editor and writer in the Catholic press for more than 30 years.)