On at least one subject I find myself in general agreement with the sentiments commonly expressed by today’s brand of feminist: I believe that the objectification of women is wrong. I was therefore disappointed to see this point somewhat muted in the response to the video which surfaced of Trump discussing – boasting of – what can only be considered sexual assault. In fact a number of people went to great length to separate bawdy talk from the idea of sexual violence, when the obvious connection should have been made, and made strongly.
What I witnessed wasna combination of taboo enforcement and guilt reaction. People decided to be shocked (shocked!) that a politician would “openly” (the quotes are because no one knew about the conversation before a media leak) discuss actions we prefer to pretend are beneath the character of our leaders. Blaming someone else – especially someone who is already unpopular – is safer than examining one’s one behavior. When Trump excused his comments as “locker room” talk, athletes and athletic organizations issued pointed denials, which a great many people chose to accept – and ignore for the moment scandals from “sexts” to domestic violence. As long as the appearance of Trump as an unusually awful outsider was preserved, all would be well: that was the message sent.
In contrast, when a fraternity makes offensive and immature banners, various persons go around screaming imprecations on the state of society. When high school football players are involved in a rape, the very fabric of American culture is seen to be threatened. In a sense this is actually a saner reaction. The problem with Trump is not really that he has dragged the obscene onto the stage: the problem is that the obscenity Trump has dragged onto the stage is us.
As something of a traditionalist and conservative, I read history primarily to discover what has worked (or not), not merely to discover abuses we can blame our ancestors for while congratulating ourselves on our progress. As a Protestant Christian, I read my Bible. In either case, by law natural or revealed, I believe in patriarchy, assuming by that term we stick strictly to its technical definition of male strength, responsibility, and authority. (That the point can be reasonably disputed from human history I grant: that it can, generally speaking, be disputed Biblically I do not grant. While one could easily frame a definition of “authority” which would be experientially plausible and also significantly different from Biblical concepts, I offer the general rebuttal that – theologically speaking – if the use of a thing differs from its Biblical purpose, we have not “use” but “abuse”. Abuses cloud the reputation of any principle: thus the bad name of patriarchy and the very valid objections to some of its most offensive manifestations.)
The key to a valid patriarchy is responsibility, and a chief responsibility, again to speak Biblically, is love. Therefore it is a great shame on our churches today that so many pastors and Christian men in other secular positions of authority have abused their positions to take advantage of women emotionally or physically. It is unconscionable for Christians, especially those men who are Christian leaders, to be continuing to recommend Trump personally. (It was in fact, merely from what was known of him as a celebrity businessman, absurd and dangerous to stand with him as a Christian: those whose endorsements helped Trump even in the primary elections have cast their reputation and judgment into serious doubt. But revelations since then – however “strategic” or “biased”, have pushed continued endorsement of Trump’s character from questionable to insane.) I go so far as to say it is irresponsible to vote for him either as citizen or Christian, though I still stop short of saying I am sure of such a vote’s immorality.
But I am not here concerned mainly with Trump. I believe Trump’s incendiary candidacy and his very good chance at election are not primarily his fault but ours. What exactly do we mean by the “objectification” of a woman? It cannot merely mean appreciating her beauty, or even discussing it, else we have to throw out about four fifths of all poetry ever written, and the Song of Songs in the bargain. On the other hand, I do not accept the (at least vaguely coherent) argument that the real problem is that women are appreciated differently in culture than men are, and to solve the problem we have to allow the objectification of everybody: the thesis that the problem is not the action but some bizarre form of “discrimination”. I see no reason to assume the two sexes ought normally, let alone necessarily, have their attributes receive the same cultural treatment.
“Objectification” occurs when we view another person not as human but merely as a vehicle for our own desires and their gratification. The objection to this is nothing new – “If your eye offend you…” And thus we reach the connection between porn and the locker room, and sexual assault. If one is in the habit of discussing women merely as sexual objects, the moral difference between discussion of lust and the violent action suggested by that lust is one of degree, not of kind. (I am not even convinced a consensual affair – though it does show a minimal respect – is significantly different in kind if the woman is still in the man’s mind only an object gained.) I am not saying the action adds no weight. I am not trying to advocate any kind of thought crime. I am not calling for the imprisonment of fifteen year old young men with an internet connection.
But I am insisting that we need to make the connection between our own habits and the things which occur in our culture’s public space. The fad for criticizing so-called “rape culture” was just that – a fad – but it had latched on to a kernel of truth. I think most of those engaged in that criticism had causes backwards: while some visions of masculinity certainly are “toxic”, it is not strength and responsibility that need to be discouraged, but insatiable lust. Of course the combination can result in heinous abuses. I am not disputing that. In fact with lust encouraged in the general culture, we need to be conscious – much more than in a healthier sexual environment – of the potential for abuses, much as we need to be more conscious of jellyfish when near the ocean. But mere strength is a factor that can contribute to abuses, not the source.
Many people want to say the lust is fine “as long as” – as long as it is between adults; as long as there is consent; as long as the age difference is minimal… whatever. Many people, even Christians, are increasingly timid about suggesting any restraints on cultural “appreciation” for sex. I think the minority reactionary attempt to make or remake laws is the wrong path: without social agreement, those laws will be ignored or abused; with social standards, such laws will be passed naturally or will be unnecessary. But at least that is a recognition that there is a dangerous area.
What I wanted to happen, while we issued our condemnations of Trump, was for the feminists – and the rest of us, Bible-thumpers and traditionalists and egalitarian activists and anyone with even a pretense of civility – to stand up and say, “See? This is what we are running the risk of if we continue to treat sexual issues in such a cavalier fashion.” Obviously I do not expect an immediate agreement between such disparate groups about what the appropriate sexual ethic is. But the simple appeal to take it seriously is in fact a common theme we can strike. For instance, I think “sexism” is overblown and often (sorry) trumped up. But I still definitely think emotional, physical, and sexual abuse or rape, especially of women, is bad. See? Agreement. I was disappointed that so many wanted to treat Trump as an exception, rather than recognize him as the logical expectation, in our culture. Improvement does not come (only) from ostracizing the worst offenders, but from deterring even the little sinners.