The shocking statistics on the number of American female college students who are victims of rape provide a window on the moral and spiritual corruption of our society. Especially when seen in the context of the culture of promiscuity, drunkenness, and illicit drugs prevalent on many campuses today, the high incidence of such assaults makes glaringly obvious that something profoundly important is missing from our age of alleged liberation and equality between the sexes.
A key dimension of the problem is that mainstream American society now acknowledges no moral standard other than consent between adults when it comes to sex. Most college students are adults only in a legal sense—not in terms of maturity, judgment, or understanding the consequences of their actions. Throw in hormones, insecurity, consumption of substances that impair judgment, and misguided understandings of masculinity; it is not hard to predict the results. Of course, communication on such matters between men and women often remains a challenge even under the best circumstances for full-grown, sober adults. Since consent requires effective communication, rational thought, and knowledge of the consequences of one’s actions, it is not likely to be found among drunk teenagers away from home for the first time and living among strangers.
If consent is the only relevant factor in the ethics of sex and nothing intrinsically right or wrong is at stake in these matters, I fear that few will take them seriously in our age of hedonistic self-indulgence. American youth grow up in a culture where music, movies, television, and the internet celebrate promiscuity and graphic violence even as they deride chastity, even in what is considered fairly tame programming. Many consider pornography a harmless form of entertainment with no recognition of its damaging, addicting effects that put major roadblocks in the pursuit of a decent, not to mention a holy, life. Throw in the large number of parents who indulge their children, shelter them from even small struggles and failures, and consequently hamper their moral development. It is not surprising that all hell often breaks loose as a result.
Too many people in our society do not develop decent moral character in large part because they were not brought up in a morally serious fashion that puts their actions in the larger context of right and wrong. Of course, too many Christians across the centuries have accommodated their faith to cultural standards and personal failings that fall short of the fullness of the way of Christ. It is especially troubling today, however, that much contemporary American culture has lost even the most basic presuppositions of moral decency, let alone the pursuit of holiness. The same is true of some Christian communities. Not unlike the sexual libertines whom St. Paul opposed in Corinth, mainstream culture is increasingly blind to any level of gravity about sex that extends further than the minimal requirement of consent, as though anyone really knows what they are getting into when it comes to the impact of these matters on those involved.
In a legal sense, of course, consent is essential to distinguish between rape and other acts of sexual union, regardless of their moral or spiritual significance. But the concept of consent is often too weak to translate into the control of powerful passions for pleasure or domination, as the statistics about rape on college campuses reveal. The more our society convinces itself that traditional sexual morality is passé, the more the virtues necessary to direct and restrain our energies in this regard will be lacking. The less we recognize that sex is part of the unique glory of husband and wife who, in the usual course of things, together bring new people into the world through their embodied love for one another, the more the passions of whoever is the stronger will have their way. It is sadly true in dimly lit fraternity parties and in much public discourse about what now passes for the ethics of marriage, family, and sex. When truth goes out the window, raw power reigns supreme.
From an Orthodox Christian perspective, that is hardly the appropriate context to have or think about sex. For starters, it is outside of marriage. In holy matrimony, man and woman join intimately for their salvation and the fulfillment of God’s purposes for them, their children, the Church, and the rest of the world. It is not the stuff of random encounters between the inebriated or of heinous assault, but a holy offering that impacts every dimension of one’s life “both now and ever and unto ages of ages.” How sad that our culture has produced so many people today who lack the moral and spiritual vision necessary to recognize the sanctity and gravity of the intimate union of those created male and female in God’s image and likeness.
Rape is worse than a mere violation of consent, of course, for it horribly wounds a beloved child of God. It also grossly distorts the intimate, life-giving joining of two as one flesh and manifests a total breakdown of the man-woman relationship. It is an icon of blasphemy that displays hatred of the Lord and our neighbors and harms all concerned in the most profound ways. It is as far from faithfulness to Jesus Christ as one can get.
These words may make little sense to those who believe that the further progress of the sexual revolution is the answer to society’s ills, as though freedom from traditional moral norms is all we need. Those not blinded by ideology will acknowledge, however, that the problems we face go much deeper than political slogans of any kind. Orthodox Christians must do the hard work of forming boys and girls, and their parents and everyone else in the Church, in chastity, self-restraint, and true love for God and neighbor that make both assault and promiscuity unthinkable. We must model fidelity and self-sacrifice in marriage and childrearing, as well as purity in singleness, in ways that demonstrate with integrity a genuine alternative to the decadence so common today. Our witness will then attract others to the virtuous and holy life for which all of us, male and female alike, were created, whether we are married or not. For true evangelism concerns not only what we say, but more importantly how we live.