“Often disappointed, but seldom surprised.” That old saying came to mind upon hearing of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against a leading figure in the American film industry. Alas, it is commonplace for mainstream films today to present the bodies of women as visual commodities to be bought and sold for the voyeuristic pleasures of men. Moviegoers are so used to nudity and “strong sexual content” that most have become desensitized to what is going on: presenting the exposed bodies of women as entertainment. In earlier ages, men had to sneak into disreputable places to see such displays. Now they are easily available in the privacy of their homes via the screens of computers, televisions, and the phones in their pockets. And it is not considered scandalous to show in regular cinemas films that not long ago would have been rated X.
I once saw a brief interview with the film mogul in question in which he said that a particular film had “good sex” that people wanted to see. Think about that for a moment. The holy act of two people becoming “one flesh” has been reduced to a bit of entertainment to be sold. It is not hard to give the clear impression in a film that a couple have gone to bed together and to leave it at that when necessary for the plot. There is no reason to show the graphic details of their intimate union other than to inflame the passions of viewers. Even as we hear of gratuitous vulgarity thrown into the dialogue of films so that they will merit a rating that will draw in more customers, the same is surely true of “strong sexual content.”
That should not be surprising in a culture with no higher standard for sex than the consent of individuals. Many believe and act as though there were nothing sacred or even particularly profound in the intimate union of man and woman or in the dimensions of their bodies traditionally treated with modesty. If they can be used to sell movie tickets and advertising, nothing else matters. When actors agree to expose themselves and engage in sexually explicit scenes, they do so in the same way that they sign a contract to perform in any production. It boils down to an commercial exchange.
Perhaps some may view scenes of nudity and intercourse without being phased. At least most men, however, will find their passions aroused in one way or another. Many men, women, and children will make what they see their standard for how their bodies, and those of others, should look and how they should act sexually. Regardless of what we intend, unrealistic and unhealthy expectations work their way through such images into our minds, souls, and relationships in a fashion that makes real intimacy more difficult. What is fake then becomes the standard for what is real with the predictable results. What is as intimate as life gets becomes impersonal and a matter of commercial exchange for mass entertainment.
Should it be surprising that women typically bear the brunt of living in a society that celebrates that kind of entertainment? As the “Me Too” campaign on social media has shown, sexual harassment and assault are epidemic. In an age that has rejected the holiness of sex and of virtually any intrinsic moral restraints on the pursuit of pleasure, it is tragically predicable that many men will use their typically greater physical strength and economic power to take advantage of women. The passions of men for domination and pleasure are sadly often so dominant that the fragile restraint of consent is too weak to stand in the way. Legal standards often do not serve as a firewall to protect the intrinsic dignity of human beings, but as mere procedural hurdles to be ignored, overcome, or maneuvered around with the help of a good lawyer. Unfortunately, they often fail to keep people enslaved to their passions from doing terrible things.
These observations are not excuses or justifications for this horrible state of affairs, of course, but a description of the low point to which we as a culture have fallen. Those who say that the sexual revolution has not harmed consenting adults are fooling themselves. In a culture that has abandoned the holiness of sex and marriage and treats the bodies of women as commodities for entertainment according to the demands of the marketplace, too many men will distort or ignore the requirement of consent in order to get what they want.
I cannot imagine that there is a decent man alive who does not regret many of his actions, words, and thoughts in relation to women. The passions that drive men to treat women as objects of desire to be used and dominated run deep within our corrupt souls. No one has earned the right to be self-righteous in this area of life, which is surely one reason that Jesus Christ said that those guilty of lust are guilty of adultery. No one is in the position to cast the first stone, for we have not achieved purity of heart or become perfect as our Father is perfect.
That is also true for women, who also experience lust and in our culture are consuming pornography at increasing rates. By focusing on the failures of men and the impact of cultural trends on their behavior, I do not mean to give the impression that women are free of such temptations in this area of life, but will leave it to others to comment on the particular challenges faced by women.
Criticism of depraved cultural standards is not a matter of the pure pointing a finger at the sinners. It is, instead, a recognition by those who struggle against their own distorted desires that we all are in this together. Because of our common brokenness, norms and practices of decency are crucial to form men of decent moral character, as well as to protect women from harassment, assault, and otherwise being treated as less than a person in the image and likeness of God.
Men and women formed by the practices of pornography and promiscuity will be the weaker and the worse for it. It is hard to see how even basic standards of decency may exist in a society in which young boys now routinely become addicted to pornography on their cell phones and the entertainment industry lives by some mixture of “strong sexual content” and graphic violence. Those formed in the habit of viewing women’s bodies as objects for gratification in media of whatever kind will likely fail to develop the character necessary to respect even the requirement of consent.
I recently heard a brief radio news report on BBC that celebrated a certain pornographic magazine having its first “transgender woman” on its centerfold. A female commentator spoke in glowing terms about how this publication used the public display of nudity to empower women. The reporters spoke enthusiastically of the choice of this particular model as a great step forward in sexual liberation. Leaving discussion of “transgender issues” for another time, I will simply comment that when dominant cultural voices lionize publications the only purpose of which is to make money by fueling the lust of men with images of the objectified bodies of women, what can be the expected outcome but a society with even weaker moral vision and less ethical strength to resist practices that lead to a culture of harassment and abuse? That hardly sounds like liberation to me.
In the current cultural context, the Church must form men who gain the purity of heart necessary to treat every woman they encounter with the honor due a living icon both of our Lord and of His Holy Mother. The dominant culture will not help us with that, which is where the ascetical and sacramental life of the Church comes in. If there were ever a time for the Body of Christ to become a sign of hope for the salvation of the world in the troubled relationship of man and woman, it is now.