Following the horrors of the Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. accusations and the subsequent revelations about a host of political, news media and entertainment personalities, January’s Golden Globe Awards became a kind of black-draped shout-out that sexual harassment and assault will no longer be tolerated.
Anyone who has had a mother, sister, wife or daughter (and yes, a father, brother, husband or son), cannot help but be supportive of the impulse behind the #Metoo movement. Yet the idealistic affirmations of a new day dawning in male-female relations by Hollywood’s elite seemed incomplete, even naive.
No one does earnest breast-beating and self-congratulation like Hollywood, but setting aside the number of people in that auditorium who had remained silent when silence was easier, it might be more helpful if the entertainment industry looked at its own role in creating a hyper-sexualized culture, and the impact of this culture across society.
The commodification of sexuality has had a dire impact on all of us: sexualized images filling computer, television and movie screens with the message that sex is to be had without consequences — completely divorced from commitment or children or anything more than fleeting desire.
Of course, the most blatant example of this is the porn industry itself. Thanks to technology, pornography is available everywhere, to everyone. Even as popular culture increasingly treats porn use as normal, evidence accumulates that it is profoundly damaging.
The defense by some accused males that they were simply “misreading” women’s signals suggests they were living on Planet Porn, where women are all two-dimensional characters in male fantasies. So, too, the incredible image of powerful men choosing to masturbate in front of women instead of touching them.
There is research that porn is addictive, the repeated surges of dopamine actually changing our brains over time. Real people become less arousing than celluloid, and even young men are now complaining of sexual dysfunction due to early and ongoing exposure to porn.
Other studies show that porn reduces empathy as it increases sexual objectification. In the words of one author, the woman “becomes ‘less human’ and ‘more object.’ ” Porn turns women into things.
But porn is only the bottom of this barrel. On the way down are all of the mass entertainment and marketing messages about sex that are consumeristic, shallow and play to our base impulses. The entertainment and marketing industries understand better than any hellfire and brimstone preacher that the sexual drive is powerful, and that harnessing this power is economically rewarding.
It is certainly no surprise to the Church. In its two millennia of existence, the Church has a storehouse of wisdom on these matters. To paraphrase that ubiquitous insurance ad, the Church knows a thing or two because it has seen a thing or two.
The Church understands human nature. And though the very concept of sin now sounds foreign to secular ears, the Church understands temptation. It understands our fallen nature and the vigilance it takes to avoid that which debases ourselves and others.
Sadly, at this moment when society seems to be struggling to understand the consequences of its own thoughtless liberality, the Church’s voice has been surprisingly muted. This is one more bitter fruit of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Every time a Catholic with a collar or a miter speaks out on any of a range of sexual matters, the reflexive retort is about little boys and priests. Yet what they would tell us is this:
We desire the good and the true. What we want most is love and connection. Yet humans are sensual creatures, prone to temptation. Sin is real, and we so easily succumb to it. Just ask all those who have suffered from the betrayal of adultery, the betrayal of pornography addiction, the betrayal of casual hookups and even more casual discards. The evidence of sin is in our wounds.
So what does the Church tell us? To not put ourselves in positions where we might be tempted. To keep custody of our eyes. To confess when we sin and to commit ourselves to resisting it in the future. It’s a slog, and absolutely necessary.
The celebrities are not wrong in condemning the misuse of power and sexuality, but they seem to harbor the fantasy that this is somehow a defect correctable by headlines or shame lists or inspirational sermonettes. This is another fantasy that ignores our fallen nature, and what it takes to rise above it.
The Church is more realistic, but it also offers a more hopeful vision of what “the erotic dimension of love” can be. Pope Francis, in “The Joy of Love,” describes it as a “gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses … revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable.”
It is these marvels that even the most lost among us long for.
Greg Erlandson is editor in chief of Catholic News Service.
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