Terry McLaughlin: Is anyone really surprised by sexual misconduct in our society?
Allegations of sexual misconduct directed toward Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein this fall have opened the floodgates to similar accusations against influential individuals in entertainment, fashion, journalism, and government.
It is not worth listing the names of the accused, both those who have denied the allegations and those who have admitted to their outrageous behavior, because by the time you are reading this there will likely be even more names to add to that disturbing list.
In response to these accusations, I recently overheard some say, “If anyone had told me a year ago that sexual morality would be cool again, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
Is anyone really surprised? In a society in which sex, violence, and profanity are fed daily to our citizens and our children in the music we hear, the movies and television we view, the video games we play, and even the profane language we encounter casually from other residents as we walk down the street, should we be surprised by the results? The de-sensitizing effect of seeing and hearing violence and gratuitous sex is a more violent and sexualized society.
To be clear, sexualization is not the same as sexuality. Children have always been curious about sex and sexuality, and it is proper and beneficial for parents to provide honest and age-appropriate information. But as described in a 2007 report from the American Psychological Association, sexualization has to do with treating others, or oneself, as “objects of sexual desire … as things, rather than as people with legitimate sexual feelings of their own.”
We are routinely exposed to images of sexual behavior which are devoid of emotions or consequences. Boys and girls learn that sex, rather than love or friendship, is the defining activity in a relationship. In our commercial culture, sex is trivialized and objectified, and often used to promote consumerism, teaching children to associate physical appearance, “sexiness”, and buying the right products, with being successful as a person.
The mood of the 1960s told us that unrestrained sex was pleasurable and natural, and the availability of the birth control pill was supposed to allow women to be free to make choices for themselves. Those who opposed unrestricted sexual freedoms at the time were ridiculed into silence by those who saw it as an act of rebellion against authority, and who advertised it as a form of political liberation. Thus the moral stigma was inverted from those who indulged in this sexual freedom to those who resisted it.
Since then, many privileged men and women have thrown off virtually all controls on sexual indulgence, which they use not only for personal self-gratification, but as a means to advance their careers, accumulate wealth, and acquire power. Many industries make an obscene amount of money using sex and violence to market their products to both adults and children. The entertainment industry in particular is, by its very nature, dedicated to profiteering off sexual appeal and bestows high rewards on those who can provide it.
Boys raised in a sexualized culture can become men who are unhealthy or even dangerous partners for women. If we expect better behavior from men, we need to instill better behavior in boys. When they are exposed to song lyrics or video games that glamorize sexual abuse and even murder, how do we expect them to behave toward real live girls? The words and images we use are important and they send a clear message to our children. When was the last time you heard or spoke words such as chastity, purity, modesty, integrity, honor, devotion, restraint, decency, fidelity, or virtue?
As adults, we can choose the type of message we want our children to hear, and as a society, we should be more selective in doing so.
The majority of men in this country behave honorably and with restraint. They are disgusted by the behaviors that have been recently alleged, and they should not be swept up into a vilification of men in general. However, it is true that power can corrupt, and it should come as no surprise that some men and women in powerful positions can become enslaved by their darker selves, caving in to their most vile impulses.
There is nothing new about this kind of sordid behavior. It is recognized by our legal system, and there have long been criminal statutes in place to protect women (and all others) from violent crime, including rape, assault, and molestation. In addition, there are civil statutes to protect them from sexual pressure from superiors in the workplace.
What has changed is that morality has often been replaced with ideology, profit, and politics. Traditional sins (adultery, for example) were clear and precise and they applied equally to all. They were enforced by non-political authorities such as parents or churches, and the punishment was social disapproval, or even ostracism.
Today we use vocabulary such as sexism and sexual harassment, which are terms so broad and vague that they could mean almost anything, thus blurring the distinction between behavior that is immoral, or simply distasteful and inappropriate, from that which is criminal.
Rather than watching the destructive results of a society in which morality has been confused with ideology and politics, and right and wrong is decided by who’s in power and where the profits lie, why not try letting sexual morality be cool again?
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at email@example.com.
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