Thursday, October 19, 2017

When Men Become Monsters

In an ideal ecosystem, everything has a particular role to play; there is a balance that is hopefully not disrupted by something that breaks the natural flow and harmony. In a broken ecosystem, something invasive is introduced that will brings harm. (I'm talking to you, zebra mussel.)

The Harvey Weinstein scandal is calling attention to a lot of important issues, so I want to be sure we don't overlook this one: we have a sexually broken moral ecosystem in the United States. While both men and women are are impacted, women are bearing the brunt in overwhelming numbers as morally monstrous men increasingly exert their power to use and abuse. How did we get here? What are the causes? What can we do to address it?

* * * * *

First, we have to address the terrible social cost of pornography. Is there really any question that it fuels all kinds of terrible fallout for women and men? It fundamentally damaging how people view others. It’s ruining sex for millions of people; it’s leading to a rise in human trafficking; it’s creating a culture in which we begin to think of pornographic norms as if they were actual norms. Read up on how people who work with kids are noticing wildly changing norms for young girls who are being pressured to perform like porn stars by equally young boys who are being raised on porn. And if you are wondering if there are studies that confirm the link, the answer is yes. 

Yet in the midst of this damage we laud moral monsters like Hugh Hefner - well, not everyone did - who have done all they could to convince us that our current sexual ecosystem is the best of all possible worlds: Boys will be boys, and women will be bunnies. When men say ‘hop,’ women should be happy to do so naked on the grounds of a castle that puts Neverland's scandalous rumors to shame. It’s all so very normal and good and healthy.

The system is ubiquitous and overwhelming, and any gnawing sense that something is not okay increasingly fades into the background. People who live in this kind of sexual ecosystem become so saturated them with a notion of what someone else thinks they ought to want to do they they lose their ability to recognize what they want to do. The pot is boiling, and they never noticed because they've been in it the whole time - or even worse, they've noticed, but they think it's simply what waters in pots do. They consented, so surely there can be no harm. Right?

There are two books everyone should read: The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy and Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both. The authors record heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story. Many of them go something like this:
Sally lives on a college campus where the dating and romance script has been written by Tinder. It’s a script that she would not write, but as far as she knows it’s the only narrative out there. So she drinks (a lot) to get ready for an evening of things she knows she wouldn’t do sober. She eventually agrees to do them, and then she wakes up angry and humiliated because it turns out it was not okay even though she consented in the most shallow sense of the term. It’s not that the men were boorish ogres (though some of them were). This is just what happens in this kind of system.
If you think I am overstating this, read the books I mentioned above, then read the following:
Is it any wonder that individuals like Harvery Weinstien, Jeffrey Epstein, Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Roger Aises and Donald Trump arise? They have thrived in an moral ecosystem that trained them and those around them that certain sexual thoughts and actions were normal and perhaps even healthy when in fact they were not. Check out this recently released video of President Trump before he was president. Notice how the audience loves not only what has happened, but what he says has and will happen with young, beautiful ladies on his plane. He is, by his own admission, a sexual alcoholic, and the audience eats it up.

This is what happens when we build a particular kind of ecosystem for sixty years. Old men paw young women, judge their value unabashedly by their physical beauty, and brag about sexual addiction in front of the cheering adulation of a crowd.

But let’s not get distracted by only the worst examples. Since the Weinstein allegations surfaced, a lot of men in Hollywood are squirming uncomfortably as their dirty laundry gets aired (#buttman). This isn't just coming to light in Hollywood; the music industry has been hammered for a while even though the headlines haven’t gone viral. This should concern us, because these are the industries that tell our cultural stories and stories have power. Unfortunately, they are filling us with a damaging message on women and sex the contributes powerfully to our moral ecosystem.

I cringe when my gym plays songs that encourages women - sorry, 'girls' - to "shake that a**" for the pleasure of the men around them, then follows up with a song where the male singer is screaming that he wants to "f*** you like an animal." If I simply turned to the woman next to me and said the lyrics to songs that guys around me are singing, I would (justly) get slapped or sued. This is the morally incoherent ecosystem. Why would we be surprised when people who constantly sing about sex and women in terribly dehumanizing ways turn around and treat women in terribly dehumanizing ways?  Like in any system, something will grow, and it won't be respect and dignity.

If your best response is, “It’s just entertainment,” you are a fool. “When the modes of music change, the walls of the city shake.” (Plato) “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” (Andrew Fletcher)

Our sex ed system should undergo some scrutiny as well. I'm not talking about the teaching of biological reality, That's a normal, healthy and good part of being human. I'm also not trying to debate different types of curriculum. I'm talking about the moral climate in which the subject matter is taught. Rather than linking to all kinds of scholarly discussion on this, I want to recount an issue that brought this home for me.

I had a short but sobering discussion with a young girl I was mentoring. She was in 7th grade, and her class was in the midst of sex ed. When I picked her up from school one day she was unusually quite and withdrawn, but she eventually confided about her experience.

In a mixed gender classroom, the teacher had asked student to give example of all the different nicknames they had heard for male and female genitals. The boys in the class gleefully obliged. Then they discuss all nature of sexual acts. Then they watched some uncomfortably graphic movies just to make sure they got it, because #knowledgeispower, right? The result was a school full of 7th grade boys who felt like, because this had been all aired publicly in a class with a teacher's permission, this was now acceptable language and subject matter to discuss. If they weren't interested in porn before, they were now.

My best description of how my young friend acted was "traumatized." She was dazed, depressed, deeply unsettled. She got angry as she talked about it. As she settled into this new reality,  I saw a heartbreaking cynicism and callousness toward boys emerge. Whatever constraints many of them felt had been lifted, and the new climate - the new moral ecosystem into which they all moved -was already taking a toll.

School is not the only formative place in a kid's life obviously. A friend told me that when he found his dad's porn stash as a pre-pubescent lad, his dad said, "Congratulations. Now you've grown up." Another one's dad got him a prostitute for his 18th birthday. Those are building on and adding to moral ecosystems in which the harvest will be nothing but bitter.

* * * * *

As a teacher and a pastor, I have spent most of my adult life listening to people’s stories. One thing is clear: far too many men have wreaked havoc in the lives of the women (and sometimes men) around them. Women are not exempt from being perpetrators of sexual violence, of course, but I don't want to get distracted from my target audience here: us men.

Men far too often use women and walk away; men insult women first by watching porn, then by getting on their case because they don’t look like or act like porn stars. They catcall; they make remarkably vile jokes that make women incredibly uncomfortable; they ogle them; they turn them into objects as they joke with our buddies about the merits of their sexual conquests.

There’s a verse in the Bible that warns against giving pearls to swine because the swine won’t recognize the value of the pearls and will trample them underfoot. If the women around us are the pearls – precious, beautiful, intrinsically valuable – then if we are one of the men who trample them, we are left with an uncomfortable but honest label.

This isn't every man, thank God.

I know plenty of men who are appalled by this behavior and do everything in their power to honor the women around them. I am far from a perfect parent, but I know one thing I have done right: I have insisted to my boys that they become the kind of men around whom women feel safe. But there is no denying that far too many of us men either purposefully or inadvertently participate in this evil. Sometimes it's so embed in our lives that it's just 'who we are'; other times it's moments rather than patterns, times we fail to be the kind of men we should be, and in so doing hurt the women around in big and small ways.

The fault line between honor, purity, and value vs. sexual predation, harassment and assault does not run through some place far, far away like Hollywood, Washington or a sex-ed classroom. It runs through our hearts, in our businesses, our homes, our churches, and our schools.

Men, we have to be front and center in the movement to address and end this. What are we men doing to confront other men and end this? How can we hold each other accountable to stop assault or harassment of any kind?

We will have to address home environments, education, entertainment, porn, cultural heroes - all kinds of contributing factors that shape the hearts and minds of men. This is across the board: abuse and assault is far too prevalent in all subcultures and communities. However,  there is an interesting study that, while not conclusive, seems to show a sharp drop in sexual assault on some college campuses because of what the researcher calls a "moral community." Communities can make a difference. Moral ecosystems can be changed.

We will also have to address our hearts, because we are ruled by what we love. When what we love is monstrous - in this case the objectification and even commodification of women - we become monsters. But if what we love is beautiful, noble, kind and good – well, that’s a different story all together.

That's a story in which we are creating an environment in which women are honored; men refuse to let themselves or others objectify, commodify, use or abuse anyone in their life; women don’t get nervous as they walk past an alley, into a boardroom, or through a college lounge; no one has to get drunk to prepare to consent; and all men, not just some, live in such a way that all the women around us knows that when they are in our presence, they do not have to worry about anything we say or do.

* * * * *


I am challenged by the fact that the 1st century church was populated by women and children to such a degree that the Romans mocked them for it. There was something about the church community that was compelling to them. Check out Sarah Rudan’s excellent book Paul Among The People as well as Matthew Rueger's Sexual Morality In A Christless World to get some excellent scholastic insight into how Christianity offered a message of hope in a 1st century world of oppression and despair. In brief:
  • In a culture that refused to educate most women, the church insisted that those who were educated (the men) pass on that education to their wives. 
  • In a culture that refused to let most women be a part of a man’s ecclesia (public assembly) the church (ecclesia in the New Testament) integrated women into their meetings to such a degree that women often hosted churches in their homes. 
  • In a culture where men often had a wife, a concubine and a mistress, the church insisted men be the “husband of one wife.” 
  • In a culture that commonly set out infant girls to die, the church rescued and adopted them.
  • In a culture where respectable women wore veils while the non-respectable did not, the church insisted all women wear a veil when they come to church so that all women would be respected. 
  • In a culture that associated sex with power and subjugation and gave men all the power in the household, the church insisted that women had just as much of a right to their husband’s body as he did to theirs, that sex it was an act of mutual submission, and that men “lay down their lives” for their wives. To quote at length from Rueger: 
The level of sexual equality in Paul’s words was also remarkable for the time. Paul addressed men and women on the same terms. The man was to have his own wife as the woman was to have her own husband. Both husband and wife had authority over the other’s body. In both Roman and rabbinical Jewish law, the woman’s sexuality was essentially under the authority of the husband. Within these traditions, the woman had no equal corresponding authority over her husband’s body as she did under Christianity.

The Greek word Paul used for “authority,” exousia (ἐξουσία), can be defined as: (1) a state of control over something, freedom of choice, right (e.g., the right to act, decide, or dispose of one’s property as one wishes); (2) potential or resource to command, control, or govern; capability; might; power; (3) the right to control or command, authority, absolute power, warrant. This seems at first to be the language of “ownership” that was the common view of Roman and Jewish models for the husband’s relationship over his wife. When it came to the procreative act, the woman was essentially the property of the man. He had authority over her to produce children.

Through Paul’s epistles, God revealed a view that was radically different from prevailing views. He applied exousia equally in both directions. The woman had the same authority over her husband that the husband had over her in the procreative act. She had a God-given right to demand his exclusive attention. His body was not his own to do with as he wanted. She had control over his sexual actions. Among the Romans, sex was a physical act that did not necessitate any deeper mental, emotional, or spiritual connection. When they described sexual relationships with young boys or adolescents, then they spoke in terms of deeper mental connections, but with women or slaves, the emotional, intellectual union was not a concern. Intercourse with women was a necessary act to produce children. It was not a union between two equal people.

Sex was the Roman male’s expressive act of power, not so in Paul’s epistles. The reshaping of the idea of power or authority over others is seen throughout this section of 1 Corinthians 7. Verse 3 stated, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights.” The literal reading of this passage in the Greek text is “to the woman, the man should give up what is owed.” Sexual relations were a debt of love owed to the other, not an act of the will to be enforced on the other. This shifts the focus from self to the other and makes it an act of self-sacrifice, not an act of selfish taking. Additionally, God’s Word instructs the married couple, “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time.” The stereotypical portrayal of Christians by the Christless world is that Christians avoid sex and prefer celibacy. They believe that Christians see sexual intercourse as inherently evil. Yet here, Scripture clearly encourages regular sexual relations between husband and wife—and not just the physical act of sex, but intercourse with genuine regard for the other person."
  • In a world where Greek and Roman mythology insisted women were a curse, the church insisted that women were a blessing and a gift to the world. Rutger notes: 
"The first written reference to Pandora comes from the Greek poet Hesiod (8th–7th century BC), who wrote, “From her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth, … even so Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil.” In Works and Days, Hesiod again calls the woman “a plague to men who eat bread.”As Hesiod sees it, women were lechers who proved helpful only when their men could feed their insatiable appetite for wealth. Women existed to bring “great trouble” into the lives of men. The negative sentiments are by no means limited to Hesiod. Texts dating closer to the days of St. Paul are filled with complaints from men about the pains and sorrows brought on them by their wives."
The early church flourished and spread because women were apostles and evangelists, spreading the new of the gospel of salvation while telling everyone that the church was a sanctuary. Why? Rutger writes:
"What some today would label as demeaning of women, namely their role as wives subject to the love of their husbands, the early Christian converts understood as an elevation of womanhood. Woman was granted an equality of purpose and value in the eyes of God. It may be because of the high regard for womanhood that many of the early converts among Romans were women. One of the accusations made against Christianity by the Romans was that Christianity only attracted women and uneducated people. There is truth in the accusation that Christianity afforded a sense of dignity and importance to those whom Roman society oppressed. Women who were used to being treated poorly found in Christ a status of love and respect not found in the state religion."
Oh, we are a culture in need of sanctuaries. May the church rise up and be that now more than ever.

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