Are We Ready for a Renewed Sexual Ethic?

The immensity of what the Me Too movement has become almost obscures the fact that it began with accusations against one man, Harvey Weinstein. That it took over thirty years for him to receive his reckoning is sad, but unsurprising; what is surprising is that his exposure in October of 2017 triggered a tidal wave of charges against other powerful men, marking the start of the movement we know today. One by one, cultural giants were toppled by a chorus of voices, leaving careers and reputations in the dust, and in the midst of all the zeal there were whispers that perhaps the movement was going too far. Critics of the movement acknowledged its bona fides but worried about the possibility of false accusations in the movement’s quest for retribution. They seemed to hold the idea that the movement was headed for overreach; however, the direction of #MeToo has always been less certain than its critics or proponents may admit.

The decentralized nature of the movement prevents it from making explicit demands, though there is a clear emphasis on the elimination of sexual misconduct. The movement’s beginnings in Hollywood also initially restricted the discourse to certain highly visible contexts, namely the film and television industries. Even when the accusations started to affect other realms such as academia and the restaurant industry, the pattern of powerful men being brought down by newly empowered women persisted. For many observers, it was easy to side with the women because they were the underdogs fighting back against the gatekeepers of the world; the controversies surrounding people like Matt Lauer, Mario Batali, and Larry Nassar were similar in that the men involved held enormous power in their respective industries. As long as the accused men were in these positions of power, there would be little debate about who was truly at fault. But this would soon change.

In January, the website Babe published an account of a romantic encounter between a photographer named “Grace” and the comedian Aziz Ansari.[1] Readers and critics panned the article for its exploitation of Ansari’s celebrity as well as its framing of the incident as sexual assault, a framing with which many commentators disagreed. Caitlin Flanagan, writing for The Atlantic, claimed that in publishing the piece, the Me Too movement had “destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.” [2] Where Grace had seen signs of assault, Flanagan and others saw misread signals, and this view was further bolstered by the fact that Ansari did not appear to have any influence over Grace’s professional life; they first met each other only a week before their encounter and had no prior professional connections. Despite this disparity, Flanagan acknowledged in her commentary that Grace’s story was “deeply resonant and meaningful to a great number of young women.” And here is where I would like to suggest that experiences like Grace’s are where the Me Too movement is most relevant to the lives of many young women, and that Grace’s story exposes a deep problem in the way that men and women are oriented when it comes to sexual relationships.

For many women, incidents like the one that Grace experienced are all too common. They are usually not considered as grievous as rape or sexual assault and instead fall under the grey area of “sexual misconduct.” As minor as sexual misconduct may seem when compared to more serious crimes, sexual misconduct nevertheless harms its victims in serious ways, and it should not be dismissed as the outcome of a “bad date,” as some are prone to claim. Instead, efforts to combat misconduct should focus on alleviating the pain of the victim. Trying to convince the victim that her pain is unfounded misses the mark entirely.

In order to solve the problem of sexual misconduct, we must critically examine the cases in which it occurs, and not rush to condemn either of the participants. To be clear, the kind of misconduct of which I am writing is of a much different kind than instances of rape or sexual assault, which should be prosecuted with the due process of the law. I am rather talking about the cases in which both parties engage with each other in good faith initially, but one party ends up deeply dissatisfied and even emotionally hurt by the experience. If it is the woman that is hurt, often the response by observers is to label the man as a perpetrator and aggressor. While in many cases the woman’s pain is caused by the man’s actions, this does not mean that the man was intent on causing pain, and simply condemning him as a “bad man” does not correct the underlying problem behind his actions. Condemnation is reductive and results in a shallow understanding of the problem; when someone is declared to be “bad,” their bad actions are interpreted not just as bad behavior but as the only kind of behavior of which they are capable, diminishing the moral agency of the “bad” person.

A more effective way to solve the problem of sexual misconduct would be to understand where it comes from. In the case of Grace and Ansari, the two participants seemed to have been experiencing different desires: although both were in a state of undress, Grace expected that this would lead to an intimate experience, while Ansari expected sexual gratification. These desires were never expressed but simply assumed; Grace also assumed that intimacy would come with sex, which was proven to be false.

According to the mores of contemporary sexual ethics, both Grace and Ansari were playing by the rules. Ansari never attempted to force any contact, and throughout the encounter both ostensibly treated each other with respect. Both had the opportunity to exercise their agency at any point, and neither of them tried to be restrictive. Yet because they desired different things, disappointment and even a certain degree of emotional pain were inevitable. In this case, and in others like this, the accepted standards were not sufficient.

This was not merely a problem with communication, but fundamentally a problem of their inexperience with each other. If Grace had communicated from the start that she desired a more intimate experience, as some commentators like Flanagan have advocated for, then Ansari may have adjusted his behavior somewhat. But because he did not know Grace on a meaningful level, it would have been impossible for him to fully satisfy her, since no amount of communication could change the fact that they were essentially strangers to each other that night—there was simply no way for Ansari to understand exactly what Grace wanted, and how best to carry it out. Just because they were free to pursue their desires did not mean their desires were achievable. Their desires could only have been fully realized through an understanding of the other party’s needs and a sense of care for the other’s well-being. In other words, there needed to be love.

Although Christians by no means have a monopoly on love, they do put a special emphasis on it by regarding love as the foundation of all good relationships. In particular, they keep the institution of marriage as a way to honor the love between two people and to dedicate this love to their Creator. Marriage, in the Christian view, is a covenant that in its best state reflects the covenant between Christ and the church, and the love that Christ exemplifies is taken as a model for how Christians should act towards their spouses. Most secular western marriages, borrowing from this tradition, have a similar notion of commitment.

Although marriage may not be the goal for two people pursuing a relationship, the ethic of mutual love, exemplified by both Christian and secular marriages, is something that may be used towards a good end. This ethic, which encourages sexual behavior to be within the bounds of a mutually loving relationship, is effective in reducing harm because of the familiar and forgiving nature of mutual love. Mutual love allows women to exercise complete agency within the bounds of their relationship. When both parties in a relationship deeply understand each other and are aware of each other’s desires, abilities, and biases, there are few barriers to meaningful and effective communication. Of course, loving each other like this is a risk, and mistakes can and do happen in such relationships. However, when these mistakes do occur, people in loving relationships are slow to anger and slower to condemn. If Grace and Ansari had known each other long enough to develop such a relationship, Ansari would have been able to pick up early on that what he was doing was making Grace uncomfortable, and Grace would have been spared the pressure to not say anything in spite of her inner turmoil.

Now, I am not asking everyone who is in a relationship to get married, nor am I claiming that marriage is the only way to develop a mutually loving relationship. I am just suggesting that many sexual relationships today could stand to benefit from an ethic of mutual love. When both parties are genuinely invested in each other’s well-being and not just their own pleasure, this not only discourages misconduct but also fosters a sense of commitment that enriches their relationship. To paraphrase a well-known passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the kind of love to be pursued in a relationship is both patient and kind, both forgiving and trusting. [3]

A deep sense of intimacy with another person is rarely obtained in a single night, and brief encounters like the one Grace and Aziz experienced do little to satisfy any desire for meaningful connection. For those who desire physical intimacy with another person but want to avoid sexual misconduct, it may help to get to know that person first, perhaps even knowing them enough to love them. The risks of love may seem challenging, but the benefits are eternal.

 

1 Way, Katie. “I Went On a Date with Aziz Ansari.” Babe. Retrieved May 18, 2018 from https://babe.net/2018/01/13/ aziz-ansari-28355

2 Flanagan, Caitlin. “The Hu­miliation of Aziz Ansari.” The Atlantic. Retrieved May 18, 2018 from https://www.the­atlantic.com/entertainment/ archive/2018/01/the-humilia­tion-of-aziz-ansari/550541/

3 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

 

Sean Kim (CC ’20) loves to serve God through music and through writing. He also hopes to become a doctor someday so he can serve God that way, too.

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