(RNS) — After radio host Garrison Keillor was dumped from his media throne for sexual misconduct, a friend of mine quipped on Facebook, “Are there any old famous dudes who haven’t been sexually gross?”
They are fewer by the day. With idols falling fast in media, politics and entertainment, The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen writes that a new “sex panic” might be upon us. It takes little imagination to see how this panic could be exploited for a retrograde clampdown on all types of sexual relationships and a rollback of the hard-earned freedoms enjoyed by women and LGBT people.
Amid the current wreckage, is it time to declare the half-century-old sexual revolution a mistake? Do we need to go back to the more restrictive sex culture of old?
That would be neither feasible nor desirable. But it clearly is time for a sexual counterrevolution, to restore what was healthy and well-intended in the original revolution and excise the malignancies that have shown up lately in the personages of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and many others, not to mention the everyday workplace occurrences of men harassing the women they work with and supervise.
Thankfully, we can find in religions and secular ethics some powerful correctives to what is broken in sex culture today. First, a brief diagnosis of what has gone wrong:
We can credit the sexual revolution for honoring the joys of sex and creating space for more people to enjoy it in more ways, provided that no one is forced or harmed. But in elevating the pleasures of sex, the revolution contributed to the development of a greedy fixation on it that now prevails among some men.
One of the ways in which the sex revolution has gone sideways is that it’s made sex too much a form of recreation, too much the spoils of power and wealth, too much a commodity that men clamor to get and have. Amid incessant messaging from media and the toxic sides of male culture, men have been sold the idea that good living means sex — lots of it, with lots of women, always on men’s terms.
When desire morphs into entitlement, as it can easily do, sex-pursuers distort the women whose bodies they want. In these men’s sight and minds, a woman becomes less a full-fledged human person, with all the intelligence and emotional complexity that implies, and more of a one-dimensional object for sexual gratification. Her body is seen as not her own but, rather, something to which these predatory men have a rightful claim.
This way of distorting women and trashing their humanity is light-years apart from the spirit of love and democratic values that we associate with the 1960s counterculture in which the sexual revolution took shape. And it’s disgusting, contrary to all of our higher principles.
As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has perceptively said, this aspect of the sexual revolution “looks more like a permission slip for the strong and privileged to prey upon the weak and easily exploited. … It’s the revolution that’s been better for fraternity brothers than their female guests, better for the rich than the poor, better for the beautiful than the plain, better for liberated adults than fatherless children.”
But despite the abuse and irresponsibility that have grown out of it, the sex revolution has done a lot of good, too.
Think about LGBT people, who enjoy rights and levels of acceptance that would have seemed unimaginable a half-century ago. Think about what the sexual revolution has done to empower women, not just to enjoy noncoercive sex on equal terms with men but to pursue careers and lives free of male dominance. Think about the millions of everyday heterosexual couples who are better able to enjoy sex in loving, relationship-enhancing ways thanks to the contraceptives that the sexual revolution made more available.
There is no need to erase all those gains.
What principles might guide a healthy counterrevolution? At the risk of being simplistic, I suggest the following.
For Christians, the answer starts with the savior at the center of their faith. The values and behavior modeled by Jesus in the New Testament, including his interactions with women in some of the Bible’s most memorable stories, are as contrary to today’s predatory sex culture as day to night. Jesus treated every person, even women portrayed as prostitutes and adulteresses, with compassion and respect — as full human beings.
This ethic is carried forward today by a bedrock Christian teaching — a teaching the church has frequently violated, it must be said — that upholds the dignity and worth of every human being. Christians are taught that all people are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with honor and respect.
Imagine how today’s broken sex culture would change for the better if that were the prevailing ethic.
Judaism offers much the same: a conception of sex as not merely a means of reproduction, but a source of joy and companionship between partners provided they approach one another without coercion, abuse or selfishness.
Islam promotes peace, love and compassion in human relations. Apply that to sex, and you get something quite different from the tales of abuse filling our news feeds.
Humanism offers principles as transformative as they are simple: equality between the sexes; an embrace of the inevitability and benefits of sex; and acceptance of nontraditional sexualities, so long as sex is consensual and no one is hurt or abused.
The sexual revolution proclaimed, “If it feels good, do it.” The overdue counterrevolution rightly adds, “but only if it feels good for the other person, too.”
(Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and is communications director at Yale Divinity School. His latest book is "Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower." The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)