As the Harvey Weinstein scandal rumbles on, it is clear that no amount of money donated to liberal causes will purchase him a “get out of jail free” card. Even in an amoral age such as ours, sexual assault can prove an unforgivable sin.
There is, of course, an irony in this. Hollywood has done as much as any cultural institution to demystify sex and turn it into a recreational activity. That is the consistent message of many of its movies. Yet in the Weinstein debacle, Hollywood’s most powerful players are implicitly acknowledging that they have promoted a lie, because sex is more than a game.
It is not just the lack of consent that makes Hollywood types, and all the rest of us, regard sexual assault as so heinous. We instinctively know that to slap someone’s face without their consent, unpleasant as that may be, is not as traumatic as to rape them. Sexual assault is deeply significant because, pace Hollywood, sex is deeply significant, and intrinsically so—and no amount of pop-culture trivialization can remove this stubborn fact. We can be grateful that Hollywood’s great and good are now acknowledging it. Whether it will make any difference to their future products remains to be seen, but I have my suspicions.
While one expects Hollywood to have a naïve and reductionist view of sex—that’s what sells, after all—it is worrying that the same appears more and more true of conservative Christians. Over the years, I have had many pastoral conversations with traditional Protestant and Evangelical friends, which demonstrate that they generally understand sex to be something reserved exclusively for a man and a woman joined in matrimony. So far, so good. But the conversation then frequently turns to something like this: “You’re a pastor. So if we’re married, what do you think we can get away with?”
That question is a poker tell, revealing a whole philosophy (or lack thereof) of sex. It helps explain the disastrous success among Evangelicals of Mark Driscoll’s ghastly book on marriage, with its advocacy of various forms of sexual deviance. To frame such a question is to show that one has bought into the wider world’s view of the matter. Such people do not really disagree with the culture’s view of what sex is. They merely quibble over who can engage in it and with whom. Sex is for them, as for their secular friends, a form of recreation. Yes, the rules for Christians are that the game can only be played by two people who are joined in a lifelong bond. But other than that, the game is the same as you find in the culture that surrounds us.
In the long term, this is disastrous. First, it makes sexual ethics arbitrary and therefore unstable. The question of why the game should be restricted to just two players, and that for life, becomes impossible to answer with any degree of conviction or coherence. Second, it highlights the great weakness in much thinking (or lack thereof) relative to sexual ethics: The nature and meaning of the act is treated in isolation from much broader questions. The question of what sex is for cannot be divorced from questions about what the body is for, and questions about what the body is for cannot be divorced from the deepest question of all: What are people for?
Dietrich von Hildebrand set these questions at the heart of the lectures now published as In Defense of Purity. Reading these lectures, one realizes how much of later Christian thinking about sex finds its source here, in the distinction between the body’s unitive and procreative aspects. And one realizes how much we have lost in our perennial concern with symptoms rather than deeper causes. We lament the trivialization of sex but fail to see that it derives from the collapse in our understanding of purity. And as Hildebrand argues, purity is a positive virtue, not to be confused with chastity or celibacy. Purity is life lived out in the conscious reverence of God and all that he has created. In such a life, sex is not a human right but rather the unique act that binds one man together with woman before God alone.
In our day, however, Hildebrand’s work poses another challenge. He took it as basic that sex is both significant and mysterious. As noted above, even in our “sex as recreation” era, its significance is still acknowledged in the fact that sex crimes are considered by society to be among the most heinous. If any good has come from the crimes of Weinstein, it is in the fact that the champions of sex as recreation are being forced to contradict the philosophy of their own artworks.
The mystery is now all but lost, as many teenage boys have today seen more naked female bodies than their grandfathers saw in a lifetime. How is it to be restored? That is the question that faces us today and to which it would appear there are no obvious answers.
One way, of course, would be for the movers and shakers in our world—the Hollywood moguls, for example—to use their influence to reshape popular mores, to stop presenting sex as mere recreation and then hypocritically lamenting the fact that people like Harvey Weinstein apparently believe they can act on what they preach. Perhaps, however, a more hopeful way would be to start local, for parents to model the beauty of marriage before their own children, to show forth the mystery of that true love which is not dependent upon looks or youth and which lasts throughout the years, constituted by selfless and sacrificial self-giving to another. That is the love that provides the context for pure sex. The question, “So what can we get away with?,” becomes irrelevant.
Hildebrand’s book sets before us a beautiful vision of how true sex is pure sex and can only be understood as such when set within the broader framework of life as a whole. The alternative? Outsourcing sex education to whoever succeeds Harvey Weinstein, I guess. Which, in a sane world, would result in a report to the Child Protection Agency.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.