Behind our ongoing rush of sexual misconduct allegations is a crisis of ideals. We cannot know what constitutes appropriate sexual behavior because we have separated sex from its ends. When sex is purposeless and the only ideals we value regarding it are those of maximum pleasure and an ever-shifting definition of “consent”, we should expect the kind of sexual chaos that now besets us. The current set of revelations are, above all, an indication that the ideals of the sexual revolution simply do not work.
This is news most refuse to hear. Instead, the tide of allegations and the concomitant pain and humiliation rolls on, sweeping away those who once seemed immovable. The latest to fall is Aziz Ansari, the comic and actor who first rose to prominence playing the shallow and self-centered Tom Haverford on Parks and Rec.
In an account published a few days ago, an unnamed woman claims she went on a date with Mr. Ansari that led to her going back to his New York apartment with him where he became sexually aggressive. At no point, however, does she claim that Mr. Ansari forced her to do anything against her will.
Rather, she says, simply that she felt uncomfortable, and that he was not good at reading her non-verbal signs of discomfort. She admits that when she later told him via text message how she felt, he said he was sad to hear that she had been uncomfortable and apologized for failing to understand.
This is not a case of a stranger jumping out of a bush and raping a woman. It is not a case of a powerful man demanding sex in return for professional opportunities. It is the case of a young woman who voluntarily went on a date with a very famous man who, it turned out, was less than entirely gentlemanly.
Ansari’s behavior as described in the incident should not to be excused. It was louche. It was loutish. I would never want any man to behave in that way toward either of my daughters were one of them foolish enough to return with him alone to his apartment.
But, such behavior is also normal given the default values and ideals about sex in our culture.
The only way to begin to curb these incidents is to change those default attitudes. We must, collectively, admit that the only workable ideals for sexual behavior in our society are chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within it.
These ideals alone empower. The woman accusing Mr. Ansari did not have the power simply to leave his apartment because the ideal of chastity had not been ingrained in her. Had she been taught to value chastity, she would have had every reason to refuse to be in his apartment alone with him. The whole situation could have been avoided.
Without such an ideal, people like this young woman are left adrift, confused about how to traverse the wilderness of contemporary sexual relations to arrive at some safe and profitable destination. Without such an ideal, men like Mr. Ansari have no criterion by which to determine an acceptable level of sexual aggression.
Having such cultural ideals in place is, of course, no guarantee that people will live up to them. In fact, human nature assures they will not. Still, having them is valuable. Ideals serve the same function in human life as “North” does on a compass, they give us a fixed point. They calibrate our measurements and orient us in the right direction.
The problem in this instance isn’t with ideals as such, but with THESE ideals. Human beings, especially young ones, simply don’t by nature want to be chaste. Teaching them to practice this virtue and erecting social structures and limits to aid its practice is the role of culture. As our culture has collapsed and the social structures which once were intended as an aid to virtue have been removed, the ideals they were designed to reinforce have themselves receded.
In an essay on this matter Caitlin Flanagan gives an example of how culture once reinforced this ideal by publishing stories of young girls who fell short of it. These stories, she says, pointed out that:
in one essential aspect…that we were strong in a way that so many modern girls are weak. They told us over and over again that if a man tried to push you into anything you didn’t want, even just a kiss, you told him flat out you weren’t doing it.
The sort of strength a girl needs to stand up for herself comes from having the support of a culture that encourages her to be chaste. The young woman in the story was not merely up against Mr. Ansari in the moment when she failed to refuse his advances, she was up against an entire culture that has failed to provide her any reason why she should.
Tragedy abounds in stories like this one. This young woman’s disappointment is palpable in the account of her evening with the star. It’s clear she was hoping for more. She probably imagined becoming the girlfriend of the famous man. Unfortunately for her, she lives in a culture that has renounced the old ideals, that has renounced the idea that there is something special about girlfriends, and something even more special about wives.
The young woman in this story, having learned the hard way, had to do something with her broken heart. And, like so many women scorned by a heartless culture devoid of the right ideals, she determined that since she could not be this man’s special girl, she would at least become the woman who destroyed him. It is a sick and dying culture that demands such a transition.