Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Over the past month or so it seems like I've heard a lot over the past month or so about the sexual backwardness of American Christians (particularly of the small-town and/or Southern variety) and a lot of it struck me as grossly insensitive. Now, mind you, I'm not saying that we can't be grossly insensitive too. We can, and most of the actions I've heard critiqued lately (e.g., decrying a billboard advertising bras in Texas, or objecting to the Olympic Opening Ceremonies) I too think were misguided. Yet however appropriate it may be to critique such complaints and others, I thought that the way they were critiqued betrayed a lack of empathy with where the other side was coming from, so I thought I'd post a general plea for tolerance.

It will be understood I hope that when I say "sex" I mean it in the sense that advertising executives do when they say "sex sells." Somehow over the past several years national rhetoric has shifted to give the impression that Christians are uncomfortable with sex. So, the story goes, we don't like thirty-foot tall women in bras looming over our highways because we're sort of backwards and prudish. I feel a little silly pointing out that this is rhetorical sleight-of-hand, but just so everybody's on the same page let me call it for what it is. To say that we are uncomfortable with sex is not, in my opinion, a very useful way of putting it. As everybody knows, we're fine with sex in certain circumstances (which is true of everybody, in reality). But to say that we're uncomfortable with sex implies that we become progressively more comfortable with it as circumstances slide along some undefined continuum, whereas in reality it's more like a step function. Slot the right circumstances into place and the comfort level jumps rather than slides. So it's really more useful, I think, to say that we're comfortable with some sorts of sex and uncomfortable with others. The question of what we're comfortable with and what we're not has a complicated answer, and that's not what I want to address here. But let me note that we are by no means categorically opposed to pretty people, human beauty, or the human form.

The question is why we're uncomfortable with the things we're uncomfortable with, and here's where I think the secularist cosmopolitist world could afford some sympathy. Listening to what people say, I'm inclined to get the impression that people think we're uncomfortable with the sex we're uncomfortable with because the Bible, or possibly George W. Bush, said we should be - or else we're just perversely bent on imposing our backwater will upon a world which is unable to resist our irresponsibly wielded economic might. All of which is another way of saying people don't have a clue. Let me suggest one reason: we're afraid.

That's right, we're afraid. As a people, we know just as much about sex as any other demographic you care to name, and we don't like what it does to us. We don't like the things it makes us think of, and we don't like the way it makes us think (I am speaking now of those kinds of "sex" which we find uncomfortable, rather than everything which has to do with romantic or erotic attraction) - and we don't think it's good enough for a person to be a perfect gentleman behaviorally, which frankly a lot of people seem willing to settle for as a goal. We want as well gentlemanly (meaning the term as gender-neutral) minds.

Before I go any further let me attempt to anticipate protests to the effect that sex in advertising, sex in broadcast media, sex in pornography, and sex in interpersonal culture are all more or less benign - or at least hardly likely to turn a person into a monster. What precisely are we so afraid of? Answers that reference "sin" or "lust" or one's "Christian walk" tend to obscure the force of the answer. Let me try to be more direct at the risk of sounding crude: Do you know what it's like to want to rape somebody? I know we're not supposed to ask questions like that in these discussions. We're supposed to pretend that because the human body is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing bad could ever come of its contemplation. Well, I don't feel like pretending that, because it is pretending. I agree that the human body is nothing to be ashamed of, but I disagree that it is thereby inherently safe. An honest survey of the prevalence of pornography and the literary/aesthetic theory which underlies pornographics provides valuable insight, I submit, into the dark side of contemplation of the human form. I know we're not supposed to admit that we know about that sort of thing, but I think it's important that everybody understand that we do. So the question stands. If you don't, allow me to humbly suggest to you that you probably don't understand what we're afraid of, and request that you take my word for it that we're afraid of something very bad indeed. If you do, then I trust that the point needs no further elaboration.

Now of course how exactly we go about navigating a world which frequently seems as insensitive to us as a distillery to a recovering alcoholic is a tricky issue. Personally I think that a lot of Christians react to their fears in inappropriate ways, such as this protest of the opening ceremonies. But I think it wouldn't do the public any harm to realize where we're coming from when we protest that something is too sexually explicit for us.

One might protest that to the extent we're afraid that bra advertisements might lead us down the path of the Dark Side of the Force it's because we are approaching the material with a dirty mind. Well, what if we are? I don't mean to suggest that having a dirty mind is okay (indeed, I mean to suggest the exact opposite - that both chivalry and Christianity entail mental as well as behavioral disciplines), but seriously, what do you do with one when you encounter it? Pretend that it isn't there? That seems singularly foolish, and (to us) singularly dangerous. Try to overcome it? Well, we do - but that takes time. What do you do in the meantime? Just blunder ahead like nothing was wrong?

I'm very sorry if I or any of my people seem like we have dirty minds (no more or less than the general mind on average, I wager - though perhaps more likely to admit it, at least amongst ourselves, and to consider it a problem worthy of resisting). We wish we didn't, I assure you. Until we actually don't, however, best let us judge what will and won't be destructive for us to be exposed to. I assure you that we are afraid of something very evil, and not in any lofty eternal sense. What we fear is immediate and terrible in practical life.

Why isn't everybody else afraid of the same thing? First off, let me point out that this is a tangent. Whether or not anybody else is, or whether or not people think we're crazy, we are afraid and what we're afraid of is well worth being afraid of. Tolerance for that fact is all this post is really asking for.

But as for the tangent, I'm sure that's up for debate. My personal experience with chivalry leads me to believe that somewhere out there in the general public the figure of the perfect gentleman in thought and deed still has power. Generally speaking I'd say that girls still like guys who are attracted to them for who they are, regardless of how much they're willing to put out or what they look like. Well, people don't become shallow and obsessed with making out over substantial relationship by accident. This leads me personally to suspect that nobody else is afraid because they gave up a long time ago, probably before most of them even realized there was anything to be afraid of. Like growing up in land that was conquered in your grandparents' generation, or the Matrix.

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