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Tuesday, March 30, 2010  

Silly Seasons

I'll hopefully have more and more edifying things to say about this shortly, but Ross's latest is catching some exaggerated fire for this passage:

In reality, the scandal implicates left and right alike. The permissive sexual culture that prevailed everywhere, seminaries included, during the silly season of the ’70s deserves a share of the blame, as does that era’s overemphasis on therapy.

The column as a whole is actually pretty good, and clearly Ross is trying to keep the focus on the bishops. In context, this is basically an aside included for the sake of fairandbalanced. But it's a common argument among Catholic conservatives whenever an abuse revelation rears its head. In retrospect, of course, most people are able to draw pretty clear lines between consensual sex between adults, however ethically questionable otherwise, and situations involving coercion of some kind. It has taken us a long time to get to that point, however. Obviously there are potentially confounding factors in comparing his case to anyone else's, but in the first go-through of the Roman Polanski affair, it was clear that neither law enforcement nor the psychiatric community was treating his alleged offense as the rape of a child, which it was, nor his personality as potentially predatory.

The high wall of consent dividing lawful from unlawful sex acts is a real, if limited, achievement. Before the sexual revolution, the distinction was not nearly so clear. Men of high status exerted quasi-seigneurial rights over some women. The fondling and groping of both women and children was not fully understood as a pathology and a crime (and to some extent still isn't). A great deal of shame attached to victims of rape and molestation. Things that today would be considered sexual harassment or worse were standard operating procedure. If the sexual revolution can be thought of as composed of two movements--one towards de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying sexuality and another towards understanding the role of power in sexual relationships--it is pretty clear that they did not work in perfect tandem. The change in mores preceded the critique of power dynamics in ways that were potentially unfriendly for the victims of the old status quo.

Now it's certainly true that social conservatives like Ross have a hard time distinguishing between a culture in which a female secretary has several sexual partners over time and one in which she feels she can't safely resist the advances of her boss. If you see sex of any kind as a fundamentally destabilizing passion that must be rather rigidly fenced in, it's not going to matter so much to you whether it's happening in ways that respect the moral autonomy of individuals. Moreover, most people who have opinions for a living are fond of arguments that say "the general atmosphere of [something I disapprove of but my opponents like] led to [something we all think is bad]," never mind that they are impossible to verify or falsify.

As it happens, I think the sexual revolution is likelier to be the cure than the disease when it comes to child sexual abuse of all kinds. No one can doubt that we are more vigilant, more likely to believe what children say, and less likely to tell victims to just get over it and put their abuse out of mind than we were forty years ago. This is in no small degree because we've de-stigmatized the discussion of sexual abuse and because we've come to see children as humans fully entitled to be free of sexual invasion. I am quite literally a child of the sexual revolution, born in the "silly season," and I don't recall ever encountering an argument for leniency in the matter of child rape. It is still a serious problem in our society, but the fact that we acknowledge, defend against, and prosecute it as vigorously as we do is a remarkable thing.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:22 AM
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