‘Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised’ said policeman PC Michael Sanguinetti in Toronto, whilst advising students about safety on campus. In so saying he unleashed a storm of outrage. Hundreds of scantily clad young women took to the streets in North America carrying placards ‘My short skirt and cleavage have nothing to do with you.’ ‘It’s my hot body: I do what I want.’ But just how should men and women conduct themselves in the Western world’s sexual culture?
Our sexual culture
These days flaunting oneself seems to be the norm. Our sexual culture is a far cry from the days before feminism when women were supposed to repress their sexuality and act all demurely. But does modesty have to be completely thrown out of the window?
Of course the ‘slut walk’ marchers have a crucially important point. As one placard says ‘Sex is something people do together – not something you do to someone.’ They are challenging the attitude of our sexual culture that women are sex objects, that ‘women ask for it’, that men can do nothing other than act on impulse. They are saying rape is a terrible crime.
Attitudes to rape
Justice minister Kenneth Clark found out to his cost, just how serious a crime rape is considered to be in our sexual culture, when implying there can be less serious kinds of rape. When asked about the average rape sentence, he explained: “That includes date rape, 17 year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds”, adding that the tariff for “serious rape” was much longer. He was talking about a proposal to halve prison sentences for those who plead guilty early. He later clarified his position by saying all rape was serious. But he had well and truly put his foot in it by the way he expressed himself such is the sensitivity of the issue.
Ethics of a sexual culture
Is the spirit of the protesters’ message all about men taking responsibility for their own behaviour and about valuing sex as part of a human relationship in a sexual culture rather than only a bodily pleasure?
If so, such a point of view is echoed in the value of virtue reflected in the ethical guidelines of the great religions.
The marchers seem to be implying that sexual signals have no meaning in the world of human interaction. Some feminists claim that all men are rapists. This is clearly not literally true although probably many men can be tempted by sexual signals to take the sexual initiative. For what other reason does the prostitute wear low cleavage and sluttish garb if not to attract sexual business? Are these marchers in denial about their responsibility in arousing desire? The individual who leaves their front door open should not be surprised if a burglar takes the opportunity to help himself to their belongings. Has the person who leaves valuables showing in the parked car not any responsibility for facilitating a higher likelihood of car theft?
If women think they can dress sluttishly, why do feminists object to Miss World contests and to scantily dressed page three girls? The answer seems to be that they are showing their right to dress as they like in revealing what they want. But people express their right to drink as much as they like and vomit all over the street. Having a right to do something is not the same thing as exercising that right responsibly.
Spiritual perspective on sexual culture
Men are not all rapists or car thieves but who could claim never to act badly whatever the circumstances one finds oneself in? In saying their Lord’s prayer, Christians ask not to be led into temptation. This raises a question for everyone. Just how susceptible are we all to criminal impulses? Perhaps more so than it is comfortable to assume.
The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg wrote about sexuality and the ideal quality of love that can unite a couple as one in heart, mind and body – a quality he termed the ‘conjugial’ relationship. Swedenborg lived in the 18th century before feminism and before a sexual culture. However what he said is as arguably as relevant today as it was 300 years ago.
He compares a natural love of people of the other sex with a spiritual love of one person of the other sex. In other words he says that although we have a natural desire for sexual contact with many people – something we have in common with most animals – nevertheless we are able to rise above our natural animal desires to love only one person in a continuing sexual relationship; something only we as humans can achieve.
One common notion in feminism is that sexual attitudes in society can change as a result of changes in sexual politics; that it is mainly a matter of social norms. However, from a spiritual angle, we get an additional perspective – that of individual freedom and responsibility for healing and self-improvement.
Swedenborg wrote of this spiritual perspective in terms of overcoming temptation; a dynamic process that is central to personal change. According to his view, part of this process is our resistance to unacceptable impulses that come from we know not where but which should be acknowledged and faced. For we are all capable of turning towards what is destructive of the good life. We are all fallible and susceptible to falling for the excitement of the moment that can have serious consequences for the well-being of others.
A need for personal transformation implies something bad associated with us that needs to change. The area of sexual behaviour is no exception to this general condition we all find ourselves in. Don’t we all have a responsibility not to throw temptation in people’s way?
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems