#MeToo: A Catholic Reflection on Sexual Harassment
Like many of you, I have been troubled by the tidal wave of accusations of sexual harassment and assault coming out of Hollywood and Washington D.C. Even though we have known that this goes on to some degree, having actual names of victims and faces of perpetrators makes it feel much, much worse. The social media hashtag #metoo has added to the scope of the problem, as many ordinary women have shared their stories of sexual harassment and abuse.
However, as is often the case, I don’t find myself particularly impressed with the world’s response to these crimes. The worldly response to situations like this is to get rid of the problem by getting rid of the people who create the problems. Yes, that is a necessary and unavoidable part of the solution but we need more. Simply removing the “unclean” from our midst does not go far enough to addressing the problem which lies deep in the human heart.
This is Gospel truth. Prior to the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the unclean were often sent away as an attempt of purifying the community. Jesus revealed that there is something much deeper needed which includes a transformation of the way we see and the way we think and the way we live. We need to apply that to the situation of sexual harassment which seems to be so common.
Simply casting out the unclean without a deep change in the way our culture understands sexuality is not going to stop sexual harassment. It will just replace perpetrators with others and usher in new kinds of abuse. This is obviously complex and beyond the scope of a single blog post, but I can certainly say that one aspect of this transformation is a regaining of self-control with regards to our bodily passions. There simply aren't many examples in popular culture of people saying no to fulfilling unhealthy sexual fantasies, and this is part of the problem.
A first step towards regaining self control has to be to understand the meaning of sexuality. Our Catholic faith sheds light on this meaning. Our faith teaches that the human body conveys a message when it engages in an act of intercourse. This message is a total gift of self. Our bodies say to our spouse, “I love you completely. I love you more than myself. I will never leave you. I am yours, forever.” The fact that babies come as a result of this act reinforces that. Because life with an immortal soul is created, sexual intercourse is by its very nature something with eternal significance. I need you to stop and think about that before you read on.
Sadly, internally, most people aren’t exactly thinking about such high minded ideals when they engage in the act. During a one-night stand or an affair the person is not internally saying to their partner, “I will never leave you,” or, “I am yours forever,” or, “I love you more than myself.” They are saying the exact opposite. And what’s worse is that our culture reinforces that this opposite way is normal.
I think our Catholic faith is the only thing that can really help us solve the problem of sexual harassment and abuse in our society. If more of us internalized its meaning and lived it, I do believe that we would renew the culture we live in. One important way our Catholic faith does this is that, we actually ask people to publicly commit to each other forever through marriage before they participate in the act which says, “I will never leave you.” In addition to reinforcing the meaning of the marital act, saving sex for marriage builds self-control needed to remain faithful in body and mind during marriage.
Within marriage, Natural Family Planning can help build self-control. Using science to teach a couple when they are likely to conceive and then teaching them to abstain from sex during these times (7-10 days for most women) preserves the meaning of the act and builds self-control as well. This is one reason why so many couples that practice Natural Family Planning have such low divorce rates. They are constantly reminded of the eternal significance of the marital act. Abstaining for relatively small lengths of time builds strength to be faithful to the marriage over the entire scope of married life, and not just with regards to sexuality.
I believe if Catholics took these two teachings more seriously, we would be light and leaven to our world. We would create a culture of self-control, in which sexual harassment and abuse are unthinkable. If we aren’t willing to build self-control in our own hearts, I honestly don’t see why we should expect anyone else to. So let’s be the Saints God asks us to be, and let’s live these teachings to the full!