Thursday, 19 May 2011
Pondering on power and the politics of sex
Sex and the politics of sex have been at the forefront of the news in recent days. From the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on an accusation of rape in New York through Nadine Dorries’ crass assertions about ‘sex abuse’ to Ken Clarke’s bumbling, clumsy attempt to explain that not all rape case are the same. As ever we must be struck by the nature of the response to these events – from attempts to argue that Strauss-Kahn is somehow the victim of a ‘set up’ to a tirade of ad hominem attacks on the characters of the two sinning Tory MPs.
In all this debate – setting aside the liberal lefts tendency to skate over the sins of its favoured sons in these matters – we get a glimpse of the real discussion we need to have, a discussion that doesn’t characterise someone who argues against sexual liberation as some form of evil misogynist. Nor for that matter a debate that describes the advocate of sexual freedom as some form of corrupt libertine. The real discussion – the politics of sex – is far more important than the froth and bother about Nadine Dorries. Indeed, by allowing Nadine to promote her view while the contrary view is drowned out by bile and vituperation does the cause of freedom no good at all.
The politics of sex is further characterised by the difference between our personal attitude and that we promote in political debate – I have no doubt that there are many bleeding heart liberal men who urge abstinence on their daughters while taking a more laissez-faire attitude – “don’t do anything daft” – to the sexual education of their sons. And good Christian men and women have often struggled with balancing a public commitment to Biblical teachings on sex with their own personal thoughts and feelings - and with the sexual choices of their children. The debate about sex is a tangle of conflicts between personal and private, liberal and controlling – all wrapped about with a preference in debating these issues to leap to judgment, to condemn and (that word so loved of the left) to demonise.
However, in all this there is (for me at least) one central theme – an area of profound significance that plays out in everything from tales of seduction through to the ghastliness of rape. This is that the exploitation of power to get sex is wrong – whether it be the great French intellectual or mighty businessman using his position to coax another into sex or a seventeen-year-old boy insisting on sex with a fifteen-year-old girl. And here I know that Nadine Dorries and those who seem to hate her so much agree – the disagreement is in how we respond, in terms of public policy, to the problem of men (and it is mostly men) using their strength and power to get sex.
For some the response is that openness, honesty and information will act to protect those most vulnerable – with, of course, appropriate support for victims and education for perpetrators (or possible perpetrators). Others see this approach – in all its non-judging, touchy-feeliness – as failing the interests of the weak. These argue for hellfire, for punishment and for condemnation – sex as sin (or as sin in some circumstances), if you will.
Through all this there is a path – a balance between teaching young people what is right, telling them that using power, strength or position to get sex is wrong and allowing them the ability to explore and understand sexuality with all its stresses, angst and wonder. I do not feel those charged with this difficult task are helped by the way in which we are conducting our debate, the politics of sex has become puerile, accusatory and lacks the essential characteristic of good debate – actually listening and considering the other side’s argument.
I am a ‘don’t know’, a doubter in all this debate – I can see the strength in the arguments for sex education having a moral context and worry about non-judgemental approaches as they seem value-free. But which moral context do we choose? Our culture has largely rejected the strictness of many religious codes – we no longer condemn homosexuality, we are tolerating of extra-marital sex and mostly accept that what goes on between consenting adults in private is their business (unless, of course, it involves smoking). However, we still want values to be attached to how we learn about sex – the importance of relationships, the purpose of commitment and the social hazards of promiscuity. In end I suspect that the task of teachers in this tricky area is to provide children with the tools that enable moral choice, that help protect from abuse and that promote respect for others.
Finally, in all this debate, I wonder whether – if the allegations are true – we should worry more about our reaction to Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s case than about Ken Clark’s bumbling confusion or Nadine Dorries’ proposals for teaching girls sexual abstention. Indeed, it is the excusing of sexual aggression in powerful men that gives the lie to sexual ‘liberation’. And if we are to debate the issues of rape it is this aggression and the message it sends to young men that should be concerning us rather than screaming at each other for cheap political advantage.