The problem of men abusing power and abusing women is as old as, well, the “oldest profession” of prostitution. The male sexual drive is ever present across history, and often justified by those in power.
Of course, one of the hallmarks of great moral leaders across time, especially Jesus, is the criticism and condemnation of those who abuse power in this way. And with regard to male sexuality, Jesus leaves little doubt as to what is right.
Is Sexuality OK?
This may seem like a dumb question, but it needs to be addressed due to the dangers of both promiscuity and sexual abuse, and the two polar responses to it.
Male Sexual Aggression is Natural
One of the extreme and incorrect responses to sexuality is to justify almost any sexual behavior, including sexual aggression and rape (as well as other sexual practices such as polygamy, pedophilia, bestiality and the like), as biologically determined, and therefore natural.
Of course, there is danger in taking our ethics merely from our biology, without the balance of other ethical reference points. At the very least, we need to balance what is “natural” with what leads to health and emotional flourishing of all individuals involved.
It may be natural for men, fueled by testosterone, to feel sexually aggressive, and it would be foolish to deny them some ethical release for such urges. But to justify their abuse of others? No.
Male Sexual Urges are Evil
The other possible response to natural male sexual proclivities is to condemn this urge, and this view of masculinity entirely and reject the sexuality of men as immoral. Misandry, or hatred of men and the male nature and masculinity, did happen as part of the over reaction of some parts of second wave feminism. 1 In response, some take the radical step of demanding that sex itself be avoided, and that celibacy should be the goal of the “good” life.
But seriously, we are not asking men to be asexual, are we? Can they no longer “pursue” a girl they find attractive? Should we prohibit all pleasures that hold some danger if abused? No.
Where do we draw the line?
The physical pleasures of life, food, sex, and perhaps alcohol, all have some risk involved from abuse. As legitimate but dangerous in their own right, all should be treated with respect and maturity. And with each, we need to draw meaningful boundaries beyond which we should not go.
This is obvious with such things as alcohol, where the bible essentially counsels us “tipsy, OK, drunk, no way.” 2 With respect to food, the Bible encourages enjoyment but warns against gluttony and the eating of too much meat (e.g. Proverbs 23:20-21).
So biblically and practically, where do we draw the line with respect (pun intended) to men pursuing women?
Jesus is Less AND More Severe than we think
Let us not make the mistake of reducing our ethics to simple, one-sided phrases that fail to reflect the complexity of mature ethics in general. Pinning Jesus or the Bible, or any ethical approach, to a single bullet point without nuance is just fodder for meaningless arguments.
In the story of Jesus and a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), the Jewish law called for execution by stoning of anyone caught in adultery. The Jewish laws, which Jesus affirmed (Matthew 5:17-19), took sexual misconduct seriously. Yet in this story, Jesus lets the woman off the hook. Why?
First, he recognized that the law was being applied unevenly to favor the powerful. Where was the male caught with her? Why does he get a pass, but she does not? However, notice that Jesus does not demand that the man be brought and killed as well. So maybe he is not interested in condemning him either.
Second, while Jesus later admits that she is guilty, he is not merely looking to condemn, but to bring repentance and restitution of the person. Those wielding the law in order to destroy others are obeying the letter of the law, but not the spirit.
Of course, this applies mostly to the penitent. The scriptures ensure mercy for the repentant, but swift destruction for those who defend their evil. (Proverbs 29:1)
But in Jesus’ most lengthy biblical discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, he speaks directly to male sexuality, and it’s pretty severe. He doesn’t just demand ethical actions, but ethical thoughts. His light dealing with the woman does not reflect a softness towards adultery or sexual sin in general:
You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (Matthew 5:27-28)
So much for excusing the thoughts of men, let alone their actions.
Male Purity and Boundaries in the Real World
Let’s be honest. Men are biologically wired, generally speaking, to be captivated by the female form. We find it a discipline to look away from cleavage, and it’s a pretty common mental pattern that when we see a woman, we scan her body and think “I wonder what it would be like with her.” Yes ladies, welcome to the inner world of most men.
Before we look at this with shock as a character fault, we need to consider the power of testosterone.
Testosterone Changes How You View Women
The testimony of many trans men (women who transition to being men) who take testosterone is pretty striking, showing how thoughts go from a simple narrative (“she looks like a nice person”) to one of objectification of women for sex:
Before testosterone, I would be riding the subway, which is the traditional hotbed of lust in the city. And I would see a woman on the subway and I would think, she’s attractive. I’d like to meet her. What’s that book she’s reading? I could talk to her. This is what I would say. There would be a narrative. There would be this stream of language. It would be very verbal.
After testosterone, there was no narrative. There was no language whatsoever. It was just, I would see a woman who was attractive– or not attractive. 3
But this is no excuse for objectification of women. 4 Understanding how men are driven by their biology, however, can help us craft realistic views, boundaries, and expectations for male interaction with women.
When temptation becomes lust
You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. ~ Martin Luther
That is, temptation is normative and not sinful, but allowing those thoughts to nest and grow in our minds is.
Men must learn to discipline their thoughts towards non-objectification of women, not matter how hard that is. This is not resisting nature, this is called maturity, managing our appetites, or exercising virtue.
Much more could be said about developing a healthy male thought life towards women, but nipping the bud here is one important and realistic key. That’s what Jesus would say. That’s what he said, it seems.
When culture becomes selectively Puritanical
Modern culture is not known for supporting the classic virtues of self-restraint, chastity, and pure thoughts. In fact, it seems hell-bent on violating those values, yet when those “free thoughts” come home to roost in abusive action, suddenly they also want men and women to act unselfishly and kindly towards others.
But if you groom people to think poorly, they will naturally act poorly. This “think one way, do another” not only violates what Jesus suggests with regards to sexuality, it’s duplicitous and naive.
I agree that men should not physically intimidate, sexualize, or attack women. Of course. They should know that NO means NO even if the woman seems to be giving contradictory signals (she may just be afraid and men misread that). But that’s not going to solve the problems that #METOO is addressing.
Realistic, Christian Boundaries for Men
In my estimation, the advice given by Jesus is a great start – watch what you think about. Watch out that as a man, you don’t abuse your physical and sexual power to override the will of a woman. Women are not objects, no matter what your libido says. They are persons to be served and loved.
But that, of course, is not enough. How do we appreciate food, drink, and the opposite sex without lusting, but with balance and appreciation? How do men curb their appetites for successful expression in the right context, and what is that context? How can you tell what women actually want? That advice will be in a future post.