While this topic is timely in light of bombshell news surrounding Donald Trump’s horrific habits of sexual violence, it may seem odd to think of the Consistent Ethic of Life (CEL) as having a special focus on our sexual culture. But it actually has deep resonances with Pope Francis’s primary way of talking about the CEL, resisting the throw-away culture.
Recall that Francis is particularly concerned with violence which “treats others as mere objects,” as he says in Laudato Si’, given that such violence refuses to acknowledge human beings are simply not the kinds of things which can have their dignity radically reduced in this way.
What is sometimes called our “hook-up” culture (the dominant attitude toward sex in contemporary music, movies and social-media) is premised on precisely this kind of violence. A quick glance at the website “Texts from Last Night” (a cultural phenomenon with over 4m Twitter followers) is a clear window into the culture.
Here is the first text I encountered as I did my initial search:
One could hardly have asked for a better example of the attitude which characterizes the hook-up culture. This text not only refers to this woman in degrading language, but also uses a classically violent image to describe the sender’s desire to hook up with her.
Pope Francis laments that our sexual culture has become part of a broader throw-away culture. In Amoris Laetitia he notes that we detach ourselves from the value of everything such that everything becomes disposable—even the people in our most intimate relationships. And he has good reason to lament this, especially given the very serious consequences of the violence present in the hook-up culture.
The prominent place of alcohol in the hook-up — along with a dehumanization of one’s ‘partner’ — often leads to sexual violence.
Sometimes this involves violence in the form of sexual overpowering of someone who is resisting. More often, however, it involves the calculated attempts of a predator who gets their “target” enough drinks so that they will be more easy to “acquire.” And even more often it simply involves sex with someone who has been drinking enough to the point where they cannot really make a genuine choice to have sex.
Especially given this last consideration, we need to face a difficult-but-necessary conclusion: much of the sex which takes place in the hook-up culture is, in fact, rape.
If this is where we have got to in our mainstream sexual culture, it becomes easier to understand why we have not given due attention to human sex trafficking — something described by the United Nations as the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. Pope Francis has often railed against this modern-day slavery, calling it a “plague on the body of contemporary humanity.”
Once the use of another’s body for conquest and sexual gratification becomes socially accepted—and especially when it is promoted and valorized in the name of sexual freedom and liberation—it becomes difficult to say precisely why example A of this is bad, but example B of this is acceptable, and example C might even be good.
With such blurred lines, coupled with our deference to sex as belonging to a private zone of autonomy, it becomes easier to detach ourselves from victims of sexual violence and “stay out of people’s bedrooms.”
The CEL demands a replacement sexual counter-culture. I say more about this alternative in my forthcoming book, but it is one in which we offer an enthusiastic “yes” to good sex which promotes genuine encounter and hospitality. But it gives a firm “no” to bad sex dominated by a consumerist-driven focus on autonomy, privacy, detachment, conquest, and use of another’s body.
[This is the third in Professor Camosy’s series of pieces in the lead-up to November’s presidential election on the consistent ethic of life (CEL) as the foundation of a potential new political party. The first piece focused on the roots of the ethic in the teaching of the Church with Cardinal Bernardin, Pope St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI—while the second piece focused on the direction in which Pope Francis has pushed the ethic. This and remaining pieces will apply the general principles from the first two pieces to some of the most polarizing and difficult issues of our day in an attempt to see them in a new way. Charles C. Camosy is Association Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University. He is co-editor of the just-released book Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal.]