Yeah, yeah, I’m I’m olllllld. I know and confess it. I remember the Kennedy assassination. I remember when all the guys wore coat and tie at college football games. I remember when the New York Times could be characterized as more or less a pro-American institution.
I mean, look — I even recall when a kind of moral consensus about sex, and sexual relationships, denied the likes of Rolling Stone magazine and Lena Dunham the privilege of whomping up national crusades against the Predatory Male.
We no longer have that consensus. But, boy, do we have Lena Dunham. And Taylor Swift. And the president of the United States — to sound the alarm about the male multitudes who view women as disposable playthings, fit for ravaging at will. Presently, America’s rape “crisis,” as we’re probably supposed to call it, vies with CIA torture and Obamacare for Topic of the Moment status.
I intend to lay down a marker for present purposes. The topic of how real, and how widespread, the crisis may be — if it’s a crisis at all — has attracted so many disputants on both sides that I think it better to hang back on that question. The frequently heard assertion that nearly one in five American women has been raped in her lifetime strikes me as grossly overblown, and anyway how would one know such a thing as that?
Well, we do know the male thirst for sexual satisfaction, whether carried out with the cooperation of women or against their will, is not trending on Twitter. That might be called, in theological terms, a consequence of the Fall — the splashy descent of newly created humanity into sustained misbehavior. Oh, you don’t believe in all that religious twaddle? Fine. Around here we protect the right of belief. The point to keep in mind is the timelessness of lust, whether perpetrated out of unconquerable desire or out of (as is widely believed nowadays) the hope for imperial conquest. I take it that understanding requires no spiritual affirmation.
Society figured out the problem long ago. It concocted rules. The rules, a subset of enactments under the moral law, said, hold it: a woman isn’t to be forced; coaxed, that was different (though not necessarily OK). That was because the rules recognized unchecked lust, and the brutality surrounding it — war evidenced these traits in ghastly form — as counter to the purposes of civilized society. You couldn’t have the powerful (men) working their will on the less powerful (women) without major harm to human dignity and social peace. It was a bit like empowering kings and emperors to do as they liked, without responsibility to anyone, least of all their victims. Unchecked power over others would destroy not only the others but the destroyers themselves in the end.
A particular problem arose in the context of unchecked power over women — power unrestrained by love or pity, either one. The woman was — is — the other half of the human race, her responsibilities and pleasures congruent with the responsibilities and pleasures of the other half. The two halves met as one whole, and thrived, or failed to thrive, as they recognized their mutual dependence.
The moral law, its features reframed a bit in every age, held that the mothers and wives on whom depended so much that was good and vital, were owed by the society in which they lived a due measure of respect, and of freedom from unmerited injury.
And they all lived happily ever after… yes? Not quite. We know this. The reason for rules in the first place is the human instinct for self-aggrandizement and the resulting need for boundaries. Rape we’ve always had, the breaking of rules being a feature of the human landscape. At least there were rules. These stayed in place in Western civilization for centuries. They were still around at the time of the Kennedy assassination, and in the days when the New York Times could be counted on for more-than-occasional commendations of America’s purposes and methods.
Those would be the times I remember myself — when the idea of a “rape crisis,” had such a notion been broached, would have sounded incredible. Some powerful institutions stood in the way of such a crisis. There was the family, first of all —the major teaching institution in any country and age. There were bad families aplenty, and broken ones; there were seemingly, even so, more good ones than bad, with two married parents under the roof, working to some degree or other to make sure the rules were understood and enforced. The schools backed them up, both parents and rules. Around the time of the Kennedy assassination, the colleges that some see now as the center of the rape culture stood firm for the doctrine of in loco parentis. The college authorities, that is, stood in for the parents who had entrusted to them the care of precious Johnny and Susie.
There were — imagine it! — rules. And dorms reserved for one sex or the other but not both at the same time. Curfews curtailed the nocturnal activities of women students, for whom the “house mothers” were always keeping an eye open on weeknights and weekends alike. What a sight at curfew hour — passionate good-nights; often enough breezy farewells. (A lot of girls from that era saw curfew as blessed deliverance from a dull, never-to-be-repeated date.)
A signal virtue of the old moral code was its self-enforcing nature. No kidding. There existed what we might call internal restraints: matters of I-really-shouldn’t-do-this. Not everybody owned or exercised such restraints, but they were out there in the general environment, and if you yourself didn’t possess an ample supply your friends might; likelier, your parents would. Parents — you remember; the villains whom the Yippie prankster Jerry Rubin urged you facetiously to “kill” lest they squash your delicate ambitions to express the inner you.
What the self-enforcing nature of the moral code meant was that cops and courts rarely involved themselves in personal matters. Citizens in our land of the free enjoyed entitlement to what is now a rare commodity — trust: a trust broken sometimes, of course, after the manner of fallen man, but not so often as to set university presidents by their ears over frat parties.
It was assumed that, if left generally alone, we would —under the promptings of the moral code — conduct ourselves responsibly enough to let the authorities focus on murder, robbery, and, yes, rape. Not the kind of rape — drunken, overbearing — Lena Dunham makes a centerpiece in her best-selling (if undocumented) account of a hard upbringing; rather, the kind of rape — cruel, vicious — for which government until fairly recently allowed the death penalty. Society, I mean to say, had the innate capacity to draw important behavioral distinctions, and to judge and act accordingly. Not anymore, it seems.
What happened is Question No. 1. A lot of things happened. Being old, I lay particular blame on events of years ago summed up in the rubric of “the counterculture.” The explosive content and consequences of the youth rebellion, c. 1964-1971, have never been adequately measured, it seems to me. Repeated blasts, each one larger than the last, blew down the front doors of the old culture with its rules and regulations: scattering authority figures from deans to parents who were “always telling people what to do;” suppressing joyous passion and the aspirations of oppressed classes — not only blacks but, as the story went, women eager to make their own decisions, live their own lives. The passions of the time quickly overflowed. There had been no culture of rape, 21st century style, in the era that mourned John F. Kennedy. The culture grew slowly; it battened on the new freedoms of the time. Who cared about old rules? Old dead people cared — that was who; dead mentally, dead emotionally, or just plain dead and buried.
And now what? That would be the second question. Enter the authorities, with sheaves of programs and recommendations. President Obama declared in April 2012 that “We must do more to raise awareness about the realities of sexual assault; confront and change insensitive attitudes wherever they persist…” A year later Obama signed the third reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act — a measure attributed to the vision and inspiration of Senator, now Vice President, Joe Biden.
The compass of this now 20-year-old act is predictably spacious. As Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s right-hand woman, noted with satisfaction: “[T]housands of women and men…who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking will be able to access resources they need in their communities to help heal from their trauma. In addition, thousands of law enforcement officers will be better equipped to stop violence before it starts, and respond to calls of help when they are needed.”
As for campus rape: “[O]ne in five women will be the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault while they [sic] are in college…This act will help by requiring colleges and universities to provide information to students about dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking and improve data collection about these crimes. We call on all of our colleges and universities to make ending sexual assault a top priority.”
Well, that should take care of it! If not, the act reposes authority for violence prevention in an office of the Justice Department. And, thanks to another of the president’s now-famous executive orders, the National Dating Abuse Helpline now has federal funds for digital service. Nor should we overlook creation of a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault: the last nail, we may assume, in the coffin of Unrestrained Male Lust.
Or maybe not. What recent events on the rape front reveal — among other things, all of them bad or dispiriting — is the distance American culture has traveled since the Kennedy assassination. The freedoms so eagerly grasped in the ’60s turn out not to be so liberating after all. Yes, men and women students can live in the same dorms, if not the same rooms, and stay out all night if they like, and drink themselves insensible, and tell deans of student life and house moms (if any there still are) to take a hike, we’re in charge of our own lives now. Do these varied rights and privileges make life objectively better? That proposition would be hard to establish and maintain. We certainly didn’t talk about date rape, frat house rape, dorm rape — the whole catalog of current excesses — back when mom and dad conspired in the cause of maintaining insofar as possible certain well-established moral principles; e.g., your date — a fellow human being — is your responsibility, not your plaything. The practical essence of the old moral code was respect for others. They were entitled to it. So were you. Under that canopy of understanding you worked out and adjusted behaviors.
Plenty of slips and falls there were. That’s the nature of human beings, a tribe generally informed as to the nature of right and wrong, yet beset by temptations of all kinds: personal, financial, professional, sexual. The moral code observed in most particulars up to the past half-century or so helped keep the lid on. Better a code hitting on five out of eight cylinders than on none at all.
Ironically, the feminist quest for power and privilege, in the very act of liberating women from former expectations, ripped from their hands some of the old protections: respect based on admiration as well as friendship, and expectation of fruitfulness, not to mention abiding love, in the man/woman relationship.
Yeah, well, lemme tell you about my husband (or dad or brother or uncle), a genuinely aggrieved woman may reply to such an assertion. Lemme tell you, Mister, about the nights he came home drunk and…and…
We need not ignore such disturbing narratives, with their component of truth. We need them most of all in some sense to remind us of the futility of expecting laws and regulations and federal grants and Valerie Jarrett memos to smooth out male-female relationships and build up the respect that must flow from man to woman and woman to man. The restoration of the old moral code is the proper work for men and women who hope to cure this age’s varied infirmities. It is likewise the hardest possible work.
The Christian and Jewish religions were formerly fundamental to the task of affirming the mutual duties of men and women — partners in service to God in His world. Religion, if not yet flat on its back, no longer commands even the curiosity it once enjoyed.
A moral code — to what end? That would be a modern-sounding query. Why not, instead, Acts of Congress? (Based on whose perceptions of right and wrong?) Why not police lineups and arrest warrants? (Enforcing whose perceptions of right and wrong?)
Why not Valerie Jarrett and Joe Biden? Ah, forgot — they’ll both be elsewhere in a couple of years. What does that leave us with, seen or unseen, to maintain the tricky balance between the responsibilities (how’s that for a musty old word?!) whose fulfillment makes civilization possible?
The question dangles, unanswered, in the air of the 21st century.