I recently read a social media piece sharply criticizing President Trump’s view of women. It began with an exalted quote from Thomas Jefferson and concluded with an equally glowing quote from John F. Kennedy.
Between these quotes from Jefferson and Kennedy was a scathing critique of President Trump.
In what follows my aim is not to talk at any length about President Trump (nor Jefferson or Kennedy). While not excluding them, I aim to talk about the sexual exploitation of women by men–at least, I would venture to guess, by most men.
Myself very much included.
So what was wrong with the social media piece, and, infinitely more important, what is wrong with us men?
As for the former, it displayed a most unfortunate ignorance of history.
It is highly probable that Thomas Jefferson had an illicit sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, who over the years served his daughters in various capacities. Jefferson’s exploitation of Hemings began in her early/mid teens and continued for some time, as he had at least one but as many as six children through her.
As for John F. Kennedy, as has been well documented, he saw many women as sexual conquests. He had, it seems, an insatiable sexual desire that bordered on the predatory. His liaisons were legion. This, too, was gross sexual exploitation. (For any unwanted pregnancies that result, a number of historians argue that Kennedy would, via discreet intermediaries, encourage the woman to use a certain abortion doctor he regularly used to end the unborn child’s life; he actually kept the doctor’s contact info in his rolodex.)
In short, if one seeks to critique Trump’s views of women, you really, really don’t want to enlist the help of either Jefferson or JFK, or of, well, most any of us men.
Let me state the obvious, just in case: absolutely no defense of President Trump’s former actions or present attitudes is being made here. I am, rather, suggesting that former Presidents Jefferson and Kennedy should be among not the prosecution but the prosecuted, as should most of us men.
Also, let me say: by asserting the frequency of the sexual exploitation of women I am in no way trivializing it.
My aim in what follows is to speak to any who will listen (but, men, I’m looking at you and me)–i.e., to anyone who wishes to desexualize their lives in this highly oversexualized culture of ours, so they can stop exploiting others–overwhelmingly, women but some men as well.
One quick comment: by “desexualizing” I in no way mean “un-sexualizing.” That is, what follows is anything but a critique of sex per se; indeed, it is a defense of human sexuality. Sex is an extremely powerful, personal and (despite a cultural cacophony of voices to the contrary) undeniably political act, an act that can bring either great flourishing or great suffering to us all, depending on how we use it. Further, what follows is not a critique of men qua men, as if men are somehow fundamentally worse than women or even that their road to sexual health is longer than most women’s (though I do think it is often a very different road).
So here goes. To begin to desexualize your life, get up every morning and ask yourself (at least a few of) the following questions:
1. Who in my life has made a deeply positive impact on me–and have I had sex with them?
Make a list of persons who have deeply impacted your life for good (setting aside your spouse, if married). Now stand amazed that probably none of them has had a sexual relationship with you.
The list probably includes a parent or grandparent, a sibling, friend, neighbor, coach, or teacher, perhaps a pastor or committed layperson, indeed a daughter or son.
If sex is as essential for us as voices around us (and at times within us) say, then how is it possible that we have had (and perhaps still have) such profoundly meaningful relationships without it?
Give thanks to God for these relationships; they’re huge: honestly, where would we be without them? If you’ve never thanked these persons for the impact that they’ve made on you, for goodness’ sake, do it–within the next week.
Wouldn’t it be great to have more of those kind of relationships? What is stopping you from doing that? Whatever it is, kill it. Then prayerfully and persistently pursue those relationships. Fight for them. Overwhelmingly, they will not happen on their own. Indeed, there are forces in this world who do not want you to have them.
To hell with those forces.
2. How am I pursuing deep yet non-sexual (and non-romantic) relationships with the gender I’m presently sexually attracted to?
For example, if you’re a heterosexual man (whether married or single) who has no close relationships with women, that needs to change. Yes, you can do this. It will be one of the best things that ever happened to you.
Having intimate non-sexual/romantic relationships with such persons can perhaps happen in a number of environments, but the one I’d recommend (not surprisingly) is a church–and, especially, a small group. When the central Christian metaphor of God’s people as a family is truly lived out in a local church (which, sadly, is not a given), it creates an environment where men and women (whether married or single) are understood to be true brothers and sisters (yeah, I know, weird). This familial metaphor invites deep devotion and intimacy (as well as accountability) without any hint of eroticism.
Understand, you may have to take the lead in establishing a healthy environment in your small group, but you can do that, especially if you enlist the help of a friend: “Hey, everyone, I really want this singles small group to be close, like a family. I really need/want that. It would mean that we’re committed to one another: sacrifices in our schedules, social and even vocational lives will be made; it means all guy-girl interaction is assumed to be like that of a brother and sister–no pursuing ulterior motives and no reading into anything. Can we make this a goal for our group, and pray about it as a group every time we meet? Who’s in?”
3. Have I given thanks to God today?
Seriously. Again and again I have seen in other men’s lives (and, hugely, in my own) that inordinate sexual desire is rooted in deep ingratitude that can manifest itself in depression and anger. (For many of us men, depression is often just a back-burner, more socially acceptable way of expressing our rage.) The Apostle Paul (brilliantly) makes the connection between our inordinate sexual (and financial) desire and our ingratitude (Eph. 5.3-4; see Rom. 1 as well).
Listen, most of the time we can’t be thankful on our own (like most delicacies, gratitude is an acquired taste): we need others to help us see how good we’ve really got it. Not only that, we need to be reminded of what we really deserve–and that is probably one of the most important questions we’ll ever be asked: just what do we deserve? Here’s one man’s answer to that question, as he hung dying on a Roman cross:
“We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
So, men, you tell me: what do we deserve?
Now consider: where does our deep ingratitude come from? I’ll tell you where mine comes from: good-old-fashioned, vanilla pride. Overweening pride. See, I often think I know exactly what I need and what needs to happen in my life, and when that doesn’t happen, it’s time to let God know ASAP how completely incompetent he is to run the universe and how brutally apathetic he is to my glorious cause.
Of course, the truth is that, more often than not, I have no idea what’s best for me; in fact, I’m not sure I’d recognize it if it hit me upside the head. So when we actually recognize a few of the barrage of good gifts that God gives us, it’s probably a good idea to write them down, so that we can regularly (daily?) recall them (and add more to the list). Otherwise, we will forget them–I can guarantee it.
The next question is related to this:
4. Is God powerful enough to use my present (or past) hardships for my good?
So much of the time we flee to sex. It is an escape from pain, pain that, we’re convinced, can do us absolutely no good. When Joseph’s brothers sold him to be a slave in Egypt, he would surely have been tempted to think, “This is the end.” But, of course, it was just the beginning.
Could the same be true for you and me?
“But,” we say, “I don’t see God at work in my hardships. He’s left the building. What am I supposed to do?” By now can you guess what’s needed to help you with that? Yep, other people.
(Do you see a theme?)
5. How am I defining success in my life? (I.e., who’s got the right definition of greatness?)
If failure is often (mysteriously) an occasion to seek out sex, defining success in a way that all but ensures that we will fail most of the time will surely prove disastrous.
Therefore, anyone who wants to overcome their slavery to inordinate sexual desire needs to ponder deeply and reflect daily (hourly?) on how and why Jesus defines “greatness” as he does and set it in clear contrast with how our culture defines “greatness.” The latter defines greatness in a way that exhausts us and both excludes and exploits others. Jesus defines greatness in a way that is actually achievable (anytime, anywhere), inclusive, and invigorating for others.
6. Who do I know–both up close and from afar–who is suffering more than I am?
When we witness true suffering, our seemingly insatiable thirst for sex simply disappears. It’s shocking. As with the other questions thus far, I’m not going to explain why this is, but (like I said) it’s truly astonishing.
I cannot stress this enough: it is crucial that we expose ourselves to the suffering that is going on around us both locally and globally. True contemplation and engagement with such suffering does a number of things for us, not least getting our focus off ourselves. It will impart (a good!) anger and mobilize us, redeploying that testosterone in life-giving ways.
In addition to this, one of the most powerful things we can do is listen to persons who have been sexually exploited. Most men (including myself) do not begin to begin to understand the damage that it causes. So when are you going to do this?
If you have taken advantage of another person sexually–and so many of us men have (if we haven’t yet, it’s only because we never had the opportunity), I urge you to go to a spiritual mentor (e.g., a pastor) and a wise spiritual mother and talk to them about going to the person you’ve exploited to confess your sin and seek their forgiveness.
I’ve done that, and it was incredibly difficult yet incredibly healing and life-giving. For everyone.
7. How am I getting help from others for the significant rejection I’ve experienced in my life?
There’s much that could be said here, but I’m just going to let this question stand on its own, with only one related question: how can the incomparable rejection that Jesus experienced from the world (from his family members to his followers to the Pharisees) help us to deal with the deep rejection that we’ve endured?
8. (If married) Am I looking to my spouse to give me too much relational intimacy?
We are all children of our own time, and our time is one of significant social isolation. Cities and neighborhoods do not have the social glue they once did. That is, there is far less ‘community’ in our communities, both secular and religious. One consequence of this is that, being so relationally deprived, when we do enter into 1-on-1 relationships, especially marriage, we can look to that one person to give us an unrealistic amount of relational intimacy.
And that can lead us to feeling very disappointed in marriage.
This isn’t to suggest that marriage shouldn’t be a wondrous and unique source of intimacy. It should–amen and amen. But if we continue to have deep friendships outside of marriage (and, men, how many of us do?), when the inevitable difficulties of marriage come, there won’t be as much disappointment, because there won’t be as much at stake.
9. Jesus is love incarnate, and he says that sex was created exclusively for the marriage relationship. Was he right or wrong?
Jesus can not only empower us to be our best, but will love us at our worst. He knows us inside and out (because he helped to make us). He cares for us more than we care for ourselves.
And he says that we when we give in to our inordinate sexual desires, we are not only drinking toxic kitchen cleaner but forcing the other person to do the same (if we’re into porn, it is still a person–many persons, in fact). We may be absolutely persuaded that we’re drinking blue Kool-Aid, but he says its kitchen cleaner.
Who’s right? What do I know that he doesn’t? Did Jesus miss a memo or something?
Obeying Jesus here will feel like dying (believe me, I know). Why? Because part of you (the ‘you’ that isn’t really ‘you’) will be dying. But on the other side will be resurrection, greater joy, greater freedom.
The above questions are hardly comprehensive (I stopped at nine, which is already pushing it). These questions are “end of the line” reflections. That is, there is a boatload of exegesis, theology, pastoral and (certainly) personal reflection “behind” them: there is, for example, a theological explanation for why failure or ingratitude is so often an occasion for seeking out sex. My intent, however, has been not to explain the “why” but to simply give the “what.” (The important “why” is for another time.)
But I do want to share just one “beneath the surface” reflection that, I hope, is evident from these questions, and it is this:
Sex is about so much more than sex.
This has at least two implications:
First, it means that human sex is not some primal “carnal” act. It is, rather, chock-full of profound meaning and mystery.
But, second, it also means that so much of “the stuff” of sex–all that makes sex about so much more than sex–is available outside of sex. In truth, sex is a highly concentrated form of amazingly good and beautiful things, the overwhelming majority of which can actually be found elsewhere–without the numerous negative, even disastrous “side effects” that illicit sexual behavior inevitably brings.
And understanding this places us–all of us, men and women–on the path to freedom. Real freedom. For freedom is found, at least in part, in realizing that we do not actually need the thing that our culture or our cravings have so often told us we need.
And with the possibility of freedom comes hope. Hope that we can stop exploiting.
And start loving.