Sunday, July 25, 2021

It's Complicated, Ross


Monsignor Ross Douthat, apostolic nuncio to 42nd Street, has a new complaint, or meta-complaint, above and beyond the usual ones that liberals are too permissive about sex (1960s hippie edition) or not permissive enough (2010s feminism)—that we can't make up our minds between the two at all ("Can the Left Regulate Sex?"):

in its retreat from the Polanski era, its concession that sometimes it’s OK to forbid, cultural progressivism entered into a long internal struggle over what its goal ought to be — to maximize permissiveness with some minimalist taboos (no rape, no sex with children) or to devise a broader set of sexual regulations that would reflect egalitarian and feminist values rather than religious ones.

This tension is visible all over recent history. The mood in which liberals defended Bill Clinton’s philandering was an example of the more permissive option. The mood of the #MeToo era, which condemned cads as well as rapists, is an example of the more regulatory approach.

Taken for granted that "we" literally have to "regulate sex", because

I don’t know how long the current period of progressive cultural power can last. But so long as it does, these debates will continue, because the regulation of sex is an inescapable obligation of power.

Calling Professor Foucault! Is this true? What I think Professor Foucault says in the first place is, "Thanks for proving my point, Ross!" 

Since the burden of the book, at least the first volume, was to show that 17th-century absolutists of church and state generally created the concept of "sexuality" as a discrete and separate "discursive object" in order to dominate the sexual behavior of the subjects, beginning with the Roman Catholic church at the time of the Counter-Reformation, with its elaborate confessional routine asking sinners to work out an inordinately detailed and structured account of their sexual sins. They claimed that "obligation" as an excuse for exerting control over the whole population.

Little did Foucault realize, I guess, how badly the Church had been able to police its own enforcers—it was in 1985, just a year after his death, that the clerical sex abuse scandal in the US originally broke out in a big way, with the guilty plea of ex-Father Gilbert Gaulthe on his molestations of hundreds of boys in the course of performing his duties as a priest in New Iberia and Vermilion Parish between 1974 and 1983, the first in a long series of horrible revelations of rape and abuse on the part of (some, obviously very far from all) Catholic parish priests and their bishops' failure to curb the practices, fighting the authority of the state to interfere as it handled abuse complaints too often by transferring the accused priest to a different location where he continued his criminal behavior on fresh victims.

Of course Douthat and other conservative apologists have long blamed these on—liberals, of course, and "the sixties", as if Father Gaulthe had been just sitting around reading Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse when he was inspired to embark on his rape career. Not that the apologists had any direct evidence of such a thing, but when they crunched the numbers they could find, say, that there was always a kind of background normal level of priestly abuse against all sorts of young victims, boys and girls, toddlers and teens, short-term and long-term (which is horrible enough!) but a remarkable spike of long-term abuse concentrated on boys aged 11 to 17 "between the 1950s and 1970s" (which Douthat carefully misread as "in the sixties and seventies"), suggesting that something had simply made all those priests gay during the period of the "Lavender Mafia" as Rod Dreher called it, perhaps the horror of being forced to say Mass in English, from which the Church had since recovered by the time Douthat was discussing it in 2010:

This data informs the conservative Catholic argument that the post-Vatican II exodus of straight men from religious life and the spread of a sexually-active gay subculture within the priesthood is the abuse scandal’s “elephant in the sacristy.” Liberal Catholics might counter that the priesthood has always been disproportionately homosexual, and that the sexual revolution probably just encouraged psychologically healthy gay priests to give up on the church entirely, leaving behind a clerical population tilted toward repression, self-loathing and the dysfunctions of the closet.  Whichever narrative you prefer, though, it’s hard to deny that something changed in the 1960s, and not for the better.

It doesn't inform it very well, given that the pattern was certainly established before Vatican II, and if parish priests weren't likely to be reading Marcuse at the time, the up-and-coming, deeply conservative clerical bureaucrats who dominated the conference of bishops over the next several decades and led the coverup were even less likely to be doing it. 

It's clear from the John Jay Report that the number of "ephebophile" incidents was definitely larger during the period 1957 to 1982, say, than the number of "pedophile" reports, but the really striking table in the one of when the reports were made, in two extraordinary peaks around 1995 (Elinor Burkett's A Gospel of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic Church was published in 1993, and A.W. Richard Sipe's Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis in 1995)  and in 2002 (when the enormous Boston Globe exposé appeared), suggesting that most people were reporting abuse 30 or 40 years after it happened rather than a shorter or longer period, as if there were something magical about that exact time-distance for awakening a buried memory together with a desire for justice or sense of confidence that you won't be punished by your abuser:

The most significant factor in the awakening of memories was publicity, in any event, not the date of abuse.

But as I was beginning to say, Douthat today is very pleased with himself for forking liberalism on the horns of a dilemma between liberation and repression, Herbert Marcuse and Andrea Dworkin, and exposing our internal contradictions, but it doesn't occur to him that no, "power" (in the forms of policing and social pressure, I guess) does not have to regulate sex at all, as writers like Fromm and Marcuse, bless them, from their anti-authoritarian Frankfurt position, understood extremely well, and as the slogan of the sixties expressed it: "If it feels good do it, as long as you don't hurt anybody." 

Nobody in the #MeToo movement is suggesting people shouldn't have sex in whatever positions and moods they choose; they're just insisting that all the parties need to consent, and in particular that the person in any kind of disadvantaged situation—a woman, or a younger person, or even a person who is being paid—should have a voice in deciding what happens. 

The regulation of sex is not an "inescapable obligation of power" at all. You might well argue that the regulation of violence is, as I absolutely would, and you could evidently argue as well that so is the regulation of contracts (including fees for sex work, marriage contracts violated by adultery, paternity questions, etc.). And that's a real problem, because it's a very delicate matter, and contains many questions that are very hard to answer, and I don't think humanity is ever going to get to the bottom of it, to tell the truth.

However, the thing Douthat has discovered isn't what he thinks it is: it's the signs of an honest and difficult debate going on inside the left, with no participation from the right, because the right is determined not to debate it. The right has its absolute certainties, like the monarchs and bishops of the 17th century, and indeed pretty much the same ones; and it isn't willing to have a debate, as Douthat's snippy posturing on the other side of the window shows. So all the productive and all the critical thinking is going on on just one side, while the other side makes itself increasingly irrelevant. Rather than being embarrassed by the fact that we don't all agree on this profound and problematic subject, we should be glad we're not brain-dead.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

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