At the Golden Globe Awards this past Sunday, a number of actresses and actors wore black as a sign of protest against sexual harassment in Hollywood. This is simply the latest statement of solidarity in light of the recent explosion of accusations against famous (and other not-so-famous) men, especially in—but not limited to—the entertainment industry. The “#metoo” movement has become a cultural phenomenon, and the “Silence Breakers” were collectively awarded Time magazine’s person of the year in 2017.
Let me be clear about a couple of things. First of all, for many reasons, including the utter banality of the whole enterprise, I cannot bring myself to watch a self-congratulatory Hollywood awards show. I do not want to spend my evening watching rich people give themselves awards for acting like someone else. (I cannot help recalling Jerry Seinfeld’s blistering critique of the genre.) What I know about this particular protest at the Golden Globes comes not firsthand but is due to its invasion of the news cycle. Second, inasmuch as this and similar protests are meant to say that sexual assault and harassment are morally wrong and intolerable, such protests should be applauded. Let nothing I say in what follows be construed as excusing unwanted sexual contact or language in any form.
Appropriate applause for the protests aside, however, the entire episode—the accusations and sordid accounts, the admissions, the denials, the fall of entertainment and political icons, the protests and outrage—raises questions about the place of sex in Hollywood in particular and in our culture more generally. More to the point, there is an egregious double standard that these protesters and victims rarely mention.
First, the double standard in “Hollywood,” which I use as a cipher for the whole entertainment industry. I wonder if it has occurred to any of the protesters, all of whom are beneficiaries of the television and film industries, that nothing has promoted cheap sex more than the television and film industries. Again, sexual misconduct in any environment is wrong. But, in at least one important way, sexual misconduct in Hollywood seems different from sexual misconduct, say, in a restaurant, at a university, or especially in a church—namely, it is an indispensable part of the Hollywood culture.
With Hollywood (that is, the American entertainment industry as a whole), sex sells, and it always has been thus. The ostensible goal of the mainstream entertainment complex has been not to limit sexual practice, but to open it up in such a way that eliminates traditional boundaries. Sex outside of marriage? That boundary was crossed long ago and is now commonplace on TV and in PG-rated movies. Nudity? I don’t have to tell you how TV and movies push those boundaries.
Let me illustrate further. An msn.com web story about the Golden Globe protests concluded with a slideshow summarizing accusations against 51 men in late 2017 (and this number doesn’t even include Harvey Weinstein and others I have heard about). Here is the caption describing the situation of a certain Terry Richardson, a “fashion photographer”:
Post-Weinstein, allegations against the fashion photographer resurfaced when many models accused him of harassment and exploitation. Condé Nast, Valentino and Bulgari are some brands that have pledged to never work with him. Richardson’s spokesperson stated, “He is an artist who has been known for his sexually explicit work, so many of his professional interactions with subjects were sexual and explicit in nature but all of the subjects of his work participated consensually.”
Again, sexual misconduct is immoral and harassment deplorable, but is anyone really shocked that it would take place in such a context? According to the photographer’s spokesperson, he must have expected there to be different standards than, say, in a restaurant or at a church. My point is that one could justifiably take the spokesperson’s defense as a fair description of Hollywood, which, like the photographer in question, is known for its “sexually explicit work.” Why, then, should it be shocking that such things are apparently commonplace in the same industry that so cheapens sex, in a context where people are complicit in sexual libertinism?
This double standard, this hypocrisy, has, of course, gone well beyond the confines of Hollywood; it has permeated our whole culture. “Free love” has been the motto since the 1960s. That is, there are no boundaries when it comes to sexual activity. The double standard is that the same hypersexual culture that derides heterosexual monogamy and teaches our girls to dress as provocatively as possible also takes offense if a man’s eyes stray or if he talks and acts like sex is nothing.
The behavior being rightly condemned is nothing other than the expected harvest of what has been sown by everyone complicit in the game. It goes something like this: As a culture, convince men that sexual promiscuity is harmless and that sexual pleasure is life’s highest achievement (aside from wealth, perhaps), and then set before them endless images meant to evoke sexual desire, starring women who apparently want to be the objects of that desire. And then act surprised when those men who have accepted the libertine sexual ethic—yes, the one taught by Hollywood—think that women should be happy to join in. (I wrote about this cultural hypocrisy also during the 2016 presidential campaign.)
The mixed, incoherent message says, on the one hand, that sex is just a bodily function, nothing more than a handshake. It is merely a pleasurable thing to do with another person—sex whenever and with whomever you will. This is the dominant part of the message. On the other hand, the culture occasionally wants to maintain that sex is an intimate matter, not for public consumption, not for objectification or merely for someone else’s pleasure.
Sex is either nothing or it is something. The second part of this message is antithetical to Hollywood libertinism; it is the remnant of a once-dominant Christian mindset. For the Christian ethic affirms beauty, including the beauty of the human body, but also the sacredness of sex in a relationship that mirrors the bond between God and his people. In fact, to treat those in a lower social status as persons deserving of sexual dignity is a Christian insight that was not recognized in the pagan world. It is very hard to arrive at such an ethic on purely secular, atheistic grounds.
Sex is either nothing or it is something. The secular culture wants to have its cake and eat it, too. The moral code being recommended in popular culture is confused and therefore confusing.
Everyone at the Golden Globes seems to agree that the conversation should continue. But what will that conversation look like? A more effective change of heart would come not by focusing on these symptoms of a confused ethic, but by considering the kind of sexual ethic promoted by Christian faith. We’ll see if Hollywood wants to go that far.