Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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The Pope’s Dangerous Sex Appeal

NEW YORK – Human sexual behavior can be perilous, as the ghastly rape of a 23-year-old woman by six men on a Delhi bus in December once again showed. After going to the cinema, she and her boyfriend were beaten, before she was brutally assaulted and attacked with an iron rod for more than an hour. Thirteen days later, she died from her wounds.

It is often claimed that rape is not really about sex, but about power. True enough. But it is not unrelated to sex. The sexual act is used as a form of torture, or even, in some cases, as a deadly weapon.

But that was not what Pope Benedict XVI had in mind when he spoke recently about the dangers of sexual behavior. In his pre-Christmas speech to the Roman Curia, the pope did not mention rape, let alone the sexual murder in Delhi. Instead, in his defense of the family – or, as he would put it, the sacred union between man and woman – he pointed out how sexual arrangements outside that union were a threat to human civilization. What he had in mind, without quite saying so, were same-sex unions.

It was a deeply confused speech. His disquisition on the dangers posed by same-sex marriage followed a passage deploring the modern tendency to avoid lifelong commitments in human relationships, as if that were not precisely what gay marriage is about. Of course, in the pope’s view, commitment in gay relationships is part of the problem: more and more people, especially in the Western world, now claim the freedom to choose their own sexual identities instead of sticking to the “natural” roles “ordained by God.”

The pope’s words suggest that homosexuality is a kind of lifestyle choice, a form of modern decadence – a secular, even blasphemous act against God and nature – rather than a fact of birth. This is a common belief among religious believers, be they conservative Catholics, Protestants, Jews, or Muslims. Tellingly, Benedict quoted Gilles Bernheim, the Chief Rabbi of France, who has expressed similar views on the threats to conventional family life.

Fear of sexual behavior is one of the main reasons why most religions establish strict rules concerning sexual relationships. Marriage is a way to contain our dangerous desires. Restricting sexual conduct to procreation is supposed to make the world safer and more peaceful. Because women excite the desires of men, they are thought to pose a threat outside the confines of the family home. That is why, in some societies, they are not allowed to emerge from those confines, or may do so only if fully covered and accompanied by a male relative.

Benedict is not so extreme. Nor does he advocate violence against homosexuals. On the contrary, he sees himself as a deeply civilized man of peace. But I would argue that his speech actually encourages the kind of sexual aggression that can result in the savagery that took place in Delhi.

The six rapists who killed the young woman were not modern decadents who chose to defy God and nature by claiming new secular freedoms, let alone heterodox sexual identities. From what we can surmise from this case – and many others like it – they are the semi-urbanized products of a highly conventional rural society where the roles of men, and especially women, are tightly regulated. Their victim, a well-educated physiotherapy intern, seems to have been a great deal more modern than her attackers. The men were not uneducated, but they were unable to cope with the freedoms of contemporary women.

For that reason, the six rapists saw her as a “loose” woman, a city slut, fair game. After all, she was out late with her boyfriend. That is precisely how the men taunted the young couple: What was an unmarried young woman doing out in the Delhi streets with a young man? She deserved what was coming to her.

The reaction in some quarters followed similar lines. When demonstrations against sexual violence erupted in Delhi, the Indian president’s son denounced the protesters as “dented and painted.” Some politicians have described rape victims as “adventurous.”

Violent hatred of homosexuals comes from a similar source. Just as women outside the family home – women who stake a claim to public space, working and living among men – are seen as dangerous temptresses, men who love men are often regarded as predators, ready to pounce on society’s children. What many people fear is not just uncontrolled sexual behavior, but sex itself.

But the more sex is repressed and people are made to fear it the greater the chance of sexual violence, because anyone who might possibly stir our sexual desires, man or woman, becomes a potential target of our rage.

This might help to explain what happened in Delhi, but it does not in any way excuse it. After all, most men in that city would not beat a young couple with metal pipes and rape the woman to death. Hundreds of thousands of Indians are demonstrating in the streets to show their loathing of such atrocities.

One wishes that the pope had said something about that, and had offered some words of encouragement to the men and women in India who have had enough of sexual violence coming not from modern libertines, but from deeply repressed men. But that is too much to expect from a man who appears to understand little about sexual life. That is why, instead of talking about rapists, he targeted peaceful homosexual men and women who wish to show their commitment to their lovers by marrying them.

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  1. CommentedNguyen Quoc Vu

    why do you involve The Pope in this ? The Church has verities that everyone has to obey, the Pope also.
    You must go to India to live to know more reasons cause the rape, not what you think or you hear from defendants' lawyer.

  2. CommentedJ. T. G.

    I just completed reading the "Address Of His Holiness Benedict XVI On The Occasion Of Christmas Greetings To The Roman Curia". Very interesting... I really enjoyed reading Pope Benedict XVI's address to the Roman Curia. I especially liked his concluding paragraph.

  3. CommentedJulia Ritirc

    I agree with the author that the church and especially its spiritual leader who is endowed with a moral authority should make a strong statement and condemn the human cruelty that had happened in India. He should have even meet more the expectations of a moral authority in the matter of sexual abusement and pedophile assults by bishops and other clerics. However, after I had read the article published on Project Syndicate I had a closer look on the pre-Christmas speech to the Roman Curia.
    I consider myself very liberal in mindset and I respect the love that two people feel for each other. I also approve of gay marriage and hold a very critical view towards the Church's position to many social problems. However, reading the pope's message on the value of family I could not help but to ask myself, whether we are always fixed on narratives that we think are central in an account, even though the central message or narrative is something else.
    I agree the pope and the conservative factions of the church are against gay marriage (so are many open-minded non-catholics). Instead of discussing a question that only concerns a minimal part of our society and elevating this issue to a matter of big social momentum, he focusses on a central question that concerns all individuals in society, whether they are gay or not. The lack of commitment and responsibility for the people we love, including our children. He criticizes the structuralist Marxist approach that considers everything in our lives a product of social construct. I agree that liberalism has induced us a the wrong understanding that we can realize ourselves alone, instead of realizing ourselves in a society and in particular in our families. Liberalism dominates also the requirements of the labor market that dictates our lifestyles that keep us from engaging more in social and emotional relationships. That's what I read in the pope's message, even though I am aware of the fact that he does not approve of gay marriage.

  4. CommentedFriedrich Böllhoff

    "But I would argue that his speech actually encourages the kind of sexual aggression that can result in the savagery that took place in Delhi."

    I would argue that this statement is absurd.

  5. CommentedJames Flint

    Reason is toxic to faith. The pope is a man of faith first and reason second. Were it otherwise he would be secular and healing the world and not degrading it. Real knowledge and technology are spreading like wildfire and will destroy despotic governments and organized religions. Both exist mostly on fear. Knowledge is the antidote to fear.

    1. CommentedJ. T. G.

      Quite the contrary - The Doctrine of the Faith comes from stoic reasoning. Those who disparage the Catholic Church use "reason" borne of passion or desire.

  6. CommentedShane Beck

    The problem is that there has been a great divergence between the religious, primarily Christian notion of marriage and the family and the actuality of the secular, state based civil unions and their resulting permutations in length of union, rearing of offspring and disposal of property. The reality is that I doubt many would go back to the Catholic conception of marriage until death do us part, no sex before marriage, no sex outside marriage and limited use of contraception. The simple fact is that the Pope's views upon marriage and sex is as unnatural as suggesting life long celebacy for Priests and Nuns

  7. Commenteddaniele bosetti

    Luca Arcangeli is correct, you really are mixing two separate arguments.
    The first is the Catholic position on the union of homosexuals (whom are not catholic I presume).
    The second is an orrible product of violence, hatred and animal instincts.
    It is hard to presume the six "animals" killed her because they were sexually repressed, huh?

  8. CommentedNicolai Petro

    Prof. Buruma reads much more into Pope Benedict's speech about homosexuality and rape than was actually in it, while overlooking what the speech was actually about--the social implications of our rapidly changing notions about the origins of gender.

    All our relationships change, to the divine and to others in our community, when we claim the power to so fundamentally alter individual identity. This Pope, as have others beore him, highlights how this might undermine the dignity of human beings, especially in their familial roles.

    Others will counter that the consequences might not be so bad. Freeing individuals from stifling roles assigned to them by tradition could have positive implications as well.

    The issue cries out for intelligent debate, not ad hominem attacks. As a non-Catholic I am grateful to Pope Benedict for reminding us that such a massive cultural shift will have many yet unforeseen, and probably undesirable, social consequences.

  9. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    Given his organization's history of facilitating and covering up systematic rape of children not to mention the death toll from discouraging the use of condoms against HIV, one would have thought that there would expected reticence on sexual morality.

    1. CommentedMary-Ann Faroni

      Well said, Frank. The Pope's and the Catholic church's hypocrisy make me want to vomit. Same sex couples who want to commit to each other are considered sinners, but the church's CELIBATE priests can rape children and years later the church will pay "damages", or simply hush it up completely. The poorest of the poor are not allowed to use contraception, but do we see the church feeding, homing and schooling all the millions of children that result and who have absolutely no chance in life? Or the AIDS orphans who are left to fend for themselves? Glass houses, stones and all that.

  10. CommentedLuca Arcangeli

    I totally disagree. On the one hand there is a position of Christian ethic, on the other hand a brutal fact of violence. The Pope rejects the use of violence and defends the right of conscientious objection: (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2013/january/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20130107_corpo-diplomatico_en.html).
    Your link between the Pope and the terrible indian event is really misleading.

    1. CommentedLinus Fernandes

      I think there is a tendency to view everything as extremes.
      The Catholic Church's position on homosexuality is well-known. But to draw a link, however tenuous, between the Pope's speech and a horrific brutal rape and killing of a young woman is to draw a fallacious conclusion. The discerning will ignore the reasoning presented here.

  11. CommentedJ. C.

    You should have stronger arguments than a violation happened in Delhi (which is horrible) to defend gay marriage... The thing is that the Pope is exposing his=his church´s view, based in his FAITH, and it´s quite obvious you won´t agree with him if you just look at this from a "practical" perspective...
    I can´t see the relation you try to propose between his speech (focused on each one´s freedom and self determination) and sexual violence... It´s just an intend to link his speech with something really horrible and violent that nothing has to do with it... Just bad propaganda...

  12. CommentedCarlos Santos

    "38% said the longest relationship they had ever had did not last longer than a year" (p. 340 of the Gay Report).
    So the *real* thing is that monogamy and fidelity *is not* the mainstream of gay culture (why should it be?). Trying to associate marriage and gay people is only another way of patronizing. Let them be what they are, not what the political corporations wants them to be ...

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