When I exercise on weekday mornings, I usually listen to National Public Radio. A couple of weeks ago the morning program included a commentary about a film I had not heard of previously named “Straight Outta Compton,” which is about a hip hop group I had not heard of previously either. The film, the commentator said, includes a portrayal of an orgy in which a man throws a naked woman into the hallway of a hotel, locks the door behind her, and says “Bye, Felicia.” That phrase has become widely used in popular culture, and the commentator thought that the film used it as a punch line to present violence and disrespect towards women as being somehow amusing.
I will not see the film and will leave it to others to comment on it, but will instead reflect on the commentary’s silence about the orgy. Surely, the kind of depravity embodied in a group sex party manifests disrespect for all concerned and especially solidifies the worst male attitudes toward women. Disease, abortion, divorce, personal sorrow, and further depravity are just of a few of the likely results of engaging in such behavior. It would not be hard to list many others, several of which would have to be condemned by any fair-minded person committed to the dignity of human beings. The kinds of sexual behavior portrayed in such a scene lead inevitably to the abuse condemned by the commentator. Why, then, did she not state that an orgy is profoundly degrading by its very nature, as it reduces unique human persons to nothing but body parts to be used for momentary pleasure? What about the long-term effects on those involved and their families? Are we so accustomed to such debauchery that we no longer notice how awful it is?
The commentator’s silence on these points gives me yet another reason to fear that many in our society have become blind to the seriousness of sex in shaping and revealing the character of people. We are never more vulnerable to one another than we are in this area of life. How we treat one another there forms us, them, and future generations in powerful ways. And if we will cheat, abuse, or simply use others sexually, we will take a long step down a path toward forms of corruption that we do not control well at all. We hand ourselves over to slavery to immediate pleasure in a way that weakens our ability to treat others as anything but instruments for our immediate purposes, whether in the bedroom or elsewhere.
If it is not clear that women typically bear the brunt of these affairs, then we need to think again. Who gets pregnant and is at risk for the tragic choice of abortion? Who bears the burdens of rearing a child alone? Who is far more likely to be a victim of physical abuse? Who is more inclined to view acts of physical intimacy as signs of true personal union? In the world as we know it, it is the woman. How strange that so few in our society dare to open their eyes to the misogyny embodied in the current state of sexual ethics or the lack thereof. The consequences of the promiscuity celebrated as sexual liberation fall heavily on women and their children. If we condone sexual practices that treat women as nothing more than the sum of their body parts, then should we be surprised when audiences laugh as a woman is thrown naked out of an orgy?
As a father, a husband, and a priest who asks daily for the intercessions of the Mother of God, especially for my wife and daughters, the current state of popular culture on these matters sickens me. Our larger society is apparently without the resources necessary to recognize and respect our God-given capability for intimacy, covenantal fidelity, and bringing beloved children into the world. We have reduced a most sacred calling to little more than the pursuit of domination and self-centered pleasure. This sad state of affairs is so common that many today do not even recognize a scandal when they see it.
Part of the problem is that we think of ourselves as isolated individuals with rights to do as we please with our bodies. It is one thing to have a legal system that affirms the liberty of people to do what they freely choose. It is quite another, however, to pretend that there is nothing more at stake in profound matters of character, identity, and relations with others than the question of whether those involved have consented to participate in certain acts. People can consent to do all sorts of reprehensible things which are good for no one. Such things diminish us, however, in ways that we cannot control and never fully know. It is notoriously difficult to predict the consequences of our actions or to control how we and others will respond to them. Nowhere is that more true than in the intimate relationship of man and woman.
Perhaps at the root of our society’s inability to deal soberly with these matters is our collective ignorance about the passions. Passions are the disordered relationships we have with just about everything. They are misdirected energies that pull us this way and that, even when we know and deeply desire to stay on the straight path. As the origins of the word itself indicate, we suffer weaknesses of soul that make it so easy for so little to punch our buttons and make us feel virtually powerless to resist the temptations that have become most familiar to us.
Passions go deeper than particular actions we choose freely, at least in a legal sense. They reflect the state of our souls, of our deepest character, of who we are mostly profoundly in relation to God, neighbor, and self. People may choose to do this, that, or the other thing in a fashion they understand to be informed and free, but may actually be as helpless as slaves before the force of their addiction to their own self-centered desires. To continue to act in such ways puts us in a downward spiral of degradation that destroys freedom in all but a formal sense. It is like exercising the freedom to abuse a substance until we are addicted to it, which surely makes us much less than free.
As shocking as it sounds in our current cultural setting, sexual intimacy with another makes us “one flesh” with that person. St. Paul said that was the case even for those who have relations with prostitutes. (1 Cor. 6: 16) By its very nature for those created male and female in the image and likeness of God, the “one flesh” union is a blessing intended for our healing, fulfillment, and growth in holiness. It is no accident that Christ so often used a wedding feast for an image of the Kingdom of God or that the eschatological vision of Revelation culminates in the marriage banquet of the Lamb. He is the Groom and the Church is His Bride.
In the Orthodox wedding service, husband and wife wear the crowns of the Kingdom, which are also martyrs’ crowns for those who die to self out of love for the Lord and one another. All of this is for the healing of passions, sexual and otherwise, by directing our desires ultimately to God. The point is not to destroy our desires, but to purify them. True Christian teaching on sex is in no way negative, but truly sublime and holy.
In contrast, those who see nothing much at stake in promiscuity or orgies are blind to the power of the passions to corrupt even the greatest blessings and joys of life. In the name of liberation, they fall into a bondage from which it is difficult to escape. Their sights are set far too low. True respect for the dignity of women arises from the healing of passions that corrupt intimate relationships, which requires identifying and correcting their failings. Passing over them in silence does no good at all. If we want to get beyond the abuses associated with “Bye, Felicia,” we need to start by redirecting our desires to the Lord Who invites man and woman together to become participants in the heavenly wedding banquet. There could be no more positive view of the “one flesh” union of male and female.