In my last post, I began to address the recent flood of sexual harassment allegations and revelations that have come out against many Hollywood executives and politicians. I noted that these revelations regarding the predatory behavior by men in power should not be surprising at all. Without going into sordid details, just take a look around at our society today: note how many times women’s bodies are used to sell stuff; note how many times movies, TV shows, and pop music routinely objectify women as nothing more than sex objects. I also touched upon how our politics often overrides our moral sensibilities, and how sexual ethics all too often become transactional when it comes to gaining political power.
But if we’re honest, we all know that already. And if we’re honest, we know that some token sexual harassment law or public service announcement isn’t really going to change a whole lot. What needs to happen is that we as a people—both individually and on a societal level—need to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind,” so that we can discern what the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God is (Romans 12:2).
And so, in this post, I’m going to do two things: (1) I’m going to share some personal thoughts about how I view women, and (2) I’m going to discuss what we can learn from the Bible about how we should view and treat women. What could go wrong?
Women are beautiful. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t women who are horrible people, or that every single woman is as physically attractive as, let’s say, Angelina Jolie or Gal Gadot. All I’m saying is that, speaking as a typical man, I find women to be attractive and beautiful in a whole number of ways. It could be the smile a cashier gives me as she rings up my groceries, or the way a woman at Starbucks looks as she’s just reading a book, or the way Kathryn Tickell looks as she’s playing the violin—for me, women exude beauty.
Although the beauty is physical, it is at the same time something more than physical—it is, indeed, spiritual. And although it is, in a sense, sex-ual (i.e. the beauty of women can take my breath away, whereas men are just men), it goes far beyond mere sex. Even when it comes to my Facebook posts or blog posts, there simply is something more pleasing to me when a woman “likes” or leaves a comment. I’ve always enjoyed talking with women more than men. There simply is something different, yet incredibly pleasing, inspiring, and attractive in my interaction with women.
Now yes, all of this is, in a sense, the result of the natural sexual attraction men have for women and women have for men—and that is completely fine, good, and natural. But like anything that is “natural,” although it can be used and celebrated and used in a variety of creative ways, it also has the potential to be abused and perverted. C.S. Lewis talks about this in his chapter on sexual morality in Mere Christianity: on one hand, the Christian notion of romantic love has inspired people to write some of the most beautiful love poetry and love songs in history, and people in the throes of romantic love naturally want to bind themselves to, and promise eternal fidelity to, the beloved.
Yet on the other hand, when twisted and inflamed, our natural sexual attractions can lead people to the most horrendous perversions. And this is the great tragedy of our current society. Somehow, our culture has come to equate the beauty of sexual attraction with nothing more than an urge to have sex. Simply put, through our music, movies, advertisements, etc., we have perverted what is naturally good into something that is base and perverse. And this poses a challenge for us all: What does one do with, and how does one harness, these natural attractions and affections…especially when our culture is screaming at us to debase them to nothing more than an excuse for “hot, steamy sex”?
The first step is to flat out reject that narrative. It is debasing and makes us less human, both men and women. And yes, this means we have to actively choose to reject a whole bunch of stuff in our current culture. Personally, I refuse to eat at Hardee’s—it sounds like a minor thing, but I’m not going to spend my money at a place that is so blatant in the way it treats women as sex objects.
The second step is to recover a healthy understanding of the purpose of sexuality. I believe the sexual attraction and affection men and women naturally feel for one another is there to make us better, more creative, and more mature people. There are myriads of ways to express one’s sexuality: art, music, poetry, sports, virtually anything—and natural sexual attraction and affection has the potential to bring such sexual expression out of us, and in doing so, it helps create a better society.
In fact, the very reason I first got into literature, eventually majored in British Literature, and even taught myself the guitar was because I was hopelessly in love with a girl through high school and college, and I found in poetry and music the language that helped me articulate the inner longings and spiritual yearnings that that love for that girl awoke in me. The love I had for her evoked a creative expression in me that made me a more complete person.
Now, in regard to actual sex, the Christian teaching has always been that you reserve actual sexual relations for the one person with whom you pledge yourself to in marriage. That level of sexual intimacy and sexual expression should be reserved for a life-long committed relationship. But—and this is what we need to see—that kind of sexual expression is not the only kind of sexual expression: our sexuality and our natural affections should not be allowed to be reduced to nothing more than physical sex acts.
What all this requires is the purposeful commitment to practice the traditional virtues. It’s not easy, and it takes dedication and hard work, and no one is going to never stumble in some way in their attempt to practice them, but that is the only way we will become fully mature and whole people.
What the Bible Says Regarding How Men Should Treat Women
With those brief comments about women, sexuality, and attraction out of the way, I want to now turn to (however trite it might sound) looking at what the Bible says about women, and how they should be treated. First off, as I said in my prior post, sexual harassment by men against women should not be surprising—biblically-speaking, it is the first consequence of sin that is mentioned in Genesis 3:16: “To the woman he [God] said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
Translation? A natural result of human sin is a “battle of the sexes” and men’s domination over women. If we understand this, we can say to both serial sexual harassers and predators, as well as to those who think God wants women to be in an unequal, subservient role to men, “You are wrong—what you are doing and saying is evidence of sin and sinful humanity; it’s not God’s intention.”
Given this state of sinful humanity, what we find in the New Testament is actually quite revolutionary. Now, I know many point to various passages and claim that Christianity, and the New Testament itself (with all that talk about “women submitting to men”), is misogynistic toward women, but the more I reflect on it, I beg to differ. Here’s why…
The Roman world was a highly patriarchal society in which women had very little rights, and really no equality. Paul was speaking two Christians living within the society in which men’s and women’s roles were defined along those lines. And so, in that culture, consider New Testament admonitions to men and husbands:
- They are to love their wives as Christ loves the church and as they do their own bodies, to nourish and care for them, and to join themselves sexually solely to their wives (Eph. 5:21-33);
- They are to show consideration for their wives, and to pay them honor “as the weaker sex” (I Peter 3:7).
Simply put, in that patriarchal culture, those Christian admonitions to Christian men ultimately undercuts that very patriarchal foundation, for when husbands treat their wives that way, and when men in general treat women that way, any real sense of patriarchy, male dominance, and “men ruling over women” goes out the window. It becomes a non-issue.
Now, one might ask, “Well, what about that talk about women being ‘the weaker sex’?” Let’s be honest: that’s true—that’s why sexual harassment and predatory behavior happens. In that culture (as in every culture), women are weaker, and are thus vulnerable to predatory behavior. And thus, Peter and Paul’s admonitions to men and husbands to honor women is tremendously counter-cultural, flying in the face of the Clintons, Trumps, and Weinsteins of the world.
And while we’re at it, we might as well also mention the various admonitions to women: not to be obsessed with outward beauty, but to focus on modesty, faith, love, holiness and good works (I Tim. 2:8-10, 15); to be self-controlled, chaste, kind, etc. (Titus 2:5); to strive for inner beauty, and a gentle and quiet spirit (I Peter. 3:3-5). Personally, as a guy, even though my head might turn at a woman who is dressed provocatively, that kind of woman doesn’t really inspire or impress me. The women that are truly attractive to me are those that are kind, thoughtful, and who exhibit those qualities that these verses extol.
Here’s my point in all of this: if we take what the New Testament says in its totality regarding women, and in particular how they should act and how men should treat women, our focus would be on things like love, modesty, faith, respect, holiness, consideration, honoring, etc. Let’s face it, not only would that be a really nice kind of culture to live in, that kind of culture is, in many ways, the polar opposite of our culture today.
As I was writing this post, I became acutely aware of how multi-faceted and wide-ranging issues regarding men, women, equality, sex, and harassment can go. In that respect, this post is wholly inadequate. Nevertheless, I hope some points made sense. In any case, as a way to conclude, here is a very practical, everyday suggestion I’d like to make for men:
Guys, it’s totally okay to find a woman beautiful. And even if you are totally turned on by the way a woman looks or is dressed, it’s not okay (especially in the work place!) to go up to a woman say, “Hey, you look hot and sexy! Do a twirl for me!” That’s creepy. My suggestion: at most, say to a woman that you already really know well, “Hey, you look nice.” I know as a guy, I appreciate it if a female co-worker says, “Hey, you look nice,” but if she said, “Mmmm mmm…why don’t you turn around and bend over for me,” I’d feel pretty dirty. That’s how women feel when guys say similar things.
It really comes down to self-control, respect for the woman, and a determined effort to harness one’s sexuality and sexual attraction toward something creative, good, and true. Allow me finish this post with a sonnet I wrote a long time ago about that girl who was the inspiration for my getting into literature.
When I look into your eyes I cannot breathe,
For you have taken Love’s breath far away
To God’s fair heaven that hides beneath
Your lips that kiss the night of dreamer’s day.
And in your voice, so sweet, I cannot hear
The music of ten-thousand lovers strong,
That call for my affection to appear
To them. For I can only hear your song.
But I, who hear and see your beauty true,
Am breathless, and cannot my passion show.
My heart! It begs your touch–these lips renew,
And free me from my night of silent woe.
Oh, to speak the heart of love with wings of birds
And tell you of my love in spoken words.