The disappearance of mutual respect

May 23, 2009

A sorry saga

In Australia over the last week or so the big story (especially in the tabloids) has been a series of scandals facing a football club, the Cronulla Sharks Rugby League club. I won’t bore everyone with all the sordid details, but it would be helpful for international readers to know the details of one incident that involved a high profile former rugby league star who is now a very high profile television commentator (here). As part of the ongoing story of male sexual abuse and exploitation of young women, the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s program Four Corners exposed the details of an incident that had occurred in New Zealand some seven years ago in which it was alleged that a high profile footballer (Matthew Johns) and an unclear number of team mates (possibly as many as nine), were involved in sexual activities with a 19 year old woman in their team hotel. While the woman had gone willingly with the men to their room and appears to have consented to a sex act with at least two of the men, it is alleged that matters got out of hand. Police had investigated the matter and no charges were laid.

The response from the community has been varied and at times confusing. Many have been supportive of Johns pointing to the fact that there were no charges and that the woman appeared to have consented to the activities, that a workmate in recent times had gone public and claimed that the woman boasted about the event later rather than being traumatised. Just as many were quick to call for Johns to be sacked as a television host (and he has been) and see it as an example of football players showing no respect for women and using their fame to exploit them for their own sexual gratification. Others have pointed to the need for the game to clean up its image noting (for example) that the use of scantily clad cheerleaders was degrading to woman and simply fed a culture of exploitation of women. A small number have bravely pointed to the young woman’s actions, asking the question, but “why would a 19 year old woman go alone to a hotel with a football team and then invite at least two into a room with her for consensual sex?”

Dignity for manhood and womanhood

The discussion in the media highlighted has highlighted for me the gulf between community standards of behaviour and biblical teaching on how men and women should relate to one another.

John Piper preached a sermon some 20 years ago titled ‘Manhood and Womanhood: Conflict and Confusion After the Fall’ in which he discussed the Bibles teaching that as a consequence of sin there is confusion between the roles of man and woman:

“Maleness as God created it has been depraved and corrupted by sin. Femaleness as God created it has been depraved and corrupted by sin. The essence of sin is self-reliance and self-exaltation. First in rebellion against God, and then in exploitation of each other. So the essence of corrupted maleness is the self-aggrandizing effort to subdue and control and exploit women for its own private desires. And the essence of corrupted femaleness is the self-aggrandizing effort to subdue and control and exploit men for its own private desires. And the difference is found mainly in the different weaknesses that we can exploit in one another.”

God gave woman to man to live in relationship to him. This relationship is meant to:
  • Reflect equality of personhood in the sight of God, with equality of dignity (1 Peter 2:17; 1 Tim 5:1)
  • Be based on mutual respect where each tries to honour not exploit the other
  • Be a life of harmony as men and women work together for each other’s good
  • Demonstrate a complementarity that respects the differences between man and woman and affirms and values them.
This is still God's expectation in spite of the corruption of sin. But how far western society has drifted from the Bible’s picture of men and women living with mutual respect for one another.

The point of this post is not to lament the actual incident, but simply to ask two (of many) questions I’ve had rattling around in my head as I’ve reflected on the matter.

What is it that creates a large proportion of young men who think that women are simply sexual objects to be exploited and used for their own pleasure and purposes?

We could answer with ‘sin’, but how is this operating in ordinary lives, and why do things seem worse than before? In one sense, young men are no different now than at any time in history. As always, as men move into puberty they begin a stage of sexual inquisitiveness, a search for their identity and desire to know how they should relate to young women as they pass from being boys to being men. The media’s coverage of the football saga has been all about cracking down on young footballers, of tougher rules, of no alcohol during the season, of minders etc. These are just bandaids which while perhaps useful, would have no impact on the root cause. It is in the first 12 years of life (before puberty) that attitudes to girls and the right way to treat them should be developed in families. Once puberty is reached every young boy needs strong male role models who can help them to work out who they are and how they relate to young women. They also need to see right models of young women relating to young men. It is primarily in the home that they should learn about these things. But how do they learn these things? In lots of simple ways, for example:
  • In the way men relate to their wives and other women in their lives.
  • In the television programs that we permit our young men to watch and the books and magazines that we allow them to read.
  • In the unbridled access we allow to the Internet and gaming and the values that they reinforce.
  • In the music and video clips that we allow them to listen to and watch.
  • In the friends they keep and our lack of scrutiny of their activities.
  • In the lessons we teach them about alcohol use or abuse.
  • In the examples that male teachers, football coaches, and community leaders of all kinds set for young boys.

The above comments beg the question, what if there isn’t a male in the house? It becomes harder, but that’s where in communities we should be prepared to share responsibility for other people’s children (see my previous post on 'Loving your neighbour's children' here).

Why are many young women prepared to tolerate the behaviour of these young men and actually place themselves in positions of subjugation?

My second question may well lead to some protests and the claim that I’m blaming victims, but I’m not trying to do that. I’ve been working with young adults for over 30 years as a university academic and head of a residential college and so have observed at close hand the behaviour of young men and women. I’ve been shocked in the last decade or so at the extent to which young women have been prepared to accept behaviour, language and attitudes that previous generations would never have permitted. Young women do have to take some responsibility for their own actions; they can say no, and they can say 'don't act towards me like that'. And yet, young women receive so many messages that their value is judged by their attractiveness to men, that their identity and worth is often judged by the extent to which men want them. It is not surprising how desperate some women are to attract male attention. How do young women learn these things?

I think the answer is similar to that for young men, in the first 10-12 years of life. As young women reach puberty they too need strong role models both male and female to help them to understand how they should relate to young men. Again we set the patterns at home in many ways. To a large extent the ways we do it are just the same as for young boys: the models we set, the access we allow to TV, videos, Internet, magazines, but also the way we dress them and begin to almost make objects of desire with bras at 8 years and make-up even earlier.

For girls, the pressure is even greater than for boys, as they are constantly bombarded with images from advertising, television, magazine and the internet that seek to portray the ideal women in looks and behaviour. As with boys, parents, teachers and others with leadership roles need to set rules and boundaries that we encourage them not to cross. In the years of puberty boys and girls will constantly test us and they will be looking for us to help them judge what is right and wrong. As they try to work out who they are they do want our help, even when at times it doesn't seem like it. Maintaining strong relationships in these critical years is vital if parents don’t want the major influence in their teenagers’ lives to be their friends and the images of popular culture that constantly bombard them.

The time families spend together and the things they do matter. Does it matter (for example) if the family sits down to watch ‘Big Brother’ together? Yes it does, for it provides one model, which we endorse through our actions of what it is to be a man or woman, and offers an insight into what some young people value. It’s a series of very small steps from the attitude and behaviours of the people in such a program to the type of behaviour that we’ve seen demonstrated by the high profile footballers in Sydney, and sadly, even the behaviour of some of the women that they prey on.

Joan Jacob Brumberg (1997) in her book ‘The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls’ offers this key insight:

“Contemporary girls seem to have more autonomy, but their freedom is laced with peril. Despite sophisticated packaging, many remain emotionally immature, and that makes it all the more difficult to withstand the sexually brutal and commercially rapacious society in which they grow up” (p.197)
Young men and women today are pursing a freedom which is simply a form of slavery. The Bible teaches that true freedom can only come through a relationship with Christ. Becoming a disciple of Christ is an act of self-surrender; self-surrender leads inevitably to slavery; and slavery demands a total, radical, exclusive obedience. Paul wrote to the church in Rome:

17But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6:17-18)

Rather than being a slave to the world and self, we can serve the living God. And the wonderful thing about serving God is that we are free to be the people we were designed to be, not those that the world is trying to convince us to become. And this is true freedom, for as Jesus taught:

If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36).

Advice to parents

In world hostile to some of the values that the average reader of this blog would hold, good parenting is critical. I wasn’t perfect as a father but I was available and involved and I was prepared to set rules and boundaries and work with my wife to help our daughters negotiate the tricky waters of the teenage years. No they wouldn’t be going to any party where there was alcohol under the age of 18. No there wouldn’t be a ‘Dolly’ magazine in our house. “No you can’t watch that program on TV” etc. Sometimes this was very hard, but as a Dad (with Carmen their Mum) I was determined to set clear boundaries. All the time we were setting limits and rules we were striving to keep our relationship strong and open so that they would want to ask us tough questions which God willing we could answer wisely. Sound biblical teaching needs to drive this of course, and active involvement in church, youth groups (with strong teenage models as leaders) etc. Above all else, we wanted our children to grow in their knowledge of Christ and to commit their lives to following him.

It is a difficult time to be raising teenage girls and boys, parents need to reflect on their roles, the messages they send to their children and the attitudes, behaviour and values that they promote often unwittingly. It seems difficult to fight against the disappearance of mutual respect, but we share collective responsibility to fight against its demise and the fight starts in our own families.

Related Links

Women’s Forum Australia has some wonderful material that deals with issues facing women today, research on body image and female sexuality (here). The magazine opposite is a wonderful collection of short pieces on the challenges facing young women today.

John Piper's sermon ‘Manhood and Womanhood: Conflict and Confusion After the Fall’ (here)

New Zealander Celia Lashlie has written a book about how to raise good men. You can listen to an excellent radio interview with her recently. This is an interesting perspective from a non-Christian with much wisdom that we can learn from (here). Her book 'He'll be ok: Growing gorgeous boys into good men' would be invaluable for parents with rebellious teenage boys (here)

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