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Open secret: The one thing that can prevent sexual harassment

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Begin with the pursuit of one unpopular virtue that is barely considered or even taught, and it's not the one you think.

Over the past month we’ve read a seemingly endless string of stories coming out of Hollywood and the news industry detailing the horrifying, sometimes sickening, acts of sexual harassment perpetrated against females, and sometimes males, and sometimes very young people of both sexes, by extremely powerful men.

With nearly every revelation, the abusive proclivities of all of them — from Harvey Weinstein to Brett Ratner to Kevin Spacey; from FOX News’ Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, to MSNBC’s Mark Halperin, and NPR’s Michael Oreskes  — are followed by two words: Open secret.

“Everyone knew”
In other words, as Rosie O’Donnell tweeted out — “everyone knew.” Everyone in Hollywood knew about what used to be called the “casting couch” (although, as Maureen O’Hara indicated, it reached beyond that) and who used it. Everyone in Hollywood knew, and still knows, about powerful people routinely exploiting less-powerful people who dream of becoming themselves powerful, one day.

And we know it’s true. We know that “everyone knew” because many of us who take only a passing interest in media gossip “knew it” too, if not in specifics then in broad theory.

Soon after the Weinstein revelation, designer Donna Karan shared (and quickly walked back) the opinion that sexually abused women in Hollywood were “asking for it.” Actor Mayim Bialik, apparently with good intentions, opined that women needed to be more sensitive as to how modestly or immodestly they dressed.

No one asks for this
Let’s be clear: women are never “asking for it.” No one is ever asking to be used and abused, objectified, and dehumanized. But there is a measure of truth in that how we present ourselves to the world, and how we socialize, is important. We should never permit ourselves to be placed in precarious or vulnerable positions in order to be social or to “get ahead” — not because such ambitions are “bad” but because bad people will always exploit an opportunity, and because — as David Mills has written — the fallen world isn’t fair.

Let’s take clarity even further: Choosing to dress with modesty and to socialize with a sense of self-restraint and some situational awareness are pure positives; they are decisions that contain nothing negative. They deliver an unspoken message: “I know who I am, and I belong to myself.”

That said, those good choices will not protect one from molestation by wicked people; modest dress that flaunts nothing can be a statement but it is never a shield. Burqa’d, women are raped. Women in religious garb are sexually assaulted. Little kids lit with innocence are abused. Their tender rays snuffed out, they are cast into lifelong shadows. I can say that last with certainty, because I was one of them, all properly dressed and instructed in how to sit, stand, and run “like a lady.”

Women can exploit and abuse, too
There are too many stories of grown men being similarly abused by people in authority (and more stories than one wants to hear about teenage boys being pursued and abused by females teachers) to pretend that only women are victims, and too many stories of children being abused to pretend that predation is simply about sexual inconstraint.

Here is the truth: Sexual aggression is all about power. It is always about someone who believes that he (or she) can control another. Their doing so serves a void — or a terrifying abyss — within them.

“Gotta serve someone”
A sexual aggressor acts in service to whatever is severely lacking, disturbed, and ill within themselves. In Strange Gods, I detail how our idols reflect us back to ourselves as we wish to be seen. For the Israelites wandering the desert, the golden calf represented power, “an affirmation of strength, wealth, and greatness, which they could confirm with their own eyes, mirrored back at them.” For these predators, their victimization of others reflects back to them a sense of power, control, mastery, and yes, even desirability.

How do we end sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse will always exist because we live within a fallen world full of souls wounded beyond our knowing — untreated, unhealed, and fully oozing their infections. It is easy to say “if only people were chaste, as God commands them to be chaste, these things would not happen,” but that is a false premise.

Yes, God does command us to be chaste; he also commands us to honor our parents, not kill, not steal, not covet, because without these rather limited guidelines, we’d leave our elderly parents to die in the elements, we’d steal whatever we craved, we’d kill within a moment’s fury, or even outside of it. We’d be fornicating without thought, without love, responsibility or commitment, and we’d be doing all of it with no eye toward our futures, our very meaning as created creatures.

God commands us to be chaste and we ought to be, within the scope of our lives, but that will not end the sexual exploitation of others. Only one thing will: Humility.

Serve the other, save the self
Humility is an unpopular — one might say barely considered, hence untaught — virtue, but it is the key to developing a fully virtuous life and a just society. The practice of humility does not allow one to serve a perception of one’s own power, nor to reduce other people to “things” or objects. Rather, rather it forces one to consider the gifted humanity of the other; it understands the privilege of known and serving the other.

Humility is the gateway virtue that trains us in all of the other heavenly virtues:

  • Kindness, because it remembers receiving kindness
  • Patience, because it has experienced impatience
  • Diligence and Charity, because it has seen the rewards of both
  • Temperance, because a humble soul is one that takes less, rather than more
  • Chastity, because humility recognizes the co-creative, God-connected gift of sexuality

Grave sin will be with us unto ages of ages, but grace can abound, and it can bring light into the dark places; it can heal the festering wounds of our psyches and our souls. But we have to want it, and ask for it.

It is an open secret: Pursuing humility — asking for the grace of the virtue of humility, and then practicing it — is a way to begin.

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