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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Moral Formation and Sexual Abuse Pt. 1: The Problem, How We Make It Worse, and How We Can't Make It Better

February 5th, 2018 | 12 min read

By Matthew Loftus

As the stories of #MeToo and #ChurchToo have spread across the internet and previously unaware people have come to realize how widespread sexual abuse and harassment are, we are now asking how to prevent men from abusing or harassing women. Despite the complexity and pervasiveness of the problem, many people are falling back on what Christine Emba has called “one weird trick” answers that conveniently buttress their underlying ideology. Whether it is the “teach men not to do it” camp or the “everyone should follow the Billy Graham rule” camp, there is no shortage of facile solutions that don’t deal with the difficult realities of forming virtuous men and deterring men who refuse to act virtuously.

There is no community in which sexual abuse is not a problem and no ideology a man can subscribe to that insulates his heart against the temptation to harm women; embracing feminism or an ethic of nonviolence is no more protective than participating in a rich liturgy or a community where traditional gender roles are sacrosanct. While some ideologies and ethical systems are more robust (or harmful) than others, we ought not kid ourselves about the relative weakness of any approach that assumes that all men will act differently because they have absorbed new information. While I am personally convinced that the Christian sexual ethic offers the best and most rigorous pathway for helping men develop the strength to resist temptation, this conversation can’t be restrained solely to the Church. We can’t wait until everyone is a Christian to deal with this and the Christians themselves fail so frequently to protect women that we have a lot to learn from outside the Church about how to disciple boys and men.

This first essay will discuss how the default pathways of moral formation in the contemporary West set men up to ignore what women have to say and degrade the inherent dignity of women in their life. It will also examine the different needs that different sorts of men have if we want them to think and behave rightly. The second essay will consider what can be done in order to love and respect women as they ought to be.

Starting off bad and learning to be worse

Christians, for the most part, can agree that we are all born sinful and are bent towards doing evil. In the realm of sexuality, this can take all sorts of manifestations but most men will struggle with both the temptation to lust after women and the temptation to misuse their power to use a woman in order to gratify their own desires without regard for that woman’s dignity. Male desire for sexual gratification tends to be both indiscriminate and excessive, and any man can intuit without any socialization that they can use emotional manipulation or physical intimidation to satisfy themselves.

People who don’t subscribe to any doctrine of original sin might say that this is all a result of the toxic masculinity that is programmed into men from birth, but I don’t think this really holds up. First, the default state of all people is to not respect the bodies or boundaries of other humans. This is particularly pronounced when it comes to men and sex; no one needs to be taught to ogle or snap a girl’s bra. Rather, we have to teach all children from a very young age that they cannot simply grab whatever they want from another person and we have to specifically remind boys just at the age that they are developing sexual feelings that those feelings do not grant them an exemption from the rules they learned in preschool.

Second, it is far easier to acknowledge that touching a woman without her consent is wrong than to actually respect that boundary. Some of the most prominent abusers we’ve seen can articulate in exquisite detail why their behavior was wrong. Both Christian pastors and feminist professors have destroyed lives despite their assent to moral principles about sex; in these cases men have an inordinate desire that they haven’t developed the moral fortitude to control. Whether they give in during a moment of weakness (less common) or continually suppress their consciences to give free rein to their lust, they’re acting against what they know to be true because they want to satisfy themselves.

That being said, there absolutely are external cultural factors -- what James K.A. Smith would call cultural liturgies or pedagogies of desire -- that help strengthen one’s conscience-suppressing muscles and even take some people to a place where they are either clueless about consent or actively speaking against its value. “Toxic masculinity” and “patriarchy” are both loaded terms that are not particularly useful insofar as they are generally used to mean “anything I don’t like that men do”, but there are numerous ways in which men are trained to view women as inferior objects reducible only to their sexual natures.

The secular pedagogies of desire are easy to spot: advertising that uses women’s bodies to sell stuff, pornography, and various songs, movies, or books where creepy or deceptive behavior by men is rewarded with sex. However, there are also Christian forms of this in which all women are treated as though their bodies are radioactive sexual objects that must be shielded with an inch of lead or straitjacketed into frankly unbiblical roles that revolve solely around childrearing. These will be discussed further later on, but for now it is worth saying that Christians have to honestly acknowledge the ways in which bad theology protects abusers and enables creeps.

Pornography, though, deserves special attention because it is the most aggressive medium by which men learn to ignore a woman’s thoughts, feelings, and desires in favor of lusting after their bodies. The consent of a pornographic actress is no more germane to the viewer of pornography as he watches than her high school GPA; what pornography tells us no matter how it is packaged is that you ought to fulfill your sexual desire by whatever means you see fit. The fact that pornography is not associated with a rise in serious criminal sexual offenses is not proof that it is harmless; many sorts of sexual misconduct are not captured in national crime statistics and there are no good ways to precisely measure the male population’s respect for women. Some may also note that the problem of sexual abuse long preceded the existence of pornography everywhere, which is as helpful as saying that people got asthma long before we started polluting the air.

Pornography is an acid that corrodes any existing moral formation and prevents any further moral development. If one starts out with a disposition towards respecting women, pornography may or may not destroy that disposition – but it will never help one to respect women more. Similarly, no one who starts off willing to harass a woman will be able to unlearn that desire under the influence of pornography. The existence of niches of pornography that celebrate consent or condom usage or more realistic bodies is a nice afterthought, but if you genuinely think they’re changing anyone for the better then you are kidding yourself.

Unfortunately, many people who want men to behave better don’t want to even talk about pornography because to do so would undercut one of the foundational premises of the Sexual Revolution, which is that one cannot cast aspersions on any truly consensual behavior. As Elizabeth Bruenig pointed out recently, this is simply not sufficient: good sex requires that we “consider one another's interior lives, feelings, personhood, dignity.” It is impossible to do this with pornography, thus, dismantling misogyny requires opposing pornography and eradicating its power to fortify sexism (and racism) in our minds.

It is intriguing, for example, to look at posts like this one that humorously point out the importance of disciplining one’s thought life. By the basic principles of sexual freedom, unchaste fantasies about your co-workers are not forbidden because they “don’t hurt anyone”; such fantasies may even be a good thing if they help you to be more… authentically yourself or something. Even Dan Savage has said that there’s nothing wrong with masturbating to images of clothed strangers on Instagram. Yet now we are realizing that such habits can precipitate worse things and that perhaps Jesus was on to something when he told us that we ought to gouge out our own eyes if we are using them to lust after other people.

Consent is not enough

A worldview that treats consent as the be-all-end-all of moral decision-making ignores the fact that affirmative consent can be obtained under all sorts of manipulation, and indeed many stories of sexual assault describe the victim begrudgingly giving affirmative consent to something they did not want to do because of the power that was being misused against them. Or consider how predators use the power of alcohol to manipulate others. Yet many people also choose to use alcohol to impair their own moral fortitude (whether to prey on others or to engage in “consensual” behavior), suppressing the natural hesitation most humans have towards sex with strangers. This natural hesitation produces an intense conflict with the ethic of sexual freedom that has dominated many of the instincts of the Sexual Revolution (which is part of why alcohol has flowed so freely in bars and frat houses where this ethic is put to the test), but that is not the only downside of emphasizing liberation.

If we are constantly told to indulge our desires without regard for any other moral code (both inherent and external) besides that of consent, it becomes that much harder for people to habitually hold to the one moral stricture that remains. The conventional wisdom was that a feminist and humanist ideology would be enough to hold it all together, but now secular humanism is at the moment struggling to ascertain what kind of supports can undergird affirmative consent. The recent story of Aziz Ansari has emphasized that what people have meant by “affirmative” consent the last few years was non-coerced consent, but there is simply no way to legally restrain men from all forms of coercion. Furthermore, if our pedagogies of desire are entirely centered around freedom from constraints, these pedagogies will naturally subvert anything we try to say about non-coercion.

Consent is necessary but not sufficient for sexual ethics (some Christians, sadly, understand the latter but still need to emphasize the former), and Christian morality has a much more robust framework for disciplining people to resist temptations and care for others. There are certainly some (religious or non-religious) who were lucky enough to be born with the moral fortitude to do the right thing most of the time. However, those who insist that everyone else should just pull themselves up by their moral bootstraps will find themselves (like those who insist that only the wholly woke and intersectional be a part of their coalition) quite lonely.

Yet churches have been just as affected by the scandals of sexual abuse just as much as secular institutions, if not more. It is no consolation that this is at least more consistent with what our worldview would expect (and we do expect that total depravity plus inconsistent moral formation will make a mockery of any ethic). Thus, we have to examine the particular vulnerabilities of Christian institutions and ask if there is anything to be learned from the pagans about avoiding the scorn of practices that not even the pagans tolerate.

Going back to church is also not enough

For all of the denigration that “purity culture” has gone through lately, it’s still difficult to define. Double standards for men and women in regards to sexuality seem to have existed from ancient times, as have taboos on discussing sex that help predators avoid being called out for their crimes. As best as I can tell, when people talk about the problems with “purity culture” they are talking about the ways of thinking and talking about sex that Christians have developed in response to the massive changes in social mores that the Sexual Revolution has brought about.

The most reactionary responses openly fantasize about returning to some time before the 1960s (there’s a particular fascination with the mid-1800s for some reason, don’t ask me why). Keeping daughters away from college and stuck at home until marriage until a husband (perhaps a much older man) appears is doomed to failure because its adherents seem to have perversely dedicated themselves to never acknowledging the abuses and failures of bygone times and not learning anything from the last 150 years. It would be great to go back to a world in which teenage girls did not feel pressured to send naked pictures of themselves to teenage boys, but antebellum cosplay is not the answer.

Related to this impulse is those who emphasize the need for everyone to adhere to elaborate ideals of what manhood or womanhood ought to be. While some response to the current gender-bending insanity is necessary, it is also possible to critique the ways in which modernity has destroyed our families without going overboard. Our understanding of masculinity and femininity are so culturally mediated and our possible vocations are so diverse that it is almost impossible to prescribe any specific roles or attributes beyond the obvious biological ones. Furthermore, most of these prescribing efforts just end up being stupid.

The more common evangelical emphases on purity were, as others have pointed out, a scramble to hold on to the Biblical sexual ethic by Christians caught off guard by massive social changes. Like every other scramble (e.g. the current reaction among liberal Christians to the age of Trump), there were some good things and there were a lot of overreactions. As with many other issues in contemporary evangelicalism, the desire to see Christian youth avoid the heartbreak of sexual impurity was most off-base when it was least attentive to the processes of moral formation and most aggressive in stoking emotional fervor to induce or avoid particular behaviors.

Teachings about modesty, for example, were often disconnected from their Biblical context (might Paul have preferred a Wal-Mart tank top to an Anthropologie sweater?) and oriented wholly towards avoiding the act of mental lust in men. Both sexes were given a set of particular techniques and admonishments, neither of which were particularly effective in forming Christians who loved the Law of God. Even in the reaction against these teachings, many are still walking in the same failing steps as men are told men to “just control themselves” (trust me, we tried) instead of cultivating the discipline of sexual integrity.

Christians will also give in to an underdeveloped doctrine of sin that cannot distinguish between mental and physical sins. If young men are not taught that sexual abuse adds injury to insult, they may end up supposing that their lust and masturbation is no different than molestation and rape. For men who struggle with these sins, nihilism and despair may motivate them to extend the devastation from their own soul to others.

There are different kinds of harassment that will take different strategies to reckon with.

The range of #MeToo stories has brought about some interesting reactions. Some people don’t appreciate lumping victims of horrific assaults with those who have been verbally denigrated, while others are glad for any example that underscores the prevalence of sexual abuse in society. What it definitely reveals is that there are not only different sorts of abuse, but different sorts of abusers. Women walk with their keys between their fingers at night in order to protect themselves from a different sort of man than the creepy boss at work that everyone warns everyone else about. While all men may be inclined to wickedness, not every man is a Harvey Weinstein.

There’s a spectrum, if you will, ranging from incorrigible predators who shouldn’t be left alone with anyone to virtuous saints who could be stranded alone with a voluptuous goddess and never let an impure thought cross their mind. The Gospel can change anyone’s heart, but the out-and-out predators usually need to have their heart-changing work done in a secluded place, sometimes behind bars. Our strategies for dealing with them will differ significantly from how we can develop moral fortitude in the vast majority of men.

There are some men who have only ever learned that manhood involves controlling, harassing, and exercising power over women without any counter-narratives. A few of these men might simply need to be told that that it is their duty to respect women and that “respect” entails not verbally or physically harassing them. I doubt, however, that many men can be redirected so easily.

For everyone else in the middle, it will take a variety of strategies. Some predators can only be deterred or punished after the fact. Many others would never catcall or grope, but they also don’t have the courage to speak up when they observe abuse happening in front of them and they don’t have the ethical framework to respond as they should when they learn about abuse happening around them. For this vast majority of men without the moral fortitude to not only control themselves but also to work so that all women get the respect they need, we need a robust account of moral formation.

To read Part II of this essay, click here.

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Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at