This Is Not Upendi. So Let’s Get Real About Human Sexuality!
Growing up in Africa, I heard people speak about a shumba in reference to a lion. I think “Simba” is Google Translate and Broadway’s catering to the Western tongue and ear. Ditto for Upendi, Lion King’s Land of Love. Seems the “e” sound at words-end was a better fit for the audience than upendo, the original Swahili word for “love.”
Spelling aside, Upendi is a land of make-believe. No. One. Lives. There. Yet an entire generation has been schooled on the notion that our utopian ideals are the stuff real life should be made of and that something is wrong with the world because it’s not holding up to a watery wonderland.
In two previous articles (find them here and here) I looked at our response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal from a psychological and sociological-financial point of view. My intention here is to explore it from a practical, behavioral stance. The exact opposite stance in fact from what you’d find in Upendi.
Don’t Hold Men (or Anyone for that Matter) to Unrealistic Utopian Standards.
“I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise…I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.
I am entirely aware that these types of choices might feel oppressive to many young feminists. Women should be able to wear whatever they want. They should be able to flirt however they want with whomever they want. Why are we the ones who have to police our behavior?
In a perfect world, women should be free to act however they want. But our world isn’t perfect. Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women. But we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in.”
And for that, she’s taken a lot of flak. She’s been accused of victim blaming for suggesting that we don’t live in a perfect world and that as such women would do well to bear that fact in mind. This comment on her article captures the underlying resistance to that notion (italics mine):
I found her opinion echoing the same line of message preached by almost every religion – “women should dress a certain way, act a certain way, not be friendly with men otherwise they risk being harassed or assaulted”. Why can’t we teach and expect better from men?
Bialik received so much pushback in fact that she issued a public apology asking for forgiveness. “I am tr[u]ly sorry for causing so much pain, and I hop[e] you can all forgive me,” she said.
I was saddened to read her apology to (it seems) The Entire World.
Surprise – We DON’T Live in a Perfect World!
I agree with her statement (really, it couldn’t be clearer) that, “Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women.” I also support the rest of her article. If we lived in a perfect world, women could act however they want. And guess what?! That doesn’t just apply to women. We could all behave as we want. (Spoiler alert: In a perfect world we’d want to behave a whole lot differently from the way we dream of doing now.) But we don’t live there. We need to accept that sexuality is one of the most potent forces that drives us – and that male sexuality differs from women’s. The procreative drive sets up a force that unless mindfully directed and socially supported is stronger even than the superego. We may not like that. But we don’t yet live in a perfect world.
The refusal to admit that is symptomatic of our culture’s attachment to unrealistic, utopian standards in general. In her piece Modernity Starts Here, Melanie Phillips speaks of the many movements that have grown out of this vast embracing of a utopian ideal, among them moral and cultural relativism, materialism, anti-capitalism, feminism, multiculturalism, universalism and environmentalism:
“Each in its own way wants to create a new kind of human being and a perfect world… Because they all aim at moral perfection, their governing idea cannot be challenged. So instead of using evidence to reach a conclusion, facts are wrenched to fit their governing idea.”
What does this have to do with Harvey Weinstein and the ever broadening scandal of sexual predation? Lots. The current outcry refuses to acknowledge that we are far from perfect beings. It’s yet another inconvenient truth.
The Bible by contrast is not nearly as idyllic. “The inclination of a person is evil from the time of his youth,” it states in the Biblical portion of Noah. And a commentator, playing on the Hebrew homonym for “youth” and “stir,” adds that this inclination is given to us from the moment the fetus stirs to leave the womb.
We are multi-dimensional and complex beings. We have a dual identity! One part is idealistic and selfless. The other base and selfish. A part of us subscribes to utopian ideals and even embodies them. But it is not all of who we are. The baser part is in many ways its antithesis. To deny its presence is to stunt mastery of self and thereby moral conduct, a stable society and the actualization of our true purpose.
In a perfect world we’d be free to behave as we want because our “want” would be governed only by the desires of the higher self. That’s why suffering, war, and evil of any kind would disappear. Without the inclination embedded within us “from the moment the fetus stirs to leave the womb,” we’d all be naturally moral and good. Men wouldn’t take advantage of women. And women wouldn’t betray their soul by leading with their body. But that it’s not the case. We have multiple motivating forces within. If we deny our animalistic impulses and expect that real human beings live up to standards of perfection, we shut down the conversation and thereby perpetuate the abuse.
What are We Inviting In?
When the story initially broke, the Daily Mail reported fashion designer Donna Karan’s defense of Harvey Weinstein. She went so far as to suggest his victims may have been “asking for it” by the way they dress, calling the shamed mogul and his wife “wonderful people.”
When asked if Hollywood has been ‘busted’, she replied with a smile saying Weinstein isn’t solely to blame.
“I think we have to look at ourselves…It’s been a hard time for women. To see it here in our own country is very difficult, but I also think, how do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality? And what are we throwing out to our children today about how to dance and how to perform and what to wear? How much should they show?…I don’t think it’s only Harvey Weinstein. I don’t think we’re only looking at him. I think we’re looking at a world much deeper than that. I think he’s being looked at right now as a symbol not necessarily as him…I think we have to look at our world and what we want to say and how we want to say it as well…You look at everything all over the world today, how women are dressing and what they’re asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.”
The backlash, as with Bialik, was immediate and intense. Karan caved and retracted her statement. (Rare are those who have nothing to lose and so can speak their mind with impunity.) The irony of her saying this while baring much of her flesh and being a designer of clothes that sexualize women was rich. Nonetheless she was right!
If we lead with our bodies, that’s what’s going to get noticed first. And whereas for women the full intention in doing so might be attention and a sense of validation, men are more likely to take it as an invitation for something more. It’s not PC but it is true: Male and female sexuality operate differently. This is not victim blaming. It is stating a fact and suggesting choices and conduct on the part of women that takes that fact into account.
Dignified and Modest Clothing or Avoiding Seclusion with Men is Not Victim Blaming
Suggesting that dignified and modest clothing or avoiding seclusion with men is not victim blaming. It empowers them in a still imperfect world. To absolve them of all responsibility is to patronize them. Women are not infants who always have zero accountability. Neither are they children who have limited accountability for their actions. Women too can hold part of the responsibility to prevent sexual abuse. That will happen not only by speaking up but by dressing and acting in ways that bear the totality of the human condition in mind.
This is not the entire solution. Not at all. There are many next steps: If we really want to work this through, we need to connect with our true identity, fill our hearts with a sense of purpose, rid ourselves of the scourge of pornography, teach children about respecting others, litigate and punish crime…The list goes on. But encouraging women to empower themselves through dress and conduct, to not lead with sexuality and sensuality in public; to not be alone with a man in a room – especially his hotel room; to not be flirtatious in a work environment are items that need to be added to the list.
As I said in Part 1 of this series, sexuality is a force more powerful than our desire to present as “good people.” Let’s stop pretending and rather adjust our mindset and behavior to accommodate human weakness. This will position us to look at ourselves and attend to the deeper problems.
If nothing else, we can thank Harvey Weinstein for bringing the epidemic to light! The Talmud teaches that, “A person sees from the black of the eye.” Everything that happens to us happens for a reason. Our troubles, our challenges are all, each and every one, a Growth Opportunity. Let us take what is happening and find the hidden point of good. The extreme darkness that has become manifest through this story is an invitation to each of us, personally and globally, to convert our own darkness to light and thereby heal the world.
Harvey Weinstein is a creative genius. It may be that his greatest creative gift will be helping the word heal of sexual dysfunction and birthing healthy, soulful intimacy.