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Constructive Dialogues: Understanding Sexual Assault From Both Sides of the Aisle 

Constructive Dialogues: Understanding Sexual Assault From Both Sides Of The Aisle 

Some of the most contentious and unfortunate issues to surface in recent memory have related to sexual assault and sexual impropriety. Whether it is the “#me too” movement, “times-up,” or various forms of sexual conflict between the sexes, human sexuality is under relentless scrutiny.

One area of sexual conflict is between the two dominant ideological positions in the Occident, which clash in a seemingly endless tête-à-tête: liberalism and conservatism. In The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (2013), the author, John Haidt, said something astutely pithy concerning these clashes: liberals and conservatives speak different languages. Imagine that liberals speak Italian, and conservatives speak Mandarin Chinese. As liberals and conservatives essentially speak different languages, communication, consensus, and compromise are often elusive.

Liberals and conservatives have conflicting ideological values, vocabularies, and assumptions about many things, such as the nature of good and evil, society, progress, rights and duties, and freedom versus restraint. The most important of these ideological incongruences emanates from conflicting visions regarding the nature of good and evil, specifically society’s role in creating evil.

Liberals, in the vein of their godfather and patron saint, Jean Rousseau, believe in the natural goodness of man, corrupted by society. Rousseau believed that, “man is naturally good, and that is solely by these institutions that men become wicked” (Rousseau, 1762, p. 2). To put Rousseau’s belief in perspective, read Irving Babbitt’s interpretation of Rousseau’s moral schema: “The old dualism put the conflict of good and evil in the breast of the individual . . . with Rousseau this conflict is transferred from the individual to society” (1924, p. 99).

Traditionally, the old dualism had a figurative angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other. The devil, meaning our evil inclination, was constantly wrestling with the angel, our good inclination. The devil is in charge of Man’s unruly passions and appetites that rage within each of us. However, after Rousseau’s invalidation of Man’s evil inclination, liberals no longer have the devil on their shoulders, nor do they worry about Man’s unruly passions and appetites. Conservatives believe that these unruly passions and appetites necessitate restraints, lest they run amok (Mueller, 1997).

Here’s where Haidt’s notion of liberals and conservatives speaking different languages surfaces: liberals do not have the language of the evil inclination, nor do they have the language of Man’s unruly passions and appetites necessitating restraints. Conservatives believe that there are things we can do that arouse Man’s unruly passions and appetites, and there are ways to suppress these impulses. Those adhering to liberal ideology do believe in evil, however, it is much less of a dualism within the individual, and much more of a dichotomous “us vs. them,” good vs. evil conflict (Haidt & Lukianoff, 2018).

The following is an example of the unruly passions and appetites of people being aroused, then running amok. Imagine it is a Saturday night downtown at a bar. Tonight, there is a major fight on T. V. – either a boxing match, or a UFC fight- and everyone at the bar is watching. Frequently, when these fights are broadcast on television at the bars, fights break out between the customers watching the contests. Watching a fight on television does not directly cause people to engage in fistfights, but fistfights at bars that air fights on t.v. are commonplace because they arouse the unruly passions and appetites people have for fighting. This is why many bars refrain from airing fights, and why many people avoid public places where they are shown.

Returning to the subject of sexual impropriety, watch the video clip embedded here from a television broadcast of a show called, It’s not you, it’s men, originally aired on 2/20/2016. Three people, Amber Rose, a former exotic-dancer turned social media personality; Reverend Run, a former rapper from the group Run DMC turned pastor; and Tyrese Gibson, a former model turned actor, discussed the notion of consent and sexual behavior.

Here is the transcript of their discussion, which contains some graphic language:

Tyrese Gibson: It’s – what – it’s, I’m just saying … the comfortability that some people find in wanting to touch or grope you… like; Yo, let me just like – it’s just like – it’s an energy that is . . . sent out there that creates that type of response.

Amber Rose: No it doesn’t, and I’m gonna tell you why. If I’m laying down with a man butt-naked and his condom is on, and I say, You know what? No. I don’t wanna do this. I changed my mind. . . .That means no. That means f*** no. . . . That’s it. It doesn’t matter how far I take it or what I have on, when I say no, it means no.

Rev Run: No, I want to say, I wasn’t saying, I’ve heard a quote like, you know; ‘Dress how you wanna be addressed.’, and it’s just, there’s some validity to that.

Amber Rose: If I want to wear a short skirt or a tank top, and I’m at the club and I’m having fun with my friends and I feel sexy, I’m not DTF. I’m not – I’m not even looking at you – I don’t even wanna have sex with you – I’m not – I didn’t come here to have sex. I didn’t come here to hook up with nobody. I came out here with my girls and I just feel pretty. . . . I’m not ‘asking for’ nothing. . . . And I’m not mad at y’all, because that’s how society raised all of us. (

Essentially, the conflict in the discussion is that Tyrese and Reverend Run believe that clothes and behavior send a powerful message to the world. Using conservative language, their implication is that dancing provocatively and wearing revealing clothes arouses the unruly passions and appetites of men for sexual desire. These actions provoke the devil on our shoulders. Rose’s response is typical of a person adhering to liberal ideology. She blames society and denies the notion of the unruly passions of men for sexual consumption.

Like Rousseau, Rose advocated for as much freedom as possible. Rousseau believed that, “the first of all goods. . . is freedom” (Rousseau, 1762B). Societal restraints and laws corrupt us because they prohibit the natural goodness of man from shining (Melzer, 1990). Rose is free to do as she wishes, and any problems associated with her behavior are strictly societal.

Rose takes this attitude with her to her bedroom, and argues that no matter what point a sexual encounter has reached, she can stop it whenever she wants. She proclaims, and vociferously so, that, “no means no.” In this regard, Rose is 100% correct. No means no, and when a woman no longer feels comfortable expressing her sexuality physically with a man, she have every legal and moral right to stop.

Unfortunately for Rose, whether she has the right to stop when physically engaged with a man is not necessarily the real issue. The material issue is that when a man and woman are engaged in a sexual act, the unruly passions and appetites of both have been aroused. The real question for Rose, and those who believe as she does, is not whether she has the right to stop, which she of course does, but whether her rights are stronger than her partner’s evil inclination. In the event that her partner is not interested in stopping, Rose has positioned herself in a precarious place that could end, sadly to admit, poorly for her.

As of this point, the reader could possibly make the conclusion that, I, as the author, am placing the blame on Rose and other women who find themselves sexually assaulted by men for having aroused the unruly passions and appetites men have for sex. This is what the reprehensible phrase, “she was asking for it” means. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Just as women have the duty to behave modestly, so too do men have a duty to behave as civilized human beings and not animals. This idea, that human beings must behave significantly better than animals, is a concept Edmund Burke once referred to as, “the moral imagination” (1790). In one of Burke’s most famous passages, he taught his readers that

All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion. (1790, para. 122)

Kirk (1981) explained that the moral imagination, “informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes” (p. 2). We are different than animals- we are better- and it is our duty to behave virtuously in accordance with this elevation. Kirk later reiterated his position, “that man is a little lower than angels, but infinitely higher than the beasts” (Kirk, 1986, p. 8).

In exercising a moral imagination, one is ultimately engaging in the opposite of Rousseau’s notion of freedom, and is instead exercising restraint. Freedom, based on the natural goodness of Man, is the pinnacle of human action to the liberal (Kessler, 2018). The conservative, on the other hand, believes that restraint is the hallmark of human action due to the evil inclination lurking inside of us all (Kessler, 2018). Here is Burke’s interpretation of the importance of self-control: “Our physical well-being, our moral worth, our social happiness, our political tranquillity, all depend on that controul of all our appetites and passions, which the ancients designed by the cardinal virtue of Temperance” (1796). We extrapolate the most out of life when we are the most self-controlled.

Essentially, Rose values her autonomy and freedom to do and behave as she wishes. What she is doing is exercising her rights. Rights are a pillar of liberalism (Nisbet, 1966), and are largely the contribution of Thomas Paine to liberal ideology (Levin, 2014). Liberals believe that they are entitled to certain things, and in this instance it is the right to dress, dance, and engage in sexual congress as they freely choose.

While conservatives do believe in rights, they believe that the opposite of a right is a duty, and duties must antecede rights. As Russell Kirk sagaciously articulated: “Man’s rights are linked with man’s duties, and when they are distorted into extravagant claims for a species of freedom and equality and worldly advancement which human character is not designed to sustain, they degenerate from rights into vices” (Kirk, 1951).

Women have the right to behave as they want in a free and healthy society. Women have the right to say no in accordance with their instincts as well. However, when these rights are divorced from duties, they degrade into vices. We lean on our rights as a crutch, but without a corresponding duty, that crutch denigrates into a rubber crutch, causing more harm than had we not evoked our rights in the first place.

We now find ourselves in a moral quandary. We have the right to live freely in America and much of the western world. Not only do we have the rights, but living in a society where women are not free to go out at night, dance, have some drinks, and dress how they want is highly undesirable. We also need women in our society to have the opportunities and abilities to earn a living and contribute in professional matters. Clearly, we want women to live as freely, confidently, and as safely as possible.

Our moral quandary arises out of the issues that all seem to flow from these freedoms. The sexual assault and sexual extortion from men like Harvey Weinstein, the perpetual parade of women complaining- and often legitimately so- of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the grey area that always seems to arise between men and women who are only “hooking up.” Hooking up means having a sexual partner without being in a committed, formal, monogamous relationship. Frequently, alcohol is involved, especially on college campuses where the gender ratios have overwhelmingly high numbers of women compared to men (Birger, 2015).

Many of these issues appear to be occurring with greater frequency than in previous eras. This is not to imply that sexual assault, rape, objectification, and other issues are new to the human condition. These issues have been around as long as men and women have existed in each others’ company. However, it does appear to be happening with greater regularity of late. Is it happening at the same rate it always has, but now with the advent of the internet, camera phones, and 24/7 cable news networks it merely seems as though it is happening with greater frequency?

Perhaps this is the case, perhaps not. Perhaps the issue is happening at a significantly higher rate because of modernity, specifically the ideology of progressivism. Originally, progressivism was known as Meliorism (Kessler, 2018). Meliorism has two main tenets. The first is the belief in the progress of human nature. The present generation is superior to previous generations. This superiority means that the norms, which are the standards of the past, are obsolete and must be supplanted by new norms for our new and superior times.

The second tenet of Meliorism is Rousseau’s natural goodness of Man, corrupted by society. Evil comes from society, and by adjusting society’s norms accordingly, we can eradicate evil altogether.

To the conservative, as Russell Kirk understood, human nature is constant. We, in the present, are no different than our eldest ancestors. Additionally, evil does not come from society, but comes from within Man’s evil inclination. Kirk understood a norm as, “an enduring standard. It is a law of nature, which we ignore at our peril” (Kirk, 1989, p. 17). If we, “assume norms are no better than the pompous fabrications of . . . ancestors . . . then every rising generation will challenge the principles of personal and social order” (Kirk, 1989, p. 17). People who challenge these norms, as many contemporary liberals do, “will learn wisdom only through agony” (Kirk, 1989, p. 17).

The reason we appear to have such a widespread epidemic of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the grey area from hook-up culture, is that liberal progressives have been telling us that the old standards regarding sexual morality, chastity, and temperance are outdated norms; they are not relevant for modern Man. Their abandonment of these standards is leaving many confused, unhappy, and oftentimes feeling violated.

Real progress for our times will not be the creation of new norms, but rather a return to and adherence to old and traditional normative values. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that traditional Judeo-Christian, or Puritanical norms regarding sexuality, dating, and chastity are likely to return anytime soon.

“The Pence rule,” which is Vice President Pence’s rule that he refrains from spending time alone with women, was criticized by people like Senator Kamala Harris and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook (Massara, 2019; Guynn, 2018). The Pence Rule may limit opportunities for women in the professional world, but you will note, Vice President Pence has yet to be, nor will he likely be, accused of sexual impropriety.

Pence exercises temperance in matters regarding women. Pence understands what Edmund Burke understood all too well in his time, the late 1700’s:

Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters. (1791)

Our passions will always forge our fetters, no matter the time period, no matter the era of history. Human nature is constant, and if we want clarity to return to our lives, we must return to the traditional norms our ancestors bequeathed to us.



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Steven KesslerSteven Kessler

Steven Kessler

Steven Kessler received his Ed.D. from the University of Rochester in Higher Education Administration. He is the Edmund Burke Society Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. He has published in places like "The Conservative," "The European Conservative," "The Imaginative Conservative," and "The Journal of Liberal Arts and Sciences."

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