Sexual Moral Relativism from the Religious Right? Article from CWS member Rebecca Bratten Weiss, originally published on

5th January 2018

A faculty member at Franciscan University of Steubenville, the institution where I was formerly employed, has written, in the right-wing Catholic publication Crisis, on the topic of the ongoing sexual misconduct scandals. Stephen Krason’s article, “What Sexual Harassment ‘Crisis’?” strikes me as regrettable and misguided from start to finish: basically an exercise in checking off every box under the heading things not to say about sexual misconduct.

Blaming the sexual revolution for rape, in willful ignorance of three millennia of written history and literature? Check.

Being more concerned about the damage to careers of men than to the damage to the lives of women? Check.

Assertions that Roy Moore’s harassment of underage girls was actually normal at the time, and therefore not a problem? Check.

Slippery-slope fallacy (in this case an especially bizarre one: that women retaliating against sexual abusers will lead us to a Hobbesian state of nature)? Check.

“How could women remember something clearly, that happened so many years ago?” Check.

Reducing sexual assault claims to “libel” and “detraction.” Check.

Victim blaming? Of course, check. It’s the necessary ingredient in all these stews.

A disturbing trend here – as well as in other venues where the #MeToo movement is attacked –  is the reliance on cultural relativism. This is not, unfortunately, the first time I have witnessed the claim that Moore’s misconduct was not an issue because standards were different “back then.”

Well, “back then” was the seventies and eighties. I came of age in the late eighties, but even before then, already had to deal with the phenomenon of unwanted come-ons from unpleasant men. Often much older men. But at no point did we have a sense that this was commonly held to be okay. Rather, these attempts occurred in an atmosphere of transgressive permissiveness which invariably gave preference to the powerful male in the equation: it’s against the rules, and that makes it more fun. We’re not supposed to, but I’m going to. I can get away with it. I’m rich. I’m white.  That kind of thing. In that context, perhaps Moore got a naughty frisson from the forbidden nature of his exploits. At no point could he, unless he were perpetually drunk, have imagined that what he was doing was encouraged or normative by the moral standards of the day.

Yes, for most of history, it was considered acceptable for older men to use younger women, regardless of consent, but thanks to feminism, this idea had been frowned upon for quite a few decades before Moore began his mall-lurking. Feminism, the bete noire of right wing male writers. Feminism, the ultimate scapegoat on which all societal ills can be blamed, in spite of the fact that all these societal ills existed and were, indeed, acceptable, long before feminism had been invented.  Feminists stood strong against sexual violence and inequality in the old “traditional” world, and later, again, feminists such as Kate Millett who exposed enduring influence of patriarchy and misogyny within the sexual revolution itself. And Black feminist writers such as Audre Lorde identified the enduring corruption of racism within forms of white feminism. If we feminists seem constantly to be fighting amongst ourselves, it’s usually because we’re trying to get it right. Trying to keep it from being simply another exercise in power. Naturally, human nature being what it is, we often fail.

Krason suggests that women who bring accusations of sexual assault are indifferent to the fact that calumny, libel, and detraction are sins because “the secular culture doesn’t think there’s such a thing as sin.” I’ve heard this one, too, from other right-wing writers, and I find it curious that such a claim would be made in the context of an article the entire point of which is to diminish or even brush off entirely the very severe sins of sexual violence and abuse.

In my experience – as one who has actually lived and worked in the secular world – this is practically the opposite of the case. Many who are operative within the secular world have a very strong sense of sin: that’s why these are the circles where activism against sexual violence is fostered. Patriarchal privilege, including sexual privilege, is an issue in nearly every culture. But let’s take a look at where the misuse of this privilege is being chastised – versus where it is being protected. I’m afraid the Christian Right is not doing so well in this regard. Nor, to be honest, is any other fundamentalist religious group.

It could perhaps be argued more effectively that what the secular world is lacking, especially in those circles with the greatest zeal for moral purity, is a sense of redemption, and that’s what a stronger religious or mythic sensibility could bring to our culture. Religious leaders such as Pope Francis emphasize that. Literature from ancient myth to the novels of Toni Morrison emphasize the need for redemption in a world of violence, and that redemption comes about when the chronos is pierced by kairos. When human time, tragic time, is lifted up into divine time, comic time.

But if religion has something to offer to a culture sorely in need of healing for victims and redemption for sinners, don’t look to the religious Right in America to offer anything beyond the usual victim blaming, moral relativism, and hegemony.

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