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Christian Sagers: Kavanaugh, sex and the descent from transcendent to trivial

Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 27.
Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 27.
Composite photo, Pool AFP

President Trump is right — the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Ford debacle is a con job, and it’s fooling the nation in a big way.

This sham didn’t start with Robert Bork and it won’t end if Kavanaugh’s on the bench. It predates all Supreme Court nominations, all legislative offices and the fundamental idea of partisan politics.

The real con job at play is the grand deceit that underpins Ford’s allegation and every other controversy in this #MeToo world — that somewhere along the annals of civilization, society believed the lie that human intimacy is a commodity.

Reducing a sexual relationship to mere merchandise places it on a shelf for others to purchase with power, persuasion or dollars. It constricts it to a moment in time with a definite beginning and ending, like a theatrical performance penciled into a calendar, rather than a lifelong expression of divinity. Shoplifters steal it without a twinge of remorse.

Were it not so, I dare say we wouldn’t have an America where 23 percent of all undergraduate women will experience rape or sexual assault on college campuses, where 2.3 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases were diagnosed last year, where media moguls strip the agency of underlings to appease a sick pleasure or where Supreme Court nominees are implicated in sexual scandals. But diminishing the sanctity of any human association brings consequences, and the above is Exhibit A.

We’re aware of the problem, but only to the extent that we grab for weeds while ignoring their roots. Observing non-consensual sexual activity as the plague of college life, we determine to correct ambiguous language in the Code of Conduct. Sharper definitions of consent, we say, should stop perpetrators. If they persist, they can more easily be punished in the legal system.

But the legal system isn’t equipped to mete out justice when sex is devalued from the transcendent to the trivial. When two humans enter in a flurry of ugly one-sided passion, two victims emerge — one infernally violated, and the other duped by the lie that they own their body and can do with it what they please. Juries and judges, however, only care about what arbitrary line was crossed, when it was crossed and how far it was crossed. Every detail can tip the scales, so we talk in terms of a transaction, a chronology of events. Never mind the underlying tragedy of a sacred act used as a tool by which a human is exploited.

Merely abstaining from criminal behavior while engaging in the act, however desirable, doesn’t elevate intimacy to its intended symbolism. Even those who abide the norms of consent while ignoring — or mocking — the commitment, sacrifice and humility prerequisite for a sexual relationship are, to borrow words from author Leah Libresco Sargeant, “desperately, absurdly cramming their mouths with dirt and calling it food.” Some sex life.

So perhaps it’s the fault of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity. Tearing down years of systemic entitlement, we say, will open a chasm we can fill with those unperverted by power, privilege or machismo. However necessary this may be, it will never be enough to call out and lock up the Harvey Weinsteins and Louis C.K.s of the world in our quest to right the wrongs of dishonorable humans. “The problem is not just the exploitation of women by men,” writes Wendell Berry. “A greater problem is that women and men alike are consenting to an economy that exploits women and men and everything else.”

That “economy” traffics in all things salacious, selling that which “moth and rust doth corrupt” and convincing customers its goods are normal, desirable, even progressive. It rightly assumes sexual desire is natural but wrongly promotes self-indulgent “exploration,” giving way to the hookup culture and its views on the role of sex in society. Commonplace lovemaking brings a period of carnal pleasure followed by a trail of angst, heartache and emotional trauma. And to this we give our consent.

The truth is a lifetime of devotion to another’s needs, with all of its struggle, forgiveness and charity, is the only real consent sexual partners can give. Consider the latest rendition of affirmative consent: “Silence or lack of resistance, in and of itself, does not demonstrate consent.” The “enthusiastic consent” that then preempts sexual activity between two individuals disinclined to join in covenant is a sad, hollow imitation of the affirmative exchange that happens when a couple to be wed verbally endorses in front of witnesses their willingness to unify under conditions of sacrifice, fidelity, obedience and faith.

Divorcing sexual intimacy from its sacramental heritage brings it to an earthly standard where deity doesn’t dictate its boundaries — culture does, no matter how imperfect that culture may be. So why did Ford have a harrowing experience to tearfully recount last week? Because a twisted culture let that happen to her.