I was fourteen years old and it was a sex-ed class in an all-boys school. The topic for the day?
“Pornography: harmless or dangerous?”
I had just finished reading one of the most influential books in my life: The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (pbuh), which had given me a new perspective on sexuality. Being a loud-mouth, I was unable to resist a confrontation in the classroom. I just didn’t realise that the confrontation would be twenty-two male students on one side and me on the other, the teacher standing back and watching the debate play out.
My argument was simple and it was taken straight from the book I had just read. I remember quoting it to them, almost verbatim:
“If we place soft bread before a hungry dog, it would be vain to hope that the dog should pay no attention to it.”
The argument was simple: if you cultivate in men from early teenage-hood the appetite for seeing naked women performing sexual acts, for objectifying women, for reducing them to physical accessories for male sexual pleasure, then do not express outrage and surprise that those same men carry that behaviour into adulthood, in their interaction with real women. Don’t be surprised if domestic violence, which is intrinsically related to seeing women principally as sexual objects, goes up. Don’t be surprised as cases of rape and sexual assault go up. Don’t be surprised that women, no matter how modestly dressed or modestly behaved, will be victims of sexual assault. After all, an addict is not in need of “triggering”; an addict seeks out and actively seizes upon anything that may satiate his hunger.
My twenty-two class colleagues, all avid porn-users I am sure, eventually agreed with me. At the end of the lesson the teacher – an old French man in the last year before retirement asked me to stay back in the class until the rest of the boys left. He clapped me on the shoulder and told me that I had done a very brave thing. I did not think I had done anything brave whatsoever; being an insufferable, cantankerous know-it-all came very naturally to me. (It still does, as you, dear reader, can probably tell). I knew from his expression and what he said to me that his view on the topic chimed with mine, yet he had felt unable to voice that view. Perhaps that was because of his position as a teacher, or perhaps for the fear of being misrepresented as foisting his Christian beliefs on his students, or perhaps because of how pornography is regarded as a “right” in society, too established to contest anymore.
Well that needs to end. 10% of porn users are below the age of ten. Do we really think this is harmless? It isn’t about revenge-porn or hardcore porn vs soft porn. It’s isn’t bad-porn vs good porn. It’s porn that’s the problem, plain and simple. After all, do we really imagine that after years of seeing women as sexual objects, that’s going to all be left at the door when coming to work, when acting on the movie set, or when working on the shop-floor? “How can we possibly end the sexual assault on women?” I hear the world crying. “How can we end the objectification of women!” they weep over their twitter feeds, while their ten year old sons sneak under their bed-covers to watch women strip naked on their phones.
We need to stop looking at the Harvey Weinsteins of society as the problem. He is not the problem. He is a symptom of the problem.
If we are serious about ending sexual violence, then we need to stop looking at the Harvey Weinsteins of society as the problem. He is not the problem. He is a symptom of the problem. A holistic approach, beginning in childhood is needed. We need to address the fact that pornography is not “harmless fun”. It teaches boys, before they likely even know any girls their own age, that the primary function of a woman is to satisfy their sexual appetites. If you aren’t willing to change that about society, and stand up to the objectification of women that is occurring day-in day-out through pornography, then you evidently don’t care enough to face the real problem.
The solution is simple and has been known for a long time, but is one that is anathema to today’s society
“Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and stand guard over their sexual impulses. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do.”(Qur’an 24:31)
Of note, this command of the Qur’an to men precedes the Islamic injunction for women to dress modestly. Why? Because women dressing modestly is a secondary issue to men learning self-control. If the Weinstein scandal should have taught us anything it is that the blame lies on sexual predators for their sexual aggression, not on women for what they may or may not be wearing.
This verse of the Qur’an is so very important, because before telling men to stand guard over their sexual impulses, it commands them first to control their gazes. And as concluded by a 2008 review article in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, visual stimuli (unsurprisingly) play a very significant role in male sexual arousal, moreso than in female sexual arousal. Teaching men how to control their gazes from a young age is the key to teaching them to control their sexual impulses. Pornography undermines this, right from the get-go.
And that is the challenge for the West. Unless a seachange occurs in our very perspective to approaching such issues, we will not weed out the Weinsteins of society. Why? Because the West was born as a child of the Pauline doctrine that the “law is a curse“. St. Paul did away with the Jewish law, and rendered Christianity into the only religion in the world which lacks a formal set of do’s and dont’s. Salvation he said, was not through righteous deeds, but through profession of belief in Jesus’ sacrifice, rendering a person “free” from the “curse of the law” and its burdens. Freedom became the divine quality par excellence. This took on an exaggerated form in the Protestant Reformation. While Christianity is no longer the driving force behind Western culture, that motif of “freedom” as the highest and most important of societal values, has persisted. Only now, it is not freedom from the law of Judaism, as St. Paul initially conceived of it, but “freedom” in all its forms. In the middle of the 20th century, this freedom manifested as sexual libertarianism, the effects of which were first seen in the entertainment industry of the 60’s and 70’s – the very environment in which Harvey Weinstein came of age.
Until our society recognises the harm that our unrestricted, unfettered “sexual freedom” especially with respect to pornography is wreaking, we will never be able to ingrain in young men the simple truth that the purpose of women is not simply to feed male sexual appetites. Peace in society, not freedom, must be the divine quality par excellence. Until we achieve that, we will forever fail in our attempts at weeding out the Weinsteins of the world.