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The dangerous consequences of Benedict XVI's sex talk

Holy Father's orthodox views on family encourage discrimination, aggression

Posted: January 16, 2013

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The dangerous consequences of Benedict XVI's sex talk

By Ian Buruma

Human sexual behavior can be perilous, as the ghastly rape of a 23-year-old woman by six men on a Delhi bus in December showed once again. After going to the cinema, she and her boyfriend were beaten, before she was brutally assaulted and attacked with an iron rod for more than an hour. Thirteen days later, she died from her wounds.

It is often claimed that rape is not really about sex, but about power. True enough. But it is not unrelated to sex. The sexual act is used as a form of torture, or even, in some cases, as a deadly weapon.

But that was not what Pope Benedict XVI had in mind when he spoke recently about the dangers of sexual behavior. In his pre-Christmas speech to the Roman Curia, the pope did not mention rape, let alone the sexual murder in Delhi. Instead, in his defense of the family - or, as he would put it, the sacred union between man and woman - he pointed out how sexual arrangements outside that union were a threat to human civilization. What he had in mind, without quite saying so, were same-sex unions.

It was a deeply confused speech. His disquisition on the dangers posed by same-sex marriage followed a passage deploring the modern tendency to avoid lifelong commitments in human relationships, as if that were not precisely what gay marriage is about. Of course, in the pope's view, commitment in gay relationships is part of the problem: More and more people, especially in the Western world, now claim the freedom to choose their own sexual identities instead of sticking to the "natural" roles "ordained by God."

The pope's words suggest that homosexuality is a kind of lifestyle choice, a form of modern decadence - a secular, even blasphemous act against God and nature - rather than a fact of birth. This is a common belief among religious believers, be they conservative Catholics, Protestants, Jews or Muslims. Tellingly, Benedict quoted Gilles Bernheim, the chief rabbi of France, who has expressed similar views on the threats to conventional family life.

Fear of sexual behavior is one of the main reasons why most religions establish strict rules concerning sexual relationships. Marriage is a way to contain our dangerous desires. Restricting sexual conduct to procreation is supposed to make the world safer and more peaceful. Because women excite the desires of men, they are thought to pose a threat outside the confines of the family home. That is why, in some societies, they are not allowed to emerge from those confines, or may do so only if fully covered and accompanied by a male relative.

Benedict is not so extreme. Nor does he advocate violence against homosexuals. On the contrary, he sees himself as a deeply civilized man of peace. But I would argue that his speech actually encourages the kind of sexual aggression that can result in the savagery that took place in Delhi.

The six rapists who killed the young woman were not modern decadents who chose to defy God and nature by claiming new secular freedoms, let alone heterodox sexual identities. From what we can surmise from this case - and many others like it - they are the semi-urbanized products of a highly conventional rural society where the roles of men, and especially women, are tightly regulated. Their victim, a well-educated physiotherapy intern, seems to have been a great deal more modern than her attackers. The men were not uneducated, but they were unable to cope with the freedoms of contemporary women.

For that reason, the six rapists saw her as a "loose" woman, a city slut, fair game. After all, she was out late with her boyfriend. That is precisely how the men taunted the young couple: What was an unmarried young woman doing out in the Delhi streets with a young man? She deserved what was coming to her.

The reaction in some quarters followed similar lines. When demonstrations against sexual violence erupted in Delhi, the Indian president's son denounced the protesters as "dented and painted." Some politicians have described rape victims as "adventurous."

Violent hatred of homosexuals comes from a similar source. Just as women outside the family home - women who stake a claim to public space, working and living among men - are seen as dangerous temptresses, men who love men are often regarded as predators, ready to pounce on society's children. What many people fear is not just uncontrolled sexual behavior, but sex itself.

But the more sex is repressed and people are made to fear it, the greater the chance of sexual violence, because anyone who might possibly stir our sexual desires, man or woman, becomes a potential target of our rage.

This might help to explain what happened in Delhi, but it does not in any way excuse it. After all, most men in that city would not beat a young couple with metal pipes and rape the woman to death. Hundreds of thousands of Indians are demonstrating in the streets to show their loathing of such atrocities.

One wishes the pope had said something about that, and had offered some words of encouragement to the men and women in India who have had enough of sexual violence coming not from modern libertines, but from deeply repressed men. But that is too much to expect from a man who appears to understand little about sexual life. That is why, instead of talking about rapists, he targeted peaceful homosexual men and women who wish to show their commitment to their lovers by marrying them.

- Ian Buruma is professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College.

© Project Syndicate 2013

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