The breaking-up of a paedophile ring that live-streamed child abuse from the Philippines has been greeted with a mixture of horror and relief — horror that such wickedness can exist, relief that at least one ring has been smashed. We read of the systematic abuse of adolescents in Peterborough, including a girl with learning difficulties, and react with revulsion at the brutality and exploitation involved. Elsewhere we note the historic abuse cases being tried in our courts, the suggestion that nearly 1,000 teachers have been involved in sexual relationships with pupils during the past five years, and wonder how we could have gone so wrong. But then we turn to the popular press and read the endless speculation about François Hollande and his mistress or look at the figures for internet porn and realise it is all part of the same confused approach to life. The sexual wrongdoing of others is something we can condemn, make jokes about or vicariously ‘enjoy’. What we do is another matter entirely. Or is it?
There is often a kind of double-think involved in our attitudes. By separating love and sex, by pretending it doesn’t matter what we do provided no one gets hurt (the hurt being determined by us, not the other), by believing we can pretty much do what we like without its having any consequences, by avoiding commitment and fighting shy of words like ‘fidelity’ and ‘sacrifice’, we have made monsters of ourselves. Most people live good and decent lives, but even the best may acknowledge a few grey areas where their ideals become a little frayed. That is where we need to ask ourselves the questions no one wants to ask. What is the point of parents worrying about their children’s exposure to porn if they themselves watch porn when the children are in bed? What is the point of condemning exploitative relationships in others if we ourselves exploit people? What is the point of expecting others to be virtuous if we ourselves choose to be vicious?
You may think I have been harsh in the way I have framed these questions, but I think it must be becoming clear to everyone that we face a serious weakening of the mutuality of society.* I myself think that our contempt for the human person, for the human body, is part and parcel of it. We have a double-standard about sex no less dangerous than the one it is fashionable to accuse our Victorian forebears of having. We seem to be keener on the right to die than the right to live, on personal ‘freedom’ than on communal solidarity. In short, we are confused, and it is taking a terrible toll on all of us.
*For me, as a Catholic, that mutuality is linked to morality. However, not everyone subscribes to the same understanding of right and wrong, although all of us, Christian or not, have an interest in society and the way in which it functions for the benefit of its members.