There is both hope and horror in the exposure of decades of predatory sexual behavior by Hollywood’s men in power, and the subsequent #MeToo campaign. The sexual exploitation of women placed in vulnerable positions by men in power has been universally denounced for the horror that it is, giving hope that there can and will be change. After decades, a “sick culture” of abuse is finally getting the attention and scrutiny its victims have cried out for.
But there is another facet to Hollywood’s moguls’ abuse of the culture that is being ignored. That is, Hollywood’s leadership in creating and perpetuating messages that deteriorate values and norms, polluting the culture. The fallout from the promiscuous culture Hollywood helped create and perpetuate is not as socially acceptable to talk about, but its victims are also real.
We live in a culture that treats sexual intimacy as nothing more than a pleasure-seeking urge we are entitled to explore and express, anytime, anywhere, so long as it is consensual. And nowhere is that message broadcast more loudly than from Hollywood. The resulting cultural malaise spawns untold victims of sexual exploitation and mistreatment that don’t often make the headlines or trigger Twitter campaigns.
The victims of this bankrupt sexuality include the many women on college campuses that report feeling hurt, awkward and rejected when they consent to sexual hookups. Few of them were ever informed that casual, consensual sex increases the odds of suicidal thoughts and declined mental health among men and women, or that psychiatrists in campus medical clinics observe patterns of diminished self-esteem and depression as a result of uncommitted sexual relationships.
Similarly obscured from our cultural consciousness is the reality of alcohol’s role as the “common denominator” of hookups — clouding the mind to mask natural inhibitions that would keep young men and women from sharing themselves recklessly. And only on the perimeter of our national dialogue about sexual abuse can be found one young woman’s warning about “alcohol-soaked hookup sex” — “You get embarrassed and ashamed, so you try to make light of it. Then women get violated and degraded, and they accept it.”
These realities witness that sexual intimacy is not just an activity we are entitled to engage in for personal pleasure. Sexual intimacy either honors the soul of another, or trivializes, diminishes and abuses the soul of another. Indeed, the sanctity of life itself is “rooted” in the meaning of the sexual act through which life is created. And that is why tampering with it, misusing it or pillaging it from another has lasting, damaging and tremendously painful effects. The truth is, when sex is cheap, souls are cheap.
But it is not just sexual intimacy that has been cheapened by Hollywood. It is women themselves. More than 10 years ago the American Psychological Association released its landmark analysis exposing evidence for the rampant sexualization of women. In “study after study” they found women “portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing with bodily postures and expressions that imply sexual readiness), and objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person),” with a “narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty highly emphasized.”
Nowhere are these sexualizing messages more pervasive than in the products of Hollywood. What young women internalize is that their value comes from their sexual appeal, that physical attractiveness means being sexy, and that people are “things” for other’s sexual use. The negative effects on women revealed by research are profound. In the mental domain, thinking about their bodies, and comparing themselves to cultural ideals “disrupted mental capacity.” Negative emotions, like shame, anxiety and even self-disgust were also strongly associated. Unsurprisingly, disordered eating, low self-esteem and depression were also linked to exposure to sexualized female ideals. And consuming sexualizing messages was repeatedly linked to diminished sexual health, sexual stereotyping and distorted conceptions of femininity.
There is a reason that after covering 2,500 years of Western civilization, historians Wil and Ariel Durant concluded, "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.” Of those critical sources of self-destruction, they warned that “sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group.” They were speaking to Hollywood, and they were speaking to us.
Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.