Icon (Close Menu)

Sounds of assault

When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The city was filled with the confusion; and people rushed together to the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s travel companions. — Acts 19:28-29

Can we doubt that sinful men, at least, carry in their hearts a violent instinct? At their best, according to popular evangelical author John Eldredge, men are Wild at Heart (2001), while all of Scripture and history unfold the pattern of the works of men at their worst. In the words of Amy and Leon Kass, there is

a deeply ingrained, natural waywardness and unruliness of the human male. Sociobiologists were not the first to discover that males have a penchant for promiscuity and polygyny. Men are, on the whole, naturally more restless and ambitious than women; lacking woman’s powerful and immediate link to life’s generative answer to mortality, men flee from the fear of death into heroic deed, great quests, or sheer distraction after distraction. One can make a good case that biblical religion is, not least, an attempt to domesticate male sexuality and male erotic longings, and to put them in the service of transmitting a righteous and holy way of life through countless generations. (Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying [2000], p. 14)

Christians will put an asterisk next to natural as used here, noting that fallen human beings no longer live in their original state. We await recreation “with eager longing …; for the creation was subjected to futility,” St. Paul explains. Thus creation itself must be “set free from its bondage to decay,” on the other side of which the children of God may obtain “freedom” and “glory,” that is, “adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:19-24). Along this painful, redemptive way, men and women will, as the Kasses say, generally have different, complementary roles to play, with associated sins to renounce and gifts to receive.

Arriving at college in the early ’90s, many of us waded through divided departments of humanities. On the left-hand side we learned feminist discourse in a multicultural mode, while conservatives made sure we mined “great books” for old-fashioned virtue. The liberal curriculum teed off on Carol Gilligan, Catharine MacKinnon, and Michel Foucault et al., on the basis of which literary, philosophical, and anthropological layers were added to taste, according to womanist, Latin American, “post-critical,” and other canons. But for every would-be Derridean theorist there stood the implacable Milton scholar. For every lover of Lyotard and Lévi-Strauss an unreconstructed Aristotelian reared his head. And the very existence of Classics stood as a moral affront to American Studies. Greek? In these latter days?

In such a context, I was surprised to encounter male women’s studies majors who, in a kind of fourth wave, found it useful to tack on “men’s studies,” as both an application and critique of Enlightenment liberalism. Invariably ponytailed faculty vestiges of Vietnam War protest organized reading courses on Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book about Men (1990). Fast-forward 15 years and one finds the more mature Manliness (2006), a scholarly stake in the ground by Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield.

I am put in mind of all of this — and of the need for more and better study, and formation, of men — by the sad news of Owen Labrie, a student at the St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire who shared in a longstanding tradition of the “senior salute”: boys “hooking up” with as many underclass girls as possible. He was found not guilty of felony sexual assault, though the young girl told the court that she was raped. The story drew attention because it exposed a well-developed culture of callousness at an elite boarding school with historic ties to the Episcopal Church, but it fits with the terrorizing trend of sexual assault on college campuses across the United States. See The Hunting Ground, the latest documentary film by producer Amy Ziering and director Kirby Dick, building on their earlier examination of sexual assault in the U.S. military in The Invisible War. I was sorry, watching the trailer, to see images from the campus of my beloved University of Notre Dame, alongside shots from Harvard, Florida State, and a laundry list of elite institutions.

Since its release, The Hunting Ground, called by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times a “must-watch work of cine-activism,” has faced some questions about its journalism, especially in several pieces by Slate’s Emily Yoffe. But even critical commentators — who worry, for instance, about the counter-productivity of grievance culture — commend the film for its serious handling of what must be a scourge and affront to decency, respect, and order whenever and wherever it happens. Take this “blunt instrument of a movie” as an entry in the “vigorous, sometimes furious, and at times crudely simplistic national discussion about sexual assault,” says Dargis.

And add now the additional blows of the video for “Till it Happens to You,” a song by Lady Gaga, herself a survivor of sexual assault as a teenager, featured in The Hunting Ground. Viewed a million times per day since its release on September 17, the video “contains graphic content that may be emotionally unsettling but reflects the reality of what is happening daily on college campuses,” says a prefatory note, before unfolding a series of enacted rapes, not least in and around parties that include drugged beverages, in keeping with a central, controversial thesis of the film: that, as Amy Ziering has said, campus sexual assaults are not “just a date gone bad, or a bad hook-up, or, you know, miscommunication,” but instead “a highly calculated, premeditated crime.”

†          †          †

In the face of terrible sin, attempts to understand where we are and how we got here often include the “othering” of perpetrators, making them out to be monsters of an exceptional, incomprehensible sort. This is a mistake. Almost invariably the monsters are we ourselves.

Consider the celebration of crass sexuality in contemporary western culture, a dark alley now bustling with exploitative business, aided and abetted by a variously cynical and naïve narrative of liberation. The cynical part redounds to the almighty dollar, which will win at all costs. Here the game-changer of the Internet has enabled an explosion of exploitative pornography, the users of which are largely shielded from traditional social shame and stigma, while the purveyors depend upon a mostly subterranean economy that may be described as modern slavery. See the latest book and documentary of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, A Path Appears, which features the ministry of Episcopal priest Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, “a community of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction.”

Naïve accomplices bear responsibility as well, seeking to resist the repression of yesteryear and imagining (with conveniently little knowledge of the past), that we have finally grasped the unalloyed good of human desire. Dividing our selves, our souls and bodies, we suppose that gratification forms the spirit, in a sustained experiment in discovery and actualization. When sadness and heartbreak follow, we abstract from specifics — possible pregnancies and the decisions they demand, lives damaged or disposed of — and take solace in a platonic form of romance, according to which tears serve as tokens of truth, that is, proof of our honesty with ourselves, our former and future fearlessness, and of our devotion to the art of self-creation. Film, television, and popular music have told this story for decades, making mainstream what had been a critique around the edges of well-established mores.

In this way, we have seen, with astonishing rapidity, a normalizing of nihilistic sex, in many forms. In popular music, ubiquitous male “party” fantasies must be mentioned first: endless odes to fornication that move from drunken lechery to possibly — more likely impossibly — consensual sex, thence probable abuse and assault. (Do these men not have mothers? — or, perhaps more to the point, fathers?)

Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” featuring 2 Chainz might exemplify the outer edge of explicitness for top 40 radio, but that didn’t keep it from debuting at #1 in the UK charts in 2013, similarly dominating across Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, and peaking at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. In Derulo’s stout presentation, called PG by critics, his reflected manliness amounts to round-the-world hookups as stamps on a passport (“uno … dos … tres, we can ménage à three though”), with his rap companion adding “X-rated fun” as color commentary. And the song is hardly unusual, both in its success and its asininity; dozens of popular analogs might be mentioned, including in the country charts. Witness the inane “Drunk on a Plane” by Dierks Bentley, which hit #1 on country radio in 2014, at a point when the majority of the top 10 subsisted in stories of dudes drinking at bars, checking out chicks, and so forth. It might be funny were there not so many signs of damage, collateral and otherwise.

A contrapuntal theme voiced by young female artists reveals a vulnerability mostly missing in male party anthems. In David Guetta’s 2011 mega-hit “Where Them Girls At,” set in a clichéd club, rapper Flo Rida is in his element (“Hey, bring it on baby, all your friends”), while Nicki Minaj registers some discomfort, amid a rap that seeks to match her colleague in crudeness and confidence (“Coming through the club, all the girls in the back of me / This ain’t football, why the f*** they tryna tackle me? / Really?”). For a much more interesting — musically and lyrically — swing at the same subject matter, listen to 2006’s “Run 4 Cover” by the Basement Jaxx featuring the very funny Lady Marga. While the story is told with more than a hint of self-parody and, thank God, self-preservation (in London slang, “pushing them mans to the side”), the whole point is that men will inevitability force themselves on you unbidden, and what will you do? “In such a rage / Me had to tell that minger to move from me face / But he never listen / Still onna me case / Onna me case in de place.”

For her part, Gaga’s hymn to rebellious pleasure in “Marry the Night” evinces a blithe disregard of the violence she will face as “a warrior queen” living “passionately tonight.” Recalling “Take Back the Night” marches on college campuses, one might hopefully interpret the song as a declaration of feminist independence, and there’s no doubt that Gaga is taking her life into her own hands. But that’s the worry. Pace Hanna Rosin’s hopes for liberated young women sallying forth as equals into a party scene of free-wheeling sexual explorers, the example of Lady Gaga — call her exhibit A, with the video having been viewed over 65 million times on YouTube — should give us pause: “I’m gonna marry the dark / Gonna make love to the stark / I’m a soldier to my own emptiness.”

†          †          †

What’s the telos, when young girls, hepped up on Lady Gaga, go to parties to meet young men streaming Jason Derulo? A Gaga-esque worldview will propose the half-truth of freedom through art — art as religion, even — and as a would-be high-minded apologia that either turns a blind eye to or blesses debauchery that’s about as good as it gets. The apparent problem with such a view, however, is its denial of reality — unless it is prepared to embrace the dark implications. Just here, Lady Gaga gets points for a kind of cultural honesty, making her more of an exception to the mainstream. Her embrace of a Goth aesthetic on especially her sophomore effort, Born This Way (2011), including much ado about corpses, is telling.

The children of Goth are many and not all focused on death and doom; one recalls the ethereal vulnerability of Cocteau Twins soundscapes. But the opposite end of the spectrum slouches toward destruction, as in various versions of Gothic metal (often featuring female vocals), quintessentially in the anti-Christian, sometimes Satanic case of Black Metal, which flourished in a terrifying second-wave in 1990s Europe, replete with murder, suicide, and church burning. Mashing up a number of philosophies and admitting many versions (ambient, Viking, “blackened,” National Socialist, etc.), Black Metal bands exalt a pagan view of nature and the “blood” of tribe and land against not only modern materialism and superficiality but also a perceived, irreducible Jewishness in Christianity. A distinguishing feature of their style has included “corpse paint,” affecting the appearance of death, demons, and general inhumanity. This is mostly men’s music — by men, for men; though Wikipedia reports the spawning of an anti- and post-Islamic version in the Middle East, which includes “Iraq’s first female black metal artist” and her demo Burning Quran Ceremony (2010). The band’s front woman, Anahita,

said that her parents and brother were killed by a suicide bomb during the Iraq War. Another Iraqi band, Seeds of Iblis, released their debut EP Jihad Against Islam in 2011 through French label Legion of Death. These bands, along with Tadnees (from Saudi Arabia), False Allah (from Bahrain), and Mosque of Satan (from Lebanon), style themselves as the “Arabic Anti-Islamic Legion.” Another Lebanese band, Ayat, drew much attention with their debut album Six Years of Dormant Hatred, released through North American label Moribund Records in 2008.

Here, post-Muslims may share with post-Christians a hatred of both modern liberalism and the Jews, though presumably their relative tribes will differ and do battle with one another. In the face of a new, great migration into Europe of many peoples and nations, we can only expect more hate from certain quarters, and with it the dissemination of new sounds of assault, to the peril of the souls and bodies of ill-formed youth.

To be sure, the latter death-oriented streams do not dominate popular charts; one suspects it would be bad for business, forcing major labels to promote greater quantities of G-rated — at least, non-murderous — fare. But Lady Gaga’s calling a spade a spade and being rewarded for it speaks to the readiness of Western popular culture to revel in explicit sexuality in public and to accept its violent consequences, whether on critical or uncritical grounds. In Gilad Padva’s astute exegesis of Lady Gaga’s video for “Paparazzi” (viewed 137 million times on YouTube), Gaga appropriates a provocative “corpse chic” as a response to “prevalent imageries of death in popular culture, exposing the beauty in death, and the death that lies in beauty.” In this way she shows “that beauty, like sex and aggression, has been a reality of human life in all cultures, throughout history” (from the chapter “Saint Gaga” in Queer Nostalgia in Cinema and Pop Culture [2014], pp. 191-92). But more than that:

In “Paparazzi” … Lady Gaga’s exhibitionism is interlaced with strong masochistic tendency. Beautiful young women are reflexively portrayed in this video as manipulated, abused, exploited, and subdued subjectivities, fatally involved in situations which result in death of the protagonist or other female figures. Notably, Gaga’s economy of martyrdom in this cinematic video… is equivalent to the economy of masochism centered on a death wish that may lead to salvation. In Freudian terms, death becomes the fantasy solution to masochistic desire. In this way, Lady Gaga consciously posits herself as a masochistic martyr. (ibid., p. 193)

What might wise discernment of these formative forces of popular culture look like, “taking every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5)? I will propose several strategies in tomorrow’s post.

Christopher Wells’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is “MONO @ Club 11 // Exit” (2007) by Merlijn Hoek. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

Global Perspectives on Universal Brotherhood

Fratelli Tutti A Global Commentary Edited by William T. Cavanaugh, Carlos Mendoza Álvarez, Ikenna Ugochuwku Okafor, and Daniel Franklin Cascade Books,...

A Ministry of Christlike Service

A sermon for the ordination of deacons, given at Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, Tennessee, June 1, 2024 Today is...

Only One Future

The story of the Episcopal Church in the modern era is usually reckoned in terms of presiding episcopates,...

At the Heart of All Being

Christ the Logos of Creation: An Essay in Analogical Metaphysics By John Betz Emmaus Academic, 592 pages, $59.95 In this ambitious work,...