Authored by Andre van Heerden
“…AND YOU SHALL SEE IN HIM
THE TRIPLE PILLAR OF THE WORLD TRANSFORMED
INTO A STRUMPET’S FOOL”
–Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, Scene 1.
Mark Antony was neither the first nor the last leader to wrestle with the urges of sexual passion. Think only of the continence of Scipio, the conquests of Charlemagne, and the virginity of Elizabeth I, or the exploits of presidents like FDR, JFK, and WJC. Leadership is sacrificed for sex by CEOs, COOs, and CFOs, physicists, physicians, and philosophers, lawyers, lecturers, and landlords.
Plato, Epictetus, Augustine, Aquinas, Rousseau, Kant, Marx, and Freud all recognized the unique moral significance of sex, and GK Chesterton expressed it with typical pithiness:
“THE FIRST TWO FACTS WHICH A HEALTHY BOY OR GIRL FEELS ABOUT SEX ARE THESE: FIRST THAT IT IS BEAUTIFUL AND THEN THAT IT IS DANGEROUS”
And culture – i.e. ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and aspirations – determines human flourishing or failure. Leaders shape culture, and leadership, by definition, must oppose any ideas, beliefs, attitudes, or aspirations that are inimical to human flourishing.
Whatever one’s views on issues like promiscuity, illegitimacy, abortion, etc., it is easy to recognize the moral implications of sex, unless one is a pervert, a purveyor, or a professor of ethics. So, contrary to those who thought the title of this piece was a marketing gimmick, sex is as significant as the character itself in any reflection on leadership. Consider some random facts:
Sex drives the world’s most profitable industry with street prostitution, brothels, strip clubs, human trafficking, phone sex, pornography, mail order brides, sex tourism, and much more
Porn alone is a big part of the global economy, generating massive revenues and employment
Significantly, 70 percent of all Internet porn traffic occurs during workdays from 9 am – 5 pm
A quarter of all daily searches in the US i.e. over 68 million, are for pornography
Two-thirds of HR operatives in the US report finding porn on employees’ work computers.
Curiously, many will say, “So what?” Well, even ignoring the low productivity and workplace disengagement that plague business, if you learned that your accountant was a gambling addict, would that color your judgment regarding his services? And if you discovered that a candidate for a position with your company was a heavy drinker, would you consider his application with the same level of interest? And if your business acumen told you in each of those cases to reevaluate the relationships, how would you feel about a married colleague who was having an affair with a member of your staff?
Of course, many would still feel that these mere peccadilloes were common, and really none of their business, and that anyway, to challenge such impropriety would imply a need to review their own sexual proclivities. Yet to ignore the statistics, and the associated realities are to sanction the permissiveness that undermines human flourishing in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities everywhere.
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Human beings are rational animals, and sex often brings our rational and animal natures into conflict. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that promiscuity enslaves the soul to the body in a unique way, because in the throes of passion a person can think of nothing else. Other carnal urges like gluttony do not suppress the rational mind so completely.
The intensity of sexual pleasure is related to the fact that sex is necessary for the procreation of the species. It should be enough, or at least used to be, to overcome any reluctance to take on the socioeconomic burdens that accompany parenthood. Moreover, the sublime physical and emotional intimacy enables a unique expression of the romantic love that seems to promise the existential fulfillment for which we all yearn. The emotional and spiritual consummation that complements the physical pleasure elevates loving human sexual relations far above the brute carnal act.
This explains the often irrational behavior people slip into where sex is involved: a civic leader risks family, career, and reputation in an affair with an intern; a teacher betrays his professional commitments and the well-being of innocents for fleeting release; a young woman submits to psychological and physical abuse to be with a man who is manifestly unsuitable to be husband and father, and so on.
Intemperance, the lack of rational self-control, is a characteristic weakness of postmodern society, and classical philosophy and modern psychology both affirm that, especially in the case of sexual profligacy, it impairs our ability to think straight. It weakens the intellect, the very essence of our humanity. Lust overwhelms reason not just in the heat of the moment, but also, when there is no restraint, in ever-expanding portions of everyday life. It becomes obsessive.
Consider the bitter fruits of the darkened intellect: promiscuity, porn addiction, STDs, rape, incest, dysfunctional relationships, broken homes, solo mothers, absentee fathers, and severely disadvantaged children, and untold millions of lives lost to abortion. Moreover, the connection between these tragedies and loneliness, the greatest social scourge today, is manifest. These are hardly the foundations upon which to build a healthy society or a flourishing business. A few pertinent statistics emphasize the danger:
83 percent of US families in the lowest income quintile are headed by a single mother
There is a direct correlation between fatherless children and teen violence
Fatherless children are more than twice as likely to commit suicide
71 percent of high school dropouts come from a fatherless background
Fatherless children are at a much greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse
Nearly 1 in 5 women in the US have been raped in their lifetime
And while politicians, academics, and media hacks might at times find it expedient to rail against one or two of these social tragedies, all steadfastly refuse to connect the dots and admit that they are presiding over a socio-economic catastrophe of historic proportions. The intemperance enshrined in western culture, promoted by policy, encouraged in schools, and celebrated in the media, is destroying democracy and free enterprise, and freedom itself, because without self-control, it becomes license.
Humanity has always recognized the dangers, constantly seeking ways to channel the sexual instinct to avoid social instability. The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, expressed a view that both common sense and science endorse:
“Abstain from casual sex and particularly avoid sexual intercourse before you get married…Sex is not a game. It gives rise to very real enduring emotional and practical consequences. To ignore this is to debase yourself, and to disregard the significance of human relationships.”
Psychiatrist Norman Doidge has shown how neuroscience throws greater light on the experience of traditional cultures throughout history in regard to sexual development:
“The human libido is not a hardwired, invariable biological urge, but can be curiously fickle, easily altered by our psychology and the history of our sexual encounters…Sexual taste is obviously influenced by culture and experience and is often acquired and then wired into the brain.”
In a culture where people are frequently exposed to explicit sexual imagery and promiscuous ideas in a seductive cocktail with graphic violence, the risk of social dysfunction is plain. While the neural networks for sexual awareness and response are shaped by sexual experiences, others dealing with anger and aggression are configured by violent or domineering conduct.
Still, others manage fear and anxiety and evolve according to experiences that provoke such responses. A culture that actively promotes the mingling of these properly distinct emotional and affective experiences inevitably invites social dysfunction.
A recent cover story in Time Magazine revealed the extent to which permissiveness, promiscuity, and political correctness have unhinged our world. The article collected the testimonies of young men who believed that pornography had perverted their social and sexual development. It was ironic to have a major media outlet, well-known for its progressive views, attacking one of the cornerstones of the Sexual Revolution, but predictably, the article reflected the moral confusion choking the West: the only alarm raised was for the demon of erectile dysfunction.
It is telling that despite the fact that the ideas of Sigmund Freud were discredited some forty years ago, his unsubstantiated theory that sexual repression lies at the root of most of our mental anguish remains embedded in western culture. The myth that only total sexual liberation – more exposure, more sex education, more novelty, more indulgence – will provide the personal fulfillment we seek has reduced postmodern society to a techno-powered Sodom and Gomorrah, with all the attendant suffering.
The extent to which Freud was wrong is readily seen in the fact that the Sexual Revolution has coincided with the breakdown of the family, the objectification of women, the burgeoning mental health crisis, the slew of social dysfunction, and of course, the leadership crisis that now hamstrings every sector of society.
Far from improving our psychological, physical, and material well-being, the Sexual Revolution has left it in tatters.
The reality is that the detached, self-centered individual of postmodern secular society, unbound by the norms of family, community, and tradition, has no moral compass other than his or her own will, with cold utilitarian calculation providing self-justification whenever necessary. Any harm, physiological, psychological, or socio-economic, done to self or others in the pursuit of sexual gratification, is generally glossed over in this milieu of self-absorption unless it can be used to destroy a politician or celebrity in a blaze of media sensation.
What is a leader to do? A return to puritanism would be as destructive as the regnant promiscuity. Both amounts to a denial of what it means to be human, and are therefore inimical to human flourishing. The first arises from the belief that perverse human nature must be shamed and shackled, the second from the wholly unscientific idea that there is no such thing as a set human nature, and that we can engineer humanity to be whatever we want it to be. Both are totalitarian expedients.
It is only through our understanding of human nature that we are able to posit human rights in the first place, confident in our knowledge of what is good for human beings and what is bad for them. And sex is an undeniable good for human nature, an essential part of the very beautiful experience we know as romantic love, or Eros, which is mysteriously linked with the creative instinct that drives us to seek wholeness in the true, the good, and the beautiful.
By the same token, human nature makes it clear that sex also gives rise to the many dangers discussed above. Few people in positions of authority are prepared to acknowledge the obvious reality that many of the seemingly intractable problems of postmodern society, social, economic, political, and cultural, are related to the perversion, trivialization, and commercialization of sex since the 1960s.
The only answer for leaders lies in the virtues essential to human flourishing – practical wisdom, courage, justice, self-control, faith, hope, and love. Practical wisdom is choosing what is good for people according to reason and experience; courage is standing firm on principles according to the standards set by practical wisdom; justice is protecting and supporting the many victims of the Sexual Revolution; self-control is saying no to self when indulgence would harm others; faith is acknowledging a higher law that transcends human laws and seeks the good of all; hope is persevering in the face of intimidating odds; and love is working for the good of every person as defined by human nature. Sex is good with virtue and degrading without it.
Whatever we do, the challenge of sex is not going to go away. Lust, infidelity, prostitution, pornography, and the like, will continue to challenge humanity now and in the future. The only real difference between postmodern secular society and past cultures is that whereas they all tried in one way or another to guard against the obvious dangers sex poses, our society chooses to actively promote promiscuity and perversion, with predictable consequences.
Human sexuality is a big part of who we are as individuals and as a society. Just how positive or negative a part is up to us. Leadership, like virtue, is not about repressing sex; it’s about making it the good it was intended to be.