The #MeToo movement is unveiling something unprecedented in our midst. We have grown used to associating sex crimes mostly with the uncultured riff-raff and the socially lacklustre, as in the Nirbhaya case. The skeletons tumbling out now pertain to a different social segment. An implicit social consensus had kept the sordid realities germane to this segment under wraps.
It is customary to get carried away either by the novelty of a development, or by its sensationalism. Neither helps. What needs to be done, as Socrates said millennia ago, is to ask “Why?”. Why do sex crimes abound and threaten the sanity and cohesion of a society? Why does sex, the most potent resource for human solidarity and the integration of the species, spawn a contrary effect?
A clue may be found, perhaps, in the contrary assumptions that prevail regarding sexuality: that it is a life-nourishing divine gift and that it is a deadly weapon employed by the devil himself. When Freud declared that ‘sex drives the world’ he was, no doubt, stating a basic fact. He was not wrong in the premise, but wrong in the inferences he derived. Societies in the West since his days, and those in the East of late, are affected by the Freudian reductionism, which offended Freud’s distinguished contemporary Carl Jung immoderately.
To see Freud in perspective, consider the following. Human outlook on sex has gone through at least three distinct stages. In the first stage the sexual union of the male and the female was predicated on both knowing each other in depth. The operative thing was ‘knowing in depth’—as against superficial familiarity—as a self-transforming experience. Then came the intermediary stage: that of a man ‘making love’ to a woman. In the third stage a man ‘has sex with’ a woman. From the first to the second, ‘knowing each other’ departed. From the second to the third, love evaporated from the sexual experience. When ‘knowing’ and ‘loving’ depart, all that is left in the experience of sexual love is individual egoism.
For long it was assumed that the purpose of human sexuality is the propagation of the species. Since the days of Darwin this was discarded in favour of the hypothesis that the secret of the power of sexuality lies in its role to perfect the human stock by evolving more and more perfect human beings. This eugenic idea of the function of sexuality was, in fact, as old as Plato. As of now this notion too stands abandoned. In the wake of consumerism and the cultural goal of pleasure maximisation, sex is now assumed to be an item of individual consumption, analogous to fast food and psychedelic substances. The greater tolerance, even in the juridical context, of adultery points in that direction.
There has been, however, a different understanding of sexuality evolved over centuries by the world’s spiritual traditions. From this point of view, sexuality as a function of love is the prime resource humankind has in overcoming individual egoism. Ego is the hard core of human selfhood. It holds the seed of the unique and incomparable significance of every human being, which is a universal reality. But egoism distorts the self-expressions of the ego; foremost among them, sexuality.
Egoism is the assumption of supreme and exclusive significance for oneself and the denial of the same to all else. Egoism effects a severance between the self and the unity and harmony in which the whole of creation exists. In the words of Erich Fromm, it shifts the foundation of individuality from ‘being’ to ‘having’. Love as ‘being’ is self-transcending union. Love as ‘having’ becomes predatory misappropriation. Its death dance choreographs sex crimes.
It is necessary that we reckon with this contradiction. Sex is the medium of life. Crime denotes a corruption of life. How, then, does it happen that sex expresses itself through crimes?
This degradation of the individual is captured best in the vulgarisation of sex. The word ‘sexy’, this could surprise many, was first introduced into English via Bernard Shaw’s play The Apple Cart (1929). I quote a first-person account by Owen Barfield (in his preface to the 1945 English translation of Vladimir Solovyov’s The Meaning of Love, 1894) of the embarrassment the word effected then. “I remember the titters it evoked in the audience”. He goes on to say, “It was only post WWII that our vocabulary descended even further to the unlovely, if not positively hideous expression ‘having sex’.” The vulgarisation of language reflects, and in doing so helps forward, he points out, “the decomposition of the human spirit.”
Vladimir Solovyov connects this decomposition of the human spirit to the ascendancy of egoism, which severs the individual from his solidarity with the ‘life-force’ and unleashes him in the public sphere armed with sex as a weapon. With that, the geniality of gender gives way to the animality of sex. Today love means, unless mentioned otherwise, sex.
“The meaning of human love,” Solovyov wrote, “is the justification and salvation of individuality through the sacrifice of egoism...” The evil of egoism consists in the exclusive appropriation of absolute significance to oneself and in its denial for others. Such a denial is the precondition for abusing a fellow human being as a sex tool. The ascendancy of sex over love—loveless sex which ‘drives’ married individuals to extract fleeting palliatives from indiscriminate sexual encounters, is symptomatic of the ego degenerating into egoism, undermining individual dignity, human solidarity and social coherence.
While it is desirable that lurking sex predators are named and shamed, it is only a part of the task at hand. The more fundamental task—what alone will help stem the rot long-term—is the revalidation of love as a necessary foundation of life. Collective egoism— as in parochialism, nationalism and patriotism, as Tagore argued—constitutes a legitimising ambience for individual egoism. Crime is the meeting ground for sex on the one hand and individual and group egoisms, on the other. This comes to the surface in communal riots punctuated by sex crimes of extreme depravity.
Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi