By: Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Oxford
Sexual abuse, whether of women or men or children, cannot be prevented by law. At most, law agencies can punish abuse after it has happened and has done the terrible, lasting psychological and social damage that it does.
In the Western world over the last seventy years any notion of ‘sin’ attached to sexual behaviours traditionally regarded as abhorrent has been dissolved. Steadily, over this period, the notion of ‘sin’ has been replaced by a legal concept, namely the concept of ‘consent’. This fits well with the Western cultural ideal of ‘personal autonomy’, the ideal that anyone should be free to behave as they please so long as their behaviour is not harming any other’s right to the same autonomy. In sexual relations between people, ‘abuse’ is recorded only when any of the partners involved has not freely given consent. For children, of course, the concept of legal minority applies, meaning that a child can never give consent. Otherwise, anything that any consenting adults do is legally ok.
This should have meant that sexual abuse as a legally defined crime is no more of a problem for society than other crimes such as assault, theft, fraud, murder and so on.
The problem with this approach is that sexuality (abusive or non-abusive) is not limited to the act of sexual intercourse itself. The relevance of consent to the actual performance of sexual acts is accordingly rather limited. Sexuality is an expression of desire, and (among humans) desire can arise even when there is no external stimulus for it, even when there is no possibility of contact or conversation with any potential sexual partner. Both biologically and religiously, sexuality is understood to be something connected with the appetite and need to reproduce. The need for reproduction is carried among human beings by the engine of desire. This engine can be active, fuelled-up and running, in the absence of any object of desire and any conscious will to reproduce. In the present time, human consciousness is overwhelmed by super-intense audio and visual images (especially by highly repetitive multimedia advertising, in private and public spaces; on hand-held devices at any time of day or night). As a result, the engine of desire is never allowed to settle into idling mode, never allowed to quieten and slow down.
All religious traditions strive to inhibit and regulate sexual desire by connecting it to the responsibility of parenting, so that sex is associated not only with mating and producing children, but also with nurturing them and making them fully competent social beings. This is a very long process (some twenty years), and requires a huge expenditure of psychological, social and economic effort. The only context in which this effort can be sustained, especially for the benefit of the children, is marriage and family life. All the moral and religious-legal inhibitions surrounding sexuality are concerned with building a strong, stable bond between sexual desire and responsibility for others.
Modern Western cultural norms, which encourage the indulgence of short-term personal preferences over any long-term goals (personal or social), have combined with advances in the technology of contraception and with the legalisation of abortion, to dissociate sex from reproduction, which necessarily dissociates sex from responsibility to oneself and others.
As I have said, sexual desire is the engine of a fundamental need, the need to reproduce. It is a fierce, powerful energy, cruelly strong in youth and early maturity, but one that persists at some level throughout life. Sexual desire is mixed with other impulses and behaviours that characterise animal behaviour generally, and human behaviour most conspicuously, notably the desire to mark out and protect a territory (home) where the children can be raised, and the desire to mark out and protect the values (identity, belonging, customs and practices, etc.) that are inculcated in the children and, through them, transmitted through time – all of these desires are mixed up inside the need to reproduce. This mixture also affects sexual behaviours and the manners that grow up around them. Rivalry, domination, possessiveness, jealousy, envy – the desire not to possess some object of desire for its own sake but to prevent someone else from possessing that object – negative emotional states like this can intervene in sexual behaviour and make it exploitative and destructive: it makes no difference if there is consent or not. And how, in any case, does one legally determine consent? Is it really possible to determine when consent was given, and to what precisely, and for how long?
There is no law imaginable, no force of coercion or persuasion, which can control desire itself. Only the one who carries (or is carried by) desire can, from within, control or discipline it for the sake of being responsible, for the sake of being unselfish. This is a matter of interior discipline, not exterior discipline.
The role of religious teaching (and of the various cultural-legal traditions based on religious teaching) is to provide an environment in which self-discipline and self-control are more highly valued than their opposites – self-indulgence and control of others. This environment usually consists of conventions of dress and speech, and special rites (such as weddings) which mark out the boundaries between the persons and occasions where sexual desire is allowed and those where it is not allowed.
It is possible, as with any convention, to appear to follow it, without really following it. In other words conventions, just like laws, can only work to the extent that people believe those conventions to be right and beneficial. People must believe that they are doing the right thing because it is the right thing. Equally, they must believe that disregarding the conventions is wrong, a sin, which threatens harm for both individuals and society. In religious perspective, consenting to a wrong does not make it right.
It is not possible in my opinion to build, within a culture so massively dedicated to self-indulgence, self-serving and non-stop distraction, any sustained practice of self-discipline and service to others. That requires regular reflection,regular presentation of oneself to oneself as answerable to other human beings and to the judgement of God. The habits of self-inspection and self-control are reliably matured and improved through prayer and other religious practices like fasting.
There is no regime of exterior rules and punishments that will serve to deter sexual abuse in a society. If, and only if, such rules and punishments are universally and impartially applied – which is nowhere the case – it may be possible to drive sexual abuse out of sight, so that it is not always in the news. But it will still go on: celebrity actors and actresses may not have to suffer it, but ordinary men and women and children among the poor and unnoticed of society, and people in places far removed from the countries which control the flow of news, will go on being vulnerable to sexual abuse. There is no legal substitute for an ethical determination to control oneself and to never hurt the person and dignity of another human being. There is no substitute for the concept of sin. Whether it is definable as a crime or not, sexual abuse is a sin.
For Muslims, there is a duty to help one another in steadfastness and righteousness, and not to help one another in selfishness and wrong-doing. This means that we must be ready to condemn, privately and publicly, those who commit sexual abuse. We must be willing to rescue those who are victims of such abuse, and willing to help them recover, psychologically, emotionally, and socially. That entails providing from one’s resources (of time and money) to assist those groups (usually women, and usually ex-victims) who are active in providing the necessary shelters and comforts to abuse victims. It also entails a vigorous campaign to help our communities to admit that abuse goes on, to recognise the sin of it, and to convince them of the effectiveness of prayer and fasting in defeating sinful impulses and behaviours. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Muslims must help one another to re-connect sexuality and parenting, and the role of good parenting in training self-control and in distinguishing right from wrong.