In the thread below yesterday's post about chivalry , there's some discussion of the notion of "respect." Writing about the apparent victim in the Duke rape case, Mr. Bad writes:
My respect is mine to give to those who earn it, not their's to demand from me as if it is their right to force me to give it to them. And I suspect that many men feel the same way. Thus, because women have learned to act less respectably - and at times outright disrespectful - men (rightly) refuse to give them their respect, and IMO won't do so unless and until women begin to once again earn men's respect.
According to this thesis, strippers and other sex workers don't respect themselves -- and thus are not entitled to expect respect from others.
I'm going to leave aside the rape case itself, and focus on what saddens me about Mr. Bad's argument. What he's saying is not new; I've heard it from both men and women for years now. To many folks, there's something neat and compelling about the notion that respect is reciprocal and must be earned. In theory if not in practice, we are still a culture that despises the notion that anyone is "entitled" to anything merely by virtue of being a person; our ersatz Calvinism is instinctively attracted to the idea that everything -- even the right to be seen as fully and completely human -- is something that we have to work for.
One of my base convictions (the sort that don't change every week) is that this particular attitude is fundamentally wrong, particularly on a spiritual and religious level. Nowhere in Scripture, not even in Proverbs, does it say "Respect those who respect themselves". Scripture is full of examples, however, of folks who make the mistake Mr. Bad makes, of dividing the world into the deserving and the undeserving . Again and again in the Gospel story, the Pharisees are appalled by Jesus' penchant for seeing the "unclean" as full and complete human beings. In particular, Jesus models an important new way for men to relate to the very sort of women who were the first century equivalent of sex workers. In his refusal to condemn the woman caught in adultery, in his tenderness to the five-times-married woman at the well, Jesus shows us a radical standard for ethical behavior towards women whom the rest of society would have described as "not worthy of respect".
Even those who do not embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior are frequently inclined to acknowledge Him as a great moral teacher. It's a pity that one aspect of his moral teaching -- his radical insistence that the "impure", the "dirty", the marginalized are as loved as anyone else -- is so often ignored! I'm quite certain that most Pharisee men would have treated their virginal and demure sisters with the utmost respect even as they prepared to stone to death a woman who had stepped outside of the acceptable moral framework. But Jesus makes it clear that respect and love are not earned -- they are our due as human beings, gifts of God to all of us.
This notion that respect is due to all of us, not merely to those who respect themselves, is not an exclusively Christian one. Indeed, it's a principle that I think most feminists can, should, and often do embrace. From its origins to the present, feminists have critiqued the cultural dichotomies that divide women into "nice girls" and "sluts", into "respectable" and "fallen" women. Feminism insists that women's sexuality not be a barrier to embracing women as full and complete human beings. This doesn't mean that some feminists aren't critical of sex work! I long for a world where sexual behavior is no longer commodified, where no woman feels compelled to sell visual or tactile access to her body in order to feed her children. (Heck, I'd discipline the lacrosse team at Duke merely for having hired a stripper, regardless of whether or not they assaulted her.) But the fact that I find the sex industry to be repugnant doesn't mean I hold those who make their living in that profession with contempt. I can separate the work from the worker -- the former is deserving of my outrage and my sadness, the latter of my respect and my love as my sister. I can separate the two without mental gymnastics; I'd expect most folks to be able to do the same.
When stories like the Duke rape case arouse our passions and our sense of justice, it's easy to lose sight of the notion that respect is not earned. When I read the emails of one member of the Duke lacrosse team, Ryan, who wrote: i plan on killing the bitches as soon as the walk and proceding to cut their skin off while cumming in my Duke issue spandex, I find it momentarily difficult to see this young man as my brother! It disgusts me, it enrages me, it saddens me. He has done much to suggest he is not "worthy" of respect. He doesn't respect women (to put it mildly), so why should he and those like him be deserving of it, particularly from feminists? But Ryan is as much my brother as the victim in this case is my sister. That doesn't mean that I see stripping and rape as morally equivalent, mind you! But it does mean that I don't see respect and compassion as in any way contingent upon other's personal conduct.
I am sorry that some of my fellow feminists have chosen to go after the prep school that Ryan attended. News flash, folks: strippers are people entitled to respect regardless of their profession. White males who go to private schools are also people entitled to respect regardless of their wealth. The fact that she strips for a living doesn't also justify our stripping a woman of her dignity; the fact that they attended elite private schools doesn't allow us to condemn all fortunate young white men. We can get angry at the sex industry for reinforcing negative stereotypes about women; we can get angry at private schools that occasionally reinforce a notion of irresponsibility and privilege. But that doesn't allow us, even in our anger, to return to tired old stereotypes.