God's Politics

While most of the media has been consumed by Don Imus’ racial slur against the Rutgers women’s basketball team, I have been thinking about that other case: the case of the Duke lacrosse players.

My friends will probably laugh, because, for the sake of full disclosure, I went to Duke. But more than familial loyalty has me contemplating the Duke lacrosse case. The contrasts between it and the Imus situation – contrasts that emerged when the two stories collided in last week’s media cycle – are worth exploring as revelatory about our culture.

The Imus case seemed pretty clear. The foul-mouthed (but admittedly funny and often politically insightful) talk show host attacked a group of girls, demeaning them on the basis of both their race and gender. When they deserved praise for their accomplishments (one of which was to beat the Duke women’s basketball team – a fact over which I’m still stewing!), Imus debased them with sexual contempt. The young ladies – and they proved themselves ladies – reacted with grace. Although Imus lost his job, the situation was surprisingly redemptive as the women demonstrated the power of practicing forgiveness.

But the Duke story is a bit murkier. This morning’s Washington Post ran a story comparing the case of the Duke men to that of the Rutgers women, focusing on the media’s failure to apologize to the men. The media owe the young men an apology for their rush to judgment. However, as I listened to the press conference in which they were exonerated, one line (from the North Carolina official who cleared them) struck me: “LET ME REPEAT, THESE BOYS ARE INNOCENT.”

Yes, they are innocent: innocent of rape, kidnapping, and sexual assault. Completely innocent of any crime. Undeserving of prosecution, injury, and innuendo.

But they were not morally guiltless. After all, the team hired a stripper to perform for them; they (appeared to have) watched an act of live pornography. Unlike the innocent Rutgers women, the actions that led to the media assault against the Duke men were, while not criminal, hardly praiseworthy. Although few have said so, the men were engaged in pornography. Pornography created the climate in which a false accusation could occur and be believed by a good number of smart people. A rush to judgment? Yes. But an illogical imaginative leap? Probably not.

That is what I suspect has led to the media’s strange silence. I do not think, as some commentators have supposed, that this is an incident of reverse racism – apologizing to the black (and two white) women while ignoring the case of the white men. Instead, the Duke case seems to point in another direction: the tacit acceptance of, and inability to intelligently address, pornography as an important social issue. It is hard to apologize when there exists awkwardness about something that is morally wrong but legally permissible – and economically profitable.

In her insightful book, Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, Pamela Paul traces how pornography has been “mainstreamed” into American culture, with devastating effects on society. She says that pornography functions beyond “right” and “left” arguments: “Most people don’t talk about whether they’re ‘for’ or ‘against’ pornography anymore.” As Ms. Paul writes, “Through complacency and carelessness, the majority of Americans shrug or laugh off the issue as inconsequential and irrelevant to their lives.” But, as her work shows, pornography is an “alienating product of a consumer culture.” Its social costs are enormous – especially to young adults whose lives, intimate identities, and relationships are being shaped 24/7 by a culture of easy and crude sex.

The Rutgers and Duke stories are not only about race and gender. They are about pornography. As a result of the Rutgers case, some journalists promised to address the pornographic tendencies of rap and hip-hop. But what about pornography in general? Can we sensibly critique – and offer sound policy solutions regarding – the pornified culture? A culture where privileged men can think it is acceptable to hire a poor black woman to perform sexual acts for them? A culture where adult entertainment companies, X-rated Web sites, and “gentlemen’s clubs” rake in huge profits?

Both the Rutgers women and the Duke men are victims of pornography – the women were overt victims (don’t forget the woman in the Duke case); the men victims of culture that stresses control over women and easy sexual gratification. It is tempting to see the men only as perpetrators of a sin (hence the silence); yet that seems too simplistic. The lacrosse players “bought” an idea about porn and sex that has been culturally “sold” to them. Ultimately, pornography victimized them all – their self-esteem, sexuality, gender identity, wholeness, and in these two cases, public reputations.

This is not a liberal or conservative issue; a black or white issue; or a male or female one. It is not even a Christian or secular one. Contemporary pornography whittles away at our humanity, the goodness of intimacy, and the love of beauty. Pornography turns people into products that others consume for profit or pleasure – and not just the audience or actors who “have a choice.” Pornography affects all of us. Maybe we should ask the young women and men in both cases how their lives have been changed by pornified culture.

Diana Butler Bass ( holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University. She is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper San Francisco).

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