Sex, Violence, and…Movies on Airplanes?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has shared his perspective on the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, offering an analysis of what he states to be the root causes. The full text of this piece is available in English translation here.

While there will no doubt be in-depth commentary on the theological and doctrinal content of this analysis, I wish to offer only a few preliminary comments on a passage in the opening section of the document, in which a connection is established between the sexual revolution and sexual violence:

Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.

The mental collapse was also linked to a propensity for violence. That is why sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes because violence would break out among the small community of passengers. And since the clothing of that time equally provoked aggression, school principals also made attempts at introducing school uniforms with a view to facilitating a climate of learning.

Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ‘68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.

The first statement here is partially true. 1968 was a year of revolutions and one of the demands of many groups was for greater sexual liberation. This of course was largely rooted in a call for gender equality and for an end to the weaponization of sex and sexuality in maintaining a strict separation of opportunity for people based on rigid gender norms. But going from challenging norms used to justify centuries of oppression to stating that this new regime “no longer conceded any norms” seems a statement that would demand some justification.

It would be reasonable to assume that the next paragraph would cite such evidence, but instead the argument proceeds to its next step. “The mental collapse was linked to a propensity for violence.” To buttress this claim, we are told that “sex films were no longer allowed on planes because violence would break out.”

Well, this is alarming. I remember a similar public health threat on planes being addressed in the United States some years ago. In my youth, smoking was allowed on flights on U.S. carriers. One can readily find news articles starting dating back to 1988, when the federal ban on smoking on most flights was implemented. Indeed, flight attendants still remind us on every flight that no smoking is allowed on the plane. 

So what about “sex movies” on planes? This surely would have captured some news coverage and stirred debate. Lacking German language skills and pressed for time, I limited myself to English sources as I sought out some documentary evidence. (Feel free to conduct your own search as well, but be advised that you may learn more than you bargained for about the “mile-high club,” a topic unrelated to the matter at hand.)

The first promising lead I found was the New York Times piece “In Flight Movies Update Content and Equipment,” published on April 27, 1982. What I learned is that the initially hesitant airlines gradually loosened their strictures on sex-related content, but that some level of censorship did occur. Yet there was no mention of any relationship, causal or otherwise, between exposure to sexual content and violent actions on flights. 

On January 18, 2017, The Economist published a piece looking at the question “Should films on planes be censored?” examining what kind of content is generally eschewed on in-flight entertainment offerings (e.g., plane crashes) and also pointed out that social norms vary significantly from one country to another. More relevant to the investigation at-hand is that this column made no mention of any historical evidence of violence on airplanes being related to in-flight entertainment. It seems curious that neither of these two journalistic pieces mentions any correlation between violence and in-flight movies. Absent any evidence, it seems advisable to doubt this claim.

The next sentence continues with the same lack of evidence. A controversial assertion – “the clothing of that time equally provoked aggression” – is presented as a brute fact. Given the way in which clothing is commonly cited to dismiss male responsibility in acts of sexual violence committed against women, there are disturbing implications in this sentence about school children: that the way these students dressed was inviting acts of sexual aggression against them, and that uniforms might be used to “facilitate a climate of learning”.

If there were any doubt about this implication, consider what comes before and after it. References to the “Revolution of ‘68” book-end this bizarre passage about in-flight movies and school uniforms. The closing sentence quoted above suggests that the values of that revolution “diagnosed pedophilia as allowed and appropriate” but, once again, no documentary evidence is cited, probably because it does not exist.

The rest of the letter does nothing to exonerate or clarify this irresponsible passage from the opening section. Indeed, when it feels we are about to get an answer to the really critical question of what went wrong to allow a crisis of sexual abuse of children, we get something else instead.

Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God. We Christians and priests also prefer not to talk about God, because this speech does not seem to be practical. After the upheaval of the Second World War, we in Germany had still expressly placed our Constitution under the responsibility to God as a guiding principle. Half a century later, it was no longer possible to include responsibility to God as a guiding principle in the European constitution. God is regarded as the party concern of a small group and can no longer stand as the guiding principle for the community as a whole. 

This letter really is not about sexual abuse at all. It is about Benedict’s disenchantment with a secular world independent of the Christendom of yesteryear. 

Yet only in a secular world, where the clerics responsible for abuse are not revered and elevated, will justice for survivors be possible. In such a world, where science and evidence inform good policy, and due process is managed by independent authorities, perhaps we can also articulate the relationship between sexual violence and power in a more intellectually honest way. And the work of unraveling power that does violence through flawed human institutions – including the visible church – is at the heart of our calling as people of faith. 

Comments (3)

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    Nick Smith

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    This letter blames the sex abuse crisis on the culture of the 1960’s, not the church. The attempt is to focuses on the outside world rather than the clericalism of the church. It ignores the sins and failings of the church and attempts to place the blame of sexual abuse on the shoulders of society; however, we never lost god–the catholic church did.

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    dolores pomerleau

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    I just noticed that John wrote this. Sorry. Great work, John.

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    dolores pomerleau

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    Thanks, Tom. This is a great analysis.

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