If you asked 1,000 people, “what’s the defining thing about you?” some might say “my sexuality,” but most would not.
Norway is holding classes for African and Middle Eastern immigrants whose fundamental values clash with those of Norwegian—that is, Western—culture. And on what aspect of Western culture are classes focusing on?
Norway’s values about sexuality.
The classes emphasize the equality of women, their autonomy, and their right to say no to sex—even to their own husbands. Attendees learn about local customs—the kinds of things women wear, the fact that they walk around unescorted, and that when they talk or smile with strangers it implies absolutely no sexual agenda. Put another way, the classes teach that no one has a right to have sex with anyone else, no matter what another person says or does.
The classes are necessary because of a continuing flood of immigrants from Libya, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, and other places with dramatically different values. Countries like these maintain lifelong gender separation of adults, making it easy for men to imagine women as “other.” Considering their widespread cultural agreement that men own women—which women teach their daughters and sons as much as men do—someone migrating to Europe is probably in for a shock.
I recall that some eighteen years ago I taught at a medical school in Morocco. During the break a group of students asked me why American men disrespect women so much. When I asked what they meant, they said that we “let” our women walk around with bare arms and legs, associating with whomever they wish, laughing and talking right out on the street.
I replied that Americans’ idea of “respect” is different than Moroccans’: we respect women by assuming their full autonomy, empowered to dress, socialize, work, and speak as they please. It was a moment of complete cultural non-empathy—on this issue, my students and I simply couldn’t relate to each other’s reality.
Today’s Norwegian classes also emphasize that although Norway has been largely Christian for many centuries, religion is NOT what determines their laws. And everyone must follow those laws regardless of his or her religion.
These days, many Europeans fear that the enormous influx of immigrants with different values is leading to an epidemic of sexual assault. Data on this are mixed. The immigrants are largely young men, which is the group most likely to commit crimes in every society around the world. Many of these young men come to Europe without families and are unemployed, which further exacerbates the statistical odds.
Additionally, many immigrants suffer from the results of their own journey to Europe. Often involving violence, fear, and betrayal, many could be diagnosed as having PTSD, instilling a sense of desperation and powerlessness—and paradoxically, an exaggerated sense of entitlement.
Not all crime is the same. Most Westerners would say that rape is a worse violation than robbery, and that rape represents a far more dramatic breakdown of individual morality than robbery. Anyone who violates another’s body needs to be held accountable.
That said, if a young man has spent his whole life learning that women are of little or no value and have little or no autonomy, accepting that man into a society that values women and grants them complete freedom creates problems for both. In Europe’s current situation, it’s the immigrant men who are far more likely to strike out against the local women rather than vice versa.
Where does that leave Westerners as we attempt to honor all cultures while protecting our own?
For one thing, immigrants and refugees are guests in their new countries. They don’t have an unlimited right to practice their culture insofar as it conflicts with the culture of their new home. When I have traveled to places like India, Japan, and Burma, I have been expected—and often required—to behave in ways that were foreign and even uncomfortable to me. One never sees a Western woman bareheaded in Iran.
For another thing, people have a right to live as they wish in their own home. Norway is home to millions of people who share a cultural consensus about gender, sex, and social relations. As long as Norway doesn’t go to Syria and try to impose its values there, Norwegians have a right to live as they choose.
Third, we should remember that ANY religion that preaches its ultimate unity with the civil state is a problem, regardless of the content of the religion. This profound civilizational issue took over two centuries of warfare to settle in Christian Europe (frighteningly, many American Christians want to resume this struggle here). The Muslim world has not yet settled this state-vs-religion issue in a way that can possibly lead to progressive, modern values like the equality of women, freedom of speech, or education that encourages questions.
In today’s common idea of an Islamic state, no one within its borders is exempt from its rules. Blasphemy and apostasy are crimes equivalent to treason (and punishable as such). There is a huge difference between the morals police in Iran and the police department of Dallas; there is a huge difference between the Saudi government preventing every woman from driving, and religious missionaries like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses inviting others to live as they do.
When religion runs a state, the results are NEVER benign. Over a billion people live under law derived from TODAY’S Islam requiring women to cover up, sanctioning honor killings, allowing child marriage, controlling women’s movements, and permitting them to work in only the narrowest circumstances. Islam is not alone in these ideas, but it’s currently the main forum for religion that controls government.
If Western Europe is going to open itself to several million immigrants whose goal is to sustain homogeneous, separate communities within whatever nations they enter, Europe must find a way to establish clear rules about sex and gender. Ghettos for Muslims within Europe are NOT the answer (although Muslims communities in Paris and Marseilles are trying to create and maintain them).
Therefore, there must be a consensus on how all of a country’s residents are expected to treat each other. A government that invites people of dramatically different ideas into the country without clear plans for developing such a consensus is cruelly betraying its residents. It’s also setting up the immigrants themselves as scapegoats whenever anything goes wrong, whether it involves them or not.
Sex education is the key to creating safer lives for both Europeans and their new immigrant neighbors. In addition to specific facts and expectations, it’s also the most powerful way to announce “It’s different here.” Sexuality, it turns out, IS one of the defining dimensions of Western culture.
And that’s why there’s so much conflict about it here in the US. Norms, beliefs, even facts (or untrue myths) about sexuality are at the core of who we are. Anti-sex ed, anti-choice, and anti-porn activists know that they’re fighting for America’s soul. Their liberal, progressive, humanist opponents need to understand that just as deeply.