Twerking our way into dangerous waters

Miley Cyrus has been making headlines all week with her butt-jerking twerking routine at the Video Music Awards (VMAs). The reaction has ranged from shock and outrage to a harried defense of Miley's right (after years of being identified with the wholesome Hannah Montana) to come out as a sexual being.

I am all for people past their adolescence to express themselves sexually (and safely, please). It's part of our genetic makeup to attract sexual partners. By the time you get to be 20, Miley's age, the hormones have been flowing for the better part of a decade.

So why am I uncomfortable with her performance?

Because of guys.

Men are simple beings when it comes to sex. We're not choosy. Pour a few drinks into us, turn us on, point us in a direction, and we go, go, go unless turned off with overwhelming force. Overwhelming force can come in many forms: social pressure (women are delicate flowers!), inner morality (adultery is wrong!), fear of getting beat up by other males (dads, big brothers or other boyfriends) or fear of losing or hurting our wives/girlfriends. But the recent uptick in rape stories seems to suggest that the social barriers against sexual assault are weakening. When a room full of boys can encourage one of their number to sexually assault an intoxicated girl, then take videos of the assault and share them, it's easy to the suggest that social restraints from peers is no longer an adequate safeguard against protecting the vulnerable. Add to this what happens when boys use social media to brag about their exploits and to shame the girl, and the stakes get immeasurably higher. Sometimes, to the point of suicide for the horrified girl.

In the past, reaction to the loosening of self-controls on men has focused on the girl's behavior. She should not wear revealing clothing. She should not walk in dark areas alone. She should monitor her intake of intoxicants. Lately, and rightly so, a reaction to the reaction has developed, focusing on males and their responsibilities not to rape. There's a wonderful video giving men a model for handling a drunken female friend: make her comfortable, cover her with a blanket and protect her until she sobers up. No question, this is a welcome development. As much as we men are stupid about sex, we are not automatons incapable of making rational decisions, even when aroused, even when drunk.

But I have to wonder about media portrayals of sexual behavior, and the way they can tip the balance, or alter the set-point, for acceptable (and expected) sexual behavior. If you look back through films and TV for the last century or more, you'll see media playing, and often pushing, the edge of acceptable behavior. While the glimpse of a well-turned ankle might have thrilled our great-grandparents, our parents had Marilyn Monroe's full leg, courtesy of a windy subway grate, to capture their attention. Today, it's a thong-clad beauty, baring her full buttocks for the camera, that has become the norm. In an earlier day, courting couples went on walks or buggy rides accompanied by a chaperone. By the 40s and 50s, the automobile culture made courting a mobile and private activity. Since the 60s, free love, cohabitation before marriage, "friends with benefits" and the hookup culture have more or less eliminated formal courting.

I have to admit that much of the loosening up of sexual morays has been perfectly fine, and has allowed young men and women to be more honest and expressive about their sexuality -- especially in a culture where marriage can be delayed for a decade or more beyond puberty. Ten years is a long time to keep the lid on a boiling pot! But is it conceivable that there is a limit to the amount of sexual freedom that is healthy? After all, we are dealing with genetic patterns that were laid own over the course of a million years -- during most of which time we were not expected to live much beyond thirty five. Can a biological system geared toward creating 15-year-old mothers fit well into a culture where the median age for a woman to become a mom is 24? And rising?

If we have crossed a line into dangerous territory -- one that increasingly puts young women at risk of sexual attack -- we currently have few protections to offer aside from warnings and threats. Where in the past (which I don't advocate revisiting) young woman's activities were restricted by her parents and monitored by her village priest, today we put women into situations that are unprecedented in human history. They go off to college alone, they go on dates with men they barely know, they live by themselves, they go to clubs unaccompanied. Where their behavior could once be vetted by diligent parents, women now bear the burden of monitoring themselves and protecting themselves. And they are increasingly being placed into circumstances where drugs and alcohol combine with the presence of increasingly aggressive males and sexually explosive behaviors and expectations.

Which brings me back to Miley. I'm not bothered that "Hannah Montana" is a sexually mature young woman. I am concerned that her twerking and crotch-grabbing have raised the bar on public behavior that young men expect from their partners. And which they will punish their partners, by calling them cold or prudish, for avoiding. If twerking at a bar or concert hall makes women less safe and gives males the wrong idea about their availability and intentions, maybe we have crossed that red line that evolution drew or us so long ago.