Herman Cain, Respect and Sex

In her first televised interview ever, Gloria Cain, wife of GOP candidate Herman Cain, defended her husband against recent allegations of improper conduct in his past. Said Mrs. Cain:

"You hear the graphic allegations and we know that would have been something that's totally disrespectful of her as a woman. And I know the type of person he is. He totally respects women."

It's an interesting choice of words. Mrs. Cain says that the behavior described is "disrespectful" of women and that her husband couldn't have done such a thing because he "respects" women.

Whether or not Mrs. Cain's assessment of her husband's character is accurate, her choice of words is spot-on. There are all sorts of emotionally charged terms she could have used to describe the alleged behavior. But I think her word choice was uncanny. Disrespectful. It's like the French say, le mot just, -- the perfect word.

When a man, or woman for that matter, behaves in the sort of way that Cain is being accused of having behaved, the real problem is the lack of respect. We confuse it by calling it immoral or unbecoming or dirty, but what it really is, is disrespectful.

So, what is respect?

Human beings are capable of a wide array of emotions, but they can all be classified into two very basic kinds of feelings: attraction and repulsion. In that way, we aren't all that different than the animals. We are drawn to things that make us feel good and we are repelled by things that threaten to hurt us or to take our good feelings away. On a higher level, these two reactions may express themselves as the emotions we know as love and fear. We want to be close to that which we love and we want to get away from that which we fear.

So where does respect fit into this model? Does it pull us in or push us away?

It should be clear. Respect doesn't beckon us "come hither." No, not at all. Respect tells us to back off. Quite aptly, we use expressions like "to respect someone's limits" or "to respect their boundaries." You don't "love" a boundary. You respect a boundary. Respect is that little voice that says, "Hey, watch it, buddy. You can't just barge in here."

So, respect is the opposite of attraction. And yet, it's not repulsion either. And that is what makes respect so holy, so sublime and so uniquely human.

Respect tells us to back off from something not because we loathe it but, to the contrary, because we think it's too important and too valuable to be treated casually.

It's amazing to consider that human beings can regard something as so precious or so powerful that instead of being drawn toward it, they feel like giving it space. An animal doesn't back away from something that it holds dear, but a human being does.

To me, this also helps us define another elusive word. What is "holiness"? It's a tough word to get a clear working definition of in English, but in Hebrew, its meaning is obvious. The word "kadosh" does not just mean "sacred;" it also means "set apart." In Jewish thought, something is holy when it is no longer available for regular use. So, for example, while I might use a phone book (if they existed anymore) to prop open a window, I would never use a prayer book to do the same job. What's the difference? The phone book may not have been designed to prop open windows, but if I wish to re-appropriate it for that task, there is no real reason why I shouldn't. What makes the prayer book holy is that we no longer use it to serve other purposes even when to do so would work just fine on a functional level.

Human sexuality is no different. Indeed, that is why the Talmudic term for marriage is "kiddushin" from that same root "kadosh" which means to set apart. On a purely functional level, all kinds of inventive uses of our sexuality are possible just as it is technically possible to use the prayer book to prop open the window. But for a human being who is capable of feeling respect, we just don't go there. "Of course it works," we say, "But that's not what it's supposed to be used for." And this is respect, because respect means holding off even when to jump in might be a whole lot more convenient.

I do not think I would be guilty of exaggeration or alarmism if I were to say that the lack of healthy respect for human sexuality is probably the biggest threat to society today. Society encourages men and women to love each other, to impress each other, to excite each other, to communicate with each other, even to fight with each other. But where do we hold up the virtue of men and women respecting each other? Where do we learn to revere our own and other people's sexuality by backing off or setting limits?

Sadly it is our gross inability to do so, as a society, that has destroyed intimacy because, as much as this runs counter to popular misconceptions, what makes intimacy intimate is not the force of attraction involved but the power of awe and reverence that forces us to take a step back from each other and say, "Wow! This is bigger than me. This is overwhelming. I dare not take this casually."

But alas, to quote Alexander Pope, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

So, Mrs. Cain, I wish to thank you for your remarks and your excellent choice of words. It is my hope that this latest news story will not just serve as another titillating scandal but as an opportunity to start a serious discussion about what it really means for men to respect women, for women to respect men, and for all of us to respect the power of our own God-given sexuality.