There has been a lot of sex in the air lately. Both conventional and social media have been awash with stories and discussion about unsavoury goings on, especially in the West.
Ordinarily, there should be nothing strange about this. Sex has always been a fascinating subject even though most will not admit it. Poets, musicians and artists have celebrated it and elevated it to an aesthetic and spiritual level. Even for religious people it is often a topic of choice for their teaching.
Sex can be both unifying and divisive. In some instances it has been elevated to a standard of purity that any deviation from it is a terrible sin. In others it has been lowered to a level of sordidness that makes it an unsuitable subject for polite conversation. Yet, somehow, sex is the staple of jokes in a lot of adult talk.
But while it is ever present, it is often relegated to matters private. And so when it becomes a matter of widespread public discourse, something is not quite right.
This is the case in the present coverage of sex stories. There is a strong sense of moral outrage because of the abuse and scandal involved, and also perhaps because they call to attention things people know but would rather keep secret.
The most recent scandal was the story of Oxfam officials in Haiti where aid workers saw the desperate situation of Haitians as an opportunity for free or cheap sex. It caused outrage because humanitarian work is considered a calling. Those who opt for it are expected to be compassionate and not to take advantage of vulnerable people. They are supposed to alleviate their misery, not compound it. They are assumed to have a higher sense of responsibility and moral conduct.
And then, of course, in this case they come from the country that gave us missionaries and other ‘civilising’ influences.
But clearly, this is not the case. We have given them values that they do not necessarily have. The notion that they have a superior morality is nonsense. Motivation to work in the humanitarian business is different from the noble ideals we invest its workers with.
True, there are those genuinely concerned with aiding people in need. But some also go into it because of the good and easy life. Others are attracted by adventure and the prospect of visiting exotic places. With such varied intentions, it should not come as a complete shock that there will be some people who will exploit their positions for advantage.
And so, while the moral outrage is justified, there is a sense in which it is also a refusal to see reality as it is, and the anger and resignations will not change much.
For as long as there is inequality and vulnerability caused by a variety of reasons, there will always be exploitation of all kind, including sex. In such conditions sex becomes several things.
It becomes a means of exchange, a sort of barter trade (for want of a better word) in which one party enters the deal unwillingly, and the other has the power to determine the price. In some of our neighbours media regularly report cases of parents selling their daughters for a garden of cassava during prolonged periods of drought. In a sense, sex is also the only recourse for the most vulnerable because it is the only commodity they have.
It is the same with the scandals involving celebrities in the United States and other Western countries. In the film industry, for example, producers have demanded sex in exchange for acting roles. This has been going on for so long that it sounds a little hypocritical to think that it started with Harvey Weinstein.
Politicians and other people in positions of influence have been known to use their power and celebrity status for improper sex advantage. These, however, do not always generate the same outrage because they are held to a lower moral standard. While people are prepared to give politicians the right to manage public affairs, they also know that they do not have very strong principles. So when they transgress, it is sort of expected of them.
Similarly, as long as there are wars, natural disasters and refugees, there will always be those willing to help. But there will also be others prepared to prey on the helpless.
So, why are we shocked and surprised by what the Oxfam crowd has done in Haiti or what the Hollywood directors and politicians in different world capitals habitually do?
Part of the reason is hypocrisy. These goings on are usually well-known, but nobody says a thing until they come out in public, and then the condemnation becomes loud and shrill.
There is also a feeling of shame. People who have always assumed a sense of superior morals have been unmasked and shown to be sinners like everyone else. The outrage is a way of hiding the shame.
The reality is that these sex scandals are more than moral failings. They are also about the exercise of power in situations of extreme inequality.