Is it wrong to be judgmental about things that you find offensive?

A friend of a friend engages in degrading phone sex and blames women for his problems. Is that a problem?

By Cary Tennis

Published September 20, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My close friend Dana (not real name) has a heavy dilemma and I thought you might be able to help: A while back she met Dan (not real name), who turned out to be less a lover than a friend. When she met Dan we were both happy, as he's a smart fellow with similar interests, and because he has some financial independence he's also been generous to Dana, offering his place when he's out of town and generally treating her well.

Not long into their friendship, Dana found out that Dan has some sexual issues: He cross-dresses, he's sometimes bisexual, and he's into B&D. Those issues, while troubling to Dana, would never cause her to abandon a friend. Now she's discovered that he also frequents prostitutes and engages in degrading phone sex, all the while blaming his dysfunction on women in general but particularly the young "beautiful" women who populate TV and advertising. He pays to have sex with young hookers, dismissing educated and older women in his life because of a bit of cellulite on their rumps or perhaps an extra dress size.

Dana is disgusted by his actions and his attitudes toward women, but she also feels that she's being judgmental and is concerned that she should approach this dispassionately. I assure her that her disgust and dismay are not only natural and healthy but also wise -- she'd never hang out with a person who displayed racist or otherwise violent qualities. But because Dan's issues spring from sexuality, Dana feels decidedly unhip. Your opinion could be very helpful.


Dear Worried,

I think I know what you mean when you say, "Dan's issues spring from sexuality." I think you mean that since this behavior is sexual, we shouldn't judge it. But it's important for your friend to be honest about her own reactions to it. If his behavior shocks her or disgusts her or grosses her out, those are valid reactions. I sense she is uncertain how she should feel. She should feel the way she feels. However she feels, that's who she is. She isn't supposed to be anyone except who she is. You feel me?

Perhaps behind her uncertainty is a sense that issues of social justice are involved. She may think, well, he's got the right to do whatever he wants as long as it doesn't harm anyone else. And to a great extent he does. But what we're really talking about are her own personal choices, which are not governed by statute or social consensus. Besides, even if we were talking about protecting alternative lifestyles, hostility and the degradation of women may be acted out sexually, but that doesn't mean that they "spring from sexuality" or that they're sexual in the same way that, say, homosexuality is sexual. We aren't bound as a society to extend the same acceptance and protection to people who sexually degrade women as we extend to people who simply love members of the same sex.

It's quite simple actually. It has to do with friendship. Friends are people we feel good around, people whose actions we understand and approve of, people we can be comfortable with.

That's not to say that this guy should be locked up. If these are symbolic acts between consenting adults, then the law should stay out of it. People have the right to their own personal hells.

But I think this man might be happier if he set out to discover the meaning of his behavior. Perhaps he was mistreated by a woman as a child and so is simultaneously trying to rescue that child and punish that woman. Perhaps in his cross-dressing he acts out a symbolic identification with women which is tormented by self-hatred.

Perhaps he also has too much time on his hands. One can imagine the environment of privilege and neglect in which he was raised, an emotionally treacherous stateroom on a motherless ocean liner. I've seen them, orphans of opulence hugging cold toys to their fragile, empty chests, playing all day in isolation. I've seen them stranded in the suburban dormitories of divorce, waiting for one or the other of the parents, or perhaps a maid or doorman. I've seen them wandering the huge halls of mortgaged palaces, eating sandwiches for breakfast.

If he had money as a child, perhaps that's part of his past he needs to deal with as well. As a working man, I'd say that if you don't have to work for a living, you never really find out what you're worth on the market, so maybe you try to buy what most of us have to work for: self-respect, the knowledge that you did some good today, sore muscles and a well-earned good night's sleep.

And by the way, I understand that being judgmental may seem unhip. A hip attitude is one of benign detachment. If you have an attitude of benign detachment, that is fine. But if something offends you, what's wrong with saying it offends you?

It's hipper to be real and freaked out than phony and cool.

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