So let me get this straight, Downton Abbey.
Thomas, one of the servants, sexually assaults a fellow male servant (after getting caught stealing and trying to swindle the kitchen staff) and Lord Grantham lets him off the hook. Facing jail time–for homosexuality was illegal in those days–Thomas gets off the hook. Downton patriarch Lord Grantham intervened before the police could arrest Thomas. Lord Grantham encourages Alfred, the disgusted servant who ratted Thomas out to the police, to revoke the charge. He says
I am not asking you to abandon your beliefs . . . just to introduce a little kindness into the equation . . . Thomas does not choose to be the way he is. And what harm was done, really, that his life should be destroyed for it? Well, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Are you without sin Alfred? For I am certainly not.
Lord Grantham also says, “If I cried blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton, I would have been hoarse in a month.” Then he promoted Thomas.
Ethel, another servant, faces a sexual scandal of her own–but Lord Grantham is rather less charitable toward her. This season, we learn that the former Downton servant was, after she left the estate, forced into prostitution to support her baby since the father was out of the picture. Then, after the heartbreaking decision of giving her boy away to his grandparents, she decides to resume her life as a servant at Downton and rebuild her life. When Lord Grantham catches wind of this, he barges into a perfectly pleasant tea party that Ethel is overseeing and raises hell about the scandal she is bringing on the house. Ethel more or less gets sent away.
What’s up with that double standard?
On the one hand, Grantham’s hypocrisy makes me glad for progressive laws that ensure that sexual assault gets prosecuted and that men have to pay, at least financially, when they sire a child.
On the other hand, it makes me wonder, are things that much better today?
My inner feminist assumes that Ethel got the shaft because she is a woman. Because a woman’s scandal, back then, was infinitely worse than that of a man. A man could divorce his wife if she was unfaithful (Exhibit A: Beloved Bates). But a woman married to a cheater could not. (I am not condoning divorce, however, as a resolution to infidelity.) A woman who has behaved scandalously was “damaged goods,” but a man who does the same thing? Just exotic.
But even today, these uneven standards still somewhat apply. Men are expected to sleep around to be manly. But whereas women were once expected to be pure, now women are expected to sleep around (thanks Hanna Rosin!) to be feminists but still somehow be pure to be desirable. Like it or not, virginity in a woman is still very much valued. Nothing exemplifies this better than recent examples of women auctioning off their virginity for absurd sums.
As the Thomas/Ethel escapades remind us, the cards have long been stacked against women. But the hook-up culture just stacks the cards even higher. I’m not suggesting that a woman’s value resides in her virginity, but our sense of self-worth is very much tied to our sexuality. The hook-up culture pressures women into behavior that makes them feel worthless and only encourages men to be licentious instead of honorable. Men are now held to a lower standard and women are held to an impossible double standard.
We should be striving for a culture where men and women are taught to respect the power of sexuality and the empowerment that comes with chastity. And unlike Grantham, we should be consistent in our shaming. But we also must stop promoting behavior that makes people feel ashamed, because just like in Downton Abbey, the sex that gets hit the hardest will always be women.