Sexual Ethics in “Circle of Friends”

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I sat down to watch a movie titled “Circle of Friends” starring Minnie Driver as the main character “Benny”.  I’m not sure about the rating, but I’ll just let you know that sex is a central theme (***Spoilers ahead***).  The setting of the movie is a small conservative Catholic-Irish community outside of Dublin, where three girls who have been friends since childhood (a shopkeeper’s daughter: Benny, a more wealthy man’s daughter: Nan, and an orphan in the care of nuns: Eve) grow up and eventually go to college.  Some scenes set up the plot and begin a strange trajectory.  1) The girls wonder about boys in small ways at first.  2) The priest speaks of premarital sex as sin, and puts the burden of purity on the girls in a sermon.  3) A professor at the college begins to speak about a small tribal group where adolescents are given complete freedom at puberty, and they blissfully engage in sex.  So these three scenes unleash the experimenting in the rest of the movie.  Each of the three girls awkwardly yet romantically find a man that they feel that they are in love with, and slowly through parties, they begin relationships with them.

An ironic twist in the movie really causes a new stir in the plot.  The girl who was raised by nuns, gains access to a house the nuns have kept up for her that had once belonged to her parents.  Since nuns go to bed at 8 pm and they won’t come to help upkeep it, the home becomes a place for parties for the college students to dance first, and then pair up.  Out of the three girls, Benny and her date played by a really “cute” guy named Jack (Chris O’Donnell), are the most conservative because Benny decides to listen to Catholic doctrine and keep herself pure.  Eve plays around, but is not fully developed as a character, but Nan becomes the antagonist by dating a wealthy Protestant (taboo) who says he loves her. They then use Eve’s nun-house as a rendezvous for her boyfriend’s fantasies, and eventually she becomes pregnant.  That boyfriend, Colin (Simon Westward – one of my favorite actors), ends up being a jerk.  He decides that they cannot keep the baby, or become public because of the Catholic-Protestant tension, and he writes her some guilt money.  Nan, scandalized and hurting, makes a bad decision.  She goes on a Rugby trip with Benny’s boyfriend Jack, and then when he is incredibly drunk, she sleeps with him.  A bit later, she announces that he, Jack, is the father of the Baby!  And then they are honor-bound to be married to support the child because they are Catholic with Catholic values (Though they have not lived out these values in private, a baby forces public values…).

Benny finds out, is hurt deeply, and throws herself into her work because her Dad had just died.  This doesn’t last long though, because Eve eventually finds out about Nan’s scheme, and exposes the whole plot.  This is where the movie gets really strange to me.  Benny, instead of holding onto her values when Jack was unfaithful, decides that the reason that Jack was unfaithful, was because she too wasn’t giving him sex!  He comes over and declares his undying love for her, and that he’s always loved her.  Benny turns to him romantically and forgivingly; after some time she decides to lose her virginity to him that day.  They go up to the nun-house, and the movie ends with a pan out of the nun-house, and the line, “Forgive me father, for I have sinned.”

I was furious. Shaking my head, and unable to remain seated, I could not believe that the movie ended this way.

Let’s apply logic to the ending. Nan had given herself to a man who said that he loved her without ever testing whether that statement had any proof or everlasting context.  That was the root of the problem and the reason for deception (evil) in the movie: Non-Committed Love!  And here, at the end of the movie, Benny gives herself to Jack in the same way.  In a Non-Committed, unproved fit of emotion.  She has completely removed the rational process from her decisions.  So in my opinion, that is not the end of the movie.  In fact, that ending sets up the same problems that the plot tried to solve.  And yet the film’s writers glorified in pre-marital sex as if that were the seal of a relationship.  The Fallacy is, as we have already seen demonstrated in the same film, that it is fully possible once the man (which the community priest is silent towards a man’s responsibility to purity of self and other) has sexual union with the woman, that the man can walk away without any burden.  This causes distress for the woman, who had expected endurance of relationship, not a walk away.  They show two different situations, one with consequences, and a second which is nearly identical, yet because the credits roll, we imagine a better ending.  By why should we expect a good ending?  There is no commitment to endurance, to everlasting love!  No societal accountability, to ensure that the union lasts, and is supported by those older and wiser.  There is no vision for a future, or the furtherance of a family, or productivity to one another’s benefit.  No, either party is free to walk away at any time.

From the beginning of the movie, the society was very conservative.  The priest, though he was wrong putting the burden of chastity solely on the girls, showed that there was societal limits that were in place for some reason or another.  Perhaps it was for protection and sacredness of marriage and the marriage bed, or perhaps it had degraded into the “proper” thing to do and people could not remember why they were to be “proper”.  It does not matter, it was a conservative culture.  Then the professor spoke on the Tribal People and their happiness with unbridled sex between adolescents.  This thought (idea) was somewhat analogous to a Beetle being brought into a new environment, where having no natural predators, spreads and destroys the native vegetation.  Trees die, and the ecosystem is changed forever.  The striking image of the Bold and Confident Professor is singed with sadness to me, because his proclamations are said with no consideration of the consequences of introducing such an idea to a more controlled society; particularly to a specific young group, whose identities are being formed, and who are curious and ripe for experimentation.  By merely saying a few words of caution, the Professor could have started a dialogue about how this “idea” would interact with the current social system were it to be implemented, but like a Mad Scientist, he leaves his findings free to be interpreted and applied in individual ways, regardless of the damage it caused.

And I wish not to be judgmental.  I only wish this post to be a conversation and a warning.  The movie itself demonstrates that there are consequences, though there is no dialogue to hash it out.  You have to figure it out on your own that the relationship between Benny and Jack will now be tinged with his unfaithfulness, and that lingering doubt that they will last, that the future is secured by a committment that is ideal, and beyond our frailties.  People get hurt, and relationships are irrecovicly damaged, when a group decides that Non-Committed “love” and Sexual Experimentation are to become the norm rather than an exception that can be cared for.  I see within this movie, and its problems, seeds for an argument against a basic set of values in Hollywood’s films.  A quick assessment:

1) The traditional roles of Husband and Wife are a joke (see Transformers 2, beginning scenes; also: Simpsons/Family Guy)

2) It is assumed that sex is a test (rather than a gift saved) for the possibility of marriage (see Friends, Monica and Chandler)

3) Those living in chastity are fools (40 year old Virgin)

4) Sexual exploit stories are part of the coupling adventure (Every Hugh Grant Film ever)

And none of these values are correlated with the Love that Jesus Christ and his follower Paul, spoke of:  “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.  For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.  Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.  The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” (Paul’s letter to the Romans)

What the priest forgot in “Circle of Friends” is that it is not just the woman’s responsibility to maintain purity until a Committed, Accountable, and Society Supported Relationship (called a marriage by most) is formed – It is everyone’s responsibility.  The man must protect the woman, the woman must protect the man, and each must look to ones own purity.  This is not meant to hold people back, but to ensure the best quality relationships for the future.  Relationships based on Trust, Long Lasting Love, Hope, and Giving.  Not on Fear, Indulgence, Resentment, and Taking; all of these being the modern symbols of marriage, perhaps because people have modeled marriage as inhospitable rather than what it can ideally be.  But the ideal stands.  It is love that goes outside of oneself and protects the other – and commits to the object (person) of that love by giving him or her alone, the goodness of the marriage bed.  It is my belief that if Sexual Ethics would be preserved as a good discipline, and not despised as a hindrance to fun, then more people would see marriage as Sacred, and not the joke that it has become, while things like Adultery, Sexual Exploitation, and Non-Intimate Relationships would decline, and children of the future would see that this generation was committed to making a safe and loving world for their nurture and education.  It is possible to turn culture in another direction, but there has to be vision, and beyond that vision, people can commit to one another and role-model self sacrificing, self disciplined love, which are ingredients in the strongest of all possible relationships that lead to good marriages.

With every movie I see, I get angrier at our assumed values.  Though no one can live a perfect life, I do think that people can at least speak of an ideal, something that we can compare our lives to in order to see if we are doing well, or need to do better.  Do you agree?

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16 thoughts on “Sexual Ethics in “Circle of Friends”

  1. Dan, I agree with you. I find more and more lately, I really enjoy a movie minus one scene, minus one sexual joke, etc. It’s unfortunate really. It seems like Hollywood has created this incline of sexual “freedom” allowing more and more into the PG-13 movies and I wonder how much we can take back and set right after so much has been allowed without an outcry. If your argument was delivered by a crowd to the makers of such box office movies would it even make a difference? I don’t know. No one has ever tried (as far as I know)… those who wish not to see such things in movies either don’t see such movies all together or cringe and endure the afore mentioned scenes/jokes and hope for the best each time they venture out to the movie theater or gamble on a rental.

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    1. We feel the same way. We’ll be watching a fantastic work of art, and then boom – lots of sexuality. Transformers 2 really caught me off guard, because I thought that was a family franchise, but there were several scenes that Amanda and I both were very surprised by. Also, the mild profanity throughout was very strange and made it hard to take the rest of the story seriously.

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  2. I love reading your blog, Dan. Typically I just sit and nod my head in agreement, but I thought I’d add an experience of my own this time.

    A few years ago, I was having brunch with some co-workers when the subject turned to the popular TV show, The Bachelor. Everyone offered their own opinion of the show and a co-worker who is my age quipped “Well, I think it’s absolutely stupid. I could never agree to marry a man without first having sex with him,” basically stating that sex is a test to see if love can last.

    I silently marveled at our differences, quietly saying that I’m just the opposite, that I couldn’t have sex with a man without first having the commitment of marriage. I guess that brought the mood of the room down, and the subject quickly changed.

    I still remember the surprise of that conversation, my own surprise at my co-worker’s comment and everyone else’s surprise at mine. What a sad statement it is that my comment was taken as something to be shocked about and hers was commonplace.

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    1. It’s strange how being counter culture has gone mainstream. And in the meantime, those who value committment, traditional values, and connectedness (family supports, etc.) are pushed to the edge.

      It is interesting to me that the conversation stopped. That meant that there was unease on one or both sides, though originally both sides of the conversation were probably said with confidence. Sometimes silence is a good thing, when it causes us to pause, and think through our worldview and its consequences/rewards.

      That awkwardness may end up being a great thing someday.

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  3. To Melanie, I am not surprised at this reaction but I am sadded that I am not. The society we live in has been so corrupted that they believe that sex is some kind of test like Dan said. It is not the center point of a relationship. A relationship is not dependent on how your partner “satisfies” you in bed. It is something that grows in time and together you begin to understand each other within marriage. So many people use it as a pasttime and that is not what sex was intended for.
    Dan, you are amazing and I love your thoughts on it. It is so true!

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    1. You’re are right to an extent Alex, but that’s not the point. The movie presents a philosophical statement that one may interact with. All movies are written by people, and those people write ideas into their scripts. One can merely sit there and passively watch a film without ever noticing those ideas. But the ideas are still there (ideas build a worldview/identity for individuals and groups). One can interact with the ideas of the film (and the argument in the narrative/plot) and either agree or disagree with those ideas as to whether they are good or not.

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      1. The thing is, people don’t include profanity and sex in movies to make a statement about what is good and bad. They do it because it sells. If many people didn’t find it entertaining, these movies wouldn’t be able to thrive like they do. There’s a much more fundamental problem here than the movies themselves. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I would think it has something to do with how humans’ psychology.

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      2. You can’t separate and compartmentalize sex and profanity in movies from the whole of the movie’s artistic total. To do so would be artificial. A movie is presented as a whole for a reason. While there are movies that just throw things in for promotions and shock value, most artists that are part of the movie production process will tell you that they are trying to convey something. Like a painting, there is a message – even if that message is just shock value (abstract art) or just trying to sell something(Graphic design). These are purposes. But there is a cultural conversation happening that is beyond the purpose.

        For example. When someone sees a painting by Andy Warhol. They see a can of Cambell’s soup. On first glance, one might think that it is just trying to sell soup, but it is more deconstructed than that. He is actually trying to tell you something about himself, and our culture, and to get you to think about it from a different perspective. As something that tells our story – our identity.

        Then, take a 30 second ad for Geico. Even though they are trying to sell us car insurance, there is a conversation happening. 1) People are desensitized to normal marketing and Geico knows that. 2) They look at what people are attracted to (squirrels, gecko’s, bundles of money) 3) They make an ad that gets our attention, tells us all about Geico and its potential benefits 4) We see the ad and interact with it, either saying A) True or B) False or we just ignore it. Then Geico goes back to the drawing board.

        And movies – even the most commercial, or sexually explicit movie has a message and we are interacting with it. That’s what I’m doing in that blog, and I expect others to do the same.

        Thanks for your thoughts Alex.

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      3. I’m not entirely sure if I get what you’re saying, but I think there are many big differences between pieces of art like the ones made by Warhol and explicit movies like American Pie or whatever else. The movies attempt to appeal to popular culture to make money, and in effect reinforce both positive and negatives aspects of it. It’s sort of self-perpetuating.

        For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho might receive a PG-13 or even a PG rating nowadays, while back in the 1960s the MPAA censors thought it was too explicit for an R rating at first and Hitchcock had to try to compromise with them. Especially for the shower scene. There’s no way today’s extremely sexually explicit and violent R-rated moves would be allowed allowed in the 1960s. I think there’s been a gradual liberalization of this sort of thing, to the point where it’s going a bit too far. While in some ways it’s a good thing, I’m worried that it will go way too far with organizations like NAMBLA trying to take advantage of this liberalization by being a part of the gay right movement, as one instance: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Man/Boy_Love_Association#Ostracism
        Another instance of this is how sexualized society is today. Melanie’s comment illustrates this well. There’s a very fine line we need to walk between values and openness, and it’s doubtful out society and culture will successfully do so. At this rate we’ll become too open for our own good.

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      4. I ge what you are saying now and I agree. But even lower base creations are consumed and interacted with as a message in a particular medium. Thy liberalization that you mention is what I call desensitization and I leads to the desire for worse and worse depictions of violence and sexuality. An example I can think of that disgusted me ( and which I quickly turned off) was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Why would anyone want to consume that.

        Asides, if you ever watch Circle of Friends let me know what you think.

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      5. What really scares me is when people are desensitized towards death or suffering, myself included, and especially when we’re talking about things that actually happen or have happened. That is just beyond completely unacceptable to me that people don’t understand how horrible and undesirable those things are just because they happen so often.

        I’ll try to watch it sometime. 🙂

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    1. I remember seeing that in movie theaters a while ago. It actually is one of my favorite ads from the last year. Another one being the Geico commercial with the personified money you could be saving. But that one is just random.

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