Why Malta needs a conversation on sex and toxic masculinity

What happened in a public garden in Sliema obviously makes women feel more threatened than men

Flowers and candles have been laid in memory of Paulina Dembska on the Sliema promenade
Flowers and candles have been laid in memory of Paulina Dembska on the Sliema promenade

The murder and rape of Paulina Dembska cannot be dismissed as an isolated act of random madness.

Neither can it be attributed to one single factor. I have a tendency to shun simplistic and slogan-ish explanations, even when expressed by kindred spirits. Much worse were comments on social media directed against the family of the suspected murderer, which were cruel and lacking in empathy. Such language misses the wood for the trees in horrific episodes like these.

Surely the fact that a woman was raped and murdered by a young male, who to some degree frequented the fundamentalist and homophobic River of Love, cannot be overlooked. What happened in a public garden in Sliema obviously makes women feel more threatened than men. And while this was necessarily a crime against women in general, it surely impacted on the serenity of women to enjoy public spaces without worrying on what could be lurking in the shadows.

Still, we should not forget that most crimes against women are committed in a domestic context, which to some extent make them even more insidious and structurally rooted than what are thankfully rare aggressions in the public realm.

And once again this tragedy has brought out the worms from the woodwork, in the shape of pastor Gordon-John Manche, whose evangelical and politically right-wing sect provides a direct personal relationship with an unloving male and homophobic God. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place.”

And while I am cautious on the radicalisation thesis advanced by some quarters of the press and on social media, fundamentalism mixed with other factors like mental health can be part of an explosive cocktail. Threatening journalists reporting on the case with fire and brimstone is simply another confirmation of a state of mind rooted in absolutist certainty. In short, it is impossible to have a conversation with people who think they have a monopoly on truth. Any conversation on sexuality, which is full of grey areas, has to start from self-doubt and a refusal of any absolutism.

Further muddying the waters was an unsolicited homophobic outburst by right-wing Catholic priest David Muscat, who equated “gayness” with demonic possession. This triggered a strong and healthy reaction in civil society, which simply confirms how far we have gone in the past few years. This also reopened an important debate on hate crime and what is prosecutable, but it risks deviating us from a much more urgent conversation we need.

For despite the breath-taking progress on all liberal issues except abortion (and significantly due to its impact on our dominant view of women as incubators), we have a long way to go in addressing deeply rooted sexism and misogyny.

What is important at this stage is to have a conversation on sexuality and masculinity, which despite the important liberal reforms of the past decade, has largely not taken place. One major problem is that sex and sexuality in general remain taboo. We need a kind of sex positivity which makes it possible to have a conversation on consent and how we can enjoy our sexuality without making others feel uncomfortable.

Males in particular need to talk about their history of entitlement. We need to talk about consent to establish clear boundaries which make our relations healthier. Moreover, we need to talk without an obligation to confess and without imposing a culture of secular guilt. So yes: let’s also critically talk about pornography, which often taps on our darker sides, not with the aim of censoring, but to equip young people – particularly males – with the social and personal skills to live their fantasies in the realm of playful, sometimes meaningful, but crucially consensual relations.

In many ways the LGBTIQ movement has been a pioneer in exploring a pluralistic sexuality without hang-ups, but one based on consent and respect. We also need to accept the reality of non-monogamous relationships and present them as legitimate possibilities. For this to happen, we need more sexual education – not just in schools but in our communities; as well as laws based on equality and respect for body autonomy.

Neither can we ignore entitlement based on class, a kind of sexual entitlement driving global male elites in their predatory ways. This cannot be ignored in any debate on liberalising the sex industry, even if we should be wary of condemning sex workers to obscurity and invisibility in the name of a new confessional morality. This is one issue which illustrates the complexity of issues which go beyond the liberal vs. conservative dichotomy.

Historically Malta may have missed the bus in the 1960s –instead of talking about sex and power, people were being interdicted and damned for their political choices. But today it finds itself swimming in a murky, online ocean that is also home to incels, fundamentalists and even pornographers who celebrate predatory behaviour.

And we lack the literary sensitivity that comes from reading history and good novels, which helps us understand the darkness which potentially lurks in each one of us. This is why a conversation on sexuality in Malta is so difficult but so necessary.