Back in the days of The Scarlet Letter, and before, an even more egregious double standard afflicted the sexual practices of women and men. Our primate nature promotes two conflicting principles: disgust at cheating and the desire to get away with what we can. Unfortunately, biology has often showcased female infidelity with the “illegitimate” child, and religions have stood in line to condemn the behavior that led to such circumstances. I was reminded of this while looking at a “gown of repentance” at the National Museum of Scotland. The Scottish Reformation led to an unusually severe kind of Schadenfreude when it came to pointing out the faults of others. Janet Gothskirk, spiritual kin to Hester Prynne, was convicted of adultery and had to wear a “gown of repentance,” literal sackcloth, to humiliate herpublicly. Her partner in crime, William Murdoch, is not recorded as having received any punishment for the affair, according to the placard.
Thus it has always been: boys will be boys, but girls will be good. And when it comes time to dole out the blame, well, boys sometimes just can’t help themselves. This double standard is still in widespread practice throughout the religious world today. It shares roots with the same thinking that leads to many major religions denying sacerdotal leadership to women, and to the unfair punishment doled upon women in cultures where their behavior “dishonors” that of the men-folk. And we have all seen where male leadership has steered this ship.
What struck me hardest, staring at the dirty, ratty garment of shame, was that forgiveness seems so far removed from the religion of the Reformation. Christianity has always claimed a basis in the concepts of love and forgiveness, but when it comes to the very real circumstances of human failings, the animal tendency to attack the weak is often the driving force. We deflect because deep down we know that we all have failings. Clergy and braggarts may sometimes claim otherwise, but we share this very common liability of humanness. We should try to help each other through it. We should remember the golden rule. We should remember that sackcloth was meant to be self-inflicted and that the role of the church was to absolve the guilt, not to showcase it. Janet Gothskirk is forgotten to history, save for the garment she once wore to display her weakness for all to see.