In a previous post, ‘Utilitarian Ethics’, I considered the way the Enlightenment severed sexuality from the restraining influences of an allegedly outdated ethic. At the same time, we saw that it was customary to temper the implications of this move with a utilitarian pragmatism as ambiguous as it was ungrounded. However, once it was conceded that there was no more to man and woman than matter, that men and women are as much a product of determinism as the motion of the stars (a topic I explored in the first post in this series), a sexual time bomb was necessarily set in motion. It is in our own age that this time bomb has gone off.
This is not to deny that there were immediate practical consequences of the new thinking. Indeed, we explored some of these consequences in my previous post, ‘Ideas Have Consequences’. However, in the eighteenth century these consequences were mainly manifested in a straightforward increase of sexual licentiousness, on the one hand, and a plea for egalitarianism, on the other. Our age, however, has seen more than merely a quantitative increase in either of these areas; rather, we have undergone a complete qualitative upheaval in what it even means to be a sexual being.
The Deconstruction of Gender
The synthesizing of the gender polarity has been one of the hallmarks of the twentieth century. Starting from the correct premise that many of the roles and differences assigned to the sexes have been culturally conditioned, it has become commonplace to assume that all gender differences are culturally limited. Reflecting on this reductive approach to gender, David Wells pointed out that
It is true, of course, that manhood and womanhood are partly cultural creations. They are matters of cultural nurture. What much of our current belief assumes, however, is that they are only matters of nurture, not of nature at all, and that our most fundamental identities as men and women are matters of choice and of construction. (David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue, p. 90.)
Even the idea of gender is being increasingly seen as a social construction, as reflected in Andrea Dworkin’s statement that,
“The discovery is, of course, that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs . . . demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both.” (Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating, p. 174.)
Echoing Dworkin, the United Nation’s Population Fund has written on their website that,
“Gender refers to the differences in socially constructed roles and opportunities associated with being a man or a woman and the interactions and social relations between men and women.”
In 1993, Robert S. McElvaine wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times, in which he lamented how the term “sex” is gradually being replaced by the word “gender” in its basic meaning, while increasingly being used only in its secondary sense as an abbreviation for sexual intercourse. McElvaine put this down to the fact that
sex implies that there are biological differences between males and females, a heresy that one faction of feminists calls “essentialism.” Most often, those who insist on speaking of gender contend that sex identity is entirely a product of culture. They say that any differences between the “genders” are learned— “constructed” is the currently accepted terminology. The old one-liner, “Susan is of the female persuasion,” is now taken seriously in many quarters. (Robert S. McElvaine, “Perspective on Language: What Ever Happened to S–x?” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1993.)
If gender is determined by social pressures, then it is potentially as fluid as culture itself. This seems to be the view expressed in the curricula of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a leading distributor of sex-education material for the American public schools. In their “Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: K–12,” they state that gender identity “refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or a combination of these” and “may change over the course of their lifetimes.” (From SIECUS Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education Kindergarten–12th Grade, available online here).
Regis Nicoll has noted the irony that while gender is being presented as a fluid, ever-changing matrix, sexual orientation is increasingly seen as static. Hence the oft-quoted maxim, “People do not choose their sexual orientation, they are born that way.” “Only in the Alice in Wonderland world of the cultural elite,” writes Nicoll, “could something as patently innate as gender be considered a malleable product of personal feelings, while sexual preference is considered an unalterable fact of life.” (See his article “Gender Benders”.) Also see Aislinn Simpson’s article ‘Transgender students force lavatory change’ in The Telegraph, 30 Sep 2008.)
Simone de Beauvoir was more succinct: “Women are made, they are not born.” (From The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshly, New York, 1961.
This idea was behind the controversial painting ‘Androgyny’, by Norval Morrisseau (1932-2007). Discussing the painting, Jeanette Armstrong said, “the order of life learning is that you are born without sex and as a child, through learning, you move toward full capacity as either male or female.” To read a discussion about the painting, see here as well as my article for Salvo magazine which is republished here.
Since women have been “made” by society, the corollary to becoming more enlightened is that we should strive to unmake the female. This is exactly what the influential psychologist Sandra Bem has suggested. “When androgyny had been absorbed by the culture”, wrote Melanie Phillips, paraphrasing Bem’s views, “concepts of masculinity and femininity would cease to have distinct content and distinctions would ‘blur into invisibility’”. (Melanie Phillips, The Sex-Change Society: Feminised Britain and the Neutered Male, p. 172. See also Bem Sandra, Beyond Androgyny: Some Presumptuous Prescriptions for a Liberated Sexual Identity; in Sherman, J.A. and Denmark, F.L.: The Psychology of Women: Future Directions in Research (Psychological Dimensions Inc., 1978). It is interesting to observe the result when Bem tried to raise children according to this ideology. See Sandra Lipsitz Bem, An Unconventional Family (Yale University Press, 2001). Also see Wendy Shalit’s comments on Bem’s book, “Among the Gender Benders” in Commentary, Jan. 1999.)
Susan Moller Okin is equally wistful when contemplating a future without gender.
“. . . [A] just future would be one without gender. In its social structures and practices, one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes.”
Family therapist Olga Silverstein expressed a similar sentiment when she urged “the end of the gender split” since “until we are willing to question the very idea of a male sex role . . . we will be denying both men and women their full humanity.”
It is true that the above quotations represent an extremism that is not yet mainstream. Most academics and lay people still acknowledge that the categories of masculinity and femininity do have content, while fiercely opposing any assumption of what “manhood” and “womanhood” mean in practice (rather like saying, “there are apples and there are oranges, and they are not the same thing, but don’t presume to describe the differences in flavor!”) Even though feminists who deny any differences at all between males and females are still considered radical, few would acknowledge that sexual identity has a fixity that transcends both biology and culture. But this is simply the consistent outworking of the Enlightenment reductionism we have explored in earlier posts. (See "Reducing the Human", "Utilitarian Ethics" and "Ideas Have Consequences")
Ashamed of Manhood and Womanhood
In the eighteenth century, it may have seemed as if the philosophy of the Enlightenment would liberate gender. Over two hundred years later, we see that all it achieved was to make us ashamed of gender, especially those aspects of gender which make men and women different. Hence, wherever there are distinctives between the sexes, we can be sure to find a campaign for their elimination. In Britain, the Department of Health has issued a guide to pregnancy in which men are told that “expectant fathers can suffer morning sickness too” and postnatal depression. In America, “A single dad wrote in The Washington Post that he felt excluded from advertising aimed only at moms and kids. He wanted advertisers to understand that slogans such as ‘Choosy Moms Choose Jif’ hurt his feelings. He’s choosy, too!” (Cited by Kathleen Parker in Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care, p. 104)
He should have moved to the UK, where, just to be fair, the government pays for fathers-to-be to be given breastfeeding lessons. (See Kirsty Walker, 'Fathers-to-be will get lessons on breastfeeding and supporting partner through childbirth', January 18, 2010, The Daily Mail. See also William J. McGee, “Mothers, Mothers, Everywhere – and Nary a Plug for Dad,” Washington Post, May 8. 2005. Also see Parker’s hilarious discussion about the 2005 newspaper story “French Men Yearn For Pregnancy” (Parker, ibid. p. 105). Also see the Daily Telegraph article, “Telling pregnant women not to drink is 'sexist'.”
Not to be beat, extremist feminists in Sweden have argued that men should sit down to urinate to bring out their “gentle” side. Once again, however, the UK was more practical and gave government funding to equality activists who began “demanding that schools have a strategy for challenging gender stereotypes among the under-14s, complete with monitoring and enforcement mechanisms” (according to the Telegraph report, this would involve stamping out “the unfortunate tendency of little girls to play at being nurses when their male counterparts want to be Bob the Builder”).
The pervasive attempt to achieve a gender-neutral vocabulary is probably the most concrete example of the attempt to eliminate anything and everything from our environment which threatens to remind us that women are women and men are men. Hence, the publication of such books as The Elements of Nonsexist Usage: A Guide to Inclusive Spoken and Written English, by Val Dumond, or the thousands of pounds the UK government spent educating their staff how to avoid “gendered” terms such as “seamstress.” The author of The Elements of Nonsexist Usage had to seek long and hard for a gender-neutralized substitute for “seamstress”, reported Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mail. Eventually they came up with “sewer”.
Is gender really as scary as all that? Apparently it is. If we are to take our cues from the British Foreign Office (not something I am in the habit of routinely doing), “gender issues” are just as much a threat as landmines, heroin smuggling and extreme poverty. When the British Foreign Office had to make schemes to help the war-torn state of Afghanistan, the government instructed diplomats to give a higher priority to “gender issues” than to the more pressing dangers imposed by drugs, mines and general deprivation. The Foreign Office responded by producing a report entitled Inclusive Government: Mainstreaming Gender into Foreign Policy which, according to The Week news magazine, would help Afghan tribesmen to get in touch with their “feminine side.”
In a world where men are ashamed to be men and women are ashamed to be women, it was inevitable that eventually people would begin believing that gender is not rooted in biological fixities at all (even materialism could grant that), but is a fluid category that can be constructed irrespective of biology. This means that someone with a male body can choose to be a woman and someone with a female body can choose to be a man. That is the assumption behind a government-funded body in the UK known as the Gender Recognition Panel. Established by the Gender Recognition Act 2004, this panel assesses people’s claims to have the gender on their birth certificate amended. (Those wishing to read about my experiences with this panel, would do well to consult my article Androgyny!).
Exactly what the terms “man” and “woman” still mean after they have been emptied of all their content remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that there has been a persistent attempt to neutralize gender at every level. Sometimes this is seen in obvious ways, as when the 1960s feminists demanded that all women burn their bras, as if in silent answer to Professor Higgins question “Why can't a woman be more like a man?” in the musical My Fair Lady.
Rather than being able to glory in our identity as men and women created in the image of God, we are made to feel ashamed of the very concept of manhood and womanhood, while the emblems of our sex are reduced to symbols of servitude and conformity. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the way our society responds to chivalry.
Chivalry and Modesty
I am indebted to Stephen Perks for alerting me to the dangers of an indiscriminate use of the term chivalry. Whenever I use the term chivalry I do not mean the network of social expectations associated with medieval knighthood, which were a strange combination of Christian and pagan values (see Denis De Rougemont’s book.). For example, Andreas Capellanus’ famous handbook on courteous behavior, The Art of Courtly Love, explains that the need for “chivalric” behavior on the part of men applies only in their relations with aristocratic women. Raping peasant women, he says, is fine. Similarly, male chivalry throughout European history has happily coincided with wife-beating, visits to prostitutes, and fornication, etc. Instead, when I use the term chivalry I mean “courteous behavior, especially that of a man towards women” which is the third definition given for chivalry in Reader’s Digest Word Power Dictionary.
Chivalry is unpopular today precisely because it is an emblem of masculinity among the men who practice it and an emblem of femininity in the women who receive it, even as feminine modesty reminds us that looking at a woman is different than looking at a man.
The reason men in our culture are becoming less gentlemanly towards ladies is not simply because there has been a general erosion in manners and basic decency, though of course that has been a contributing factor. But it is also because of a subtle shift in worldview of which most people are not even aware. Chivalrous behavior, like modesty, presupposes certain things about our humanity. It assumes, for example, that women ought to be treated in a special way because they are women, just as feminine modesty proclaims that women ought to dress in a certain way because they are women. When a man embraces his calling to look after and protect women, or when a woman embraces her obligation to dress modestly, they are both proclaiming that there is a fundamental difference between the sexes. These very differences are what the Enlightenment began to undermine.
In her book A Return To Modesty, Wendy Shalit cites the instance of a 55-year-old businessman named Tony which is all too typical:
I was out with my wife and one other woman and when I got the other woman’s coat for her and reached to help her with it, she practically ripped the coat out of my hands, said “Nobody has ever done that for me!” and stomped off and waited, fuming, by the door.”
In a world where women have been “liberated” to be the same as men, where we are taught that all gender-specific roles (including men showing special honor to women) are oppressive, no wonder both chivalry and modesty are seen as threatening.
Entire series on Gender, Morality and Modesty
The Sexualization of Britain's Youth Culture
Alfred the Great Society
Entire series on Gender, Morality and Modesty
The Sexualization of Britain's Youth Culture
Alfred the Great Society