Monday, August 23, 2010

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 5 (the Disenchanting of Sex)

In the current series of blog posts (all of which can be assessed here) we have been considering the formative role that various secular philosophies have had in deconstructing what it means to be human in general and what it means to be a man and a woman in particular.
In the first post, 'Gender, Morality and Modest Part 1' we considered the implication that certain ideas of the European Enlightenment had on the concept of nature.  If everything a person does is simply the predetermined result of mechanical forces, then all actions can be defended as being “natural.” We explored some of the implications this had in the area of sexual morals.  In particular, we saw how it unleashed a sexual revolution at the time of the Enlightenment. We saw how the followers of Locke had no reservation in moving from a mechanistic view of man to formulating an entirely mechanistic theory of moral values. Hence, we saw Diderot arguing that since man is a part of nature, whatever he does is, by definition, “natural”.  We explored that it was in the area of sexual ethics that the ideas of the Enlightenment become acutely practical. Since determinism implied that anything is natural as long as you are doing it (since no action could have been otherwise in the great deterministic machine), it followed that nature could be used to defend sexual taboos as well as a more licentious approach. (And it should hardly come as a surprise if the naturalness of the latter and not the former began to dominate popular thinking as the eighteenth century progressed.)

We built on this in Part 2 by considering the way key Enlightenment thinkers were unhappy with the practical ramification their ideas were having in the area of sexual morality. As an alternative, they proposed utilitarian substitutes to Christian morality. The pragmatic approach to sexual ethics at the time of the Enlightenment is similar to how people also began to approach religion in the eighteenth century. Though the materialist philosophers of the Enlightenment all agreed that the doctrines, practices and claims of institutionalized religion were absurd, a good many of these philosophers also felt that society needed these institutions in order to give the common people an incentive for morality. In other words, though religion might be based entirely on fables, it was still a necessary component to a cohesive society. Likewise, while many 18th century intellectuals considered the Christian taboos about extra-marital sex to have no rational basis, still it was better for society if those taboos were generally adhered to. And, of course, they weren’t. Clinging to the forms of religion and morality without the content, the result was not dissimilar to the way our own era has developed a pseudo-morality around the need for “safe sex.” (Indeed, following in the Enlightenment pedigree, the Chastity Movement has generally been content to affirm the thou-shalt-nots of Christian doctrine on entirely utilitarian grounds.)

In the third post in this series, titled “Ideas Have Consequences”, we considered that just as materialism affected one’s view of morality, it also affects one’s view of gender.  A corollary of mankind being deconstructed by the materialist hammer is that our identity as men and women is also smashed.  We saw how these problems played out in the conflict between Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. The very idea that the sexes would have different roles, responsibilities, strengths and weaknesses, had assumed that these differences went beyond mere physical dissimilarities. Indeed, it had assumed that men and women were different in their very natures. However, materialism’s reduction of human beings left men and women without any natures at all. What we call our “nature” is really only billions of particles that happen to have collided in the event we call a person. The corollary of this was that the ancient customs and notions that the eighteenth century inherited concerning relations between men and women were believed to be flawed not simply in practice, but in very principle. We thus find Mary Wollstonecraft keen to eliminate modesty as a sexual virtue in women. This reduction of modesty to a sexually neutral virtue was an unavoidable consequence of Wollstonecraft's androgyny, which was itself an inevitable consequence of the Enlightenment materialism explore in Part 1 of this series.

We went on, in Part Four, to explore how these same problems have come to a head in our own era. Titled “The Gender Benders”, that post argued that our own age has been more consistent with the implications of the Enlightenment worldview, and thus it is widely assumed that all non-physical gender differences are mere social constructions.  This leads to androgyny or the unisex movement, whereby the differences between the sexes are neutralized. We saw that rather than being able to glory in our identity as men and women created in the image of God, our society makes us feel ashamed of the very concept of manhood and womanhood, while the emblems of our sex are reduced to symbols of servitude and conformity. I few practical applications in the area of both chivalry (properly defined!) and modesty. Chivalrous behavior, we saw, 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 embracers her calling to dress modestly, they are both proclaiming that there is a fundamental difference between the sexes. These very differences are what our age, following in the wake of the Enlightenment, has sought to undermine.

The purpose of the present post is to continue teasing out the contemporary implication of Enlightenment ideas, looking now at the issue of sex.

Though it may be a logical necessity that the reduction of gender will involve a corollary reduction of sexuality, human society usually takes its time following the dictates of logic.  The seeds of sexual reductionism were planted at the Enlightenment, but it has not been until our own era that these seeds have sprouted to fruition. 

In his book Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore? Reclaiming Intimacy, Modesty and Sexuality, Rabbi Manis Friedman tells about some campers who sought his advice about a camping trip.  Friedman was horrified to learn that these campers had no scruples sharing sleeping bags with members of the opposite sex.  When he challenged the young people they assured him that “there’s nothing sexual about it.”  Now, is it true that there can be “nothing sexual” in just sharing a sleeping bag with someone of the opposite sex? The same question might be asked of other activities, such as using co-ed bathrooms or participating in co-ed wrestling.  For many young people today, the answer is, yes; there is nothing sexual in such activities.  We thus have the supreme realization of Wollstonecraft’s ideal (discussed here) that women might sometimes forget they are women in the presence of men: in the presence of women, the men of today forget they are with women.

The strangeness inherent in such things as co-ed dorms, co-ed bathrooms, co-ed wrestling and even co-ed sleeping bags, is not that such things exist, but that they can exist without sexual connotations.  This can only be achieved to the extent that gender has been emptied of its implicit sexuality.  In a world where manhood and womanhood have been deconstructed, it should hardly come as a surprise.

Examples might be multiplied endlessly.  Bikinis are sometimes defended on the grounds that the women who wear them as swimming suits are not trying to be provocative.  While this might be challenged, if it is true it only shows how desexualized women have become if the female body can be almost entirely revealed without the presence of erotic overtones.  We are drifting towards being neuter when the signals of our sexuality are treated as anything less. This represents not only a reduction of sexuality, but a full scale repression of it.

But putting a premium on feminine modesty is not sufficient. The reductionistic hammer of androgyny also finds expression in women wearing overtly masculine attire or ultra conservative dresses aimed to merely conceal rather than beautify the female form. If mere concealment were the goal, then it would follow that women should dress in clothes that obscure any aspect of shape, even to the extent of going completely veiled as they do in many Islamic cultures. The nexus of such practices is the implicit assumption that modesty serves the negative function of removing or suppressing a woman’s sexual identity. However, this is the opposite side of the same coin that justifies skimpy beach wear. Whether a woman strips down to a bikini on the grounds that there is nothing sexual about it, or puts on a long dress designed to remove all shape, in both cases her latent sexuality is not being properly acknowledged. In both cases, the subject is unconsciously acting out the unisex presuppositions of our post-Enlightenment culture. On the other hand, Kathleen van Schaijik has suggested that recognizing the value and importance of one’s womanhood is as much a charter for dressing beautifully as it is for dressing modestly. “If we revere something,” she points out,
we do not hide it. Neither do we flaunt it in public. We cherish it; we pay it homage; we approach it with dignity; we adorn it with beauty; we take care that it is not misused.

A World With No Shame
The pioneers of radical sexual revolution often understood these issues better than most people today.  In his book The Sexual Revolution, Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) described the means for achieving a society without any external sexual morals, “a free society” that “would not put any obstacles in the path of the gratification of the natural needs.” The road to the sexual utopia he advocated lay in first getting rid of the shyness and embarrassment surrounding sex.  In particular, Reich believed that before traditional morality could be completely vanquished, a society must be achieved where people “should lose their shyness to expose…erotically important parts of their bodies.”  Reich attempted to facilitate this by asking his clients to remove all their clothes during his psychotherapy sessions.

Reich would be pleased if he could see a European summer today, which is more in keeping with his ideal than what we find in brothels.  In a brothel, women have overcome the natural shyness surrounding erotically important parts of their bodies in order to advertizes sex; on a sunny beach, scores of women can be seen who have overcome this natural shyness with no thought of sex at all.  Indeed, by refusing to explicitly acknowledge the erotic implications of minimalistic attire, we are approaching Reich’s ideal of a society in which shyness has been overcome and flattened of its innate potency.

Reich looked forward to a time in which sexuality would be treated as something merely common. “Profane” best describes Reich’s ideal and its realization in contemporary realization, given that the term originally meant “to treat as common.”

It is revealing that when the sex curriculum was first introduced into kindergarten/primary schools, the teachers experienced discomfort and shyness about the subjects they were forced to address.  In time, however, these same teachers started to say that it was no different than talking about an elbow.  This is not surprising given the way the subject is presented.  Some worksheets show pictures of various private parts and ask the children to circle the differences. Wilhelm Reich would have been delighted if he had lived long enough to see the pictures in contemporary sex education manuals since he made a point that nakedness and exposure of the sexual organs was a crucial element of sex education’s attack on conventional morality.  He believed that society could only become ‘sex-affirming’ when people lost the shyness to expose their genitals. What is important for our present purposes is simply to appreciate that Reich understood that the way to change someone’s worldview is to first change how they think of themselves—in particularly, to change what it means to be a man or a woman.

There was a certain consistency at work in Reich’s sexual reductionism. If our bodies are simply the random constructs of time plus chance, then it is only sentimentality to urge that one part of the body should be treated, or spoken about, differently than any other part.  That is why, in the minds of sex educators like Reich, the genitalia are just like any other part of the body.

But this is exactly where the Enlightenment has left us.  By deconstructing our world (materialism), the Enlightenment couldn’t help but deconstruct gender (androgyny), with the result that our sexuality has been neutralized, stripped of any transcendent categories that might otherwise elevate it above that which is merely common.  The consequent reduction of sexuality has evoked the kind of “literal-mindedness” that we find in the various sex education schemes. The emerging situation was critiqued by Theodore Dalrymple in his book Our Culture, What’s Left of It. Echoing Edmund Burke, Dalrymple pointed out that
literal-mindedness is not honesty or fidelity to truth—far from it. For it is the whole experience of mankind that sexual life is always, and must always be, hidden by veils of varying degrees of opacity, if it is to be humanized into something beyond a mere animal function. What is inherently secretive, that is to say self-conscious and human, cannot be spoken of directly: the attempt leads only to crudity, not to truth. Bawdy is the tribute that our instinct pays to secrecy. If you go beyond bawdy and tear all the veils away, you get pornography and nothing else.

As the agendas of androgyny and materialism continue to assert their reductive influences, sexuality becomes completely disenchanted.  When this area of life was considered “holy ground”, the veil of shyness that properly attended discussion of sexual matters preserved the sense inwhich this activity, on one level purely functional, is in fact an occasion for significance, reverence, respect and privacy.  I argue that this reinforced the same worldview that chivalry pointed towards: a worldview which presupposed that God has invested our world, our activities and our relationships with a significance that transcends the purely physical.  In treating sexuality as common, materialism presents the ultimate form of sexual repression.  It represses sexuality by neutralizing its God-given potency, turning it into something tame, benign and trivial.

What About Ethics?

To deconstruct sexuality, treating it as just another “subject” no different to knees, sneezing and picture circling (which sex education manuals do), is necessarily antecedent to a change in sex ethic.  This is because the materialist approach to sexuality necessarily affects every area of how one views sex-related issues, from dress to the appropriate civil response to crimes of sexual violence.

“…without anything transcending the material,” Herbert Schlossberg noted, “the love ethic is without foundation… We can expect nothing from such a position but brutality.” (Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture, p. 287.) One of the ways such brutality manifests itself is in the trivializing of sexual violence. Camille Paglia has argued that if rape “is a totally devastating psychological experience for a woman, then she doesn’t have a proper attitude about sex.”  Rape is just “like getting beaten up.  Men get beat up all the time.” (From an October 1991 interview published in Spin magazine, 1992, pp. 64–65.)

As absurd as such a statement may at first appear, there is a frightening consistency at work.  When sexuality is stripped of its “decent drapery” (a phrase borrowed from Burke), when all aspects of our humanity are reduced to gender-neutral categories, then what is left to be called a “woman” has hardly any right to complain that rape is qualitatively different to being beat up.  To say otherwise might be to let the cat out of the bag and acknowledge that men and women are actually very different.  It would acknowledge that a sexual assault is more than simply another way of being attacked, but is a fundamental assault on one’s womanhood. But to do that implies that there is an essential difference between being and man and being a woman.

Further Resources on Modesty

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