Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 6 (Liberated into Bondage)

This is the final post in a series on gender, morality and modesty and builds on the arguments developed in the earlier posts. To view the earlier articles in the series, click here.

In carrying on the discussion in this final post, I would like to suggest that by urging us to follow the dictates of “nature” rather than an externally imposed system of morality, the propagators of the Enlightenment believed they were liberating our sexuality, freeing us to be naturally sexual rather than unnaturally repressed.  It would be some time before we would witness the consequences of a society that was willing to take this agenda seriously.  Since the Enlightenment there has been a gradual lessening of all sexual restraints, with high points such as the “free love” movement of the mid-nineteenth century and, finally, the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s.  The total result is perhaps the last thing we would expect: we find that, comparatively speaking, the people of today have become de-sexualized and inhibited in being naturally sexual.

At first this seems a bizarre thing to say.  Indeed, it may seem that the opposite is, in fact, a truer description of our age. However, to say that the people of today are de-sexualized is not to imply that they are less sexually active than at other times, it is only to imply that the scope of their sexuality has been significantly reduced. The material, actions or stimuli that, at one time, would have been implicit with erotic suggestion are treated today as things non-sexual.  Once there was sexual connotation in a man and woman being alone together in the same room; now, in the university cities you can often find a man and woman housing together without any acknowledged sexual overtones.  Once a woman’s bare knee was provocative; now there are many men who do not even bat an eye to see a woman in a bikini as the process of de-sexualization continues to assert its reductive influences.

Of course, like all generalizations, life has its exceptions.  There will always be those for whom our society reserves the term “over-sexed”.  Among males, such an appellation may apply to a man who cannot concentrate on beach volleyball because the woman playing opposite is dressed in the equivalent of underwear, or who refuses to shop in stores that display explicit magazines. Such a man is typically considered to have a problem with his sexuality, not the person who can detach himself in such things.  However, this judgment only serves as an indictment on the contemporary neurosis since it reflects the pervasive assumption that healthy sexuality means a detached sexuality, something a man can keep safely installed in his back pocket.  Lurking behind this mentality is surely the very monster that all libertine movements have sought to eradicate: a shame of sexuality.  Although we are supposed to have been “liberated” sexually, we are everywhere encouraged to feel ashamed of our sexuality—not having sex, mind you, but being sexual. Let’s face it, it can be embarrassing to admit to the kind of active, ever-present sexuality that cannot watch your average commercial without feeling visually assaulted, let alone walk down a European beach in the middle of summer.

It is as if everywhere there is an unconscious pressure to become desensitized to sex just as there is a pressure to become gender-neutral.  Consider, for example, the justification I have often heard proffered for watching movies with explicit sexual content, namely, “it doesn’t affect me.”  The contrast is implicit between “sensitive”—or worse, “over-sexed”—individuals who are affected or offended by such content.  However, we see again that the shoe is actually on the other foot.  If someone can truthfully say that sex scenes do not affect them, that is the surest proof that it has already had a very marked effect upon them because it shows that they have been affected to the point of becoming able to view such content non-sexually.  However, when we reach the point where nothing fazes us, where we can enjoy a beach party with virtually unclad men and women, watch sex scenes in movies or share sleeping bags with members of the opposite sex and not experience sexual feelings, then it is we who are the losers.  What have we lost?  We have lost the ability to be sexual as God originally designed.  Those things which ought to be signifiers of sexuality, and therefore kept private, have been emptied of their meaning.  In short, our sexuality has become repressed.

Sexual Paranoia
It seems that a corollary of not seeing sex where it should be evident is that we are forever doomed to see sex everywhere it is not.  The newspapers are always full of examples of those who see sex behind every tree.  The other day I read in the paper that in some places it is now against the law for school officials to give children high fives, since even that type of physical contact is thought to have potential sexual overtones.  In another newspaper I saw that a nine-year-old schoolboy in Virginia was accused and arrested for aggravated sexual battery because he pushed up against a girl in the cafeteria.  In England a law was passed which prohibits gymnasts and ballet instructors from touching their students without express permission.  I am even told that some women feel sexually assaulted if a man gives up his seat or opens a door for them, as if such gentlemanly behavior is the equivalent of rape.  Then there was the case when a 14-year-old Cambridgeshire schoolgirl who “pinged” the bra of a classmate was arrested, fingerprinted, and charged with common assault “of a sexual nature”. More recently I read in a UK paper that a young mother was thrown off a bus and accused of indent exposure for breastfeeding her hungry six-week-old daughter.

Not acknowledging the sexual connotations where we ought to see them, we are cursed to see sex, not only under every bed, but also behind every tree.  As situations and actions which ought to be latent with erotic suggestion are treated commonly, without the respect and honor due to sexuality, so those situations and actions which really are merely common (such as those cited in the previous paragraph) are thought to be hedged about with sexual connotations.  If, as was suggested in the previous chapter, our society has undergone a de-sexualizing process, then this paradox should come as no shock: sexuality will not be repressed, and to attempt to do so only causes it to emerge in other areas.  We thought that by removing the restraints placed on our sexuality we would become liberated, but all it has achieved is to put us into real bondage.

This is exactly the legacy that has been left to us by the Enlightenment.  Filtered through a metaphysic of materialism and an anthropology of androgyny, what is left to call our sexuality has become so distorted that we hardly know how to handle it.  Stripped of what Burke called “the decent drapery of life”, we have nothing to raise our naked shivering nature beyond that status of an animal.

The Enlightenment implied that man and woman were mere animals even before Darwinism made this explicit.  The problem is not merely that our society believes this lie, but that now it is acceptable to behave like animals.

Turning off the lights of the Enlightenment?

It is inevitable that an intelligent reader will object that I am over-emphasizing the role that materialism currently plays in contemporary culture. This is because there has been an enormous shift in the post war years away from many of the Enlightenment’s categories, including materialism.

While materialism does retain a stronghold in most science departments, it has been on the decline in the West, and its place is being replaced by a new openness to transcendent, non-materialistic categories. People hungry for significance and purpose in their lives are making room in their thinking for realities that are beyond, and not reducible to, the chemistry and physics of matter.

From the growing interest in New Age and Eastern religious movements, to neo-paganism, to postmodern spiritual eclecticism, to the existential idea that meaning is created by individual choice, there is now available a host of ideas, practices, and methodologies that provide an alternative to the reductionist hammer of naturalistic materialism.

At first, this would seem to be good news as far as gender and sexuality are concerned. If materialism is gradually losing ground, can we expect to see our culture rejecting the sexual insanity birthed by the materialistic worldview? Before answering this question, we must understand that, unlike traditional religions, the growing network of popular spiritualities tend to be self-directed and to resent all external forms, structures and objective organizing principles.  This includes a rejection of the constraints of consistency. Not surprisingly, then, such spiritualities have only helped reinforce the idea of gender as something that each individual subjectively defines for himself. What masculinity means to me may differ from what it means to you, and we are each free to autonomously work out our own understanding of these concepts. This was reflected in the dispute over the Manchester toilets (discussed in my article Angrogyny), when a student said:
If you were born female, still presently quite feminine, but defined as a man you should be able to go into the men’s toilets. You don’t necessarily have to have had gender reassignment surgery, but you could just define yourself as a man, feel very masculine in yourself, feel that in fact being a woman is not who you are.
Thus, the new spiritualities, underpinned by the epistemology of relativism (“what is true for me may not be true for you”), liquefy gender as thoroughly as their materialistic predecessors, not by reducing them to meaninglessness, as materialism did, but by reducing their meaning to something self-determined and self-actuated by each individual.  Having to submit to an outside narrative of what it means to be a guy or a gal is seen as a stifling imposition on our freedom—the freedom each of us should have in order to work out our own gender with fear and trembling.

Modesty and Love
In an earlier post we saw that Rousseau argued that the attraction between the sexes, the happiness of marriage, and by extension the smooth running of society, hinged on men and women being different.  How Rousseau applied this in practice is more problematic, and we might want to join Wollstonecraft in disputing some of his arbitrary definitions of feminine qualities.  However, it is instructive to note that, for all her feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft could not help but agree that the happiness of marriage is an implication of the gender polarity she was so anxious to erode.  For example, she conceded that her educational agenda—and no doubt the androgynous impetus behind it—will lead to unhappy marriages.

It would be tempting to try to show that Wollstonecraft’s admirable agenda for female education might easily be retained within a framework that still preserved gender distinctions, but that would be to miss the point.  In Wollstonecraft’s mind, at least, the two points were inseparable: her educational program was bound up with an ideology of androgyny.  The fact that she recognizes these twin pursuits (education and androgyny) to be antithetic to the happiness of marriage is very revealing, in that it shows she was not unaware of the implications of the unisex trend.  However, this did not worry Wollstonecraft since
an unhappy marriage is often very advantageous to a family, and that the neglected wife is, in general, the best mother. And this would almost always be the consequence of the female mind being more enlarged . . .

Later, when discussing the need to restrain the common appetite of passion, Wollstonecraft noted that
Nature, in these respects, may safely be left to herself; let women acquire knowledge and humanity, and love will teach them modesty.

As Wendy Shalit points out in her book A Return to Modesty, we are hard pressed to understand what Wollstonecraft means by modesty here apart from the kind of sexual/gender related modesty she has so painstakingly attempted to avoid.  It should come as no surprise that, in the context of love at least, Wollstonecraft could not help but lapse into a gender-specific kind of modesty.  I would suggest that this is because love is the ultimate argument against both androgyny and sexual reductionism.  For proof of this, one need look no further than contemporary feminists whose desire to achieve a gender neutral society have led them to attack both marriage and heterosexual romance.  It is to the writings of such feminists that we will now turn.

Feminism and Marriage

According to Biblical ethics, the ultimate expression of love is when lovers give all of themselves to each other, as expressed in lifelong commitment and total physical donation.  On the other hand, those who have tried to escape the significance of the gender polarity have less of themselves to offer since they are struggling to be less than the man or woman God originally designed them to be.  Love, no less than our humanity itself, becomes a casualty of such “liberation.”

This being the case, there is a logical consistency at work in those feminists who have been arguing that romantic love, like gender distinctions, is one of the remnants of an unenlightened society.  Notwithstanding the excesses and idolatry often accompanying romantic love, such love at least operates on the assumption that gender differences are not only real, but there to be enjoyed, relished and savored.  For many feminists, it is a different matter altogether: gender differences, and the romance they make possible, are not to be enjoyed but eradicated.  As Amy Erickson put it, “romantic ideals were simply a means of maintaining male dominance at a time when overt demands of submission were no longer acceptable.” A. L. Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London, 1993), p. 7.

Andrea Dworkin was even more severe in her condemnation of romantic love:
Romantic love…is the mythic celebration of female negation. For a woman, love is defined as her willingness to submit to her own annihilation. The proof of love is that she is willing to be destroyed by the one whom she loves, for his sake. For the woman, love is always self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of identity, will, and bodily integrity, in order to fulfill and redeem the masculinity of her lover. Andrea Dworkin, Our blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics (Women's Press, 1982).
For such feminists, the liberation of our sexuality does not stop with merely rejecting romantic love.  Nor does it stop with getting rid of marriage, though it involves that too. Rather, the process completes itself in a full scale pessimism of heterosexual sex itself, a paradoxical culmination to the Enlightenment’s emancipation project and itself an apt illustration that we destroy those things we worship idolatrously.  This can be seen in the way Catharine MacKinnon, like other second-wave feminists, have compared sexual intercourse within marriage to rape.
What in the liberal view looks like love and romance looks a lot like hatred and torture to the feminist.  Pleasure and eroticism become violation. Catherine A. MacKinnon, Applications of Feminist Legal Theory to Women's Lives, (Temple University Press, 1996), p. 39.
Elsewhere the Harvard Press author said,
The major distinction between intercourse (normal) and rape (abnormal) is that normal happens so often that one cannot get anyone to see anything wrong with it. Catherine A. MacKinnon, quoted by Christina Hoff Sommers, “Hard-Line Feminists Guilty of Ms.-Representation,” Wall Street Journal, November 7, 1991.
Feminist author and journalist Jill Johnson was equally unbending in her antipathy to man-woman sex. Writing in 1973, she commented that “Until all women are lesbians, there will be no true political revolution.” Jill Johnson, Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973).

At the end of the day, gender egalitarianism turns out to be a cheat. Far from liberating and empowering male and female sexuality, the project of androgyny has achieved the opposite effect.  But it should come as no surprise that after eroding all gender distinctions feminists can only respond with puritanical outrage against that one activity which continually reaffirms our sexual identity: heterosexual sex.

Even as early as 1934, Naomi Mitchison complained that the feminist movement was creating a generation of women so fostered on a defiant idea of equality that the mere sensation of the male embrace roused an undercurrent of resentment.  Commenting on Mitchison’s words, C. S. Lewis observed that “at some level consent to inequality, nay, delight in inequality, is an erotic necessity.” C. S. Lewis, “Equality” in Present Concerns: Ethical Essays (London, Fount Paperbacks, 1986), p. 19. Emphasis in original. Lewis went on to speak of the tragic-comedy of the modern woman who is “taught by Freud to consider the act of love the most important thing in life, and then inhibited by feminism from that internal surrender which alone can make it a complete emotional success.”

As if to vindicate C.S. Lewis’ concerns, it was not uncommon for feminists throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties to condemn the matrimonial state itself.  The corpus of anti-marriage literature that grew up during that period realized what Wollstonecraft only hinted at, namely that there is something incompatible between a thoroughly feminist anthropology and a love-filled marriage.  This, when combined with the feminist antipathy to romantic love, left sex isolated from the relational underpinning that alone could raise it from crude animalism.  If my words be doubted, consider the following array of anti-marriage quotations from respected feminist scholars:
  • “Like prostitution, marriage is an institution that is extremely oppressive and dangerous for women." Andrea Dworkin, ‘Feminism: An Agenda’ in Letters from a War Zone, Brooklyn, NY: Lawrence Hill Books, 1993), p. 146.
  • “Feminism stresses the indistinguishability of prostitution, marriage, and sexual harassment.” Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 59.
  • “We can’t destroy the inequities between men and women until we destroy marriage.” Robin Morgan Sisterhood is Powerful (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 537
  • “We have to abolish and reform the institution of marriage.” Gloria Steinem, cited in the Saturday Review of Education, March 1973.
  • “Legal marriage thus enlists state support for conditions conducive to murder and mayhem.” Claudia Card ‘Against Marriage and Motherhood’(Hypatia, vol. 11, no. 3, Summer 1996).
  • “Being a housewife is an illegitimate profession...the choice to serve and be protected and plan towards being a family-maker is a choice that shouldn't be. The heart of radical feminism is to change that." Vivian Gornick, The Daily Illini, April 25, 1981.
  • “If women are to effect a significant amelioration in their condition it seems obvious that they must refuse to marry...The plight of mothers is more desperate than that of other women, and the more numerous the children the more hopeless the situation seems to be...Most women...would shrink at the notion of leaving husband and children, but this is precisely the case in which brutally clear rethinking must be undertaken." Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), pp. 317 & 320.

Sex: A Big Deal?

Because materialism denied that a transcendent God had revealed himself to His creation, it placed man as the sole arbitrator of morality.  The result was that man turned sex into a god.  It is a biblical principle that whenever a thing is worshiped idolatrously, the original thing is destroyed.  In removing the restrictions placed on sexuality and denying the design God created, the sexual revolution ended up de-valuing the very thing it sought to elevate.  It was observed in The Times that advertisers are finding that sex just does not sell products like it once did.  The reason, reported Cristina Odone, is that the advertisers have made sex so banal it doesn’t entice us any longer.  It has been like taking a picture in color and turning it into black and white.  No wonder young people are now reported as making comments like, “I’m so used to it, it makes me sick.”  Nor should we be surprised that in Denmark, where pornography is unrestricted, people are often quoted as saying that sex is boring.

This is the legacy that the Enlightenment has left us.  The net effect of the reductionist approach has been to trivialize sex to the point of banality.

It should come as no surprise that those who are so sexually active that they give no second thought to a one-night-stand, and are consequently treating sex like it is no big deal (often being actively encouraged to do so, should find the activity less pleasurable than those so-called prudes for whom sex is still a Very Big Deal.  And according to the Bible, sex should be a Big Deal, and not merely because it makes the experience more fulfilling, though it does. A number of studies have found, not simply that married women are generally more sexually fulfilled than sexually active single women, but that the most strongly religious women are also the most sexually responsive. See , for example, Edward O. Laumann, John H Gagnon, Robert T. Michael and Stuart Michaels, The Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 363–365; William R. Mattox, Jr., “What’s Marriage Got to Do With It?” Family Policy 6:6 (February 1994); Robert J. Levin and Amy Levin, “Sexual Pleasure: The Surprising Preferences of 100,000 Women,” Redbook, September 1975, pp. 51–58. Interestingly, “Stendhal . . . asks himself why the most sensitive women—let us call them the ‘high responders’—are always the ones who end up being the most sexually reticent.  Stendhal concludes that it’s such a shame the high responders are drawn to modesty, because these are the women who are the most fun to have sex with—the very ones who are, in effect, ‘made for love.’ . . . his quarrel with female modesty, as a man, seems to be: it’s not fair that the high responders should be the modest ones, because then the sensualists are hoarding their sensuality. . . . What seems to have escaped him is that it is no accident the sensualists end up hiding behind modesty, because it is modesty which protects their sensuality—for the right man that is.  If the sensualists tried to overcome their natural modesty and to become more promiscuous, as Stendhal suggests, then their experiences would have less meaning for them, much of what excites them would be diminished, one man would serve more or less as well as any other—in other words, they would no longer be sensualists.” Cited by Wendy Shalit, pp. 186–187.

Consider the problem from another angle.  Central to the very delight of sexual union is the pleasure of being admitted into a place that is not open to anyone else.  Sexual intimacy is a gift from God set apart only for those who have entered the covenant of marriage.  What it is set apart from is the ordinary and the commonplace (hence the importance of modesty and chivalry to protect the value of sexuality); what it is set apart for is the covenant of marriage (hence the importance of chastity).  Havelock Ellis, though not someone whose writings I would normally want to be associated with, nevertheless stumbled upon the truth when he remarked that “without modesty we could not have, nor rightly value at its true worth, that bold and pure candor which is at once the final revelation of love and the seal of its sincerity.”

Seen in this way, modest dress, manners, speech and conduct need not be indicative of an under-sexed temperament, as is often thought; rather, it is an acknowledgement and preservation of one’s sexuality as a gift from God.  Modesty and chastity are not matters of negation, but of affirmation: affirming the sacredness and beauty of sexuality and committing to preserve the sense in which it is set apart and cherished.   This perspective challenges both promiscuity and prudery, as Shalit has acutely observed:

Whether she decides to have scores of men or none, promiscuous and prudish women in some sense embrace the same flippant world-view, which one might call the nothing-fazes-me worldview. As types, they represent two sides of the same unerotic coin, which flips over arrogantly and announces to the world when it lands: “Ha! —I cannot be moved.” Modesty is prudery’s true opposite, because it admits that one can be moved and issues a specific invitation for one man to try. Promiscuity and prudery are both a kind of antagonistic indifference, a running away from the meaning of one place in the world, whereas modesty is fundamentally about knowing, protecting that knowledge, and directing it to something higher, beyond just two. Something more than just man and wife.

We can begin to see how ironic it is that those who pursue modesty are often said to be the ones “uncomfortable with their bodies” or “ashamed of their sexuality.” Madame Celine Renooz comes immediately to mind. She taught not only that “Modesty is masculine shame attributed to women” but that there is a direct correlation between feminine pride and the absence of modesty. According to Renooz’s questionable historiography, “Primitive woman, proud of her womanhood, for a long time defended her nakedness.”

In reality, saying that those who pursue modesty are “uncomfortable with their bodies” or “ashamed of their sexuality” is comparable to saying that I am uncomfortable with my expensive silverware because I refuse to use it to feed the pet mouse with. Just as my valuable silver is too precious to put to common use, so the treasure of the human body should be too valuable to use in any but the appropriate context.

C. S. Lewis observed that “when a thing is enclosed, the mind does not willingly regard it as common.”  Thanks to the Enlightenment, sexuality has come to be common.  No wonder we don’t see the need for it to be enclosed any more.

Thank You, Enlightenment
For hundreds, even thousands, of years, there has been a collective instinct in Western society which told us that sexuality should have boundaries around it.  Even those individuals who failed to live by these standards had a sense that they were deviating from the norm.  That is why sexual impropriety generally used to be cloaked about with hypocrisy.  Since hypocrisy is “the tribute that vice pays to virtue”, as Matthew Arnold once quipped, the loss of hypocrisy is usually a corollary to the loss of moral consciousness. 

The reason that Western culture used to have these shared assumptions is because our civilization had been built on the foundation of the Christian worldview.  The Christian roots of our society have been part of the very air we breathed, for believers and unbelievers alike.  We have seen that all this began to change at the time of the Enlightenment.  Although the worldview of materialism robbed our sexuality from having any objective or transcendent meaning, the effects of this were not fully felt until our own time.  When a civilization moves from one worldview to another, it often takes hundreds of years for the remnants of the old worldview to wear off, even in the thinking and practice of those who have explicitly rejected it.  Thus it was that the materialists of the Enlightenment really had the best of both worlds: they could advocate materialism, with the consequence that God was no longer an inconvenient obstacle, while still working on the borrowed capital of thousands of years of Christian tradition.

That state of affairs continued for a long time.  Even when Darwinism charged the materialistic worldview with an enormous boost in the nineteenth century, the borrowed capital of the Christian worldview still continued to function in many areas, not least where gender and sexual morality were concerned.  Yet gradually the borrowed capital has been running out.  Our culture no longer has the luxury enjoyed by the inconsistent materialists of the Enlightenment.

For our society this is bad news, yet Christians can find something to be glad about.  Since it is no longer possible to unthinkingly follow a general Christian consensus, believers have been forced to go back to the foundations of their faith and examine afresh the implications of their worldview.

For many years the church was living on the borrowed capital of the Christian worldview just as much as their opponents were, without properly working everything out from the first principles of our faith.  Now that this borrowed capital has run out, Christians seem to be waking up, returning to their foundations and struggling to articulate a genuinely biblical philosophy of life.  Not only is that a good thing, it is something we can thank the Enlightenment for.

Psalm 11:3 asks, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” The answer is, of course, that the righteous can rebuild the foundations.  Everything good that the Enlightenment destroyed must be rebuilt.  But more than that, it must be rebuilt a hundred times as strong.  That is something that is already happening.  It is a project that each one of us can be part of as we articulate and apply the Christian worldview to every area of our lives, not least in our approach to gender and sexual morality.

Read my entire series of posts on Gender, Morality and Modesty.

Read my article for the Telegraph on The Sexualization of Britain's Youth Culture

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