As difficult as it may be for me to maintain a positive view of the future, I am obligated to crack an optimistic smile on occasion for the benefit of my two teenage sons. Yet as one embarks on his college career, and the other prepares to enter high school next year, I need to find a way to communicate my concern for the future of men in our society. How do I tell my collegian that he might be suspect just for being a man? Or, if that sounds overstated, at the very least I need to explain that men today are asked to apologize for the masculinity that they should rightly embrace.
Of course, there is some background to the current suspicion of men and the heated command recently issued by the female senator from Hawaii for men to “shut up” over issues of sexual harassment. A significant number of men have behaved horribly in relation to women, enough to cast a shadow over us all. And when you think about it, this should not be as surprising as it seems to be in these days of supposed sameness of the sexes. A quick survey of cultural norms throughout history would suggest that women have not much trusted men when it comes to sex. To greater or lesser degrees, culture has built a wall or a rule of etiquette around women to spare them from the unwanted advances of men. True, the elaborate and exhausting conventions explained in breathless detail by young Pamela in Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century novel may have been exaggerated even for the day. Yet there is no denying that women throughout many ages have been set apart from, and often above the reach of young men by cultural conventions and personal preference. You may argue that these conventions served male interests more than female—to protect his “possession” or assure the legitimacy of his offspring—but at the heart of the rules was the sure knowledge that most men will try to get their way with women socially, emotionally, economically, and, not least, physically.
In our strange day of sexual liberation and the ascendant feminine, we are not supposed to know this. We are asked to be shocked (shocked!) when men act like beasts, or at least move with the single focus and force of a hunter. We live in an age of eros interruptus, when the concept of free sex is celebrated, mimed, and memed on nearly every media platform, yet the actual expression of eros, in all its creative splendor and excess, is quashed, hushed, and hissed at as the ultimate taboo. Men are asked, none too politely at times, simply to “shut up,” listen, and let women make the rules.
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with women making rules about sex, and seeking to curb or attract male interest and action. As stated above, women have been doing just that through cultural conventions for ages. What concerns me these days is the often explicit assumption that because women must seek to protect themselves, there is something wrong with men as men; that somehow the drive of a man to mate, or more rudely, copulate, is the root of the problem, and masculinity is by its nature “toxic.” Years ago, a 20-something guy from work was surprised at my reaction when he told me of “hooking up” with his girlfriend. Knowing my moral standards, he said that he and she shared a bed yet spent the night cuddling. No intercourse, he assured me, assuming I’d approve at least of that. I told the young man that he was unworthy of manhood. It was bad enough for him to get into bed with a woman not his wife, but that he was then content with mere puppy love added insult to the injury of his masculinity. By “playing house” and mimicking the behavior of husband and wife, he had marred the dignity of marriage. I predicted that he and his girlfriend would never marry, and I was correct. Each wound up wedded to another.
A further concern for me is the “never men” mentality that is supported by science and law at the most elite levels. What does it say about the status of men when two “married” women can employ artificial insemination to make a family, or two men can rent a womb to make a baby that is contractually theirs? How is the contribution of a man valued when his wife, or girlfriend, can abort a baby he may never know he helped to procreate? We talk rightly about the wrong of objectifying women in pornography. But men are being objectified, valued more for their sperm than themselves in the process of in vitro fertilization, increasingly sought by the rich and comfortable to fulfill a desire for children. This is the no longer new “brave new world” that my sons are growing up within.
This blog, by its very topic, will not satisfy even me. When it comes to relations between men and women, there is always an additional point to make, a nuance that will temper an overstatement, an urge to add “but I didn’t mean it quite like that.” As Proverbs says, the way between a man and a woman is among the eternal mysteries (Prv 30:19), and I will not attempt here to iron out all the rough edges of my points or descend to disclaimers.
What I want to do is to figure out what to tell my teenage sons, while not filling them with dread about their relations with the opposite sex, prospects for a happy marriage, and children that are truly their own. I want them to feel comfortable and empowered by their precious masculinity while manifesting the greatest respect for each and every woman in their lives. I want them to know that while anyone can be born male, true manhood is an achievement. It is reached through work, prayer, suffering, and a lifelong commitment to the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, practiced for their own good and the good of others.