October 20, 2005

· Gender · Sociology

So by now everyone and his same-sex partner knows that Maggie Gallagher’s stint at Volokh is one long struggle between her strong argument that marriage has many benefits and her handwaving about gay people bringing down the Roman Empire. As I said originally, if you think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, you probably believe that same-sex marriage is the least of the threats to civilization-as-we-know-and-like-it. Well, via Lawyers, Guns and Money here is Leon Kass—Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and The College at the University of Chicago, and Chairman of the President’s Commission on Bioethics—in the first of a three-part series on what’s really wrong with America:

Today, there are no socially prescribed forms of conduct that help guide young men and women in the direction of matrimony … most young women strike me as sad, lonely, and confused … today’s collegians do not even make dates or other forward-looking commitments to see one another; in this, as in so many other ways, they reveal their blindness to the meaning of the passing of time. … Here is a (partial) list of the recent changes that hamper courtship and marriage: the sexual revolution, made possible especially by effective female contraception; the ideology of feminism and the changing educational and occupational status of women; the destigmatization of bastardy, divorce, infidelity, and abortion; the general erosion of shame and awe regarding sexual matters, … widespread morally neutral sex education in schools; the explosive increase in the numbers of young people whose parents have been divorced … great increases in geographic mobility, with a resulting loosening of ties to place and extended family of origin; … and an ethos that lacks transcendent aspirations and asks of us no devotion to family, God, or country, encouraging us simply to soak up the pleasures of the present.

Now that’s more like it. The end of bastardy! The rise of female contraception! Divorce! Sex education! Cars! Maggie Gallagher could learn a thing or two from Leon Kass. If you think society is being dragged to perdition by a bunch of car-owning, pill-popping, body-piercing, career-oriented, degree-granted, sexually confident, frequent-flyer, atheistic sluts then just come out and say it. And the best part is, Leon is just warming up.

He continues:

The change most immediately devastating for wooing is probably the sexual revolution. For why would a man court a woman for marriage when she may be sexually enjoyed, and regularly, without it?

Well, it’s not as if I’m going to make my own pot roast, now is it?

Many, perhaps even most, men in earlier times avidly sought sexual pleasure prior to and outside of marriage. But they usually distinguished, as did the culture generally, between women one fooled around with and women one married, between a woman of easy virtue and a woman of virtue simply. Only respectable women were respected; one no more wanted a loose woman for one’s partner than for one’s mother.

Those were the days. Men could be men, and women could be modest—except for the ladies of easy leisure, who were available for extramarital sex, backalley abortions, syphilis, etc.

The supreme virtue of the virtuous woman was modesty, a form of sexual self-control, manifested not only in chastity but in decorous dress and manner, speech and deed, and in reticence in the display of her well- banked affections. A virtue, as it were, made for courtship, it served simultaneously as a source of attraction and a spur to manly ardor, a guard against a woman’s own desires, as well as a defense against unworthy suitors. A fine woman understood that giving her body (in earlier times, even her kiss) meant giving her heart, which was too precious to be bestowed on anyone who would not prove himself worthy, at the very least by pledging himself in marriage to be her defender and lover forever.

Except for understandable lapses—see above re: women of easy virtue.

Once female modesty became a first casualty of the sexual revolution, even women eager for marriage lost their greatest power to hold and to discipline their prospective mates.

Because of course being subordinated in this manner, and having all of the negative consequences of sexual activity fall entirely upon you, and living under an all-pervasive double standard is of course the greatest kind of power that anyone can have. It’s like, Inter-Continental Ballistic Modesty! Men wish they had that kind of power. But, alas, we are weak beings:

For it is a woman’s refusal of sexual importunings, coupled with hints or promises of later gratification, that is generally a necessary condition of transforming a man’s lust into love.

In fact, we are so weak that even our self-control is entirely your responsibility.

Women also lost the capacity to discover their own genuine longings and best interests.

See above re: pot roast. Also Valium.

Apparently this is the first of a three-part series. You know, the sad thing about this sort of thing is that the entry of women into college and the workforce since 1945, the sexual revolution, and the increase of geographical mobility really are huge social changes. They really have had tremendous consequences of all kinds for individuals, families and whole societies. Entire branches of social science are given over to trying to understand them. Leon Kass’s horror at the way the world has turned out is unsurprising. His desire to return to some kind of Victorian nightmare is just about understandable. But it’s bad sociology and it’s appalling moral philosophy as well.

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