Urbanities

Roger Scruton
Modern Manhood
Autumn 1999

Feminists have harped and harpied on about the position of women in modern societies. But what about the men? The radical changes in sexual mores, patterns of employment, and domestic life have turned their lives upside down. Men now encounter women not as "the weaker sex" but as equal competitors in the public sphere—the sphere where men used to be in charge. And in the private sphere, where an ancient division of labor once gave guidance to those who crossed its threshold, there is no knowing what strategy will be most effective. Manly gestures—holding open a door for a woman, handing her into an automobile, taking charge of her bags—can spark insulted rejection; displays of wealth, power, or influence are likely to seem ridiculous to a woman who herself has more of them; and the disappearance of female modesty and sexual restraint has made it hard for a man to believe, when a woman yields to his advances, that her doing so is a special tribute to his masculine powers, rather than a day-to-day transaction, in which he, like the last one, is dispensable.

The sexual revolution is not the only cause of men's confusion. Social, political, and legal changes have shrunk the all-male sphere to the vanishing point, redefining every activity in which men once proved that they were indispensable, so that now women can do the job, too—or at any rate appear to do it. Feminists have sniffed out male pride wherever it has grown and ruthlessly uprooted it. Under their pressure, modern culture has downgraded or rejected such masculine virtues as courage, tenacity, and military prowess in favor of more gentle, more "socially inclusive" habits. The advent of in vitro fertilization and the promise of cloning create the impression that men are not even necessary for human reproduction, while the growth of the single-parent household—in which the mother is the only adult, and the state is too often the only provider—has made fatherless childhood into an increasingly common option. These changes threaten to make manhood redundant, and many children now grow up to acknowledge no source of love, authority, or guidance apart from the mother, whose men come and go like seasonal laborers, drifting through the matriarchal realm with no prospect of a permanent position.

The unhappiness of men flows directly from the collapse of their old social role as protectors and providers. For the feminists, this old social role was a way of confining women to the household, where they would not compete for the benefits available outside. Its destruction, they contend, is therefore a liberation—not of women only, but of men, too, who can now choose whether they wish to assert themselves in the public sphere or whether, on the contrary, they wish to stay at home with the baby (which may very well be someone else's baby). This is the core idea of feminism—that "gender roles" are not natural but cultural, and that by changing them we can overthrow old power structures and achieve new and more creative ways of being.

The feminist view is orthodoxy throughout the American academy, and it is the premise of all legal and political thinking among the liberal elite, which dissidents oppose at peril of their reputations or careers. Nevertheless, a groundswell of resistance to it is gathering force among anthropologists and sociobiologists. Typical is Lionel Tiger, who three decades ago coined the term "male bonding" to denote something that all men need, and that few now get. It wasn't social convention that dictated the traditional roles of man and woman, Tiger suggests; instead, the millions of years of evolution that formed our species made us what we are. You can make men pretend to be less dominant and less aggressive; you can make them pretend to accept a subordinate role in domestic life and a dependent position in society. But deep down, in the instinctual flow of life that is manhood itself, they will rebel. The unhappiness of men, Tiger argues, comes from this deep and unconfessed conflict between social pretense and sexual necessity. And when manhood finally breaks out—as it inevitably will—it is in distorted and dangerous forms, like the criminal gangs of the modern city or the swaggering misogyny of the city slicker.

Tiger sees sex as a biological phenomenon, whose deep explanation lies in the theory of sexual selection. Each of us, he believes, acts in obedience to a strategy built in to our genes, which seek their own perpetuity through our sexual behavior. The genes of a woman, who is vulnerable in childbirth and needs support during years of child-rearing thereafter, call for a mate who will protect her and her offspring. The genes of a man require a guarantee that the children he provides for are his own, lest all his labor be (from the genes' point of view) wasted. Hence nature itself, working through our genes, decrees a division of roles between the sexes. It predisposes men to fight for territory, to protect their women, to drive away rivals, and to strive for status and recognition in the public world—the world where men conflict. It predisposes women to be faithful, private, and devoted to the home. Both these dispositions involve the working out of long-term genetic strategies—strategies that it is not for us to change, since we are the effect and not the cause of them.

The feminists, of course, will have none of this. Biology may indeed assign us a sex, in the form of this or that organ. But much more important than our sex, they say, is our "gender"—and gender is a cultural construct, not a biological fact.

The term "gender" comes from grammar, where it is used to distinguish masculine from feminine nouns. By importing it into the discussion of sex, feminists imply that our sex roles are as man-made and therefore malleable as syntax. Gender includes the rituals, habits, and images through which we represent ourselves to one another as sexual beings. It is not sex but the consciousness of sex. Hitherto, say the feminists, the "gender identity" of women is something that men have imposed upon them. The time has come for women to forge their own gender identity, to remake their sexuality as a sphere of freedom rather than a sphere of bondage.

Taken to extremes—and feminism takes everything to extremes—the theory reduces sex to a mere appearance, with gender as the reality. If, having forged your true gender identity, you find yourself housed in the wrong kind of body, then it is the body that must change. If you believe yourself to be a woman, then you are a woman, notwithstanding the fact that you have the body of a man. Hence medical practitioners, instead of regarding sex-change operations as a gross violation of the body and indeed a kind of criminal assault, now endorse them, and in England the National Health Service pays for them. Gender, in the feminists' radical conception of it, begins to sound like a dangerous fantasy, rather like the genetic theories of Lysenko, Stalin's favorite biologist, who argued that acquired characteristics could be inherited, so that man could mold his own nature with almost infinite plasticity. Perhaps we should replace the old question that James Thurber put before us at the start of the sexual revolution with a new equivalent: not "Is Sex Necessary?" but "Is Gender Possible?"

In a certain measure, however, the feminists are right to distinguish sex from gender and to imply that we are free to revise our images of the masculine and the feminine. After all, the sociobiologists' argument accurately describes the similarities between people and apes, but it ignores the differences. Animals in the wild are slaves of their genes. Human beings in society are not. The whole point of culture is that it makes us something more than creatures of mere biology and sets us on the road to self-realization. Where in sociobiology is the self, its choices and its fulfillment? Surely the sociobiologists are wrong to think that our genes alone determined the traditional sex roles.

But just as surely are the feminists wrong to believe that we are completely liberated from our biological natures and that the traditional sex roles emerged only from a social power struggle in which men were victorious and women enslaved. The traditional roles existed in order to humanize our genes and also to control them. The masculine and feminine were ideals, through which the animal was transfigured into the personal. Sexual morality was an attempt to transform a genetic need into a personal relation. It existed precisely to stop men from scattering their seed through the tribe, and to prevent women from accepting wealth and power, rather than love, as the signal for reproduction. It was the cooperative answer to a deep-seated desire, in both man and woman, for the "helpmeet" who will make life meaningful.

In other words, men and women are not merely biological organisms. They are also moral beings. Biology sets limits to our behavior but does not dictate it. The arena formed by our instincts merely defines the possibilities among which we must choose if we are to gain the respect, acceptance, and love of one another. Men and women have shaped themselves not merely for the purpose of reproduction but in order to bring dignity and kindness to the relations between them. To this end, they have been in the business of creating and re-creating the masculine and the feminine ever since they realized that the relations between the sexes must be established by negotiation and consent, rather than by force. The difference between traditional morality and modern feminism is that the first wishes to enhance and to humanize the difference between the sexes, while the second wishes to discount or even annihilate it. In that sense, feminism really is against nature.

Yet at the same time, feminism seems an inevitable response to the breakdown of the traditional sexual morality. People readily accepted the traditional roles when honor and decency sustained them. But why should women trust men, now that men are so quick to discard their obligations? Marriage was once permanent and safe; it offered the woman social status and protection, long after she ceased to be sexually attractive. And it provided a sphere in which she was dominant. The sacrifice permanent marriage demanded of men made tolerable to women the male monopoly over the public realm, in which men competed for money and social rewards. The two sexes respected each other's territory and recognized that each must renounce something for their mutual benefit. Now that men in the wake of the sexual revolution feel free to be serially polygamous, women have no secure territory of their own. They have no choice, therefore, but to capture what they can of the territory once monopolized by men.

It was one of the great discoveries of civilization that men do not gain acceptance from women by brashly displaying their manhood in aggressive and violating gestures. But they do gain acceptance by being gentlemen. The gentleman was not a person with feminine gender and masculine sex. He was through and through a man. But he was also gentle—in all the senses of that lucent word. He was not belligerent but courageous, not possessive but protective, not aggressive to other men but bold, even-tempered, and ready to agree on terms. He was animated by a sense of honor—which meant taking responsibility for his actions and shielding those who depended on him. And his most important attribute was loyalty, which implied that he would not deny his obligations merely because he was in a position to profit from doing so. Much of the anger of women toward men has come about because the ideal of the gentleman is now so close to extinction. Popular entertainment has only one image of manhood to put before the young: and it is an image of untrammeled aggression, in which automatic weapons play a major part, and in which gentleness in whatever form appears as a weakness rather than as a strength. How far this is from those epics of courtly love, which set in motion the European attempt to rescue manhood from biology and reshape it as a moral idea, needs no elaboration.

It was not only the upper classes that idealized the relation between the sexes or moralized their social roles. In the working-class community from which my father's family came, the old mutuality was part of the routine of domestic life, encapsulated in recognized displays of masculine and feminine virtue. One such was the Friday-night ritual of the wage packet. My grandfather would come home and place on the kitchen table the unopened envelope containing his wages. My grandmother would pick it up and empty it into her wallet, handing back two shillings for drink. Grandfather would then go to the pub and drink himself into a state of proud self-assertion among his peers. If women came to the pub they would linger in the doorway, communicating by messenger with the smoke-filled rooms inside but respecting the threshold of this masculine arena as though it were guarded by angels.

My grandfather's gesture, as he laid down his wage packet on the kitchen table, was imbued with a peculiar grace: it was a recognition of my grandmother's importance as a woman, of her right to his consideration and of her value as the mother of his children. Likewise, her waiting outside the pub until closing time, when he would be too unconscious to suffer the humiliation of it, before transporting him home in a wheelbarrow, was a gesture replete with feminine considerateness. It was her way of recognizing his inviolable sovereignty as a wage earner and a man.

Courtesy, courtliness, and courtship were so many doors into the court of love, where human beings moved as in a pageant. My grandparents were excluded by their proletarian way of life from all other forms of courtliness, which is why this one was so important. It was their opening to an enchantment that they could obtain in no other way. My grandfather had little to recommend him to my grandmother, other than his strength, good looks, and manly deportment. But he respected the woman in her and played the role of gentleman as best he could whenever he escorted her outside the home. Hence my grandmother, who disliked him intensely—for he was ignorant, complacent, and drunk, and stood across the threshold of her life as an immovable obstacle to social advancement—nevertheless loved him passionately as a man. This love could not have lasted, were it not for the mystery of gender. My grandfather's masculinity set him apart in a sovereign sphere of his own, just as my grandmother's femininity protected her from his aggression. All that they knew of virtue they had applied to the task of remaining to some measure mysterious to each other. And in this they succeeded, as they succeeded in little else.

A similar division of spheres occurred throughout society, and in every corner of the globe. But marriage was its pivotal institution, and marriage depended upon fidelity and sexual restraint. Marriages lasted not only because divorce was disapproved of but also because marriage was preceded by an extended period of courtship, in which love and trust could take root before sexual experiment. This period of courtship was also one of display, in which men showed off their manliness and women their femininity. And this is what we mean, or ought to mean, by the "social construction" of gender. By playacting, the two partners readied themselves for their future roles, learning to admire and cherish the separateness of their natures. The courting man gave glamour to the masculine character, just as the courting woman gave mystery to the feminine. And something of this glamour and mystery remained thereafter, a faint halo of enchantment that caused each to encourage the other in the apartness that they both admired.

The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Henry James and Charlotte Bront', all have matchlessly described all that, as has D. H. Lawrence (in its lower-class version) in his stories. This literature shows what is missing from sociobiology. Marriage does not merely serve the reproductive strategies of our genes; it serves the reproductive need of society. It also serves the individual in his pursuit of a life and fulfillment of his own. Its capacity for ordering and sanctifying erotic love goes beyond anything required by our genes. As our Enlightenment morality rightly insists, we are also free beings, whose experience is through and through qualified by our sense of moral value. We do not respond to one another as animals but as persons—which means that, even in sexual desire, freedom of choice is essential to the aim. The object of desire must be treated, in Kant's famous words, not as a means only, but as an end. Hence true sexual desire is desire for a person, and not for sex, conceived as a generalized commodity. We surround the sexual act with constraints and interdictions that are in no way dictated by the species, precisely so as to focus our thoughts and desires on the free being, rather than the bodily mechanism. In this we are immeasurably superior to our genes, whose attitude to what is happening is, by comparison, mere pornography.

Even when the sacramental view of marriage began to wane, mankind still held erotic feelings apart, as things too intimate for public discussion, which could only be soiled by their display. Chastity, modesty, shame, and passion were part of an artificial but necessary drama. The erotic was idealized, in order that marriage should endure. And marriage, construed as our parents and grandparents construed it, was both a source of personal fulfillment and the principal way in which one generation passed on its social and moral capital to the next.

It was that vision of marriage, as a lifelong existential commitment, that lay behind the process of "gender construction" in the days when men were tamed and women idealized. If marriage is no longer safe, however, girls are bound to look elsewhere for their fulfillment. And elsewhere means the public sphere—for it is a sphere dominated by strangers, with clear rules and procedures, in which you can defend yourself from exploitation. The advantage of inhabiting this sphere needs no explaining to a girl whose abandoned mother lies grieving upstairs. Nor do her experiences at school or college teach her to trust or respect the male character. Her sex-education classes have taught her that men are to be used and discarded like the condoms that package them. And the feminist ideology has encouraged her to think that only one thing matters—which is to discover and fulfill her true gender identity, while discarding the false gender identity that the "patriarchal culture" has foisted upon her. Just as boys become men without becoming manly, therefore, so do girls become women without becoming feminine. Modesty and chastity are dismissed as politically incorrect; and in every sphere where they encounter men, women meet them as competitors. The voice that calmed the violence of manhood—namely, the female call for protection—has been consigned to silence.

Just as the feminine virtues existed in order to make men gentle, however, so manliness existed in order to break down the reserve that caused women to withhold their favors until security was in sight. In the world of "safe sex," those old habits seem tedious and redundant. In consequence, there has arisen another remarkable phenomenon in America: the litigiousness of women toward the men they have slept with. It seems as though consent, offered so freely and without regard for the preliminaries once assumed to be indispensable, is not really consent and can be withdrawn retroactively. The charges of harassment or even "date rape" lie always in reserve. The slap in the face that used to curtail importunate advances is now offered after the event, and in a far more deadly form—a form no longer private, intimate, and remediable, but public, regimented, and with the absolute objectivity of law. You might take this as showing that "safe sex" is really sex at its most dangerous. Maybe marriage is the only safe sex that we know.

When Stalin imposed Lysenko's theories upon the Soviet Union, as the "scientific" basis of his effort to re-mold human nature and form it into the "New Soviet Man," the human economy continued, hidden away beneath the mad imperatives of the Stalinist state. And a black sexual economy persists in modern America, which no feminist policing has yet succeeded in stamping out. Men go on taking charge of things, and women go on deferring to the men. Girls still want to be mothers and to obtain a father for their children; boys still want to impress the other sex with their prowess and their power. The steps from attraction to consummation may be short, but they are steps in which the old roles and the old desires hover at the edge of things.

Hence nothing is more interesting to the visiting anthropologist than the antics of American college students: the girl who, in the midst of some foulmouthed feminist diatribe, suddenly begins to blush; or the boy who, walking with his girlfriend, puts out an arm to protect her. The sociobiologists tell us that these gestures are dictated by the species. We should see them, rather, as revelations of the moral sense. They are the sign that there really is a difference between the masculine and the feminine, over and above the difference between the male and the female. Without the masculine and the feminine, indeed, sex loses its meaning. Gender is not just possible, but necessary.

And here, surely, lies our hope for the future. When women forge their own "gender identity," in the way the feminists recommend, they become unattractive to men—or attractive only as sex objects, not as individual persons. And when men cease to be gentlemen, they become unattractive to women. Sexual companionship then goes from the world. All that it needs to save young people from this predicament is for old-fashioned moralists to steal unobserved past their feminist guardians and whisper the truth into eager and astonished ears—the truth that gender is indeed a construct, but one that involves both sexes, acting in mutual support, if it is to be built successfully. In my experience, young people hear with great sighs of relief that the sexual revolution may have been a mistake, that women are allowed to be modest, and that men can make a shot at being gentlemen.

And this is what we should expect. If we are free beings, then it is because, unlike our genes, we can hear the truth and decide what to do about it.

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