Men, Women, and Sexual Identity

gender-symbolsMy last post really should have been called “What are men and women, and how do you know?” I emphasized that second question, only scratching the surface of the first. I’ll try to say more about that one now. Also one commentator suggested that I read some books on the distinction between sexuality and gender. Presumably I wouldn’t be so outrageously backwards if I did so. Herein I have to make a confession. I have read “some books.” I’ve also read some other ones. It’s just that I have this old-souled conviction that the best way to understand humanity is through the study of the humanities. I’ll explain.

In our modern day, the assumption seems to be that “social sciences” are more reliable, because they are “science” after all. They rely on statistics, and we all know that statics are the way to go. In fact, at the political science conference I go to, it’s about 70% statistics. (I go to the theory panels, but you knew that.) And it’s not that statistics are nothing. It’s just that they are inherently democratic, and I don’t believe that wisdom is. I believe in external and objective truth, something which we can all pursue and be relatively persuaded of through reason, patience, and charity. We don’t determine such wisdom by amassing testimonials from eye-witnesses though. We identify self-evident truths and indubitable realities, which stand outside us all, and then we deduce and we induce. Science will be very helpful along the way, but science will only do some of the work. It will not do all of the work. It cannot do all of the work. This is because it is necessarily limited. It observes and sometimes predicts. It does not really interpret or “understand.” Science can tell no stories.  In fact, science itself rests upon a foundation which is pre-scientific, a set of assumptions about the nature of reality and knowledge, and these assumptions cannot actually be “tested” in the scientific manner without falling into a vicious circle. I probably should have told you that some of those books I read were philosophy books.

We saw this unscientific science at work a few years back with the supposedly gay caveman. The story was that a very ancient skeleton was found, buried in the a way that the researchers would expect a female to be buried. But as it turns out, this particular skeleton was male. Thus, the natural conclusion was that he was gay! Obviously this was so. He was also a particularly sensitive caveman, the kind who preferred to write poetry while the others were out knocking their women’s heads with clubs. This was the way it was from the earliest days of the modern science movement too. Chesterton pointed out the same thing. To relay an anecdote passed along to me by a friend, whatever the neanderthals may have been, we all know that they were just like characters from a Henry James novel. So there’s no use denying it. We instead admit that the only people we have the ability to imagine are people, and we use our “science” in direct conversation with the other liberal arts. History, philosophy, and literature teach us everything we need to know about pyschology, sociology, and anthropology. All we have to do is take those liberal arts and go out and talk to people, listen, and then repeat. That’s what “social science” is. Let us take the hard sciences, the soft sciences, and the arts and letters and find a coherent and comprehensive truth.

So by this point it should be plain that I don’t accept the contemporary uses of the term “gender” over and against “sex.” In fact, “gender” is a linguistic term, something for words, words which lack “sex” altogether. “Sex,” on the other hand is directly related to our human reproductive organs, and we live all of our lives as sexual persons, as men on the one hand and women on the other. And one does not even have to “have sex” to be sexual. Such is the fallacy of our day. Again “asexual” is a term which actually means “having no sexual organs.” It does not mean virginity, nor does it mean a platonic relationship. If you want to know your sexuality, you should just take a look. You are either male or female.

This relates to the categories of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” quite directly. Those terms are of very late vintage and they presume that humans are more or less chemically-determined to inevitably and incontestably act in certain ways. It’s founded on a base-level materialism, but one, strangely, not connected to natural law. But of course when you look at the most basic issues at hand, you will see that “heterosexual” is simply a term for normal reproduction according to anatomical and physiological means. When a male reproductive organ interacts with a female reproductive organ, then that is “heterosexual” activity. And normally, over the course of time and by use of natural means, this interaction effects reproduction. By contrast, “homosexual” activity is when a male reproductive organ interacts with… well, I guess the parallel really breaks down right at the beginning doesn’t it? It actually doesn’t simply interact with another male reproductive organ, but rather must find a sort of imitation of the female reproductive organ, and when it interacts in this way it produces no new life. In Aristotelian terms, it does not achieve its final cause at all, but something else.

Now, I certainly didn’t mean to gross you out there, but it’s important to keep things simple. The modern notion of “sexuality” and “sexual identity” is actually an argument, usually made with unspoken premises, that sex should not be connected to concrete reproductive organs and the final cause of sex itself, but rather should be re-definable according to the will, in order to achieve whatever goal we desire but mostly pleasure, which is again, open to any number of definitions. The root argument is that there should be no such thing as normal, no such thing as natural, and no external controlling categories. Instead, we should have a permanent state of anomie.

With feminism and the casting off of “gender roles” (which still have to be defined in this ongoing conversation) we have the same basic movement occurring. Despite whatever legitimate abuses against women there were, and there were many, the very earliest of feminists had it as a part of their platform to level the differences between male and female and especially to reject male “headship” or “authority” within the marriage. People always want to rush to the question of suffrage, forgetting that suffrage is all about civic representation. Female suffrage did not only achieve “equality,” it achieved political individualism in a new way, effectively removing the “household” from political representation. We can weigh the pros and cons of this shift, but we cannot deny that it happened. We should also note that in Mrs. Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments is not only a call for women’s suffrage, but also a call to overthrow male headship in the marriage, for female ordination in the churches, and an egalitarian reading of the New Testament. And this was in 1848. You were probably unaware that “The Sixties” started so early.

Again, it’s no use trying to deny that legitimate abuses occurred or in saying that we should or could “turn back the clock” and prevent the feminist movement. Instead, we have to see what it was, what it assumed, and what it naturally brought about. Feminism helped to bring about individualism and the priority of the will over nature. It brought about the belief that sexuality is irrelevant to civic life, and that, in fact, we can define what exactly sexuality is and means according to our own desires and preferences for any given context. This was itself caused by other earlier assumptions, and it gained success because those other assumptions were shared even by many opponents of feminism.

Now those unsympathetic readers are tired of my stalling. They basically agree with that last paragraph, but they feel that I’m not being honest with myself. I too define sexuality and what it means according to my paleolithic desires and my preference for a patriarchal context. I am being subjective as well, only in my favor. Surely there could not be any honest reason for doing so. We can approach this from different ways, but I’ll stick to my earlier “reason and revelation” method. Let us look at how men and women inescapably function, particularly as it relates to sexuality, and then what the Bible says about their identities and roles in relation to one another.

Men approach life and especially sex and reproduction as an action, an external interaction with others, and a continual pursuit. When it comes to the physical act of love, they must initiate (even if the woman is already interested), they must chase, they must warm things up, and then they must provide a good bit of the doing. And it isn’t unrelated that once finished, the man is ready to move on, whether that means getting up and going out or simply going to sleep. He has completed a task and is looking forward to another task, not because the one task wasn’t important, but because the task is completed. Men are action-oriented by design. And while they do use their body to achieve the action, the result of the action does not remain with the man’s body. The man’s body is free to go, to start new actions and tasks.

Women, on the other hand, are place oriented. Their own sexuality is located in themselves. They will receive, conceive, and incubate. They don’t want the man leaving, because they know that they are the place. The woman just is the home, and after the woman gives birth she is also very literally fixed to her place. Apart from birth control and infant formula, this would all be as plain as day. For a woman to have sex is to commit herself in a very real way. She will have this child in a way that no one else can, and she will be responsible for its life in a way that no one else can. And it isn’t really true that the men “made it this way.” Not at all. This sort of illustration is as natural as it gets. It takes technology to change it, and so that means it takes civil society and political cooperation to change it. What might that teach us about individualism and political establishments?

This very simple categorization is what lies behind the historical descriptions of men as “stronger” and “active” and women as “weaker” and “passive.” Those adjectives are often misunderstood, and I’m very sure that they were often misunderstood by the people using them. Still, there is a legitimate understanding, and it is inescapable. The men are the active, assertive, aggressors who will dominate apart from restraint, whether that be personal, legal, or technological. The women are passive (in basic relation to men), receptive, and more easily exploited. They are, however, also complementary and telic, bringing the man’s action into completion. They criticize the man, sometimes constructively and sometimes not, they accent the man, most obviously by taking charge over his home, and they complete the man, by having a primary ownership over his erotic passion and ultimately his children.

All of this gets us to the simple concepts that man is the initiator. He is the warrior and defender. He is the risk-taker. And he is also the traveler. The woman, on the other hand, is the incentive. She is the life-bearer and producer. She is the domestic warden. She is the place.

In Biblical terms, Christians have two basic places for guidance, creation and redemption. In the creation account, God makes humanity, male and female, for the purpose of reproduction, civilization, and rule: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it, have dominion” (Gen 1:28). This is true for all humanity. That is their collective purpose, which they carry out through their respective individual roles. Specifically, Adam is created first and outside of the garden. God then makes a garden and tells Adam to “tend and keep” it, or to “serve and protect” it (Gen. 2:15). Man is fundamentally a protector and provider, for woman as well as the rest of the earth.

God then determines that it is “not good” for Adam to be alone, which means that we are now addressing a supplement and compliment to him. Eve is created inside the garden and after all of the other elements of creation have been inspected and found “unsuitable” to be a helper for Adam. Thus she is a unique helper, complementer, and completer. So from all of this, we see that the marriage and family is not a mere alliance of individuals, but is actually a fundamental whole. Thus husband and wife are not working on their own projects, but they are working on one and the same project.

There is also the image of Christ and the Church, which the Apostle Paul says is a mysterious image of marriage (Eph. 5:22-33). Since Christ is a new Adam, he fulfills our understanding of what Adam is to be. He doesn’t contradict the original creation order, but Christ does correct its subsequent errors and complete its goal. Christ provides for and protects his bride by a self-sacrificial love. He dies for her, cleanses her (and justifies her), and makes her glorious (Eph. 5:25-27). He even thinks of her as his own body, as a part of his self. The two truly are one. The wife, in turn, looks to her husband as a head, as a protector and provider.

The two key verbs in that passage are love and respect. While we can say that both men and women need both love and respect, the text actually assigns one verb primarily to each. Husbands should love their wives, and wives should respect their husbands (Eph. 5:33). This is not an arbitrary pairing but rather basic to the relationship. Wives want to feel loved. They want to be told that they are beautiful and glorious. They want to feel like they make their husbands happy. Husbands, for their part, want to be respected. They want to be told that they are strong and/or smart, and they want to know that their wives trust them and look to them to take care of business.

When a woman does not trust her husband in this way, when she overtakes his authority and publicly disrespects him, or when she goes to another man to get what he was supposed to provide, we have a certain word for that. We say that she has emasculated him. She takes away his manhood and makes him as if he were now a woman. And this is the greatest sin she can commit against him. This is not psychological or made up by social construct. No, it goes right to the heart of sexual identity. It’s who we are, and you’ll find testimonials to it from every culture from time immemorial.

We’ll save the positive suggestions, proposals, and criticisms for another post. For now you’ve got the basic categories. It is right to act in accordance with nature, in accordance with reality. This will actually work best, and while it may initially feel like a constraint (for we all buck against nature at certain points), it is actually the true understanding of freedom. Men need to be men and to become men, and women need to be women and to become women. Attempts to get around this or to create new categories and tertium quids are actually simply ways to prioritize the individual over the group, over the species, and over the moral and ontological framework of the world.

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14 thoughts on “Men, Women, and Sexual Identity

  1. Just to clarify, you truly believe that the *greatest* sin a woman can commit against her husband is emasculating him? I certainly would never want to disrespect my husband publicly (or privately for that matter), but I doubt I would consider that the greatest sin I could commit against him. Thanks for your insights!

  2. Sarah,

    At least from the man’s perspective, how he sees it and feels it, then yes. I would stick by that. Men can take all kinds of abuse, so long as they can still be men.

  3. What do you think of people like Joshua Gonnerman (who writes on Firstthings from time to time) who consider themselves to be celibate gay Christians?

  4. “Men approach life and especially sex and reproduction as an action, an external interaction with others, and a continual pursuit. When it comes to the physical act of love, they must initiate (even if the woman is already interested), they must chase, they must warm things up, and then they must provide a good bit of the doing. And it isn’t unrelated that once finished, the man is ready to move on, whether that means getting up and going out or simply going to sleep. He has completed a task and is looking forward to another task, not because the one task wasn’t important, but because the task is completed. Men are action-oriented by design. And while they do use their body to achieve the action, the result of the action does not remain with the man’s body. The man’s body is free to go, to start new actions and tasks.”

    bELL hOOKS hates that, BTW.

  5. Matthew,

    My friend Peter Escalante was actually old classmates with Gonnerman. We’ve both talked about his writings in the past, and while we do admire his commitment to celibacy, we feel that his argument and overall philosophical approach is unhelpful (and not really very RC either).

  6. Steven, I agree with everything you have stated here… if the world were ideal. In your opinion, what is a wife to do if her husband does not provide or protect? I ask this because I have thought about the issue for years and have reached no answer. I know that these are not her roles to play, and her picking them up almost always destroys the relationship (precisely because of what you said: the man then feels emasculated). But if he does not fulfill his duties, what else can she do? I don’t think anyone can blame her for taking on the job herself or going to someone else who does take on the job (say, her father). This is especially true when children are in the picture. There are certainly women who usurp authority from men, but what I see happen far more often is men emasculating themselves. In my experience, women are not all that eager to be men when men are men; most become men only out of necessity, and it can hardly be denied that that necessity (unfortunately) exists in many situations.

  7. Hi Grace,

    You make a good point, and it is true that many men emasculate themselves. There are many reasons why this happens, but it is true. What should a woman do? It depends.

    If the situation is extreme, to the point where the husband’s lack of provision and protection is morally equivalent to abandonment, then I think there are potential grounds for divorce. In less extreme situations, I believe that the woman should submit as best she can while seeking outside counsel through family, church, and a community of friends.

    Certainly some women and some families will have to make difficult decisions and certain kinds of compromises as they are trying to figure their way out of a mess. I think there are often pretty clear boundary markers which shouldn’t be transgressed, with other less dramatic areas where women can compromise for a time. But again, none of this should have to be done in isolation. We are all made for community, being social animals, and as such, we should be looking for ways to help bear one another’s burdens. In saying that, I should also say that my posts in this series are meant to hit the men’s conscience as much as anyone.

  8. Interesting. How does that jive with the Bible stating that adultery is the only acceptable reason for divorce? What kinds of situations are morally equivalent to abandonment? Would perpetual unemployment and insufficient effort to seek employment qualify? Also, what are some examples of the “clear boundary markers” that shouldn’t be transgressed?

  9. Grace,

    Many traditional Christian casuist argue that abandonment or dissertion is a biblical grounds for divorce, citing 1 Cor. 7:15. You can see this in the Westminster Confession of Faith 24.6. I would argue that perpetual unemployment would qualify, though I would of course encouragement intermediate counseling and intervention prior to the divorce. Physical abuse would also qualify, as it is a sort of forced abandonment.

    I think the clearest boundary markers are things like actually becoming a man or making oneself overtly and explicitly like a man (in dress or certain profession, esp. the military). Also, an outright refusal to submit in cases other than the husband commanding sin would be illicit. Any time the woman is “taking the lead” in the relationship, so to speak, it should be so reluctantly and after much seeking out help and imploring the husband to step up.

    Women also need to be careful in regards to effectively finding another helpmeet, through their jobs, churches, or friends. This happens fairly frequently, as the husband has not filled this role. The woman, usually unknowingly, finds a substitute for the husband, even in non-erotic ways. Ultimately in all of these cases, the fullest solution to the problem must run through the husband. Other godly men and authorities should challenge him and offer to help his own personal reformation. In the case of a lengthy period of contumacy, I think you do have grounds for a divorce. While this will always be painful and always have lasting significance, it is sometimes the only way to reset proper moral and social equilibrium.

  10. I see. I’d always thought that 1 Cor. 7:15 referred only to abandonment by unbelieving spouses; thanks for pointing out the Westminster Confession. I’ll have to think about that.

    If the husband does not respond to his wife, is it appropriate for her to ask other men and authorities to challenge him, or should she wait until they themselves observe the man’s shortcomings and reproach him? If she approaches the authorities herself, would she be shaming him in public and undercutting him, thus exacerbating the problem?

  11. I think she can approach other authorities, but she has to be very shrewd. The husband can’t feel wholly usurped, though he must be challenged. If she can start with family members, church authorities, or friends, then that would be the best way to go about it. The best-case scenario, and the big goal, is for the man to see what’s going on, his own shortcomings included, and to be convinced to start being who he needs to be.

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