Sexual Morality

One of the battles in the culture war today involves the issue of sex and whether God or man sets the boundary lines regarding its proper use. This is a key issue since cultural revolutionists realized, more so than Christian leaders, that if you want to change a culture you have to change its sexual mores. One's worldview is a byproduct of one's morality. We justify our morality by the worldview we develop to justify our sexual behavior. The following article presents a very thorough description of what has happened to our sexual norms in light of the cultural revolution.

Gender, Morality and Modesty

Robin Phillips

This 6-part series on gender, morality and modesty seeks to defend Biblical morality by showing the consequences of the alternative. While this is nothing new in itself, I have approached the problem from an original angle. Rather than simply lamenting how bad things have become in our society, I have tried to show that the results of the sexual revolution have actually been antithetic to its own goals.

Starting at the time of the ‘Enlightenment’ and working my way through to the present day, I observe that a consequence of rejecting the Biblical worldview has been to rob men and women of the ability to properly enjoy themselves as God intended. The reductionism of gender and sexuality wrought by the materialistic worldview has created a new network of secular taboos. The result is that gender has been neutralized and the spice has been taken out of life.

As my argument unfolds, it becomes clear that the Biblical approach is not simply the ethical option: it is also the most sexy. The alternatives to Biblical morality, which our society has been desperately trying to make work, not only fail to achieve their own goals, but are ultimately boring by comparison.

At the moment chastity is ‘in’ but coherent thinking about chastity is at an all time low. Many Christian young people think that as long as you don’t have sex before marriage then you are keeping to the Biblical sex ethic. That is ethics by subtraction, which leaves a moral vacuum that makes the young person a prime target for sexual temptation. My approach in these posts is to try to show that purity is not a matter of negation, but of affirmation. Against those who maintain that Biblical standards of purity and integrity represent a repressive or a pessimistic view of sexuality, I show that the shoe is actually on the other foot.

In the long run, I argue that Biblical morality is the truly erotic option.

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 1 (Reducing the Human)

Having taken up the subject gender in my silly post last month (I hope everyone knew it was tongue and cheek, although there have been a few people who have worried about me ever since), I return to the subject of gender in a tone of seriousness. However, this time I will be discussing gender in relation to morality and modesty. At least that's where I hope to get by the end of this series. This present post will lay some of the foundation by giving a brief history lesson.

Few people know about the sexual revolution that occurred in Europe during the mid 18th century, but it is crucial for understanding the subsequent contour that gender has taken in the modern West ever since. At the risk of gross oversimplification, there were three main ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment that played out in how people began thinking of gender, morality and modesty. They were

1)    Materialism
2)    Materialistic Determinism
3)    Nature

Let’s start with the first.


Materialism in the philosophical sense does not refer to greedy consumerism.  Rather, it refers to the view that “all entities and processes are composed of—or are reducible to—matter, material forces or physical processes. . . . materialism entails the denial of the reality of spiritual beings, consciousness and mental or psychic states or processes, as ontologically distinct from, or independent of, material changes or processes.” (Concise Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, p. 535.)

At least, that is how the philosophical encyclopedia defines materialism.  Put more simply, the universe of the materialist is one in which everything, including you and me, is completely reducible to physics and chemistry. Human beings are nothing more than a complicated collection of molecules thrown together by a universe that is itself nothing more than a great impersonal machine.

The worldview of materialism (also sometimes called “naturalism”) was popularized at the time of the European Enlightenment. The French physician, Julien Offray de La Mettrie (pictured right), summed it up in 1748 when he wrote a book titled Man a Machine. In this book, La Mettrie argued that human beings were small machines connected to the giant machine of Nature. At death the small machines simply disengage from the big machine and stop working.

A contemporary materialist, Sir Francis Crick, has said much the same thing. Having distinction as one of two co-discoverers of the DNA molecule, Crick described materialism as the ‘Astonishing Hypothesis’ that 

‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. (Sir Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (New York: Touchstone, 1994), p. 3.)

Not surprisingly, materialism is often associated with atheism (the belief that there is no God) or agnosticism (the belief that we cannot know if God exists), although there is not space to explore this connection at the moment.

Materialistic Determinism

Materialistic determinism is the view that everything, including man’s actions, is pre-determined by physical forces.  We are nothing more than complicated machines, programmed by the laws of nature. Materialistic determinists believe that all our desires, thoughts and aspirations and anything which gives us a sense of significance, are really just the result of an impersonal chain of cause and effect which could never be otherwise. 

This deterministic way of viewing of the universe was reflected in Diderot’s “skeptic’s prayer.”  (Diderot, pictured left, was a popular writer during the early French Enlightenment.)  After spending an entire book looking squarely at the consequences of the materialist universe, he closes with a prayer that nods towards the twin worldviews of agnosticism and determinism:

O God, I do not know if you exist. . . . I ask nothing in this world, for the course of events is determined by its own necessity if you do not exist, or by your decree if you do. . . . Here I stand, as I am, a necessarily organized part of eternal and necessary matter—or perhaps your own creation. . . .  (From Diderot’s Interprétation de la nature (1754), cited by Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment: An evaluation of its assumptions, attitudes and values (Penguin Books, 1968), p. 95–96.)


Having convinced themselves that there was nothing to deify in the metaphysical dimension, the eighteenth-century humanists began implicitly to deify the physical realm. “Nature” became a point of moral reference, as Charles Taylor has convincingly shown in his book A Secular Age. Nature effectively became the resident god.  In parody of the rejected Bible, it became customary for 18th century intellectuals to refer to “the book of Nature.”  Rather than turning to the words of the apostles and prophets, one turned to what was empirically verifiable in “Nature’s book.” There thus began to be a lot of talk about “natural religion” as opposed to revealed religion.

What exactly “nature” meant in the eighteenth century would be difficult to say.  In studying eighteenth-century literature, scholars have identified over a hundred uses of the term. “Nature” became a useful variable which, attached to any idea or course of action, endowed it with a dignity that was as effective as it was vague.  (The closest parallel I can think of is how the vague notion of “liberty” is often used in American political discourse.)

This widespread ambiguity is not surprising.  Without any fixed reference point, “nature” could mean whatever anyone wanted it to mean.

The Enlightenment Hammer 

Ideas have consequences and the consequence of these three ideological co-ordinates (materialism, materialistic determinism and the philosophy of nature) was a sexual revolution that is often overlooked. 

It would be an exaggeration to say that this religion of nature allowed people to legitimize any action with the appellation “natural.” Nevertheless, there began to be a slow movement in exactly that direction. One could break all the rules and feel entirely justified for “being natural.” As Becker puts it, summarizing Locke’s views,

If…man [be] the product of nature, then all that man does and thinks, all that he has ever done or thought, must be natural, too, and in accord with the laws of nature.... (Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, p. 66)

The determinist Locke himself never went so far as to say that everything is natural because everything is inevitable. However, the followers of Locke had no reservation in moving from a mechanistic view of man to formulating an entirely mechanistic theory of moral values.  Hence, we find Diderot arguing that since man is a part of nature, whatever he does is, by definition, “natural”. In his book The Enlightenment, Norman Hampson discusses how Diderot implied that deformity, whether moral or physical, cannot really be said to be unnatural since it is purely a matter of human judgment with no objective validity.

Similarly, when the philosophy of materialistic determinism was pressed to its logical consequence, we are left with the stark reality that it is impossible to ever act unnaturally. In a determinist’s world, everything we do must be natural because everything we do is the inevitable result of mechanical forces beyond our control.  Hence we find Voltaire (left) writing, “When I am able to do what I will, I am free; but I will what I will of necessity . . .” Similarly, in a letter to an opponent, Voltaire draws the consistent corollary of the determinist’s position, namely that whether one loves truth or does harm, he is acting in accordance with his pre-determined nature:

I necessarily have the passion for writing this, and you have the passion for condemning me; both of us are equally fools, equally the playthings of destiny. Your nature is to do harm, mine is to love truth, and to make it public in spite of you.

We thus begin to get a sense for some of the practical difficulties that began to arise out of the materialist/determinist philosophical matrix.  As time went on, the effects of this new philosophy began to be felt acutely in a myriad of practical areas, not least in the areas of gender and sexual morality.

Such problems are merely part of the larger difficulty that materialism has in giving us any legitimate grounding for a moral life. In his book Idols For Destruction, Herbert Schlossberg articulated this problem, suggesting that those who hold to a materialistic/deterministic worldview must eventually conclude that a morality is a delusion.

Since human beings, along with everything else, are assumed to be all material— “we think with our bodies” —their behavior results purely from external contingencies, not on any supposed sense of moral value… The organism simply acts as the prior contingencies have programmed it (him) to act. Moral categories, therefore, are superfluous in understanding human behavior. They may serve a useful function only as they become tools for the shaping of behavior by the controllers. The moral life, in short, is a delusion, and it often functions only as a hindrance to the survival of the human race. (Hebert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, p. 149.)

It was in the area of sexual ethics that the ideas of the Enlightenment become acutely practical. Since determinism implied that anything is natural as long as you are doing it (since no action could have been otherwise in the great deterministic machine), it followed that nature could be used to defend sexual taboos as well as a more licentious approach.  It should hardly come as a surprise if the naturalness of the latter and not the former began to dominate popular thinking as the eighteenth century progressed.

In one of his Encyclopédie entries, Diderot’s personified Nature speaks not merely in defense of sexual enjoyment, but elevates it almost to the status of a moral imperative.  Anticipating objections, Diderot wrote,

If there is a perverse man who could take offence at the praise that I give to the most noble and universal of passions, I would evoke Nature before him, I would make it speak, and Nature would say . . .

Nature then speaks and, of course, she cannot help but be on Diderot’s side.  “Nature is satisfied”, Diderot argued, only when the sexual impulse is allowed to reach its climactic fulfillment.

As Diderot’s comments suggest, the appeal to Nature could easily become equivalent with simply letting one’s passion have free rein.  Yet few eighteenth-century thinkers were comfortable taking things that far.  In all fairness, most champions of the Enlightenment were unprepared for, and even disturbed by, the ramifications their ideas began to have in the area of sexual morals.  It did not take long for such ramifications to begin manifesting themselves.  Jonathan Israel observes that while the political consequences of Enlightenment philosophy did not fully kick in until the 1790s, the sexual consequences of this new philosophy began to be felt as early as the mid-1700s. (See Jonathan Israel's book Radical Enlightenment, Oxford University Press, 2002).

Like most developments in the Enlightenment, the seeds for this sexual revolution had been planted back in the seventeenth century through such unsuspecting vessels as Locke and Spinoza.  Referring to the new ideal of sensual pleasure that emerged in the mid-eighteenth century, Lawrence Stone suggests that this came as “an unanticipated by-product of Lockean philosophy.” (Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800, p. 327.) Similarly, Jonathan Israel tells us that though Spinoza took little interest in sexual issues, yet the materialistic system he espoused gave an intellectual basis for the movement of sexual liberation.

This should not be taken as implying that everything was rosy in pre-Enlightenment Europe. Medieval and Renaissance texts are filled with explicit and vulgar references to sexual intercourse, adultery and genitalia which rival anything produced in the Enlightenment. The difference is that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance there remained an underlying Trinitarian consensus. (See Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery.) This consensus provided a fixed point of reference in which sexual codes could be grounded, and it meant that departure from those standards was generally always viewed as sin, even when such deviation was tolerated. This helps to explain the incredible tension we find in courtly love literature between Christian and pagan models of morality. (See Denis De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940).) One of the driving features in the famous medieval legend of Tristan and Iseult is a consciousness that their adulterous relationship is wrong. It is this awareness of sin that gives the story its peculiar tension, pathos and sense of tragedy. To the extent that the Enlightenment rejected the Christian worldview, it undermined the basis for this continuing tension. Instead of sin being treated as sin even by those who embraced it, the very idea of sin became a category mistake for the consistent materialist.

Materialist Sexuality

Remember that materialism asserts that all conditions and forces in the universe are reducible to matter. It thus denies the existence of non-material properties in the universe.  Almost by definition, this leaves men and women without a soul or spirit, since these are non-material. Man is simply a machine—a complex machine, to be sure, but a machine none the less.

Now if this account of the human being is correct, then just as it is impossible to ascribe to man any significance transcending the material world, so it is equally difficult for the materialist to ascribe to sexuality any significance beyond the purely biological.  Once you introduce into sexuality such categories as significance and value, let alone God-given parameters, it is difficult to avoid the implication that there must be some non-material explanation behind it all (that is, an explanation external to the “closed system” of Nature’s predetermined cause and effects). This is a point that materialists are themselves forced to acknowledge. What materialist Paul Churchland said of the evolutionary story applies to any type of materialist account of ourselves:

The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process…If this is the correct account of our origins, then there is neither need, nor room, to fit any nonphysical properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact. (Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness, p. 21.)

Had Diderot been as consistent as Churchland in learning to live with the facts of his materialism, he could not have praised sexual pleasure the way he did in the Encyclopédiearticle cited earlier.  This passion which Diderot terms “the most noble and universal of passions” can be no more noble than our urge to go to the toilet.  It is a biological fact, perhaps even a biological accident, and that is all.  There can be no special meaning behind sexuality any more than there can be any real significance behind any aspect of the materialist’s universe. We are creatures of matter and nothing more.

In practice, however, many of the Enlightenment’s philosophers were not ready for such radical consequences of their ideas.  Many of them still felt, like Diderot, that sexuality was somehow set apart from the ordinary.  They wanted to believe that there was more than predetermined mechanical forces at work when a man and woman embrace. Furthermore, the old taboos of Christian doctrine still exercised an unconscious primacy over the newly “enlightened” minds, and few wanted a situation of complete moral chaos.  All this compelled the Enlightenment philosophers to find alternative grounds for sexual morals.  But that will be the subject of my next blog post.


Utilitarian Ethics

R.G. Collingwood once remarked that “The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history.” 

Too often Collingwood’s injunction has been ignored, with the discussion of ideas being insulated from the consequences those ideas have had in the world of space and time.
This is especially true when it comes to ideas affecting gender and sexual morality, which is the topic of my present series of blog posts. I want to eventually comment on the contemporary crisis of gender confusion, but I find I can only do so by first spending some time examining ideas that were forged in the fires of the European Enlightenment. Only by understanding those ideas will we be in a position to adequately address the challenges that face us today.

In the previous post in this series I suggested that various ideas that became popular at the time of the Enlightenment had the affect of reducing human beings to an impersonal machine. In this post I would like to explore how various philosophers tried to temper the severity of this implication and still maintain some vestige of morality, while in the next post we will look at the effect that this had on the idea of gender. 


The attempts to provide an alternative code of morality that would be consistent with materialism and materialistic determinism (see my previous post for a definition of these terms) worldview usually relied on pragmatic, utilitarian and sociological considerations. (At the risk of oversimplification, utilitarianism is the view that an action is right if it produces the greatest amount of happiness for the maximum amount of people. For more about utilitarianism, see my earlier post 'Utilitarianism Makes a Comeback')   All such considerations boiled down to either asserting that the individual will be happier by following the rules of sexual morality, or that society will run smoother.  Moral codes and sexual modesty may not be natural, but they are profitable; sexual restraint may not be intrinsic to the human condition, but it is good sense.

Under this scheme of things, there may be good utilitarian reasons for keeping one’s libido under control, or almost under control. This was a position adopted by many who were disturbed by the growing licentiousness of European society. Though they believed that traditional codes of morality could not be rationally defended, nevertheless they saw that society would run smoother if people adhered to them.  This is similar to the way Hobbes, in the seventeenth century, had theorized that the prohibitions against stealing had evolved out of the fact that man discovered thieving to be a nuisance and a hindrance to all human endeavor.  In the interests of social cohesion, therefore, man decided it was reasonable not to steal.  This is a good example of the Enlightenment method of taking man as the starting point and then working everything out in relation to us rather than in relation to any external objective standard.


Similarly, we find Benjamin Franklin (an all-round child of the Enlightenment) giving advice to young men to leave the women alone.  His reason for offering this instruction was because the appearance of virtue is an important business asset and also because the institution of marriage was the most likely source of happiness.  However, Franklin was quick to add, if you must engage in extra-marital sex, it is better to go for the elderly women.  This is because older women present no risk of accidentally producing children.  Further, older women are wiser in the ways of the world and, having “ceased to be handsome” they strive to maintain their influence over men through being tender and amiable.  After all, Franklin points out, all women look the same in the dark anyway.


Spinoza had argued similarly that in one’s own interest you ought to avoid scandalizing the community, “but equally, in his naturalistic philosophy, sexual pleasure, the libido, in so far as it is life-enhancing is a good thing and, in principle, in no way different outside marriage than within it.” (From Jonathan Israel's book Radical Enlightenment)


Hume and the Economics of Modesty


While various philosophers were seeking a pragmatic basis for morality, it is a credit to his genius that the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) managed to find an economic argument for sexual modesty.  His argument starts with the observation that men go through enormous expense, fatigue and restraint for the sake of their offspring.  “But,” he pointed out,

in order to induce men to impose on themselves this restraint, and undergo cheerfully all the fatigues and expenses to which it subjects them, they must believe, that the children are their own, and that their natural instinct is not directed to a wrong object, when they give a loose to love and tenderness. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III “Of Morals” (Fontana/Collins, 1972, first published in 1739), p. 291.

How then can men be assured that their offspring are really their own?  Given the manner in which copulation occurs, Hume reasoned, a female will always know who the father of her children is.  But the only way a man can be assured of the paternity of his children is by restraining the behavior of woman through cultural taboos.


Men have undoubtedly an implicit notion, that all those ideas of modesty and decency have a regard to generation; since they impose not the same laws, with the same force, on the male sex, where that reason takes not place.


Hume’s argument raises an important question: if our ideas of modesty and decency only exist to restrain women in order that men may be assured that they are the fathers of their children, then is there any point to codes of propriety among males?  Hume deals with this question, and it is interesting that in the end all he can appeal to are “the general notions of the world . . .” These general notions suggest that though standards may be a bit looser for the man, nevertheless men ought to usually abstain from complete sexual indulgence most of the time.

[A]ccording to the general notions of the world, [men] bear nearly the same proportion of the obligations of women, as the obligations of the law of nations do to those of the law of nature. It is contrary to the interest of civil society, that men should have an entire liberty of indulging their appetites in venereal enjoyment; but as this interest is weaker than in the case of the female sex, the moral obligation, arising from it, must be proportionally weaker. And to prove this we need only appeal to the practice and sentiments of all nations and ages.

Notice the recurring theme that society works better if people adhere to standards which, in themselves, have no real justification.  In this purely pragmatic approach to morality sexual ethics become rather like good party politics: it may be practically useful to adopt certain patterns, but we cannot claim that it represents right behavior in any objective sense.

When the happiness of public society becomes the only justification for sexual ethics, is there any reason why I should not give in to my own passions in order to promote my own personal happiness?  In this regard it is significant that the loophole Hume gives to men (i.e., that men bear “nearly” the same obligations of women, that men should not have “entire liberty”, that the moral obligation in men is “proportionally weaker” to the female) was more than large enough for the libido of any man to slip through.  In his own life, Hume did not hesitate to take advantage of this loophole.

Form without Content

The pragmatic approach to sexuality is similar to how people also began to approach religion in the eighteenth century.  Though the materialist philosophers of the Enlightenment all agreed that the doctrines, practices and claims of institutionalized religion were absurd, a good many of these philosophers also felt that society needed these institutions in order to give the common people an incentive for morality.  In other words, though religion might be based entirely on fables, it was still a necessary component to a cohesive society. This was no doubt why Voltaire, though an outspoken opponent of Christianity, still built a church for the workmen on his land.

Clinging to the forms of religion and morality without the content, the result was not dissimilar to the way our own era has developed a pseudo-morality around the need for “safe sex.” The Chastity Movement has generally been content to affirm the thou-shalt-nots of Christian doctrine on entirely utilitarian grounds. (See the last chapter of Katie Roiphe’s  Last Night in Paradise) Though the Enlightenment considered the Christian taboos about extra-marital sex to have no rational basis, still it was better for society if those taboos were generally adhered to. And, of course, they weren’t. Mankind has never needed much encouragement to indulge in this area, and the new philosophy provided the perfect justification.  In his book Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel tells us that

in general, the more radical the philosophical standpoint, the more emphatic the leveling and egalitarian tendencies implicit in ideas which, in turn, generated a growing impulse not just towards the emancipation of woman but of the human libido itself.

As we see from this quotation, the issues to do with sexuality were inexplicably linked with questions about the emancipation of woman.  The traditional codes of modesty could not be challenged without also raising questions about our sexual identity in general.  What does it mean to be a man or a woman?  Do these categories also require a re-thinking in light of the materialist/determinist worldview?  These are some of the questions I will attempt to address in another post.




Ideas Have Consequences

It is reported that William Temple, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942, once asked his father, who was then the Archbishop, “Daddy, why don’t the philosophers rule the world?” His father looked down at the boy and replied, “Of course they do, silly—two hundred years after they’re dead!”


The more one studies history, the more apparent it becomes that William Temple’s father had a point.  In fact, we could state the matter in even stronger terms: there has never been a more powerful influence, a greater agency of change or a stronger force for good or ill in this world than that of human ideas.


Such a statement may seem out of place in a society that has long since relegated philosophy (the science of correct thinking) to a specialists’ discipline. Reflection on ideas has little or no relevance to the world of everyday affairs, many people think. We have come a long way from the time when philosophy was considered to be the backbone of all the disciplines, including the sciences (indeed, the early scientists called themselves “Natural Philosophers”).

One’s philosophy of the world, or worldview, is still the backbone for how we view everything else, whether we realize it or not.  This is even true for those who have never given much thought to questions of worldview. As John Byl puts it in his book The Divine Challenge:

Many people hold their worldviews implicitly, without having deeply reflected on what they believe and why they believe it. They may not even realize that they have a worldview. Consequently, they may unwittingly hold beliefs that are mutually contradictory.

A person’s life, motivations, priorities, agendas, conversation and assumptions are just some of the areas that are affected by one’s worldview. 

This is brought out in Proverbs 4.  Here we are shown that correct thinking, in the form of wisdom, protects us from the path of evil, while false thinking, in the form of folly, takes us down the road leading to destruction.

The apostle Paul picked up this same theme when he wrote his letter to the Romans.  Paul told his readers in Rome to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Rom. 12:2; see also Eph. 4:23) Paul understood the link between correct thinking (what is sometimes called “orthodoxy”) and correct behavior (what is sometimes called “orthopraxy”). In his letter to the Corinthians Paul again shows that much of our spiritual warfare is intellectual:

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ . . . (2 Cor. 10:4–5)

As this and other passages make clear, correct thinking is central to the life of the Christian. But just as correct thinking is fundamental to an individual Christian’s life, Paul also maintains that society as a whole will be affected by ideas.  In Romans 1:18–32 Paul describes abominations that occur in ungodly societies.  What is interesting is that these abominations proceed out of the wrong ideas that society collectively adopts over time.  It is because they suppress the truth of what may be known about God, rejecting what can be understood, that they knew Him not, became futile in their thoughts, became fools, were given over to a debased mind (Romans 1:18–32).

Similarly, in our society, the rejection of God has proceeded out of wrong ideas. Some of these wrong ideas owe their shape to certain unconscious philosophical assumptions about life, mankind and the world that we have inherited from a period known as “the Enlightenment”. Because these assumptions are rarely analyzed, they easily slip past us unnoticed, unexamined and unchallenged.  Consequently, it is easy to be influenced and ruled by philosophers from the past without even realizing it.  The Christian’s job is to ferret out these unconscious influences and expose them to the light of God’s Word. This is a process which John Byl has called “the first task in inter-worldview dialogue.”

The first task in inter-worldview dialogue is to challenge opponents to reflect on where they stand on the major issues. What are their priorities in life? What are their worldview presuppositions? Once worldview presuppositions have been made explicit, their implications can be examined.

This series of blog posts is an attempt to engage in just such inter-worldview dialogue. I am endeavoring to uncover many of the implicit ideas that have since undergirded non-Christian approaches to morality and gender since the Enlightenment. And because philosophies should never be considered in a vacuum, I am trying to place the changing ideas about gender, morality and modesty in their historical context to underscore the fact that ideas have consequences.

In the first post of this series we saw that the triad of ideas surrounding materialism, determinism and nature had direct relevance for sexual morality in 18th century Europe. The second post carried on this theme, looking at utilitarian models of sexual morality that began to reemerge at the time of the European Enlightenment. This present post will carry on the discussion, but will be considering the closely related issue of gender.

I’d like to begin by observing that there are many ways that men and women are different.  Although the physical differences between the sexes are perhaps the most striking, men and women have different natures.  Indeed, there is a whole network of tangible and intangible differences associated with masculinity and femininity which go beyond mere biological distinctives.

At least, that is what people generally thought prior to the Enlightenment and it is also the view taught in the Bible. (A good resource for Biblical teaching on this subject isRecovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by Wayne Grudem and John Piper.)  However, just as the materialist account of the universe made it impossible to ascribe to sexuality any transcendent significance, so it was equally difficult to ascribe to gender differences any significance beyond the purely biological.

As the “metaphysical drapery” was removed from the universe and from mankind, it became necessary to think through traditional assumptions about gender. If, as materialism taught, the human person is nothing more than a collection of physical particulars, then are there any real differences between men and women beyond the purely physical? Is it still rational to speak of men and women possessing different natures?

Questions such as these had profound social and political implications during the eighteenth century. Such questions directly affected the ways men and women related to one another as well as their respective roles in society. The very idea that the sexes would have different roles, responsibilities, strengths and weaknesses, had assumed that these differences went beyond mere physical dissimilarities.  Indeed, it had assumed that men and women were different in their very natures.  However, materialism’s reduction of human beings (a topic I explore HERE) left men and women without any natures at all.  What we call our “nature” is really only billions of particles that happen to have collided in the event we call a person.

The corollary of this was that the ancient customs and notions that the eighteenth century inherited concerning relations between men and women were believed to be flawed not simply in actuality, but in very principle. In his book Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel tells us how

Several writers took up the point that if woman’s subjection to man within marriage, the family, and law, is not after all ordained by a providential God and has no basis in Revelation, then the entire system of relations between the sexes prevailing in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other societies lacks justification or basis . . .

It is true that the treatment of women in Europe during and prior to the eighteenth century left much to be desired.  Indeed, many aspects of how the sexes related to one another needed realigning with a correct understanding of Christian ethics.  The problem was that the Enlightenment radicals tended to get rid of any basis by which the roles between the sexes could be philosophically grounded.  Nor should we expect anything less from a worldview that removed from men and women any reality outside their material construction.  In this way, the unavoidable consequence of materialism turned out to be a reductionist approach to gender. 

It is important to appreciate that the progression from materialism to the reduction of mankind, and from the reduction of mankind to the reduction of gender is that of grounds and consequence, not necessarily cause and effect. Ground/consequence is the mode by which we describe a chain of argument: you have certain premises which act as grounds from which the consequence follows. So if I say, “Grandfather didn’t get up this morning, therefore he must be ill,” the first part of the sentence is the ground and the next part (starting with the “therefore”) is the consequence.  The grounds precede the consequence and are the ideas or reasons from which the consequence logically follows.  Grandfather not getting up in the morning is the reason for thinking that he must be ill. Cause/effect, on the other hand, is also about one thing preceding another, but in this case the relation is between events that occur in time rather than about thoughts and ideas—i.e., “Grandfather is ill, therefore he didn’t get up this morning.”  His illness is the cause of his not getting up.  You can see from the two examples I chose (which are actually owed to C.S. Lewis in his discussion in Miracles chapter 4) that the word “therefore” can be used in both modes, as can the words “because” and “reason”.  Since there is an overlap of vocabulary, it is crucial to always identify which mode is being used and not to confuse the two.

Why is this important? Because holding to a materialist metaphysic does not cause one to also hold a reductionist view of gender in the same way that dropping an apple causes it to fall to the ground in a world governed by gravitation.  But a materialist metaphysic does cause a reductionist view of gender in the sense that adding two apples to two apples causes there to be four apples.  That is to say, the reduction of gender is a logical necessity once a materialistic worldview is affirmed, but this tells us nothing either way about whether a materialist will live consistently with this necessity.  Indeed, the process of complete gender reductionism has taken all the time from the Enlightenment until now to reach fruition (a topic to be dealt with in subsequent chapters).  The full realization of this development comes when the very idea that there are different roles for men and woman is considered severe heterodoxy.

Burke and the Wardrobe of Decent Drapery

A parallel problem to the reduction of gender occurred with questions relating to royalty: if all people are merely the product of material particulars, then is it rational to assume that the King and Queen are anything special?  This is a question Edmund Burke (one of my favourite writers) faced when he wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Reflecting on the discourteous way the queen of France had been treated by the revolutionaries, Burke put the entire philosophy of the Enlightenment in a nutshell:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded, as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion. 
    On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman, a woman is but an animal—and an animal not of the highest order.  All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. (Reflections on the Revolution in France, inThe Best of Burke: Selection Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke(Regnery Publishing, 1963), p. 551.)

A woman (to say nothing of a man) is but an animal.  Burke is not caricaturing current notions, he is extending them to their logical consequence.  Because materialism sees human beings as mere physical systems, the division between man and the animals is simply one of complexity.  Hence, all Diderot could admit (see earlier discussion) was that “Man” merely “seems to stand above the other animals . . .” (Emphasis mine.)

Though materialists often slipped into unconsciously predicating transcendent categories to man, thereby giving him the kind of dignity to which Burke refers, we must always return to the fact that, according to their own worldview, the ontology of human beings includes nothing that has not arisen from natural causation—in other words, nothing that is extra-physical.

Rousseau and the Return to Modesty

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, like Burke, realized some of the problems inherent in the materialistic worldview.  He believed that the materialism of the Enlightenment was not making society better, but worse.  But though he grasped something of the problem, Rousseau did not have any credible solutions.

One of the main areas that concerned Rousseau was the effect the new philosophy had in respect to modesty, particularly female modesty.  In Book V of Emile, where Rousseau sets forward his ideal for female education, modesty plays an important role.

Rousseau argued hotly that if modesty is not an imperative given by nature, but only an invention of social laws to protect the rights of fathers and husbands (recall Hume), then “modesty is nothing.”  Though Rousseau did affirm that modesty served a pragmatic function, he argued that fundamentally its basis was the God-given instincts of our nature.

Rousseau and Gender Differences

Central to Rousseau’s teaching on modesty was the notion that men and women are made differently.  In reaction to the growing view that all gender differences were the result of custom rather than creation, Rousseau argued that men and woman are born with different natures.  As he writes, "where sex [gender] is concerned man and woman are unlike; each is the complement of the other." (Emile, Book V, (London: Everyman, 1995), p. 384.)

Rousseau’s representation of gender falls down the line of the typical polarities, with man being active and woman being passive; man being strong, woman being weak; man being bold, woman being bashful and reserved, etc.  He believed that these differences necessitated that each sex will have a different function in society, which in turn necessitates that the education given to each will be significantly different.

History has ascribed to Rousseau a derogatory attitude towards females.  Even where this may have been partly true, the basis of the contemporary critique has rested on the assumption that merely to predicate gender differences necessarily entails a pejorative attitude towards women.  But Rousseau’s approach was not derogatory; indeed, by the standards of his day, his views on female education were comparatively advanced (i.e., contrary to the status quo, he believed women should have physical exercise and religious education.)  He was keen that we should not think that one sex was inferior to the other, “as if each sex, pursuing the path marked out for it by nature, were not more perfect in that very divergence than if it more closely resembled the other.”  

While Rousseau’s position would seem to present a solution to the Enlightenment’s reduction of gender, it actually raised more questions than it solved.  Since Rousseau’s “natural religion” gave no criteria for determining in practice whether one set of gender codes or sexual ethics is preferable to any other, the difference between his approach and that of the materialists was purely theoretical.  Though Rousseau did try to show the practical outworking of his philosophy, we have no reason, on the basis of his worldview, to accept his suggestions over any other set.  This is because Rousseau’s system, like so much eighteenth-century thinking, simply referred everything to a vacuous “nature” for legitimization.

It is true that Rousseau went further than most in trying to show why nature could be appealed to as an authority.  Rousseau makes it clear that the authority of nature rests in the higher authority of God, whom he calls “the Author of Nature.”  But in Book IV of Emile, Rousseau argues that God is unknowable.  Rousseau calls God “the Incomprehensible” (Emile, 1911 ed, p. 218) and writes that “he evades the efforts of our senses; we behold the work, but the workman is hidden from our eyes.”  (Ibid) It might be urged that Rousseau holds the position that Hume has Philo criticize in his Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion, namely, a belief in God which, because it emphasizes God’s infinity and unfathomability, is only semantically separated from scepticism and agnosticism. 
Although he believed that God was unknowable, Rousseau seems to have bypassed these epistemological limitations by claiming that God had certain designs and intentions with the created order—an assumption on which his whole ethical theory hinged. Having dispensed with the Christian scriptures, Rousseau offered no alternative criteria for knowing what God’s intended order for the sexes was. His argument for female modesty was therefore left vulnerable to one of his harshest critics: Mary Wollstonecraft.

Wollstonecraft and the De-Sexualizing of Modesty

A contemporary of Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) is considered one of the forerunners of feminism.  Her most famous work, Vindication of the Rights of Women, set forth an androgynous agenda (“androgyny” is a term that refers to the homogenizing or doing away of gender distinctions) that would later become commonplace among the feminist movement.  She disapproves, for example, of women who “remind [men] that they were women” through what she terms “mock modesty” , arguing that women should be allowed to acquire more understanding in order that they might not “always remember that they are women.” 

Naturally, if women were to strive to be the same as men, as Wollstonecraft desired, then sexual modesty would have to be one of the first things to go.  This is because modesty acts as a signal that women are different from men (in an environment of only women, there is not the same need for modesty, just as in an environment of only men, there is not the same need for male modesty).  Hence, the revealing heading for chapter 7 of her book “Modesty.—Comprehensively considered, and not as a sexual virtue” (“sexual” here means pertaining to gender).

In her critique of Wollstonecraft, Wendy Shalit points out how Wollstonecraft considered modesty from many different standpoints: delicacy of mind, moderate estimation of one’s talents, a kind of polite reserve, and so on.  What she carefully avoids, however, is any acknowledgement of modesty as Rousseau understood it: a sexual (gender-related) virtue for women.  The only kind of modesty which Wollstonecraft’s androgyny allowed her to take seriously are those forms which are the same between men and women, such as delicacy of mind, polite reserve, etc.  She is clear that “the reserve I mean, has nothing sexual in it, and that I think it equally necessary in both sexes.”

Why was Wollstonecraft keen to eliminate the sexual modesty that Rousseau advocated for women?  Shalit has suggested that the reason lies in the fact that a gender/sexual related modesty gives men and women an abiding awareness that women are women, the very thing Wollstonecraft was keen to avoid.  This reduction of modesty to a sexually neutral virtue was an unavoidable consequence of Wollstonecraft's androgyny.

Since that time, men and women have continued to quest after an ideal of gender neutrality, with some very unexpected results.  In my next post, we will look at how the dispute between Rousseau and Wollstonecraft has played out in our present age and how contemporary culture has attempted to come to terms with these same problems.


Gender Benders)

In a previous post, ‘Utilitarian Ethics’, I considered the way the Enlightenment severed sexuality from the restraining influences of an allegedly outdated ethic. At the same time, we saw that it was customary to temper the implications of this move with a utilitarian pragmatism as ambiguous as it was ungrounded. However, once it was conceded that there was no more to man and woman than matter, that men and women are as much a product of determinism as the motion of the stars (a topic I explored in the first post in this series), a sexual time bomb was necessarily set in motion. It is in our own age that this time bomb has gone off.


This is not to deny that there were immediate practical consequences of the new thinking. Indeed, we explored some of these consequences in my previous post, ‘Ideas Have Consequences’. However, in the eighteenth century these consequences were mainly manifested in a straightforward increase of sexual licentiousness, on the one hand, and a plea for egalitarianism, on the other. Our age, however, has seen more than merely a quantitative increase in either of these areas; rather, we have undergone a complete qualitative upheaval in what it even means to be a sexual being.


The Deconstruction of Gender


The synthesizing of the gender polarity has been one of the hallmarks of the twentieth century. Starting from the correct premise that many of the roles and differences assigned to the sexes have been culturally conditioned, it has become commonplace to assume that all gender differences are culturally limited. Reflecting on this reductive approach to gender, David Wells pointed out that


It is true, of course, that manhood and womanhood are partly cultural creations. They are matters of cultural nurture. What much of our current belief assumes, however, is that they are only matters of nurture, not of nature at all, and that our most fundamental identities as men and women are matters of choice and of construction. (David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue, p. 90.)


Even the idea of gender is being increasingly seen as a social construction, as reflected in Andrea Dworkin’s statement that,

“The discovery is, of course, that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs . . . demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both.” (Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating, p. 174.)

Echoing Dworkin, the United Nation’s Population Fund has written on their website that,

“Gender refers to the differences in socially constructed roles and opportunities associated with being a man or a woman and the interactions and social relations between men and women.”


In 1993, Robert S. McElvaine wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times, in which he lamented how the term “sex” is gradually being replaced by the word “gender” in its basic meaning, while increasingly being used only in its secondary sense as an abbreviation for sexual intercourse. McElvaine put this down to the fact that

sex implies that there are biological differences between males and females, a heresy that one faction of feminists calls “essentialism.” Most often, those who insist on speaking of gender contend that sex identity is entirely a product of culture. They say that any differences between the “genders” are learned— “constructed” is the currently accepted terminology. The old one-liner, “Susan is of the female persuasion,” is now taken seriously in many quarters. (Robert S. McElvaine, “Perspective on Language: What Ever Happened to S–x?” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1993.)

If gender is determined by social pressures, then it is potentially as fluid as culture itself. This seems to be the view expressed in the curricula of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a leading distributor of sex-education material for the American public schools. In their “Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: K–12,” they state that gender identity “refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or a combination of these” and “may change over the course of their lifetimes.” (From SIECUS Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education Kindergarten–12th Grade, available online here).


Regis Nicoll has noted the irony that while gender is being presented as a fluid, ever-changing matrix, sexual orientation is increasingly seen as static. Hence the oft-quoted maxim, “People do not choose their sexual orientation, they are born that way.” “Only in the Alice in Wonderland world of the cultural elite,” writes Nicoll, “could something as patently innate as gender be considered a malleable product of personal feelings, while sexual preference is considered an unalterable fact of life.” (See his article “Gender Benders”.) Also see Aislinn Simpson’s article ‘Transgender students force lavatory change’ in The Telegraph, 30 Sep 2008.)

Simone de Beauvoir was more succinct: “Women are made, they are not born.” (From The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshly, New York, 1961.


This idea was behind the controversial painting ‘Androgyny’, by Norval Morrisseau (1932-2007). Discussing the painting, Jeanette Armstrong said, “the order of life learning is that you are born without sex and as a child, through learning, you move toward full capacity as either male or female.” To read a discussion about the painting, see here as well as my article for Salvo magazine which is republished here.

Since women have been “made” by society, the corollary to becoming more enlightened is that we should strive to unmake the female. This is exactly what the influential psychologist Sandra Bem has suggested. “When androgyny had been absorbed by the culture”, wrote Melanie Phillips, paraphrasing Bem’s views, “concepts of masculinity and femininity would cease to have distinct content and distinctions would ‘blur into invisibility’”. (Melanie Phillips, The Sex-Change Society: Feminised Britain and the Neutered Male, p. 172. See also Bem Sandra,Beyond Androgyny: Some Presumptuous Prescriptions for a Liberated Sexual Identity; in Sherman, J.A. and Denmark, F.L.: The Psychology of Women: Future Directions in Research (Psychological Dimensions Inc., 1978). It is interesting to observe the result when Bem tried to raise children according to this ideology. See Sandra Lipsitz Bem, An Unconventional Family (Yale University Press, 2001). Also see Wendy Shalit’s comments on Bem’s book, “Among the Gender Benders” in Commentary, Jan. 1999.)


Susan Moller Okin is equally wistful when contemplating a future without gender.

“. . . [A] just future would be one without gender. In its social structures and practices, one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes.”

Family therapist Olga Silverstein expressed a similar sentiment when she urged “the end of the gender split” since “until we are willing to question the very idea of a male sex role . . . we will be denying both men and women their full humanity.”


It is true that the above quotations represent an extremism that is not yet mainstream. Most academics and lay people still acknowledge that the categories of masculinity and femininity do have content, while fiercely opposing any assumption of what “manhood” and “womanhood” mean in practice (rather like saying, “there are apples and there are oranges, and they are not the same thing, but don’t presume to describe the differences in flavor!”) Even though feminists who deny any differences at all between males and females are still considered radical, few would acknowledge that sexual identity has a fixity that transcends both biology and culture. But this is simply the consistent outworking of the Enlightenment reductionism we have explored in earlier posts. (See "Reducing the Human", "Utilitarian Ethics" and "Ideas Have Consequences")


Ashamed of Manhood and Womanhood

In the eighteenth century, it may have seemed as if the philosophy of the Enlightenment would liberate gender. Over two hundred years later, we see that all it achieved was to make us ashamed of gender, especially those aspects of gender which make men and women different. Hence, wherever there are distinctives between the sexes, we can be sure to find a campaign for their elimination. In Britain, the Department of Health has issued a guide to pregnancy in which men are told that “expectant fathers can suffer morning sickness too” and postnatal depression. In America, “A single dad wrote in The Washington Post that he felt excluded from advertising aimed only at moms and kids. He wanted advertisers to understand that slogans such as ‘Choosy Moms Choose Jif’ hurt his feelings. He’s choosy, too!” (Cited by Kathleen Parker in Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care, p. 104)


He should have moved to the UK, where, just to be fair, the government pays for fathers-to-be to be given breastfeeding lessons. (See Kirsty Walker, 'Fathers-to-be will get lessons on breastfeeding and supporting partner through childbirth', January 18, 2010, The Daily Mail. See also William J. McGee, “Mothers, Mothers, Everywhere – and Nary a Plug for Dad,” Washington Post, May 8. 2005. Also see Parker’s hilarious discussion about the 2005 newspaper story “French Men Yearn For Pregnancy” (Parker, ibid. p. 105). Also see the Daily Telegraph article, “Telling pregnant women not to drink is 'sexist'.”


Not to be beat, extremist feminists in Sweden have argued that men should sit down to urinate to bring out their “gentle” side. Once again, however, the UK was more practical and gave government funding to equality activists who began “demanding that schools have a strategy for challenging gender stereotypes among the under-14s, complete with monitoring and enforcement mechanisms” (according to the Telegraph report, this would involve stamping out “the unfortunate tendency of little girls to play at being nurses when their male counterparts want to be Bob the Builder”).


The pervasive attempt to achieve a gender-neutral vocabulary is probably the most concrete example of the attempt to eliminate anything and everything from our environment which threatens to remind us that women are women and men are men. Hence, the publication of such books as The Elements of Nonsexist Usage: A Guide to Inclusive Spoken and Written English, by Val Dumond, or the thousands of pounds the UK government spent educating their staff how to avoid “gendered” terms such as “seamstress.” The author of The Elements of Nonsexist Usage had to seek long and hard for a gender-neutralized substitute for “seamstress”, reported Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mail. Eventually they came up with “sewer”.


Is gender really as scary as all that? Apparently it is. If we are to take our cues from the British Foreign Office (not something I am in the habit of routinely doing), “gender issues” are just as much a threat as landmines, heroin smuggling and extreme poverty. When the British Foreign Office had to make schemes to help the war-torn state of Afghanistan, the government instructed diplomats to give a higher priority to “gender issues” than to the more pressing dangers imposed by drugs, mines and general deprivation. The Foreign Office responded by producing a report entitled Inclusive Government: Mainstreaming Gender into Foreign Policy which, according to The Week news magazine, would help Afghan tribesmen to get in touch with their “feminine side.”


In a world where men are ashamed to be men and women are ashamed to be women, it was inevitable that eventually people would begin believing that gender is not rooted in biological fixities at all (even materialism could grant that), but is a fluid category that can be constructed irrespective of biology. This means that someone with a male body can choose to be a woman and someone with a female body can choose to be a man. That is the assumption behind a government-funded body in the UK known as the Gender Recognition Panel. Established by the Gender Recognition Act 2004, this panel assesses people’s claims to have the gender on their birth certificate amended. (Those wishing to read about my experiences with this panel, would do well to consult my articleAndrogyny!).


Exactly what the terms “man” and “woman” still mean after they have been emptied of all their content remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that there has been a persistent attempt to neutralize gender at every level. Sometimes this is seen in obvious ways, as when the 1960s feminists demanded that all women burn their bras, as if in silent answer to Professor Higgins question “Why can't a woman be more like a man?” in the musical My Fair Lady.


Rather than being able to glory in our identity as men and women created in the image of God, we are made to feel ashamed of the very concept of manhood and womanhood, while the emblems of our sex are reduced to symbols of servitude and conformity. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the way our society responds to chivalry.


Chivalry and Modesty

I am indebted to Stephen Perks for alerting me to the dangers of an indiscriminate use of the term chivalry. Whenever I use the term chivalry I do not mean the network of social expectations associated with medieval knighthood, which were a strange combination of Christian and pagan values (see Denis De Rougemont’s book.). For example, Andreas Capellanus’ famous handbook on courteous behavior, The Art of Courtly Love, explains that the need for “chivalric” behavior on the part of men applies only in their relations with aristocratic women. Raping peasant women, he says, is fine. Similarly, male chivalry throughout European history has happily coincided with wife-beating, visits to prostitutes, and fornication, etc. Instead, when I use the term chivalry I mean “courteous behavior, especially that of a man towards women” which is the third definition given for chivalry inReader’s Digest Word Power Dictionary.


Chivalry is unpopular today precisely because it is an emblem of masculinity among the men who practice it and an emblem of femininity in the women who receive it, even as feminine modesty reminds us that looking at a woman is different than looking at a man.


The reason men in our culture are becoming less gentlemanly towards ladies is not simply because there has been a general erosion in manners and basic decency, though of course that has been a contributing factor. But it is also because of a subtle shift in worldview of which most people are not even aware. Chivalrous behavior, like modesty, presupposes certain things about our humanity. It assumes, for example, that women ought to be treated in a special way because they are women, just as feminine modesty proclaims that women ought to dress in a certain way because they are women. When a man embraces his calling to look after and protect women, or when a woman embraces her obligation to dress modestly, they are both proclaiming that there is a fundamental difference between the sexes. These very differences are what the Enlightenment began to undermine.


In her book A Return To Modesty, Wendy Shalit cites the instance of a 55-year-old businessman named Tony which is all too typical:

I was out with my wife and one other woman and when I got the other woman’s coat for her and reached to help her with it, she practically ripped the coat out of my hands, said “Nobody has ever done that for me!” and stomped off and waited, fuming, by the door.”

In a world where women have been “liberated” to be the same as men, where we are taught that all gender-specific roles (including men showing special honor to women) are oppressive, no wonder both chivalry and modesty are seen as threatening.


Disenchanting of Sex

In the current series of blog posts (all of which can be assessed here) we have been considering the formative role that various secular philosophies have had in deconstructing what it means to be human in general and what it means to be a man and a woman in particular.
In the first post, 'Gender, Morality and Modest Part 1' we considered the implication that certain ideas of the European Enlightenment had on the concept of nature.  If everything a person does is simply the predetermined result of mechanical forces, then all actions can be defended as being “natural.” We explored some of the implications this had in the area of sexual morals.  In particular, we saw how it unleashed a sexual revolution at the time of the Enlightenment. We saw how the followers of Locke had no reservation in moving from a mechanistic view of man to formulating an entirely mechanistic theory of moral values. Hence, we saw Diderot arguing that since man is a part of nature, whatever he does is, by definition, “natural”.  We explored that it was in the area of sexual ethics that the ideas of the Enlightenment become acutely practical. Since determinism implied that anything is natural as long as you are doing it (since no action could have been otherwise in the great deterministic machine), it followed that nature could be used to defend sexual taboos as well as a more licentious approach. (And it should hardly come as a surprise if the naturalness of the latter and not the former began to dominate popular thinking as the eighteenth century progressed.) 

We built on this in Part 2 by considering the way key Enlightenment thinkers were unhappy with the practical ramification their ideas were having in the area of sexual morality. As an alternative, they proposed utilitarian substitutes to Christian morality. The pragmatic approach to sexual ethics at the time of the Enlightenment is similar to how people also began to approach religion in the eighteenth century. Though the materialist philosophers of the Enlightenment all agreed that the doctrines, practices and claims of institutionalized religion were absurd, a good many of these philosophers also felt that society needed these institutions in order to give the common people an incentive for morality. In other words, though religion might be based entirely on fables, it was still a necessary component to a cohesive society. Likewise, while many 18th century intellectuals considered the Christian taboos about extra-marital sex to have no rational basis, still it was better for society if those taboos were generally adhered to. And, of course, they weren’t. Clinging to the forms of religion and morality without the content, the result was not dissimilar to the way our own era has developed a pseudo-morality around the need for “safe sex.” (Indeed, following in the Enlightenment pedigree, the Chastity Movement has generally been content to affirm the thou-shalt-nots of Christian doctrine on entirely utilitarian grounds.)

In the third post in this series, titled “Ideas Have Consequences”, we considered that just as materialism affected one’s view of morality, it also affects one’s view of gender.  A corollary of mankind being deconstructed by the materialist hammer is that our identity as men and women is also smashed.  We saw how these problems played out in the conflict between Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. The very idea that the sexes would have different roles, responsibilities, strengths and weaknesses, had assumed that these differences went beyond mere physical dissimilarities. Indeed, it had assumed that men and women were different in their very natures. However, materialism’s reduction of human beings left men and women without any natures at all. What we call our “nature” is really only billions of particles that happen to have collided in the event we call a person. The corollary of this was that the ancient customs and notions that the eighteenth century inherited concerning relations between men and women were believed to be flawed not simply in practice, but in very principle. We thus find Mary Wollstonecraft keen to eliminate modesty as a sexual virtue in women. This reduction of modesty to a sexually neutral virtue was an unavoidable consequence of Wollstonecraft's androgyny, which was itself an inevitable consequence of the Enlightenment materialism explore in Part 1 of this series.

We went on, in Part Four, to explore how these same problems have come to a head in our own era. Titled “The Gender Benders”, that post argued that our own age has been more consistent with the implications of the Enlightenment worldview, and thus it is widely assumed that all non-physical gender differences are mere social constructions.  This leads to androgyny or the unisex movement, whereby the differences between the sexes are neutralized. We saw that rather than being able to glory in our identity as men and women created in the image of God, our society makes us feel ashamed of the very concept of manhood and womanhood, while the emblems of our sex are reduced to symbols of servitude and conformity. I few practical applications in the area of both chivalry (properly defined!) and modesty. Chivalrous behavior, we saw, presupposes certain things about our humanity. It assumes, for example, that women ought to be treated in a special way because they are women, just as feminine modesty proclaims that women ought to dress in a certain way because they are women. When a man embraces his calling to look after and protect women, or when a woman embracers her calling to dress modestly, they are both proclaiming that there is a fundamental difference between the sexes. These very differences are what our age, following in the wake of the Enlightenment, has sought to undermine.

The purpose of the present post is to continue teasing out the contemporary implication of Enlightenment ideas, looking now at the issue of sex. 

Though it may be a logical necessity that the reduction of gender will involve a corollary reduction of sexuality, human society usually takes its time following the dictates of logic.  The seeds of sexual reductionism were planted at the Enlightenment, but it has not been until our own era that these seeds have sprouted to fruition.  

In his book Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore? Reclaiming Intimacy, Modesty and Sexuality,Rabbi Manis Friedman tells about some campers who sought his advice about a camping trip.  Friedman was horrified to learn that these campers had no scruples sharing sleeping bags with members of the opposite sex.  When he challenged the young people they assured him that “there’s nothing sexual about it.”  Now, is it true that there can be “nothing sexual” in just sharing a sleeping bag with someone of the opposite sex? The same question might be asked of other activities, such as using co-ed bathrooms or participating in co-ed wrestling.  For many young people today, the answer is, yes; there is nothing sexual in such activities.  We thus have the supreme realization of Wollstonecraft’s ideal (discussed here) that women might sometimes forget they are women in the presence of men: in the presence of women, the men of today forget they are with women.

The strangeness inherent in such things as co-ed dorms, co-ed bathrooms, co-ed wrestling and even co-ed sleeping bags, is not that such things exist, but that they can exist without sexual connotations.  This can only be achieved to the extent that gender has been emptied of its implicit sexuality.  In a world where manhood and womanhood have been deconstructed, it should hardly come as a surprise.

Examples might be multiplied endlessly.  Bikinis are sometimes defended on the grounds that the women who wear them as swimming suits are not trying to be provocative.  While this might be challenged, if it is true it only shows how desexualized women have become if the female body can be almost entirely revealed without the presence of erotic overtones.  We are drifting towards being neuter when the signals of our sexuality are treated as anything less. This represents not only a reduction of sexuality, but a full scale repression of it.

But putting a premium on feminine modesty is not sufficient. The reductionistic hammer of androgyny also finds expression in women wearing overtly masculine attire or ultra conservative dresses aimed to merely conceal rather than beautify the female form. If mere concealment were the goal, then it would follow that women should dress in clothes that obscure any aspect of shape, even to the extent of going completely veiled as they do in many Islamic cultures. The nexus of such practices is the implicit assumption that modesty serves the negative function of removing or suppressing a woman’s sexual identity. However, this is the opposite side of the same coin that justifies skimpy beach wear. Whether a woman strips down to a bikini on the grounds that there is nothing sexual about it, or puts on a long dress designed to remove all shape, in both cases her latent sexuality is not being properly acknowledged. In both cases, the subject is unconsciously acting out the unisex presuppositions of our post-Enlightenment culture. On the other hand, Kathleen van Schaijik has suggested that recognizing the value and importance of one’s womanhood is as much a charter for dressing beautifully as it is for dressing modestly. “If we revere something,” she points out, 

we do not hide it. Neither do we flaunt it in public. We cherish it; we pay it homage; we approach it with dignity; we adorn it with beauty; we take care that it is not misused.

A World With No Shame

The pioneers of radical sexual revolution often understood these issues better than most people today.  In his book The Sexual Revolution, Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) described the means for achieving a society without any external sexual morals, “a free society” that “would not put any obstacles in the path of the gratification of the natural needs.” The road to the sexual utopia he advocated lay in first getting rid of the shyness and embarrassment surrounding sex.  In particular, Reich believed that before traditional morality could be completely vanquished, a society must be achieved where people “should lose their shyness to expose…erotically important parts of their bodies.”  Reich attempted to facilitate this by asking his clients to remove all their clothes during his psychotherapy sessions.

Reich would be pleased if he could see a European summer today, which is more in keeping with his ideal than what we find in brothels.  In a brothel, women have overcome the natural shyness surrounding erotically important parts of their bodies in order to advertizes sex; on a sunny beach, scores of women can be seen who have overcome this natural shyness with no thought of sex at all.  Indeed, by refusing to explicitly acknowledge the erotic implications of minimalistic attire, we are approaching Reich’s ideal of a society in which shyness has been overcome and flattened of its innate potency.

Reich looked forward to a time in which sexuality would be treated as something merely common. “Profane” best describes Reich’s ideal and its realization in contemporary realization, given that the term originally meant “to treat as common.” 

It is revealing that when the sex curriculum was first introduced into kindergarten/primary schools, the teachers experienced discomfort and shyness about the subjects they were forced to address.  In time, however, these same teachers started to say that it was no different than talking about an elbow.  This is not surprising given the way the subject is presented.  Some worksheets show pictures of various private parts and ask the children to circle the differences. Wilhelm Reich would have been delighted if he had lived long enough to see the pictures in contemporary sex education manuals since he made a point that nakedness and exposure of the sexual organs was a crucial element of sex education’s attack on conventional morality.  He believed that society could only become ‘sex-affirming’ when people lost the shyness to expose their genitals. What is important for our present purposes is simply to appreciate that Reich understood that the way to change someone’s worldview is to first change how they think of themselves—in particularly, to change what it means to be a man or a woman.

There was a certain consistency at work in Reich’s sexual reductionism. If our bodies are simply the random constructs of time plus chance, then it is only sentimentality to urge that one part of the body should be treated, or spoken about, differently than any other part.  That is why, in the minds of sex educators like Reich, the genitalia are just like any other part of the body. 

But this is exactly where the Enlightenment has left us.  By deconstructing our world (materialism), the Enlightenment couldn’t help but deconstruct gender (androgyny), with the result that our sexuality has been neutralized, stripped of any transcendent categories that might otherwise elevate it above that which is merely common.  The consequent reduction of sexuality has evoked the kind of “literal-mindedness” that we find in the various sex education schemes. The emerging situation was critiqued by Theodore Dalrymple in his book Our Culture, What’s Left of It. Echoing Edmund Burke, Dalrymple pointed out that

literal-mindedness is not honesty or fidelity to truth—far from it. For it is the whole experience of mankind that sexual life is always, and must always be, hidden by veils of varying degrees of opacity, if it is to be humanized into something beyond a mere animal function. What is inherently secretive, that is to say self-conscious and human, cannot be spoken of directly: the attempt leads only to crudity, not to truth. Bawdy is the tribute that our instinct pays to secrecy. If you go beyond bawdy and tear all the veils away, you get pornography and nothing else.

As the agendas of androgyny and materialism continue to assert their reductive influences, sexuality becomes completely disenchanted.  When this area of life was considered “holy ground”, the veil of shyness that properly attended discussion of sexual matters preserved the sense inwhich this activity, on one level purely functional, is in fact an occasion for significance, reverence, respect and privacy.  I argue that this reinforced the same worldview that chivalry pointed towards: a worldview which presupposed that God has invested our world, our activities and our relationships with a significance that transcends the purely physical.  In treating sexuality as common, materialism presents the ultimate form of sexual repression.  It represses sexuality by neutralizing its God-given potency, turning it into something tame, benign and trivial. 

What About Ethics?

To deconstruct sexuality, treating it as just another “subject” no different to knees, sneezing and picture circling (which sex education manuals do), is necessarily antecedent to a change in sex ethic.  This is because the materialist approach to sexuality necessarily affects every area of how one views sex-related issues, from dress to the appropriate civil response to crimes of sexual violence.

“…without anything transcending the material,” Herbert Schlossberg noted, “the love ethic is without foundation… We can expect nothing from such a position but brutality.” (Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture, p. 287.) One of the ways such brutality manifests itself is in the trivializing of sexual violence. Camille Paglia has argued that if rape “is a totally devastating psychological experience for a woman, then she doesn’t have a proper attitude about sex.”  Rape is just “like getting beaten up.  Men get beat up all the time.” (From an October 1991 interview published in Spinmagazine, 1992, pp. 64–65.) 

As absurd as such a statement may at first appear, there is a frightening consistency at work.  When sexuality is stripped of its “decent drapery” (a phrase borrowed from Burke), when all aspects of our humanity are reduced to gender-neutral categories, then what is left to be called a “woman” has hardly any right to complain that rape is qualitatively different to being beat up.  To say otherwise might be to let the cat out of the bag and acknowledge that men and women are actually very different.  It would acknowledge that a sexual assault is more than simply another way of being attacked, but is a fundamental assault on one’s womanhood. But to do that implies that there is an essential difference between being and man and being a woman.


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, clickhere.


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 theSaturday 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.


Further Reading

The Sexualization of Britain's Youth

Entire series of posts on Gender, Morality and Modesty