Purity, feminism and masculinity

The disappearance of the social consensus restraining impurity, in the course of the 1960s, coincided with a revolution in social attitudes to the roles of men and women. This was not a coincidence. The sexual revolution was facilitated by the attack on what feminists called “the preciousness of women”. While women were considered as in special need of protection, feminists argued, they would not be allowed to take their proper place in society alongside men. In the early twentieth century, the idea of the particular vulnerability of women — physical, psychological, moral, and social — was indeed used as an argument against women going down coal mines, attending university, or engaging in sex outside marriage. The goals of feminism required the vulnerability argument to be rejected, and feminists wanted to reject it in all contexts, regardless of the validity it might have had in particular cases.

The brave new world of female empowerment that feminists have created has not turned out exactly as they expected, but it is one we all inhabit, whether we like it or not. Women can, for example, now join combat units in the armed forces of many countries, where they have a high chance of being sexually abused, even if they are not so unfortunate to be captured by a ruthless enemy determined to break their morale. (A recent report noted that two-thirds of women in the British armed services said they had been subject to sexual abuse, bullying, or harassment.) The elimination of sex-segregated accommodation in universities, and single-sex schools, has also had predictable results. Decriminalised prostitution has turned out to be a hellscape of people-trafficking and sexual exploitation.

The suffering of usually young women in these and similar contexts is of small importance to the dominant brand of so-called “sex-positive” feminism, which has captured mainstream institutions to such an extent that Amnesty International, founded to uphold human rights, today campaigns for the legalisation of abortion and prostitution. Female empowerment is achieved, on this view, by the denial of “preciousness”, which in practice looks a lot like empowerment by being abused.

What, though, of the effect of this revolution on boys and men?

It follows from these developments that, in the dominant culture, men should not be valued for the stereotypical masculine qualities which were the focus of romantic attraction in classical literature: strength, loyalty, resourcefulness, and the ability to provide leadership and protection. These are traits which complement female preciousness: if preciousness is denied, leadership, protection and the other things are not needed. This does not mean that the desirability of these things has been completely eradicated from human nature, but they are either ignored in mainstream culture, or treated as something naughty but nice. Officially, men should be valued only for their embrace of the current ideology. Unofficially, things are more complicated.

What do I mean by “naughty but nice”? Old fashioned masculinity is like old fashioned puddings: it is a kind of indulgence, by the consumer, which really ought not to happen. Mainstream female journalists admit their attraction to masculine men as if this were a minor guilty secret, like an addiction to junk food. What are they to do about their embarrassing proclivity? There is a solution. The problem, from a feminist point of view, represented by masculine men, only really manifests itself in long-term relationships, in which these men might start exercising some kind of leadership role. Accordingly, these journalists recommend having casual sex with them, but not marrying them. Readers can find online guides to help young women enjoy flings with them while trying not to fall in love.

From the male point of view, this situation creates an extremely complex landscape to navigate, particularly because much of this background is seldom articulated. What is clear enough is that traditional masculine traits are officially denigrated, and social rewards, at least in terms of casual relationships, are heaped on a very particular type of man. This type has received quite a lot of attention and commentary, and has many names: “alpha bad boy” is the most common, but “aloof jerk” is more descriptive. He is “masculine”, at least at first glance, but many of the qualities I mentioned above are no use to him, since he has embraced the opportunities afforded by the offer of casual relationships. There is no need for him to be loyal or dependable, or to offer leadership and protection, except in the most superficial manner. On the other hand, he has a very pronounced, even parodic, version of a particular quality which I haven’t mentioned yet, but acts as a kind of signal of masculinity: independence.

Thus, his attractiveness consists in apparently not needing anyone: he is the opposite of the “needy” or “desperate” type who seems to advertise his low value by making it clear that no one wants him. The alpha bad boy advertises his desirability by seeming to be aloof, even uninterested. The message of “I don’t need anyone” can be further amplified by bad treatment — even abusive treatment — of his partners, and this is often part of the package. Aloofness is also very handy for someone who has lots of very brief relationships. It is best to remain somewhat emotionally detached.

This is, as I say, a kind parody of traditional masculinity. It amazed me as a young man why women I knew put up with these appalling individuals, but clearly they have a kind of magnetism, at least to a certain kind of woman. Feminism has had the result that the only kind of masculinity allowed, in practice if not in theory, is a maimed version, which has no interest in long-term relationships.

Up to a point, a Catholic young man has to accept that these men, and the women who flock to them, deserve each other, and focus his attention elsewhere. One has to understand, nevertheless, what has happened to the idea of masculinity. Today, many men are emasculated, boring, and predictable, but a few have taken one aspect of masculinity, independence, and turned it into an object of fetish. Neither provides a role model for us.

It is sufficiently obvious that neither the promiscuity, nor the abusiveness, of the “alpha bad boy” should be imitated. It is important to avoid the other fate as well, however. Some well-meant advice (often from evangelical Christian sources) directs young men towards a model lacking in masculinity altogether. Deliberately cultivating the image of spaniel-like servility is not just a mistake in terms of attractiveness to the opposite sex: it is a failure to be what God intends men to be.

The true opposite of servility is not the jerk’s overbearing boorishness, but first and foremost dignity: temperance, agency, and self-respect. This is actually easier, not more difficult, in the context of purity, because, for all his aloofness, the alpha bad boy has no real dignity: dignity is impossible in a promiscuous lifestyle. Sexual integrity, indeed, is necessary for genuine freedom of mind and spirit. It is the foundation for something better than emotionally-detached lewdness: a self-possession which is able to give itself wholly to another.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Calx Mariae, on the theme of “the virtue of purity”.