So let’s stop infantilizing women and demonizing men
"We should teach both young men and young women to recognize each other's vulnerability and humanity—even when a partner may hold more power than they do by certain measures—and to engage with their lovers as individuals, rather than as representatives of an identity group."
Thank you for this.
Bravo to Kat Rosenfield! Every semester in my into to lit class we discuss poems, stories, and films about love, romance, and sex, which explores the uncertainties of it all. I have sometimes asked the class during discussions how many people have been in love--it's voluntary and no one has to raise their hands. Twenty years ago about 50% of the class eagerly raised their hands, and now it's down to about 10% who look around the room first very tentatively. Recent research on Gen Y, Z, and some Millennials tells us they are delaying getting involved in romantic relationships and marriage, fearful of making mistakes. Rosenfield is correct in that the trope of the "ruined woman" is playing out where women are stamped with a "V" (victim) rather than an "A" (adultery). So very, very American in its Puritan roots but neglects to note that even the Puritans embraced the pleasure in sex, and had a very high pregnancy rate at the time of marriage.
This is such a great essay, and as the mom of three girls I am so glad to see someone address it.
I came of age in the late 90s / early 2000s in an environment that was pretty conservative Christian / Catholic. I grew up in a mainstream Lutheran family, but went Evangelical my first year of college - largely because I was so uncomfortable with the sexual climate on my Big Ten campus - and then I converted to Catholicism Junior Year and transferred to a very conservative Catholic college. I have a lot of friends that are more secular, though, and I got a Mental Health degree and worked as a counselor at Fordham for most of my 30s.
So I've seen the spectrum. I think it's the same fear of risk and uncertainty that drives both the left wing "Everything is Rape" crowd and many on the conservative "Purity" side. Both have valid aspects to them - consent is important, and sexuality has dignity that is best expressed in committed relationships. But both also have a distorted view of relationships, men, and women's agency and resilience.
I spent most of my 20s avoiding dating and being "chaste", partially out of conviction, but also partially out of fear that a wrong relationships or fall would be just too much for me to handle. I was teaching Theology at a Catholic high school at the time. Then my school hired a very, very tall dark and handsome band director, who gave off every warning sign that he was not ready to settle down. The kind of guy who makes all your friends go "Girl. No." But the pheromones or whatever magic it is that makes your brain go crazy for someone did their work. I threw all emotional and physical caution to the wind, and it was messy and sent me constantly to confession and gave me that heart-in-your-throat-every-time-the-phone-rings terror. And it was also so much fun.
We've now been happily married for ten years and have three kids (All girls. Unicorns for everyone.)
On one hand, I did get lucky. He is from a very solid, traditional Portuguese family, and was more ready to settle down than he had let on. Underneath the machismo was a really nice, kind guy.
But I just would not have known any of this had I not accepted a certain level of risk and tolerated a year's worth of "on and off, does he love me, does he not" ambiguity.
I think with my own girls the trick is helping them to navigate the middle ground; yes, we are a practicing Catholic family, we do generally believe (most) of the Church's teachings in this area, and treating your sexuality with dignity is valuable and important. I don't want them to be overly scrupulous, or go around making purity pledges, but I do want to encourage them to orient their sexuality towards marriage, not because "you'll have your heart broken forever and go to hell if you screw up" but because I think some level of intentionality and purpose behind one's use of their sexuality leads to greater happiness in the long run, especially for women and girls.
At the same time, I don't want them to be *afraid* of sex and relationships, or of making a mistake. Love is messy. There is no way to make it not messy. The messiness is not a bad thing; the messiness of love is the very thing that softens us and makes us more empathic. A good, messy courtship can be a great foundation for a marriage because it can teach you right away to recognize how flawed and imperfect you both are and to deal with each other compassionately. I want my daughters to know they are resilient enough to deal with this aspect of love and relationships.
Bummed I missed the discussion on this in yesterday's happy hour. Just reading now. Kat Rosenfield is a magnificent writer.
It's probably too much to quote the entire last paragraph but suffice it to say I enjoyed the article.
As a Christian conservative, I must politely say though that two profoundly important aspects of courtship were left out of the article which add to the depth and purpose of our relationships- childbearing and lifelong companionship.
I don't need any 1950's-era tropes to make the point, just Penguins, and other monogamous creatures. Courting has until recently, always been seen as the beginning to a lifelong adventure that includes the obvious outcome of intercourse, pregnancy, and child rearing.
I understand that what I am saying tastes like Gaul on this site, but I do believe it is critically important because of what that understanding does to both young men and women when they comprehend that the courtship rituals, though fun, spontaneous, and intoxicating are only the beginning to a life of partnership with both their spouse and the children they will raise. It clarifies the partners they are looking for and adds depth to the personalities, dates, conversations they will have.
As a new father I couldn't be more happy with my wife and sleepy soundly knowing that my kids will grow up with a strong and loving mother- so much more mature and superior to any of my young and casual encounters who, thankfully, didn't produce offspring.
Finally, at the end of life, when those passions are gone, I will have a woman by my side until death and will get to enjoy the fine wine of a long monogamous courtship.
On a somewhat unrelated note, sexual mating strategies have a different affect on different groups within a sexual hierarchy. For example, the liberalization of sex has been an overall boon to men on the top of the pecking order - the proverbial alphas of the group, but has been an utter disaster to those at the bottom end of the pecking order. I read recently that something like 30 - 40% of college age men haven't had sex in the last couple of years. We can all guess what type of men they are: low status, less favorable looks, not ambitious, likely living at home with their parents etc. So to say, blanketly that the liberalization of sex is "bad" is to miss the nuances of where one is on the pecking order. It certainly hasn't been bad for the alpha males. This brings me back to my original point: I find that most of the modern hard third wave feminism movements and policy positions are advocated by ugly women or women not really interested in strong long term heterosexual relationships (trans etc) where the feminists that stopped at 2nd wave and couldn't make the plunge tend to be better looking. When reading this article, I already could guess with high accuracy that Kat is very attractive. I wish an ambitious writer would look into this deeper. Why is this the case? My guess is for women further down the pecking order: ugly, fat, older, etc cultural and even political safeguards are probably on net better. For example, creating a work environment where ZERO sexual courtship is allowed, not even mutual, prevents that attractive coworker from using her looks to advance above the less attractive coworker. More examples could be given, but this looks like fertile territory to get at the nuances of these discussions.
"Love hurts" seems to miss the basic issue of the "Me Too" movement. Men in a position to provide opportunities, advancement and jobs have been using that as leverage for sex with women (and men).
Girls are uniquely vulnerable. They need some direction and some protection. And power is, indeed, the issue. Females (heterosexual) have an evolutionary desire to give power to a strong male, I suspect. And they are decidedly bad at judging what "strong" means. They need some solid, common sense advice in identifying these bad men/boys and upholding their own worth with the good guys.