On Gender Wars, #Metoo, and Building a Program of Virtue and Dignity
Mark Regnerus, author of Cheap Sex, opined on the decline in marriage last year in an article published in the Wall Street Journal (it quickly went viral at the time). In it, Regnerus posited a fairly straightforward explanation for why fewer men and women are entering into marriage: men are perfectly content engaging in commitment-free sex. When a man can receive sex in return for an evening of drinks (or less), what need is there to submit to sustained support and companionship? It is, in many ways, a rather intuitive observation and one in keeping with others who have long-recognized the deleterious consequences of an open sexual market.
Rose Hackman at the Guardian disagrees. Hackman finds the argument “dehumanizing” to both genders, and peddles a statistic stating that “the percentage of Americans expected to marry by early middle age — around 80% — is remarkably similar to what it was 50 years ago,” otherwise dissimulating that only half of the population is married today, in comparison to approximately 65 percent in 1976. Hackman also engages in ad hominem attack, centering on Regnerus’ affiliation “with a conservative, Christian thinktank in Texas that local news once dubbed the “no-sex” institute.” Aside from that, Hackman makes a few worthwhile observations, rightfully mentioning the role that economics has come to play in determining the feasibility of marriage, as well as the heightened focus individuals place on their careers and education in lieu of family life.
It is in fact likely that both Hackman and Regnerus are right to some degree. Sex given away for free commoditizes sexual access while a recalibrated social structure undoubtedly disinclines men and women from pursuing marital bonds.
But the problem today is not simply the fractious state of modern marriage. It is far more fundamental and existential. It is the problem of a social arrangement that no longer confers upon men responsibility in the sexual market, privileges men in myriad ways to obtain sexual access with limited effort, and has worked relentlessly, in the name of egalitarianism, to reposition women as sexually on par with men. This organization of man is an inversion of the traditional norm, one with sexual mores that impinged on both men and women, thus making the idea of commitment-free sex an implausible and heavily stigmatized phenomenon. Moreover, the technologies needed to enable consequence-free sex — that is, sex without the prospect of childbirth — were either unavailable, unsafe, or largely undesirable before Roe. Consider, for instance, that in 1965, 24 percent of black infants and 3.1 percent of white infants were born to single mothers. Today, that number hovers around 40 percent, while an estimated 60 million abortions have taken place since the passing of Roe in 1973.
Mary Eberstadt notes that this new organizing of men and women began with the sexual revolution, placing society on an unwitting “collision course with human nature itself.” In a telling sign of the times, both The Weekly Standard and Daily Beast published articles recently implicating the sexual revolution for ratifying a regime of sexual exploitation. In the Daily Beast, Clive Irvin writes that the sexual revolution had made it possible for the “sexual woman to act like the sexual man,” though as it turned out, the sexual woman didn’t want to act like the sexual man. Men were made “free to roam like feral hunters,” while women wondered when the liberation they were promised would be delivered. By the mid-70s the luster of the sexual revolution was already beginning to fade. Researcher Shere Hite’s The Hite Report, published in 1976, found that “ninety-eight percent of the women who responded to Hite in questionnaires said they were dissatisfied with their sex lives.” Reviewing Hite’s book, the novelist Erica Jong said, “Most of the respondents thought that the sexual revolution was a myth, that it had left them free to say yes (but not to say no), that the double standards was alive and well, that the quantity of sex had gone up, not the quality…”
In keeping with this critique, Barton Swaim at The Weekly Standard connects the failures of the sexual revolution to our current distempers. He writes that “public discussions of sexual misbehavior by men have become hopelessly confused. The old rules oppressed women, we’re told, but they also shackled men; now we want some rules back, for men anyway, but it’s never clear which ones or why. Under the sway of the sexual revolution, we were taught that restrictions on sexual relations are irrational and oppressive, manifestations of ancient prejudices, yet meanwhile the rules governing workplace sexual harassment year by year become more voluminous and complex. College campuses are places of license but also places of endless debates about rape, harassment, and the shifting lines between consent and coercion.”
Deregulating the sexual marketplace while endorsing promiscuity as “empowering” and enabling the practice of sex without consequence has placed women in the precarious and unenviable “prisoner’s dilemma” of either ceding to the demands of a hypersexualized public or refusing at risk of loneliness given the sheer number of others willingly offering themselves instead. Young girls are now coopted into this atmosphere at a very early age, and those refusing to dress scantily-clad, adorn themselves with all manner of sexualizing accessories, and make their subjective ‘sexiness’ known to the outside world are regarded as prude and unfit for the modern world. The beauty industry today targets girls as young as eight, while “clothing stores sell thongs sized for 7– to 10-year-old girls, some printed with slogans such as “eye candy” or “wink wink.”” It should come as no surprise in a setting like this that 53% of 13-year-old American girls report being unhappy with their bodies, and that this number grows to 78% by the time girls reach 17. Something must change.
To make mention of a term like modesty in this milieu is to invite the wrath of a social consensus that derides prior norms as atavistic. But one cannot seriously speak to the modern world without facing the proliferation of immodesty squarely in the eyes. As I have written elsewhere, pornography is simply too ubiquitous and consequential to regard as private indiscretion. There are material effects that diminish the moral worth of women, normalize sexual violence against women, and reduce women to little more than sexual objects for personal enjoyment. Liberal feminist Naomi Wolf discusses the tragic outcome of a sexual regime presided over by nakedness in an article entitled “The Porn Myth.” She writes:
The young women who talk to me on campuses about the effect of pornography on their intimate lives speak of feeling that they can never measure up, that they can never ask for what they want; and that if they do not offer what porn offers, they cannot expect to hold a guy. The young men talk about what it is like to grow up learning about sex from porn, and how it is not helpful to them in trying to figure out how to be with a real woman. Mostly, when I ask about loneliness, a deep, sad silence descends on audiences of young men and young women alike. They know they are lonely together, even when conjoined, and that this imagery is a big part of that loneliness. What they don’t know is how to get out, how to find each other again erotically, face-to-face.
Despite this ever-present reality, and in spite of growing evidence that neoegalitarian and hypersexualized norms leave women at a deficit in the sexual marketplace, the “women’s rights” movement presses forward undeterred. At the much-lauded Women’s March, reproductive rights sat center stage, with multiple speakers expressing their unqualified support for abortion at any stage without obstruction. Kierra Johnson, who leads the pro-choice organization URGE, spoke on stage wearing a shirt plastered with the word “abortion” all over it. Johnson proclaimed that she was “unapologetically abortion positive” to loud cheers from the crowd.
Meanwhile, leading feminists like Judith Butler defend pornography, objecting to anti-porn actors as having accorded pornography quasi-divine authority while simultaneously undermining female sexual agency. In keeping with the need to preserve female agency, British feminist Victoria Bateman warns against what she terms the “cult of female modesty.” Bateman describes this cult as “extremely dangerous,” arguing that it engenders in women “a lot of anxieties in our everyday life about this feeling that if we have a loose button on our blouse or if our skirt blows up — we have a constant worry about what you are or are not revealing about your body.”
Recently, various “specialists” chimed in with proposals for reducing sexual exploitation and aggression in light of #metoo. These proposals ranged from ill-defined and procedurally implausible “affirmative consent” measures to the granting of women management level positions in corporations and intensifying the call-out culture as a form of public accountability. Of course, one cannot be blind to the many occasions of men coercing women into sexual submission, nor can we ignore our duty to hold those who have been guilty of such transgressions accountable. But the solution is not frontier justice and dismissal of due process, amalgamating all transgressions and acts of sexual impropriety, no matter how minor, into a capital offense, and treating men — as a category — as de facto monsters in need of castigation and public reprimand.
Additionally, attempting to furnish dignity through corporate promotions is explicitly belied by repeated studies on the matter. To offer but one treatment of the subject, a 2012 study entitled “Sexual Harassment, Workplace Authority, and the Paradox of Power” concludes as follows:
“The vulnerable victims perspective suggests that authority acts as a protective factor, exempting women from the suggestive gaze or unwelcome touch of co-workers, but we find that supervisory status actually increases women’s harassment, in keeping with the power threat perspective…
… we find that female supervisors are more, rather than less, likely to be harassed, supporting the notion that interactions between workers are not driven strictly by organizational rank. Instead, co-workers’ relative power is also shaped by gender. Although women supervisors’ authority is legitimated by their employer, sexual harassment functions, in part, as a tool to enforce gender-appropriate behavior.”
These studies all suggest what many of us otherwise know: so long as gender-appropriate behavior is governed exclusively by a desire to maintain “sexual liberation,” occasions of sexual exploitation, harassment, and violence directed towards women will not meaningfully subside.
It is my prediction that the gender wars we are witnessing will only get worse. The acrimonious attacks against “men” in general, and “white men” in particular, will metastasize in a society suffuse with identity politics while indignation against male privilege will remain the leitmotif for those feminists dissatisfied with their social standing. Women, on the other hand, will find their lot increasingly empty. Fewer men will commit to marriage, instead opting for the comfort of pornographic pleasure and consent-sanctioned philandering. They will resist category denunciation, express hostile derision toward women, and treat with extreme skepticism even those who have been genuinely wronged. When it is all said and done, there will be no winners, and we will sit around wondering how we could never figure out a thing so trivial as coexistence.
If one is to take women at their word, then it is increasingly evident that women are unhappy with the way things are going today. They are having difficulty finding partners who can commit to a meaningful relationship, who see in them anything other than a physical object of sexual satisfaction, and who care as much as they do about the prospect of building a life of family and fraternity. Many have lost hope in marriage and fundamentally distrust men altogether. In an extreme example — which is perhaps a harbinger of things to come elsewhere — women in Denmark are now electing to become mothers on their own through the use of assisted reproductive technology (ART). Today, an estimated 10% of all children born in Denmark are conceived through artificial means, a trend that one commenter regards as giving women the “upper hand,” lest they be dependent on men for physical intimacy to conceive.
Other women are lashing out against feelings of worthlessness. Women report feeling used and humiliated after commitment-free sex, and many have been victim of cruel sexual predation. Yet others lament the demeaning norms that they have been socialized into. Muslim sisters walk the streets in modest attire and hijab to feelings of pity and scorn. It is said that they lack agency in their dress, and that true femininity can only be found and embraced in the shedding of clothing. Hence the growth in topless protests and nude exhibition.
Whatever this is, it is not the mark of a liberated people. It is the language of those who feel betrayed, vanquished, and demoralized. On this, Bel Mooney writes, “The sad thing is young women today are still being conned — victims of the pervasive sex industry that uses ‘liberation’ as a mask for degradation.”
I have written it before — and I will state it here again — that as Muslims we have something important to offer in our tradition to this world.
The sexual revolution has failed women, and progressive revisions will not repair the damage. It is high time that we begin to take our own religion seriously, embark on a program rooted in it, and present it as a meaningful alternative to what we are witnessing today. That means being honest about male and female differences, and proposing a social and cultural arrangement in keeping with those differences. Muslims need to speak forthrightly about the sex-specific obligations of the Shari’a, even when they are inegalitarian. Obedience to one’s husband in matters of good is necessary for a healthy household (with due recognition to the typical machinations of household disagreement, of course). Non-maḥram men and women must maintain reasonable separation within parameters established in the Shari’a, and both should lower their gaze with the other, particularly when shahwa is felt. Khalwa is impermissible and should not be disregarded absent dire circumstances. Men must retain their responsibility as qawwām over women — providing financially, guiding spiritually, and protecting socially (even — and especially — against those malefactors in our midst). Men must behave as rijāl. We should speak as the Prophet (pbuh) did, reminding our brethren to fear Allah with our sisters and that the Prophet (pbuh) held as sacred the rights of the two “weak ones” — women and orphans. Gentleness is in order with glass vessels (rifqan bi’l-qawarīr).
This also means being honest with women about Islamic standards of modesty and dress. Hijāb is not a cultural formulation, and rights are not always distributed evenly in the Shari’a. Whatever inequity is observed in the Shari’a is there for the best interest of everyone involved, and Allah knows His creation better than liberationists lobbying for egalitarian reform. Women upholding Allah’s directive at this moment must be reminded of the immense reward they stand to gain in front of Allah, and that it is in their prayers, sacrifice, and conformity to Allah’s religion that they gain eminence and rank in the life to come.
Politically, we should find common cause with others interested in seeing the government restrict the abundance of sexual content. This should include regulating pornographic material online, establishing stricter regulations against sexualization in the media and advertising spaces (i.e., billboards, magazines, ads, etc.), and protections for faith-based communities and schools against LGBT mandates.
Finally, we must strive to build countercultural spaces. This means houses of Allah that are rooted in His pleasure and not the pleasure of men. Places where people can enter and find the dhikr of Allah and calls to His obedience.
This will not bring an end to the sexual dereliction in front of us, but it is a good start.
We ask Allah to raise us — men and women — as brothers and sisters committed to Him on the day of judgment, that He unite our hearts upon the truth, and that He forgive us for our shortcomings. Ameen.
Shaykh Musa Furber recently began a series going over Imam al-Nawawi’s (rahimahullah) “Ettiquette with the Quran.” It is available on his Facebook page here:
Given the time we live in, it is especially important that we spend time nurturing our spirit. Praying, fasting, and spending time in dhikr are necessities. Here is a wonderful recitation of Surah al-Qamar by al-Husari worth listening to:
May Allah purify our hearts and raise us among the people of the Quran. Ameen.
Allah Knows Best.