I was visiting my family a while back. One day, my sister and I went out to the mountains for a hike up Johnston Canyon and to the Ink Pots beyond. It’s 6.5 miles each way, 2000 feet vertical, skinny boardwalks inside a canyon, wet trails, so a moderately difficult hike but definitely worth it for the beauty of the Canyon, the Ink Pots and the magnificent mountain views.
As we hiked up, my sister was telling me about her failed attempts to get a decent boyfriend, let alone one she’d marry. She has high standards but she says the biggest problem is that even though decent guys show interest, none have the guts to ask her out. Being traditional and wanting a romance, not just a pragmatic relationship resulting in marriage, she won’t dare ask guys out. The men she knew were acting like boys.
I thought about how so many young men today are captivated by pornography or video games to really be unfit for any life commitment. I remembered reading over a decade ago, my then provincial, Fr Anthony Bannon, was cited as stating that over half of those who seemed like “best prospects” had to be directed away from candidacy because of serious issues with pornography. And everything I’ve seen has said this problem has gotten even. Many of these young men are probably not ready to get married either for the same reason. Every woman has more dignity than a porn addict will give her.
As I continued up the path with my sister, I was noticing what I thought about was being played out in the path in front of me. It seemed every group was either a guy and gal couple or seemed female-dominated. I counted for the next 30 minutes and got up to about twice as many girls than guys in the 15 to 40 age range. Hiking is good exercise for both sexes but such adventure has been more generally attributed to the masculine side. Why weren’t young men hiking?
The Cultural Shift: Good and Bad
Recent culture has been good at encouraging girls to take on many roles that were traditionally male-only. From my mom in the 70’s who was one of the first four female engineering students aMcMaster University, to having sports like women’s soccer and women’s hockey in the Olympics. However, our culture has failed to encourage boys to attain higher and more difficult things.
Females make up 55% of enrollment at US universities this fall and all indications have this disparity widening. It seems like women are succeeding everywhere while young men hang out in their parents’ basement for years playing World of Warcraft. Our society should value male gifts along with female gifts and help both succeed.
At the same time that society is promoting women to all the roles, a gender ideology has slowly crept in to say there is no difference between men and women. Along with this came a loosening of sexual morals. (These two movements may be chicken and egg or from unrelated causes but together cause a pattern in people today.) This is what goes against our faith – there is nothing against Catholic teaching about having a female doctor or a male elementary school teacher but when we take away gender, both men and women loose something.
What women lose is respect and dignity. Wendy Shalit points out that modesty can empower women and that, “Simone de Beauvoir, who was one of the most radical feminists, thought a society that did not respect modesty would include violence against women.” I think a lot of ink has been spilled on this and as a man living a vow of chastity, I don’t think myself the best qualified to address it.
Instead, I want to focus the rest of this essay on how modern gender ideology emasculates men, making them lose drive and motivation, and what we can do about it.
We know there are natural physiological differences between men and women – we don’t have the enormous sexual dimorphism seen in some animals like peacocks or walruses. But we still have clear physical differences from the reproductive system to shoulder position to psychology. These differences indicate a difference beyond just the physical act of lovemaking.
Both the liberalization of sexual morals and the demolition of sexual differentiation with gender theory work against man’s motivation.
The Destruction of Sexual Morals
Since the dawn of history, most males have had a strong motivation to impress females to gain their favor. This is common to all animals, just watch bighorn sheep fight or some birds dance. Even from a young age, boys try to impress the girls in their class. Once they get older, men (at least responsible ones) tend to focus on winning over that one singular female. There has always been ways to circumvent this with prostitution or peep shows. However, the current prevalence of pornography takes this to a completely new level: with a few thumb motions, young males can get a greater variety of sexual experiences in an afternoon than their grandpas could imagine in a lifetime. Many people fall into the easy version of sex called pornography rather than the difficult form that is more fulfilling and can actually love you back. Not only does pornography teach a false “easy sex” but it makes real sex less pleasurable, reducing desire for it and/or causing erectile dysfunction in young men. This creates an addictive cycle leading a young man to get caught up in himself and unmotivated to do anything with his sex drive but view porn and masturbate. Thus, one of the major motivations of a male psyche – impressing and winning over a woman – disappears.
Along with pornography comes the hook-up culture which can eviscerate what little motivation a young man has to impress a woman. When all a young male needs to do is wait till a girl has had two beers and then try a few cute memorized pick-up lines to take them to bed, there is no challenge. A challenge motivates men. Just see what games people do for fun: Candy Crush Saga and Call of Duty are both challenging at least once you get past the introduction. If this more central thing isn’t challenging, motivation in general wanes.
Then we have the problem of gender ideology creating amorphous, asexual humans who decide on their gender at will. Men and boys like to be men and boys, and like to have their manly spaces. The only manly spaces available today seem to be without great challenge: watching sports, and chatting at a bar or in a garage. None of these are areas of particular challenge or motivation. Compare this with some particularly masculine society in my father’s or grandfather’s generation: the military, clubs like the Knights of Columbus, firefighters, etc. Those are where a challenge has brought about some real motivation for men to transform themselves. Being a good Knight or a good fireman takes skill and effort while being a good sports fan just requires showing up. Motivation is lacking in our young men.
Gender ideology fails to recognize that children learn in different ways based on their sex as Dr Leonard Sax proves in Why Gender Matters. Boys, especially younger boys, tend to learn better in a noisy and competitive environment but our supposedly gender-neutral schooling emphasizes cooperation and silence. Both are traits young girls do better at. A teacher will stop a boy for bothering a girl by humming as he reads but not realize the over-emphasis on silence actually hurts boys. Even as a man in my 30’s, I often find it easiest to read while pacing.
So, what can we do? I think there are two concrete actions. First, to go against rampant sexuality and the other, the great thing of gender ideology. I don’t think these alone will solve everything but they are first steps that are often ignored.
If we want young men to realize true love and not just fake pornographic love, we need to offer them good examples of true love. A married couple with children should be so madly in love with each other there provides a model that the sons want to emulate. We need to provide other examples through our friends, our parish, the media, and even fictional stories that show an endearing romantic love. These will provide young men with a model that they can emulate, not just physical actions that satisfy their sexual desire.
We also need to provide places as motivation and challenge for men of all ages. There is value to “men-only” charity organizations like the Knights, a confraternity or a team in a lay movement which challenge men in manly ways. Young men need to find a place they can really develop themselves in a manly way beyond the sports team. An obvious example are youth organizations similar to the Knights, whether the Columbian Squires, Boy Scouts or Conquest Clubs. But oftentimes clubs focused around “manliness” might be more a particular boy’s style: I remember a math club at the local collage I was part of during middle school: one girl showed up but she was macho enough we treated it like a boys-only activity.
Here is hoping we can reverse the emasculating tread and help males become men once again.