A Culture of Consent Is Not a Culture of Caring

It’s always frustrating reading something that comes really close to hitting it’s target but still manages to completely miss it altogether. That’s how I felt when reading Courtney Sender’s recent NYT piece, He Asked Permission to Touch, but Not to Ghost.

She describes a recent hookup with a kind of man I never thought could actually exist—one trying to rigorously adhere to an only-yes-means-yes standard of consent who a woman actually wanted to sleep with. From what she describes, he was literally asking her if it was ok to remove each and every article of clothing. (Of course, she doesn’t say that he continually asked whether she had revoked consent during intercourse, so he could still be found guilty of violating an affirmative consent standard.) I’m not going to congratulate fornication, but… I can’t help but be impressed that he pulled it off without seeming like a frightened child.

Naturally, fulfilling even the most outlandish demands of feminists wasn’t enough to avoid her finding fault.

Yet something else about his asking also made me uneasy. It seemed legalistic and self-protective, imported more from the courtroom than from a true sense of caretaking. And each time he asked, it was as if he assumed I lacked the agency to say no on my own — as if he expected me to say no, not believing that a woman would have the desire to keep saying yes.

So in other words, the guy actually managed to make fried ice for her, but she’s still complaining that it’s too tepid.

Irony aside, though, she’s not exactly wrong in her assessment. Affirmative consent certainly is legalistic rather than caring—it has more in common with how computers swap data than it does with how humans relate. In the end, while he may have treated her yes’s as divine oracles, he nevertheless stopped returning her texts and started pretending she didn’t exist after only two hookups. In her conclusion, Ms. Sender comes really close to expressing a fundamental truth about building a “culture of consent.”

In the days and weeks after, I was left thinking that our culture’s current approach to consent is too narrow. A culture of consent should be a culture of care for the other person, of seeing and honoring another’s humanity and finding ways to engage in sex while keeping our humanity intact. It should be a culture of making each other feel good, not bad.

And if that’s the goal, then consent doesn’t work if we relegate it exclusively to the sexual realm. Our bodies are only one part of the complex constellation of who we are. To base our culture of consent on the body alone is to expect that caretaking involves only the physical.

I wish we could view consent as something that’s less about caution and more about care for the other person, the entire person, both during an encounter and after, when we’re often at our most vulnerable.

Because I don’t think many of us would say yes to the question “Is it O.K. if I act like I care about you and then disappear?”

So close, and yet so far. Yes, our expressions of sexuality should promote caring about one another. But caring has nothing to do with consent, and that’s precisely the problem.

Consent Cannot Be Enough

During the sexual revolution, large swaths of our culture decided that sexual morality was irredeemably oppressive and archaic. Accordingly, they worked hard to undermine it and replace it with a simple statement of “everything is ok as long as its consensual.” It was our way of legitimizing all the illicit sex we wanted to enjoy while still forbidding rape. In doing so, we also made our thinking about sex entirely one-dimensional. This kind of reductionistic thinking is entirely inadequate for dealing with something as multi-faceted as human sexuality.

A few years back, I wrote a piece called Ending the Real Rape Culture in which I argued that the way feminists have treated consent as the only relevant facet of sexuality has served to completely dehumanize it. This dehumanization is most easily seen in the extreme examples—that Christmas is “rapey” because of the Annunciation or that parents need to seek consent before changing their baby’s diaper. However, it is just as present in the push for affirmative consent. As Ms. Sender attests, nobody actually wants a sexual encounter that requires explicitly seeking and granting permission at every conceivable escalation. Isolating consent from things like relationships, social expectations, and common sense actually facilitates “rape culture” rather than inhibiting it.

But rape and sexual assault are not the only rotten fruits of this dehumanization of consent. It produces all kinds of misery in our relationships as well. Ms. Sender’s experience that, “Sex makes me feel unsafe, not because of the act itself but because my partners so often disappear afterward” is a pretty typical example of this. It’s amazing how often women who are adamant that they’re empowered hookup-loving feminists are simultaneously disappointed that their no-strings-attached affairs never lead to relationships—to strings.

The problem is not, as Ms. Sender argues, that we think about consent too narrowly and that it should extend to emotions as well. The problem is that we think of nothing but consent—and that itself is too narrow. Feminists myopically focus on consent because they see it as empowering. After all, consent is nothing more or less than permission, and the person who is granting permission is the person who is in charge.

For feminists, power differentials are the key to understanding the world. Specifically, they believe that women are oppressed by men because men have held power over women through much of history and have perpetuated that imbalance by entrenching their power in various social structures. Their solutions, therefore, are always to “correct” this imbalance by giving power to women at the expense of men. That empowerment is the ultimate goal of their every policy, social engineering endeavor, and program. Everything else is secondary–at best, caring for what they would consider the symptoms of male power and at worst, empty rhetoric to gain support for their policies.

The focus on consent is no different. This is most easily seen in the new affirmative consent policies that are being pushed. Critics have pointed out that there is literally no way for the accused to prove innocence under such policies. But proponents remain undeterred because this is ultimately a feature, not a bug. Affirmative consent is specifically designed to empower women by allowing them to penalize any sexual partner who sufficiently displeases them. That’s not part of feminists’ rhetoric—after all, most people recognize this power as rather arbitrary and unjust—but it is an inherent part of their purpose.

But as long as one’s sexual ethics rest solely on a matter of empowerment, sex cannot really be a matter of care. Ms. Sender recognizes this dynamic at play in her hookup. She says of his strict adherence to affirmative consent policies, “It seemed legalistic and self-protective, imported more from the courtroom than from a true sense of caretaking.” This is only natural. She held power from which he needed to protect himself, so he toed the party line he was probably fed in college. Nothing more can come from it because you cannot use power to create a relationship—you cannot force people to care about you.

But when Ms. Sender complains that her hookup didn’t have her permission to ghost her, that’s precisely what she’s trying to do—She’s trying to be in charge of whether or not he cares. No culture of consent is ever going to create caring because empowerment is insufficient to that task. Care proceeds primarily from self-giving rather than from demands.

Sex Is Not All About You

One of the most fundamental aspects to sex is that it takes two. Anything less than that is rightly seen as kind of pathetic. This means that giving is just as important as receiving, which inevitably requires partnership. Despite what feminists are trying to accomplish through slavish devotion to a dehumanized consent, women cannot have sex with men entirely on their own terms. Expecting to get absolutely everything you consent to and absolutely nothing else is radically selfish. There is no real partnership there; and when you treat men as disposable, they are going to treat you the same way. In this way, caring is fundamentally incompatible with hookups. The entire point of hooking up is no-strings-attached sex—an attempt to remove any and all responsibility to another person from the equation.

And yet, this piece and many others inadvertently reveal just how badly many women actually want the strings from which feminists “liberated” them. Despite her insistence on hookups, Sender doesn’t actually want to be abandoned after sex, and I see the same thing in virtually every high-profile piece about hooking up that I read. The example par excellence is “Kristina” from a Rolling Stone profile in 2014. Kristina has two faces. The first, presented by herself and the author is one of an empowered and liberated young woman who is quite satisfied with hookup culture. The other, unintended face is one of despair. Kristina once hoped for a boyfriend before she got used by “frat bros” and is obsessed with weddings and marriage; but she plies herself with alcohol to enable her to hookup with random guys “just looking for someone to bang” who she admits she doesn’t want, all while desperately trying to convince herself that servicing 29 guys and counting is going to lead to marriage somehow. Behold sexual “liberation.”

In examples like these, we see two mindsets at war with one another. On one hand, there’s the natural human impulse towards marriage and family. On the other hand, there’s the feminist indoctrination that marriage and family are snares that keep women from being all that they can be. Our culture imposes on women a moral obligation to radical selfishness that drives hookup culture and staves off marriage and family as long as possible.

Our culture’s prejudice is that it is men who are either too scared or too selfish to make a commitment. After all, it is more often the women who complain about men not manning up and a putting a ring on it. But contrary to our prejudices, the truth is that both sexes are too selfish to commit. We might want commitments, but wanting a commitment is not the same thing as offering one. And offering one is precisely what many young women assiduously avoid. Consider some of the things young women said about themselves in this 2013 NYT piece which celebrates women’s participation in hookup culture.

  • “We are very aware of cost-benefit issues and trading up and trading down, so no one wants to be too tied to someone that, you know, may not be the person they want to be with in a couple of months.”
  • Instead, she enjoyed casual sex on her terms — often late at night, after a few drinks, and never at her place, she noted, because then she would have to wash the sheets
  • Many privileged young people see college as a unique life stage in which they don’t — and shouldn’t — have obligations other than their own self-development.
  • Women at elite universities were choosing hookups because they saw relationships as too demanding and potentially too distracting from their goals.
  • Women say, “ ‘I need to take this time for myself — I’m going to have plenty of time to focus on my husband and kids later,’ ” Dr. Armstrong said. “ ‘I need to invest in my career, I need to learn how to be independent, I need to travel.’ People use this reference to this life stage to claim a lot of space for a lot of different kinds of things.”
  • “‘I’ve always heard this phrase, ‘Oh, marriage is great, or relationships are great — you get to go on this journey of change together,’ ” she said. “That sounds terrible. I don’t want to go through those changes with you. I want you to have changed and become enough of your own person so that when you meet me, we can have a stable life and be very happy.”
  • In Catherine’s view, her classmates tried very hard to separate sex from emotion, because they believed that getting too attached to someone would interfere with their work. They saw a woman’s marrying young as either proof of a lack of ambition or a tragic mistake that would stunt her career.

As before, most of these women are looking for strings—just not yet, and only on their own terms. They want entitlements without responsibilities.

The overwhelmingly common point of view of these women is that their youth, energy, and dreams are far too valuable to waste on a husband and a family. Marriage is only for later on when these treasures have been too used up and abused to be worth anything better. They desire a commitment from men—eventually. However, they don’t offer one. Instead, they work hard to avoid having any skin in the game themselves. They achieve this by squandering what they hold most valuable so that they aren’t tempted to share it with anyone. If men aren’t putting a ring on that, it’s hard to blame them.

And of course, one must once again point out the fact that women’s commitments after marriage leave something be desired as well. The prevalence of unilateral divorce and the lopsided reality that women commit a super-majority of them does much to erode caring and commitment on the other side of marriage.

If You Want Care, Try Chastity

Even when they’re just looking for anonymous sex, people are still looking for love—something apparent in Ms. Sender’s article. Unfortunately, too many women have been taught that genuine, self-giving love is something to abhor. This is certainly part of sinful human nature in men and women alike, but the present reality is that men don’t have to contend with a powerful and entrenched social movement trying to present our selfishness as virtue.

To get past hookup culture and find a culture of caring, we have to move past a culture of consent and empowerment and towards of culture of love. Once you let love in the door, sexual morality necessarily goes far deeper than mere consent. It has to entail self-giving, and therefore the institution of marriage which makes this kind of self-giving reasonably safe. It has to entail commitment and exclusivity—two sides of the same coin—because you cannot truly give a person something that’s been held in common among dozens of people in your youth. It has to entail a mutual respect because you’re so deeply invested in each other.

If you want to be cared for, you must remember that in most circumstances, you cannot be genuinely cared about without actually caring in return. On the contrary, people actively try to distance themselves from those who couldn’t care less. So if, like Ms. Sender, sex is so steeped in loneliness for you that you already dread his departure even as you lie with him, then perhaps you should reflect on the price of your freedom from strings. For the past few generations, we have been slowly trading away caring in exchange for sexual license. And like most forms of hedonism, it’s made us feel great for about 5 minutes and terrible in the long run. Anyone who is interested in a loving marriage would do well to consider actually saving themselves for it.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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9 Responses to A Culture of Consent Is Not a Culture of Caring

  1. L brown says:

    “It’s always frustrating reading something that comes really close to hitting it’s target but still manages to completely miss it altogether.”

    How I feel right now.
    As usual, there is much to applaud in your post. However, you have gone astray on this one and fallen into the sort of error you can typically be counted on to highlight, dissect, and correct. Below are a few thoughts off the top of my head in reaction. I respect your mind and your writing. I would be willing to discuss this further if you’re open to being challenged.

    “On one hand, there’s the natural human impulse towards marriage and family. On the other hand, there’s the feminist indoctrination that marriage and family are snares that keep women from being all that they can be.”

    Wrong. First of all, there is no natural impulse towards marriage. There is a natural impulse towards sexual intercourse and there is a natural impulse toward motherhood. This is not splitting hairs. It’s an important distinction. If one man and one woman are isolated (like, say, in the Garden of Eden) marriage just happens. But once we have groups of men and women interacting, we don’t automatically get everyone paired off in marriage. There is no natural impulse towards lifelong monogamous marriage. For either sex. Such unions are consistent with the revealed will of God and with Natural Law. But they are not the result of allowing our natural impulses to reign. The conflict, the force operating on the other side is not feminist ideology or indoctrination. It is other natural impulses. Feminist ideology has certainly corrupted and perverted the context in which this conflict plays out. Feminism operates just as you’ve described (again you’re generally on point in that regard). But again, I must stress, framing this as a conflict between a natural impulse for marriage and feminism is something many of today’s traditionalists would like to believe. This is pushed by most social conservatives and Christians addressing the subject. But it’s just not true. It isn’t completely false. It’s close, but no cigar. The conflict is there regardless of feminism. It is a conflict between competing human impulses. Feminism is more about attacking the laws, traditions, mores, and other forces that have been put in place to make marriage work. But all those things were necessary precisely because marriage is not the result of natural impulse.

    “Unfortunately, too many women have been taught that genuine, self-giving love is something to abhor”

    Women do not love men the way men love women. At several points in this piece it seems as though you have fallen into the trap of projection. Projecting your thoughts/feelings as a man on to women. A man loves a woman first and foremost for who she is. A woman loves a man first and foremost for what he can do for her (and her children). This is not feminist programming. It is not in conflict with Natural Law. Though it is most definitely in conflict with the fantasy many men have been encouraged to believe in. Look at the Bible. God calls husbands to a sacrificial love for their wives. Wives are called to respect their husbands. God does not call women to love the way men do because God is not a fool and He understands his own creation. Women have a naturally utilitarian view of men. They want men to be useful. To provide resources. To be protectors. To raise them up, in many different senses. A man who is taller and stronger and can physically pick them up. A man of higher status and who holds greater resources. A man they can look up to. Literally and figuratively. And so God calls wives to *respect* their husbands. A good woman will have sacrificial love towards her own children. That’s her “genuine, self-giving love”. That’s who a non-selfish woman will give herself up for. But it isn’t guaranteed. Unfortunately, we see some women who do not love their children as they should. And even a woman who cares for her children will be tempted to love them in a possessive way as extensions of herself. But no woman loves a man in the way a man loves a woman. And no man should be taught to expect otherwise. Unrealistic expectations are toxic.

    Wives can certainly provide care and comfort for their husbands and be helpmates and partners. But they do not do so because of genuine sacrificial love. They do so out of respect for a respectable man, out of gratitude for what he provides, out of obedience to God, in accordance with the social expectations of their tribe, and because forces exist to constrain their options and tie them to that one man (while feminism, secularism, big government, and technological advancement are among the forces that have undermined or disrupted this dependance).

    Many conservatives have been fed an explanation for the current madness of male-female relations that centers on “selfish sexual ethics”. I believe this is reflected here and also shows up in the writings and public content of other contributors to ‘The Federalist’, for example. You’re not wrong. You’re close. Very close. Almost there….

    • Matt says:

      Good criticisms, Lance; thank you. Let’s discuss.

      First, is there really no impulse towards marriage that cannot be reduced to impulses to sex and motherhood? I need to be convinced on this. It seems that there are some phenomena that you really have to bend and twist before fitting them into that mold. For example, I’ve seen/read many women express interest in a permanent monogamous relationship who are already involved in hookup culture and who are horrified by the prospect of children. Their impulse for sex per se is being met, and their desire to be a motherhood is subconscious at best, but they still want relationships that ape marriage to some extent.

      There’s also a long history of human storytelling which often includes marriage as part of “happily ever after” (at least inasmuch as our stories actually end happily. But even the tragedies are often tragic precisely because a would-be marriage is destroyed) It would be difficult for such stories to resonate over so many centuries if there were absolutely no natural impulse towards marriage, and only impulses for sex and procreation.

      So I don’t think either of those phenomena can be reduced to only sex drive and motherhood–at least not without plausible explanations for these kinds of human experiences that never drift outside of those two facets. Whether or not it always works out or “everyone pairs off” is immaterial as we have all sorts of other competing impulses in addition to one towards marriage.

      Perhaps the root disagreement lies here: It’s fair enough to say that my assertions weren’t nuanced. I spoke of nature vs indoctrination without distinguishing between original nature and fallen nature and without distinguishing between the civilized and the barbaric. Inasmuch as you’re speaking of barbarians, you’d basically be correct in your assessment. However, I don’t equate “natural” with “barbaric.” Even in a fallen world, what is natural proceeds from our God-given design because that’s what’s being corrupted. There’s always going to be a resemblance in the same way a wrecked car is going to resemble a new car. And while one could argue that barbarism is more natural because there’s less interference with our base appetites, I don’t see civilization as interference because we were designed to be more than our base appetites and because those are not our only impulses even if we let them become the strongest ones.

      As to your second point, you are correct that women and men love each other differently. And if you restrict “love” to eros or even slightly more broadly to romance, you might have a point about self-giving or sacrifice being foreign to a woman’s love for a man. (I’d still argue sacrifice is there, but it’s admittedly so different from the male version of sacrifice that it’s not unreasonable to consider it something else entirely.)

      Marital love, however, is something broader than eros or romance–it needs to be broader because so much of married life goes beyond eros and romance. And if you’re going to bring in Biblical instruction on marriage as evidence, I doubt many women would read 1 Peter 3:1-7, 1 Cor 7:10-11, or Eph 5:22-24 and think it involves absolutely no sacrifice on their part.

      And once again, I have experiences that I have a hard time fitting into your explanation. Specifically, I’ve personally seen more than one woman sacrifically care for a husband who, through illness and/or injury was rendered useless in a utilitarian sense. In fact, they were worse than useless as they were consuming family resources without providing anything to balance it out. And quite frankly, the expectations from surrounding social, religious, etc. sources were far more in line with “stick him in a nursing home” than with the selfless care they provided.

      Again, if by “natural” you mean “barbaric,” then I agree with you. However, barbarism is an insufficient basis for describing human nature. Or if you’re specifically referring to a woman’s attraction or arousal, then you’re absolutely correct. But in either case, the blog post is about more than just barbarism or eros. It has to be in order to examine a culture of caring.

      • L Brown says:

        Some disagreements may be more about semantics than anything else. So, as you point out, we need to clarify what we mean by terms such as ‘marriage’, and ‘natural’. For example, I think lots of terrible things are quite natural. And many wonderful things are unnatural. I do not think ‘Natural Law’ is the same thing as whatever may be natural. And I am willing to accept a distinction between what is natural for the Old Adam vs what is natural for the new man in Christ. However, I don’t think too much should be made of this since Christians are still fallen and still struggle to drown the Old Adam in the waters of baptism daily. And while I acknowledge difference between “original nature and fallen nature” than you mention, I think that’s more or less what I was referring to when speaking of what God’s will for us is and also relates to Natural Law. But again, I don’t think that’s the same thing as our nature or our impulses. And when you speak of the ‘civilized’ vs the ‘barbaric’ I believe it’s even clearer that you’re not really talking about impulses or natural desires. You’re talking about civilization. All the things we need to do, all the interlocking rules and structures and mores and so on that must be put in place to make us civilized and keep us civilized. Feminism has attacked and undermined this system and corrupted it from within. Yes. BUT, it’s also true that our failure to adapt and upgrade the institutions and traditions of our civilization as technological advancement has been rapidly and significantly altering our reality since the dawn of the industrial revolution is AT LEAST as big of a problem (I would argue much bigger and explains why feminism had an opening). And (please note this gets to the heart of why I think this matters) if we are to make the necessary course corrections and undo the long march of progressivism and cultural marxism and build a healthy culture and enduring civilization, then we must begin with who and what humans naturally are. I’m not saying end there. But we can’t deny aspects of our nature that conflict with how we’d like to imagine things are. The same founding fathers who understood that, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”, also built a system based on balancing sinful people against each other and channeling what you might call barbaric impulses and base natures toward nobler ends. Build a culture that makes people better. Absolutely. But start with a clear assessment of what men and women are.

        “is there really no impulse towards marriage that cannot be reduced to impulses to sex and motherhood?”

        If we define ‘marriage’ to mean the lifelong monogamous union of husband and wife, then I stand by my claim that neither men nor women have an impulse driving them to desire this. If you want to use some other definition for ‘marriage’ then I might change my stance. Men have a dominance instinct connected to sexuality. A man desires for his mate to be *his* woman. However, a man also desires to have more than one woman in this way. So while there is a desire for a union of sorts it’s not an impulse towards monogamy. Women are much, MUCH more comfortable sharing a man. If other factors are not involved, a woman would rather share a high status man of wealth and power with abundant resources than have one man all to herself who lacks those things and seems unlikely to attain them in the future. Harems are more natural than marriage. Would a woman prefer to have the best of both of those options? Sure. And are there usually other significant factors. And do most women usually face a different set of choices? Again, yes. But the point stands. Additionally, as you’re well aware, women desire very different things depending on their immediate personal circumstances and their stage in life. Whatever one might think of the crude and simplistic phrase ‘alpha f**ks, beta bucks’ there’s more than a little bit of truth to it. A lot more. Related to this, I would urge you to consider how much weight you give to what women say about their motivations/desires/feelings. I’m not claiming any woman you might be referring to is lying. I’m saying that a woman’s truth changes as her place in the world changes and as she moves through the seasons of life. It’s not uncommon for a woman to say something along the lines of ‘I meant it at the time’. When you emphasize what women write and say (especially what they write and say for public consumption) while downplaying what you call “subconscious at best”, I have to ask, do you really think that what you’re talking about is impulses? I would suggest subconscious desires are closer to impulse than carefully crafted statements. Especially when, again, we consider that what a woman says is often more about how she wishes to be perceived, what result she is after, and how she feels in the moment. Women tend to have greater facility with language and to use communication differently. Women say the words that will get the result they want. Like casting a spell. Whereas men, especially a man with your constitution, are more likely to see words as being tools for communicating information. It’s also true that both men and women desire companionship and a kind of intimacy (beyond the physical) and bonding and familiarity and shared experiences with another. Human relationships go beyond sex and reproduction. So, considering all of that (and more I haven’t mentioned) I could accept a modified and qualified claim that there is an impulse (or a collection of interacting impulses) in women that drive them to desire something more than casual hookups with their sexual partners. But I would still argue that the basis for that impulse is rooted in the sexual dynamic and the maternal instinct. And again, I don’t think an impulse toward ‘something more than casual hookups’ is the same thing as a natural impulse towards marriage. I would think you would consider marriage to be more than serial monogamy or any of the other things which exist in the space between one-night stands and a lifelong exclusive union.

        “a long history of human storytelling”

        I think this is your weakest point. I can respond further but don’t want to take up much time on this unless you think it really proves something and you want to flesh this out, give examples, and first ask yourself about all the reasons we tell stories. Frankly, this would seem to support my use of the word ‘fantasy’ in my original comment.

        “barbarism is an insufficient basis for describing human nature”

        I think it tells us more about human nature than fairy tales.

        “I doubt many women would read 1 Peter 3:1-7, 1 Cor 7:10-11, or Eph 5:22-24 and think it involves absolutely no sacrifice on their part”

        Do you think it’s fair to say those examples are more about a woman’s obedience and service to God rather than sacrificial love for a man? And, if we’re honest, isn’t the passage from First Peter also about how a woman can wisely get what she wants? God certainly calls both men and women to sacrifice. And sacrifice should be part of everyone’s life. But that’s a slightly different matter.

        “I’ve personally seen more than one woman sacrificially care for a husband who, through illness and/or injury was rendered useless in a utilitarian sense”
        “the expectations from surrounding social, religious, etc. sources were far more in line with “stick him in a nursing home” than with the selfless care they provided”

        Even if the surrounding social pressures were as you state, don’t you think the other things I mentioned in my penultimate paragraph still apply? Such as “respect for a respectable man”. A man who was not useless and did a good job for her for many years. I also suspect you’re talking about women who were not in a position to trade up but were themselves elderly and likely past menopause and so getting rid of the broken down man would also mean choosing loneliness. I also think it’s likely you’re talking about Christian women. So “obedience to God” is again at play. And if these are indeed older women then that likely bolsters your point about the importance of culture. They were shaped by a different time. However, I don’t think we disagree about that.

        The other main reason I think this matters (I mentioned the first above) is that until such time as our culture, our civilization, is either reformed or rebuilt, it’s extremely important for men like you who know the truth to make sure younger men and boys are told explicitly and clearly how things really are. In a healthier system you can get away with more naivete and fairy tales (especially for those not in authority). We don’t have that luxury. There are people who will accept uncomfortable truths from you that will otherwise wrap themselves in warm ignorance.

        That was too long but hopefully you get something from it.

        • Matt says:

          Thank you for the long reply; I think I have a better idea of where you’re coming from now. And I think you’re perceiving some kind of chivalric nod to women’s better nature that I never intended to imply. This, I think, is the key difference in the way we’re thinking about this:

          I believe natural law is both completely natural and an impulse–it doesn’t simply restrain our behavior, it drives it. And it always drives it; it never stops driving it no matter how sinful we become. At its most basic, we can see it at work in the way people actively blame others for wrongdoing and in the way they rationalize their own wrongdoing (as Paul describes in Romans). Literally everybody does that from the time they can think and speak; it’s a huge segment of our mental life.

          To use murder as an example, we all know its wrong to kill innocent human beings. That’s precisely why, every time we do kill innocent human beings, conscience compels us to rationalize that they weren’t really innocent (“they had it coming”), that they weren’t really human (“just a glob of tissue”), and so forth. And as we do so, the rationalizations demanded by a guilty conscience drive us into further sin as we try to abide by them when conscience demands some measure of consistency. You can see it in Nazis and abortionists just as easily as in tribes of cannibals (there’s a reason the names of so many different tribes translate to some variation on “the people.” They think of themselves as more human than the other tribes who they regularly murder.) Natural law doesn’t make us good, but it does drive our behavior. Whether civilized or barbaric, you cannot really understand how humans behave without understanding natural law.

          The same is true of the sexual morality within the natural law. Sure, sexually barbaric men will tend towards polygamy while sexually barbaric women tend towards hypergamy. However, these are both corruptions of monogamy that differ according to men’s and women’s different preferences and ways of being self-centered. And when you look for it, that twisted moral impulse for monogamy drives even the behavior of barbarians. It’s why polygamous kings remain jealous of their harems and why those kings in Genesis would have killed Abraham when claiming Sarah for theirs instead of just taking her. It’s why hypergamous women hold such contempt for the men they “had” to leave behind when they traded up and resent them for “forcing” that burden onto them by being so weak or incompetent. It’s also why people like that are never really happy.

          When I speak of a natural impulse towards marriage, I don’t mean that deep down inside, every woman has some virtuous core that really just wants a wholesome marriage with a good man. I’m saying that there exist a broad variety of corrupt & competing impulses & appetites that drive the ways we sin, and that some of these derive from a desire for marriage written into human nature. It’s the flotsam and jetsam of God’s original design smashed by the Fall. It doesn’t make us good people, but it is nevertheless real and active. I agree that we need to start with what people are really like, but I have never found a more effective mechanism of evaluating that than natural law understood in this sense.

          You did have one other question that I think is worth answering specifically. You asked:

          “Do you think it’s fair to say those examples are more about a woman’s obedience and service to God rather than sacrificial love for a man? And, if we’re honest, isn’t the passage from First Peter also about how a woman can wisely get what she wants”

          I would answer “No” and “Yes” respectively. A woman’s submission is the flip-side of her erotic desire for power, aggression, and dominance in a man. You cannot really have one without the other because if there’s no submission, then neither is there any recognition of dominance. She’ll do periodic sh*t tests to make sure its really there, but overall she has to submit to be able to enjoy it. It is a real sacrifice that is also in her interest to make because it gets her what she really wants. Its one of the many paradoxes that arise from it being better to give than to receive.

  2. L Brown says:

    1) Reciprocity can be an important element of human relationships (sexual/marital and otherwise). However, I would urge to consider if that’s really the same thing as self-sacrificial love. I’m not saying it’s bad. But it’s clearly different. Similarly, submission is also something different. These aren’t opposites. And in our relationships they can go together. But if we’re being precise, these are different things. I’ll leave it at that and ask you to give it some thought.

    2) What book, article, or other resource would you point to as a clear exposition of Natural Law that makes the case for viewing/understanding it as you do? Especially regarding this general subject area. Something that clearly distinguishes this perspective from others and tackles what you consider to be ‘close but no cigar’ conceptions of Natural Law and is written for a contemporary audience would be appreciated. If this doesn’t already exist would you consider producing something? (I know your writing has touched on it but to my knowledge you haven’t quite done exactly this. If I’m wrong, let me know.)

    If you’d rather respond with your future work than here in the comments, that’s fine.

    • Matt says:

      The first two books I’d recommend are “The Revenge of Conscience” and “What We Can’t Not Know,” both by J. Budziszewski (a Roman Catholic natural law philosopher at University of Texas; I owe most of my perspective on natural law to him.) RoC gets more into politics, while WWCNK is more directly about ethics. But they’re both written within the past 20 years, and they’re very accessible for a lay audience without too much oversimplifying. Most of the chapters in Revenge of Conscience were originally published in First Things, and I believe most of them are still available for free online.

  3. L Brown says:

    That makes sense. Unfortunately. I used to be a big Budziszewski fan back when I bought what Conservatism Inc was selling. There’s plenty to appreciate from Budziszewski (especially in WWCNK and some other works). But I now understand that he’s influenced by, and is himself part of, the particular strain of Roman Catholic intellectuals and politicos who have run social conservatism in America for decades. These pro-life feminists, catholic social justice warriors, and gynocentric traditionalists are more interested in playing politics than telling the truth. They don’t want to do anything that would really solve the problem. They and their followers and allies in other denominations (as well as many beyond Christianity) imagine themselves to be ‘wise as serpents’. When it comes to building a nice racket for themselves, perhaps they are. But when it comes to their alleged social and political goals they have not only failed miserably, they have actively become part of the problem. Then again, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Neuhaus and the gang were always wrapped up with the neo-conservative project and the ‘compassionate conservative’ agenda and were part of the problem from the beginning.

    I used to wonder why so many who lived conservative lives and expressed very, VERY conservative views would then play along with and serve a system clearly at odds with their beliefs. At home, and in the past, and in theory it’s Saint Paul, Robert A Taft Sr, Katie Luther, CFW Walther, and maybe Herman Otten peeking out from around a corner. But then in the here and now its Saint Amy Coney Barrett, Carly Fiorina, Mona Charen, Ross Douthat, and maybe Matthew Becker sticking his head through the window. I’m no longer confused by this.

    I’m reminded of your advice to me that attempting to push change through established channels is a fool’s game. So in the same way that, despite all the noise, R. R. Reno doesn’t really represent change at FT, you won’t be the vanguard of change in your circles. Still, I think you’re a good influence on Neuhaus acolytes like Wilken and the IE audience, and I’m glad TF publishes your stuff even as I recognize none of these folks are on my side.

  4. L Brown says:

    This might be a bit self-important but I see your recent post ‘The Blessings of Submission: Beauty’ as a response to, or at least informed by, the discussion here. https://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=1125 I think you may have won me over. Nicely done.

    • Matt says:

      Ha; thank you. The basic ideas are from something I wrote 10 years ago, but yes, I did re-verbalize parts of it in light of some recent conversations–this one included. Unfortunately, I’ve just ended up talking about this topic way too much lately.

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