Behaviors, Boundaries and Bromance

Is what we consider appropriate behavior and boundaries as Christians based on the Bible, or on our culture?

Clearly, it’s a little of both. We avoid plain “thou shalt nots” (e.g. the culture says sex is great in many contexts; we teach sex is only appropriate in the type of marriage God set up in the garden of Eden), yet we tend to go with what’s culturally appropriate in how we interact with others (e.g. in Western churches we don’t “greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” though Paul and Peter both tell their readers to).

Part of this makes perfect sense. You don’t dress exactly like people did in Bible times because 1) you can’t find ankle-length robes for everyday wear in stores, 2) clothing designed for a Middle Eastern climate isn’t practical world-wide, and 3) these styles would be considered inappropriate or even immodest in some cultural contexts. So we apply the principle of dressing modestly rather than trying to recreate Biblical fashion.

But what about other topics? How much should we go with what is culturally appropriate verses what is traditionally appropriate in Christian communities?

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Brotherly Affection

After my brother came back from teen camp, I learned that a pastor’s wife was concerned about the hand-holding, arms around shoulders, and hugging going on between the young men at camp. She was especially worried by the use of the term “bromance,” and how the teens’ behavior might be seen in light of the recent Supreme Court decision.

I understand why this upsets adults who have seen their culture change from “men don’t have feelings” to one that encourages male expression of emotion and accepts homosexuality (two things not necessarily related, except in this sort of discussion). I know why young men expressing affection for their guy friends scares middle aged and older adults. I’m just not sure God shares their fears.

Then he [Joseph] fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. Moreover he kissed all his brothers and wept over them, and after that his brothers talked with him.(Gen 45:14-15)

Similar scenes play out when Esau and Jacob are reunited (Gen. 33:4), when Joseph sees his father again (Gen. 46:29), when the Prodigal son returns (Luke 15:20), and when Paul says good-bye to the Ephesians elders (Acts 20:36-37). Now, you might say they just got swept away in emotional reunions or partings and that this wasn’t common among friends and brothers, but what about this scene?

When Jesus had said these things, He was troubled in spirit, and testified and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me.” Then the disciples looked at one another, perplexed about whom He spoke.

Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask who it was of whom He spoke. Then, leaning back on Jesus’ breast, he said to Him, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:21-23)

Obviously Jesus wasn’t doing anything wrong — He never sinned! Yet if our young men in the church lean against each other at a supper table, we lecture them on the evils of “bromance.” We make a digression every time we teach on 1 Samuel 20 to explain that David and Jonathan weren’t gay and that there’s nothing wrong with close friendships between guys, but then we lecture young men who have close friends? Talk about mixed signals!

Now, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to interact with other people, but we can’t just make the blanket statement that the Bible forbids physical expressions of affection between two men (or two women, but we have fewer examples to draw from and “besties” aren’t my topic right now). I think we do our young people a grave disservice when we imply that there’s something unnatural about their friendships and make no effort to teach them how to express affection as men and as women. Just saying, “That’s bad, so don’t do it” isn’t going to work – touch is too important as a bonding mechanism among humans and there simply isn’t a Biblical basis for putting distance like that between friends.

Men and Women

All that being said about affection in friendships, there are stricter rules governing the interactions between men and women. I do think it is possible for men and women to be “just friends,” but the closer male and female friends get (physically or emotionally), the harder it is to keep the friendship casual. God created men and women to be attracted to each other — the very first human relationship was a romantic one (Gen. 2:18-24).

I find it interesting that in Genesis 20, when Abimelech takes Sarah away from Abraham thinking she is his sister, that God tells Abimelech in a dream, “I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gen 20:6). While this Hebrew word can euphemistically mean “to lie with a woman,” it’s not the typical word used for sex in the bible. Rather, it’s the word used to command Adam and Eve not to touch the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:3). For Abimelech, just touching another man’s wife would have been sin even though he did it in ignorance.

Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Cor. 6:18-20)marissabaker.wordpress.com

Though I appreciate the fact that we now live in a culture where I can give my guy friends a quick hug when I see them or put a hand on their shoulders in comfort, I think perhaps we have reacted so strongly against the whole courtship idea of “never touch someone of the opposite sex” that boundary lines are becoming blurred.

More and more often at church events, I’m seeing guys and girls hanging on each other, sitting in each other’s laps and cuddling. Some of this is more than is even culturally acceptable among people who are “just friends,” and it confuses people when you try to explain you’re not in a romantic relationship (sometimes, it even confuses one of the two people involved in the friendship). I see no evidence that the Bible encourages or permits unrelated men and women to be as affectionate toward one another as they would be with their male or female friends.

Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity. (1 Tim. 5:1-2)

Notice that not only should we treat our brethren as family, but that we should do so “with all purity.” The woman in Song of Solomon wishes her beloved were seen by others as her brother so she could show him affection in public (Song. 8:1-2) — implying we can show our relatives a level of affection that would be inappropriate among friends and brethren (just as there are things you don’t do with your friends or siblings because they progress to a deeper level of intimacy only allowed in marriage).

Physical touch implies a certain level of intimacy, and different touches belong to different levels of closeness. I use this in my fiction writing all the time — a touch on the arm signals two people are comfortable with each other, an arm around the shoulder is a more intimate boundaries-invading touch that you don’t let just anyone do, hands on someone’s waist or lower back is even closer, and touching someone’s face is extraordinarily intimate (in writing romantic scenes, this often accompanies a kiss). We need to be aware of what our touch is communicating to people — both those we’re interacting with, and those observing us.

Judging What’s Right

In addition to the explicit and implied Biblical guidelines for interacting with same-sex and opposite-sex friends, there are a few other principles we need to consider.

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil. (1 Thes. 5:21-22, KJV)

We’re not supposed to do things that appear evil or may be perceived as sin, even if we think it’s right and acceptable —  “do not let your good be spoken of as evil” (Rom. 14:16). Let’s say you’re a young person and you know in your heart that hugging and cuddling with your best friend is part of a pure, godly relationship. But what do you do if several people confront you about it, saying that it appears wrong and it’s causing other young people to stumble?

Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. (Rom. 14:13)

The freedom we feel knowing we did nothing immoral isn’t always enough. If it’s a question of whether or not to follow a clear command, then we always “ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). But if it’s a case of something being permitted rather than commanded, we have to think about how it impacts others.

There’s nothing “wrong” with a group of close male friends sharing hugs and acting closer than brothers. There’s nothing “wrong” with two female friends sharing a close, affectionate relationship. There’s nothing “wrong” with a woman greeting her brother in Christ with a chaste hug. But all these things can have a hurtful affect if we’re not careful. Just as a couple examples, how do our relaxed boundaries in female friendships affect women struggling with homosexual desires? how does a girl’s feeling that it’s okay to give her guy friends long hugs play with their emotions (or vice versa)? how do “bromances” affect the members of Christ’s body who are offended by the casual play on words?

It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Rom. 14:21-23)

God is watching to see why we do what we do. He’s looking for faith, purity of heart, and a concern for how our actions affect other people. This might be as simple as young men avoiding the word “bromance,” two girls putting an arm around each other’s shoulders instead of sitting in each others laps, or guys and girls giving each other quick hugs instead of an embrace. Or it might require more thoughtfulness and self-examination about how your boundaries and behaviors are affecting other people, and yourself.

Update 9/22/2017: I don’t mean to imply that we must conform ourselves to other people’s standards. We are told to show consideration for our brethren and not do things with the intent that they stumble into sin, but our primary concern should be following God. So if we are going to do something that other Christians may consider unacceptable  we should be able to respectfully respond to them with Biblical evidence that we are behaving in a right and proper manner in God’s eyes. We don’t have to change just to make them happy but we should be able to support our actions from the Bible, just as we’d expect someone who asked us to change something to support their request from the Bible.

marissabaker.wordpress.comCredits: Background picture for the images used in this post by Hernán Piñera, CC BY-SA via Flickr.

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Writing A “Husband List”

Every girl who wants to be married has dreamed about what he will be like. Many of us have written lists of the traits our ideal man will have. Over the years, we’ve also heard various views on writing husband lists. Some people say you should have a list, so you know what you’re looking for. Others say that having a list makes your focus too narrow and that you’re “limiting God.”

Writing A "Husband List"  | marissabaker.wordpress.com
bg image credit: Anonymous on Flickr

I had a nice long list when I was in my teens, then a short list of “must haves,” and now a more specific idea that’s not written down. Recently, though, a married friend encouraged me to write a new list to pray over. She had a list, and when she was in her 30s she met a man who fit every thing she’d been praying for (right down to the kind of car he drove) and married him 2 weeks after their first meeting (yes, you read that right. They’re still happily married and have two teenage kids). I know other girls who’ve been told their standards were “too high” yet found guys who matched everything on the list they were praying for, and there are also ladies like blogger Lucinda McDowell who prayed for 24 things in a husband, and God gave her 23. Writing a list doesn’t make you “too picky” — it means you have standards, and that’s a good thing.

So I started work on my new list. And I thought perhaps other girls might find it useful to read about how I decided what to include. There are articles out there offering lists of non-negotiables for you to base your list on, but even the essential qualities are going to look a bit different for everyone. For example, if you’re Christian, some form of “He’s a practicing believer” is probably at the top of your list, but what does “practicing believer” mean to you?

Just a quick note … guys can write “wife lists” too, and I suspect that much of what I talk about here might be useful for that as well. Since I’m a girl thinking about a future husband, though, that’s what I’m going to focus on for this post.

Free Writing

I’ll be honest — I actually didn’t start with this step, but I think now I should have. You want your list to reflect the things you feel like you “should want” as well as what you truly desire, and so there’s often a feeling of not being able to ask for “little thing” or mention appearance at all. But if we’re honest, things that might seem shallow at first glance are still there in the back of our minds, which means they do matter on some level. Starting with free writing gives us a chance to put those little dreams on paper without feeling bad about them.

Writing A "Husband List" | marissabaker.wordpress.comGrab a piece of paper and just start writing the first phrases and descriptions that pop into your head when you think about what kind of guy you would like to marry. Think about guys (real and fictional) you’ve had crushes on and list the things about them you found attractive. Think about guys you’ve dated and list things that you liked about them, and the opposite of the reason you broke up with him (i.e., if you’re boyfriend didn’t respect your boundaries, you might add “respects my boundaries”). Think about happily married couples you know and list things you want to see in your own marriage. Write down literally anything that you think of, no matter how unrealistic it sounds.

Now look back over your list. Circle anything that 1: doesn’t have to do with physical appearance and 2: you consider absolutely essential in a relationship. You’re looking for things that have to do with who he is as a person, like “loves God,” “good communicator,” and “we worship together.”

Next, look at the things you haven’t circled yet. Cross-out anything that you know is 1: not essential for you in a relationship (I crossed out “rich singing voice”), 2: only related to physical appearance (such as “taller than me), and/or 3: completely unrealistic. While you’re doing this, you might find that you can replace an unrealistic goal with a related realistic goal. For example, instead of “rich as Mr. Darcy” you might list, “able to provide financially for a family.” I would encourage you to pray about the things you want but know are unrealistic. Sometimes, we use unrealistic expectations to push other people away and shield ourselves from being vulnerable in relationships.

Now you have a sheet of paper with things crossed out, things circled, and a few things that are neither. For now, set this list aside.

Red, Yellow, Green

There’s a book called True Love Dates by Christian relationship counselor Debra Fileta that recommends writing three separate lists, and that’s where we’re going to start. Before you spend any more time writing down the things you want in a relationship, we’re going to write a list of things that are never okay.

“Stop” and “Slow”

The first thing you’re going to write is a Red list of traits that always mean “stop” when you notice them in a relationship. If a guy has any characteristic from your Red list, you do not pursue a relationship with him (no matter how many good traits he has). My Red list includes things like “does not believe in God/won’t respect my belief” and “refusal to communicate,” along with others like the examples Debra Fileta gives in her book:

  • Abusiveness (physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual)
  • Dangerous and uncontrolled temper or displays of aggression
  • Pattern of dishonesty or betrayal

The next step is writing a Yellow list. This is for things you’re not sure about and would need serious consideration and discussion before moving forward in a relationship. They give you pause, but don’t mean the relationship can’t work. A few on my list are “previously married” and “trouble handling money.” Here are more examples from True Love Dates:

  • Family of origin issues and problems
  • Unhealthy habits or behaviors
  • Lacks motivation, goals, and dreams

“Go” For It!

green light
credit: Raymond Brown

Now for the fun part — the Green list or “husband list” of things you want to have in your relationship. If Red means stop and Yellow means slow down and reevaluate, Green means you can feel good about going forward with a relationship. Here’s where we get to go back to the free writing exercise.

I sorted my list into four categories: “Personal Values,” “Family and Relationships,” “Makes Me Feel …” and “Personality.” The circled phrases from my free writing exercise ended up in the first three categories, and many of the phrases that were neither circled nor crossed out ended up in one of the last two categories (you might even list a couple of the ones you crossed-out if they are still important to you). I saw the “Personality” category as representing things I want, but some of which could be negotiable. Here’s a few specific items from each list, so you can see what I’m talking about without me sharing a copy of the whole thing:

  • Personal Values
    • follows God and Christ first
    • uses his gifts to serve in some way
    • demonstrates integrity, commitment, faithfulness
  • Family and Relationships
    • respects and helps set boundaries
    • wants children
    • hospitable; welcomes guests and visitors to our home
  • Makes Me Feel …
    • protected and cherished
    • listened to and understood
    • like I’m valuable and contributing to his life
  • Personality
    • slow to anger
    • good communicator
    • enjoys discussing ideas

Looking At Yourself

Now that you have your list, turn it back on yourself and ask if you have those qualities. Would the guy you’ve written about want to date, or marry, you? Some of this should match pretty easily — you wouldn’t list a guy who wants 6 kids if you didn’t want 6 kids.

Others might be harder. If you listed a man who spends time with God every day, will he want to marry you if you regularly forget to study? Or if you ask for a guy who will never cheat on you, are you prepared to be faithful to him? If you want an Ephesians 5 husband, will you be an Ephesians 5 wife?

I hope this post was helpful to you — writing the list that inspired it has certainly helped me. While we know that God knows exactly what we need without us telling Him, I think it is helpful for us to have something more to ask Him than “please give me a good husband.” You’re putting effort into pursuing a relationship by figuring out what it is you’re looking for. God bless you, my dear readers.

Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. (Ps. 37:4)

 

“Thinking” Women and “Feeling” Men

One of the ways we relate Myers-Briggs type to culture is by saying most Feeling types are women and most Thinking types are men. This seems to work quite nicely as a partial explanation for gender stereotypes in Western culture. In spite of social pushes to break-down gender distinctions, Feeling-type attributes (emotionally expressive, nurturing, relational, etc.) are typically considered “female” and Thinking attributes (impersonal, fact-oriented, business-like, etc.) are considered more “male.”

If we fit this generalization, we probably haven’t even noticed it. If you’re a woman with traditionally feminine traits or a man with traditionally masculine traits, there’s little pressure to change (though there are exceptions, of course). But if you’re a woman whose mind naturally makes decisions in an impersonal way or a man who prefers harmony to competition chances are someone has told you at some point that there’s something wrong with you.

Type Distribution

As with many generalizations, there’s a whole slew of problems related to this observation. According to the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, about 57 to 84 percent of women are Feeling types and about 47 to 72 percent of men are Thinking types. It’s hard to get exact numbers on type distribution, but even these broad estimates show that, while the generalization holds true, there are also quite a few Feeling men and Thinking women.

"Thinking" Women and "Feeling" Men | LikeAnAnchor.comJust in my family of 5, there are three good examples of exceptions to the general rule that most men are Thinkers and most women are Feelers. My dad (ISFJ) and brother (ENFJ) are both Feeling types, and my sister (INTJ) is a thinking type. My mother has asked me not to type her, but as an INFJ I might be the only one in my family who fits the “women are Feeling types” generalization.

Thinking vs. Feeling

Lest these generalizations lead you to conclude Thinking people don’t have emotions or that Feeling people can’t be intelligent, let’s take a quick look at what Thinking and Feeling refer to when we’re talking about Myers-Briggs types. Both Thinking and Feeling are Judging functions, meaning they describe how you like to make decisions. Read more

Nice Guys and Bad Boys

Killian Jones, from Once Upon A Time
Captain Hook, from Once Upon A Time

“Nice guys finish last” and “Girls like bad boys.” You hear it all the time. It’s common knowledge, so it must be true, right? I’ve even said or thought similar things my self — “He’s a nice guy, but I just don’t find him attractive” or “I know he’s a bad guy, but there’s good in him.”

There are several psychological reasons why girls are attracted to “bad boys.” They might be looking for someone who reminds them of their father, or someone who is his complete opposite. They might enjoy the thrill of being around someone who takes risks and seeks out adventure and excitement. They might want to redeem him or enjoy the idea of being the one person he actually cares about.

I think one of the main attractions, though, — and a reason that stereotypical “nice guys” fall short — is confidence. Bad boys project an image of “I know who I am, I like who I am, and I know what I want.” That’s incredibly attractive. Even if it’s covering a vulnerable core, that self-assurance tells girls that you aren’t looking for them to complete you or mother you. You don’t have to be good to be confident, or for that confidence to be attractive.

King Arthur, from Merlin
King Arthur, from Merlin

The problem with the stereotypical “nice guy” isn’t so much the fact that they are nice, but rather that they are self-effacing and lack confidence. They project an image of “I don’t expect you to like me,  but it would be nice if you did anyway.” Most girls would like to be treated well, but it’s not exciting to be treated well by a guy who doesn’t like himself and doesn’t give you much reason to see him as a romantic option.

But what happens if you pair being nice and gentlemanly with confidence? suddenly you’re the most attractive man in the room. You’re King Arthur or Thor. Even if you’re not confident romantically, simply having confidence in other areas and knowing who you are, why you have value, and what you want is still very attractive. Think Captain America and Mr. Darcy.

5 Weird Ideas I Picked Up From Courtship

If you grew up in a conservative Christian setting or the home-school community of the late 1990s and early 2000s, you mostly likely read I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. After its release in 1997, it quickly became the go-to book in the courtship-vs-dating debate. If your friends didn’t hand it to you with an enthusiastic, “You have to read this book,” your mom probably thought it “would be good for you.” Or maybe you just picked it up on your own because of that suave guy on the cover tipping his hat (you know what I’m talking about, girls).

When I first read this book as a very “Christian” never-been-kissed teenager, all this courtship stuff seemed like a good idea. I mean, who doesn’t want a relationship guaranteed to lead to true love while keeping both God and your parent’s happy? The problem is, courtship doesn’t reliably work, and it gives you some pretty weird ideas to carry around if you eventually start trying to date like a semi-normal person.

Never Be Alone With A Guy

After reading I Kissed Dating Goodbye, my teenage self wrote up a list of things I would and wouldn’t do now that I knew the “right” way to interact with guys. Number 4 on my list was “ I will not put myself in a potentially compromising situation by being alone with a guy unless there are other people in the near vicinity.”

For us girls, this idea makes interacting with both married and single men awkward because you just know if you’re alone with them for any length of time you’re practically forcing them to have impure thoughts about you. This simply isn’t true, but having that idea in the back of your mind makes you feel guilty even in completely innocent situations. There are other concerns, though, such as what other people will think and the fact that you really don’t want to be alone with some people, so just use some common sense.

Brothers, Not Boyfriends

That cute guy or girl you walked past at the supermarket? the coworker who smiles at you every morning? They are not potential dating material. Girls, you’re are supposed to treat every man you meet just like you would your brother. If you even think about him as a potential boyfriend, you need to get your thoughts under control because you’re defrauding him and his future wife (who probably won’t be you). The reverse advice is considered true for guys.

There are several problems with this idea. 1) Even after being told how “wrong” this is, you still wonder (even briefly) if every attractive man or woman you meet is “the one.” The only difference is you feel guilty about it. 2) I’m perfectly comfortable leaning against my brother’s shoulder, looping my arm through his, going to him when I need help with something, and laughing and talking freely with him. That’s okay, because he actually is my brother. If I treat another guy like that, he’ll think I’m flirting and people will ask if we’re dating. 3) if you really do succeed in thinking of all your friends in a completely unromantic way, you’re less likely to pursue a romance.

Daddy Has To Approve

Ideally in courtship, a man will decide he wants to pursue a relationship with a girl he is friends with, and then he will ask her father for permission to court her. As a young teen, having parental approval before you go out on a date makes sense when you have involved, caring parents. But courtship extends this principle to any age, and it becomes more and more impractical as you get older.  If a girl plans to move out of her parent’s house, go to school, or work outside their home, she’ll end up interacting with men who’ve never even met her parents and who haven’t heard of courtship. Have fun trying to explain to a really great guy who just asked you out for coffee that he needs to talk with your dad first because there’s no such thing as a casual date.

Personally, I have a good relationship with both my parents and I want them to approve any man I marry or even seriously date. However, they haven’t met all the guys I know, and I’d be comfortable going out with a guy who hasn’t met my parents but is respected by our mutual friends. Other girls don’t have a good relationship — or any relationship — with their parents. Courtship gives the impression that if her father is not in the picture, the guy better hope there’s a male authority figure in her life to talk to because heaven forbid she make up her own mind about something like this.

First Comes Courtship, Then Comes Marriage

Up until a couple is officially courting, they aren’t supposed to be alone or interact romantically in any way. Groups outings are the rule. Then as soon as they’re courting, they are set on the fast-track to marriage (it’s basically like an engagement, which makes proposals almost a moot point). Either you’re “just friends,” or you’re “exploring the possibility of marriage.” There’s no in between.

courtship

This brings us to a problem with courtship that underlies all the ones we’ve talked about already — courtship assumes that every interaction between men and women is extremely weighty. You can’t go on a casual date hoping to get to know someone better because courtship tells you  there’s no such thing as a “casual date.” You’re either friends, or you’re on the road to marriage.

Most people I know who’ve bought into the idea of courtship don’t actually get to the courtship part. It’s too intimidating of a commitment. When you leave courtship and try to date normally, though, you still have this idea that if a guy asks a girl out, that must mean he’s thinking of marrying her someday.

No Touching!

Courtship rules say absolutely no physical intimacy before you’re married. Depending on who you talk to, this even includes hand holding, hugs, or a quick kiss. Also, they add in the idea of “emotional sex” so that even having feelings for someone becomes wrong. Now, I do believe that God intends His people to save sex until marriage, but going to this extreme is a recipe for – you guessed it – more guilt.

People have written whole articles about how the teachings of physical and emotional purity from courtship books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye actually damage healthy relationships. You second-guess every hand-hold and shoulder touch, wondering if you’re sending the “wrong message.” You’re scared to fall in love because you don’t want to give pieces of your heart away to someone you might not marry, as if caring about someone leaves you with less capacity to care about someone else later (I wrote a whole post addressing this idea).

So what’s the alternative? The Christian community ran away from worldly dating for a reason, and those problems (like shallow short-term relationships and accelerated intimacy) are still there. But courtship didn’t give us a viable alternative. Instead, I rather like the idea of going back to a more old-fashioned version of dating (as suggested by Thomas Umstattd, whom I also linked to in the intro). Debra Fileta supports a similar idea in her book and website True Love Dates. It’s not perfect, and I don’t think relationships will every be easy, but at least it sounds better than courtship!

Some Thoughts on Feminism and Modesty

Amazon.com: A Return to Modesty
Amazon.com: A Return to Modesty

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I recently read a book called A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. One of the first things she tackles in this book is the “polarized debate about sex,” particularly between the conservatives and the feminists.

She challenges conservatives to “take the claims of feminists seriously,” because you can dismiss however many studies and stories you like as “exaggeration” but the fact remains that “a lot of young women are very unhappy …. I want conservatives to really listen to these women, to stop saying boys will be boys, and to take what these women are saying seriously.”

To the feminists, Shalit writes, “I want to invite them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy.” We’ve gotten rid of that just about as much as possible, and things have gotten worse rather than better. Perhaps men aren’t the enemy.

This book was published in 1999. That was almost 16 years ago, and we are still dealing with the exact same issues. We see conservative Rush Limbaugh respond to a street harassment video by describing it as not a big deal because the men were just being polite, and there are still rants about patriarchy on Jezebel.com (language/content warning).

But just a little over two months ago Emma Watson, British actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, gave a speech about feminism where her vision for gender equality sounded remarkably similar to ideas Wendy Shalit arrives at while defending the power of modesty. Are we starting to find common ground, and is there hope for a peaceful resolution to “the war between the sexes”?

A Trip to the 18th Century

It might seem odd to take a 3-century detour when talking about issues in modern culture. But when I started reading Francis Burney’s novels Cecelia (1782) and Camilla (1796) as part of an independent study my junior year of college, I was struck by how the gender issues facing those heroines were so remarkably like what women in my church regularly complain about. Where are the “real men?” we ask, looking around and seeing adult men who act like overgrown boys and have little interest in committing to marriage. We typically blame feminism, for telling boys that it was wrong to be “masculine” and to stop oppressing girls by taking care of them.

Portrait of Francis Burney by her relative Edward Burney

A contemporary of Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), which is often considered one of the first feminist writings. When you actually read her book, however, it becomes clear that she is arguing for arguing for a reexamination, not a dismissal, of the traditional roles between men and women. She believes men and women are equal in God’s eyes, but that argument doesn’t mean they don’t both have distinct roles to fill.

Both these writers were responding to a moment called “sentimentality,” which encouraged men to indulge their emotions and abandon their traditional roles of protectors and providers. The result was something like what we see today — when men are no longer encouraged to protect or respect women, more and more women are victimized. That’s where we made our mistake, both in the 18th and the 20th/21st centuries. We thought men would treat women better if we told them to stop being manly, when in fact the opposite is true.

HeForShe

When Emma Watson introduced her talk about gender equality and the #HeForShe campaign, she first addressed issues people have with the word “feminism.”

the more I spoke about feminism, the more I realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop. For the record, feminism by definition is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes.

One of the key points of Watson’s speech is that both men and women must be working together if we are ever to achieve a gender equality that benefits and protects both men and women.

How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too. Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society, despite my need of his presence as a child, as much as my mother’s. I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. …

If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong.

When we turn issues of gender into a “battle of the sexes” instead of a friendly discussion or a cause to work on together, both men and women lose the battle. You can’t build peaceful relations on a foundation of strife.

Courteous Men

Wendy Shalit discusses essentially the same issue, though she comes from the perspective of restoring part of the traditional gender roles (I suspect Burney and Wollstonecraft would both approve). Rather than pushing for an increasingly “nonsexist” approach to raising boys (in this example), she argues for “a good dose of sexist upbringing: how to relate as a man to a woman.”

Today we want to pretend there are no differences between the sexes …. We try to cure them of what is distinctive instead of cherishing these differences and directing them towards each other in a meaningful way. We can never succeed in curing men and women of being men and women, however, and so these differences emerge anyway — only when they do, the emerge in their crudest, most untutored form (p.153).

Frontispiece to ‘The English Gentleman and English Gentlewoman’ by Richard Braithwaite, 1641

She also goes back to a previous century to illustrate her arguments, all the way to 1630 and 1631 — the years Richard Brathwait’s The English Gentleman and The English Gentlewoman were published. Shalit’s reading of these texts is that  there was a “link between male obligation and female modesty” where men attained “perfection” by treating women with respect (p.99-102). In this century, men were not compelled to respect women by an outside authority — they were taught that this  was the only way for real men to behave.

The argument from external authority labels a man as evil if he date-rapes or sexually harasses a woman. From the standpoint of modesty, he is behaving abominably, but more crucially, he is really missing the whole point. He hasn’t understood what it means to be a man (p.104).

The feminists who see patriarchy as oppressive balk at this idea, but Shalit assures them, “I doubt that if men are taught to relate courteously to women, women would be suddenly thrown out of all the professions, as some contend. Maybe, on the contrary, it would be much easier for the sexes to work together.” Isn’t this, at its core, what Emma Watson’s brand of feminism is asking for? men and women who can work together toward common goals with mutual respect. Isn’t that something we all want?