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The End of Courtship, Part 2

Dr. Leon Kass, respected author, professor and bio-ethicist, puts words to our worst fears in this second excerpt from a three-part series. Though it's discouraging news, being able to expose the problem is the first step toward finding a solution.  

Part1: The End of Courtship »

Sexual Technology and Technique

The sexual revolution that liberated (especially) female sexual desire from the confines of marriage, and even from love and intimacy, would almost certainly not have occurred had there not been available cheap and effective female birth control — the pill — which for the first time severed female sexual activity from its generative consequences. Thanks to technology, a woman could declare herself free from the teleological meaning of her sexuality — as free as a man appears to be from his. Her menstrual cycle, since puberty a regular reminder of her natural maternal destiny, is now anovulatory and directed instead by her will and her medications, serving goals only of pleasure and convenience, enjoyable without apparent risk to personal health and safety. Woman on the pill is thus not only freed from the practical risk of pregnancy; she has, wittingly or not, begun to redefine the meaning of her own womanliness. Her sexuality unlinked to procreation, its exercise no longer needs to be concerned with the character of her partner and whether he is suitable to be the father and co-rearer of her yet-to-be-born children. Female sexuality becomes, like male, unlinked to the future. The new woman’s anthem: Girls just want to have fun. Ironically, but absolutely predictably, the chemicals devised to assist in family planning keep many a potential family from forming, at least with a proper matrimonial beginning.

Sex education in our elementary and secondary schools is an independent yet related obstacle to courtship and marriage. Taking for granted, and thereby ratifying, precocious sexual activity among teenagers (and even pre-teens), most programs of sex education in public schools have a twofold aim: the prevention of teenage pregnancy and the prevention of venereal disease, especially AIDS. While some programs also encourage abstinence or non-coital sex, most are concerned with teaching techniques for “safe sex”; offspring (and disease) are thus treated as (equally) avoidable side effects of sexuality, whose true purpose is only individual pleasure. (This I myself did not learn until our younger daughter so enlightened me, after she learned it from her seventh-grade biology teacher.) The entire approach of sex education is technocratic and, at best, morally neutral; in many cases, it explicitly opposes traditional morals while moralistically insisting on the equal acceptability of any and all forms of sexual expression provided only that they are not coerced. No effort is made to teach the importance of marriage as the proper home for sexual intimacy.

But perhaps still worse than such amorality — and amorality on this subject is itself morally culpable — is the failure of sex education to attempt to inform and elevate the erotic imagination of the young. On the contrary, the very attention to physiology and technique is deadly to the imagination. True sex education is an education of the heart; it concerns itself with beautiful and worthy beloveds, with elevating transports of the soul. The energy of sexual desire, if properly sublimated, is transformable into genuine and lofty longings — not only for love and romance but for all the other higher human yearnings. The sonnets and plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Keats and Shelley, and the novels of Jane Austen can incline a heart to woo, and even show one whom and how. What kind of wooers can one hope to cultivate from reading the sex manuals — or from watching the unsublimated and unsublime sexual athleticism of the popular culture? …

Crippled by Divorce

The ubiquitous experience of divorce is also deadly for courtship and marriage. Some people try to argue, wishfully against the empirical evidence, that children of divorce will marry better than their parents because they know how important it is to choose well. But the deck is stacked against them. Not only are many of them frightened of marriage, in whose likely permanence they simply do not believe, but they are often maimed for love and intimacy. They have had no successful models to imitate; worse, their capacity for trust and love has been severely crippled by the betrayal of the primal trust all children naturally repose in their parents, to provide that durable, reliable, and absolutely trustworthy haven of permanent and unconditional love in an otherwise often unloving and undependable world. Countless students at the University of Chicago have told me and my wife that the divorce of their parents has been the most devastating and life-shaping event of their lives. They are conscious of the fact that they enter into relationships guardedly and tentatively; for good reason, they believe that they must always be looking out for No. 1. Accordingly, they feel little sense of devotion to another and, their own needs unmet, they are not generally eager for or partial to children. They are not good bets for promise keeping, and they haven’t enough margin for generous service. And many of the fatherless men are themselves unmanned for fatherhood, except in the purely biological sense. Even where they dream of meeting a true love, these children of divorce have a hard time finding, winning and committing themselves to the right one. In years past, students identified with Hamlet because of his desire to make a difference in the world. Today, they identify with him because of his “broken home” — the death of his father and the too-hasty remarriage of his mother. Thus, to them it is no wonder that he, like they, has trouble in his “relationships.”

It is surely the fear of making a mistake in marriage, and the desire to avoid a later divorce, that leads some people to undertake cohabitation, sometimes understood by the couple to be a “trial marriage” — although they are often one or both of them self-deceived (or other-deceiving). It is far easier, so the argument goes, to get to know one another by cohabiting than by the artificial systems of courting or dating of yesteryear. But such arrangements, even when they eventuate in matrimony, are, precisely because they are a trial, not a trial of marriage. Marriage is not something one tries on for size, and then decides whether to keep; it is rather something one decides with a promise, and then bends every effort to keep.

Lacking the formalized and public ritual, and especially the vows or promises of permanence (or “commitment”) that subtly but surely shape all aspects of genuine marital life, cohabitation is an arrangement of convenience, with each partner taken on approval and returnable at will. Many are, in fact, just playing house — sex and meals shared with the rent. When long-cohabiting couples do later marry, whether to legitimate prospective offspring, satisfy parental wishes, or just because “it now seems right,” post-marital life is generally regarded and experienced as a continuation of the same, not as a true change of estate. The formal rite of passage that is the wedding ceremony is, however welcome and joyous, also something of a mockery: Everyone, not only the youngest child present, wonders, if only in embarrassed silence, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Given that they have more or less drifted into marriage, it should come as no great surprise that couples who have lived together before marriage have a higher, not lower, rate of divorce than those who have not. Too much familiarity? Disenchantment? Or is it rather the lack of wooing — that is, that marriage was not seen from the start as the sought-for relationship, as the goal that beckoned and guided the process of getting-to-know-you?

Feminism Against Marriage

That the cause of courtship has been severely damaged by feminist ideology and attitudes goes almost without saying. Even leaving aside the radical attacks on traditional sex roles, on the worth of motherhood or the vanishing art of homemaking, and sometimes even on the whole male race, the re-conception of all relations between the sexes as relations based on power is simply deadly for love. Anyone who has ever loved or been loved knows the difference between love and the will to power, no matter what the cynics say. But the cynical new theories, and the resulting push toward androgyny, surely inhibit the growth of love.

On the one side, there is a rise in female assertiveness and efforts at empowerment, with a consequent need to deny all womanly dependence and the kind of vulnerability that calls for the protection of strong and loving men, protection such men were once — and would still be — willing to provide. On the other side, we see the enfeeblement of men, who, contrary to the dominant ideology, are not likely to become better lovers, husbands or fathers if they too become feminists or fellow-travelers. On the contrary, many men now cynically exploit women’s demands for equal power by letting them look after themselves — pay their own way, hold their own doors, fight their own battles, travel after dark by themselves. These ever so sensitive males will defend not a woman’s honor but her right to learn the manly art of self-defense. In the present climate, those increasingly rare men who are still inclined to be gentlemen must dissemble their generosity as submissiveness….Truth to tell, the reigning ideology often rules only people’s tongues, not their hearts. Many a young woman secretly hopes to meet and catch a gentleman, though the forms that might help her do so are either politically incorrect or simply unknown to her. In my wife’s course on Henry James’ The Bostonians, the class’ most strident feminist, who had all term denounced patriarchy and male hegemonism, honestly confessed in the last class that she wished she could meet a Basil Ransom who would carry her off. But the way to her heart is blocked by her prickly opinions and by those of the dominant ethos.

The problem is not woman’s desire for meaningful work. It is rather the ordering of one’s loves. Many women have managed to combine work and family; the difficulty is finally not work but careers, or, rather, careerism. Careerism, now an equal opportunity affliction, is surely no friend to love or marriage; and the careerist character of higher education is greater than ever. Women are under special pressures to prove they can be as dedicated to their work as men. Likewise, in the work place, they must do man’s work like a man, and for man’s pay and perquisites. Consequently, they are compelled to regard private life, and especially marriage, homemaking and family, as lesser goods, to be pursued only by those lesser women who can aspire no higher than “baking cookies.” Besides, many women in such circumstances have nothing left to give, “no time to get involved.” And marriage, should it come for careerist women, is often compromised from the start, what with the difficulty of finding two worthy jobs in the same city, or commuter marriage, or the need to negotiate or get hired help for every domestic and familial task.

Besides these greater conflicts of time and energy, the economic independence of women, however welcome on other grounds, is itself not an asset for marital stability, as both the woman and the man can more readily contemplate leaving a marriage. Indeed, a woman’s earning power can become her own worst enemy when the children are born. Many professional women who would like to stay home with their new babies nonetheless work full time. Tragically, some cling to their economic independence because they worry that their husbands will leave them for another woman before the children are grown. What are these women looking for in prospective husbands? Do their own career preoccupations obscure their own prospective maternal wishes and needs? Indeed, what understanding of marriage informed their decision to marry in the first place?

Not Ready for Adulthood

This question in fact represents a more subtle, but most profound, impediment to wooing and marriage: deep uncertainty about what marriage is and means, and what purpose it serves. In previous generations, people chose to marry, but they were not compelled also to choose what marriage meant. Is it a sacrament, a covenant or a contract based on calculation of mutual advantage? Is it properly founded on eros, friendship or economic advantage? Is marriage a vehicle for personal fulfillment and private happiness, a vocation of mutual service, or a task to love the one whom it has been given me to love? Are marital vows still to be regarded as binding promises that both are duty-bound to keep or, rather, as quaint expressions of current hopes and predictions that, should they be mistaken, can easily be nullified? Having in so many cases already given their bodies to one another — not to speak of the previous others — how does one understand the link between marriage and conjugal fidelity? And what, finally, of that first purpose of marriage, procreation, for whose sake societies everywhere have instituted and safeguarded this institution? For, truth to tell, were it not for the important obligations to care for and rear the next generation, no society would finally much care about who couples with whom, or for how long.

This brings me to what is probably the deepest and most intractable obstacle to courtship and marriage: a set of cultural attitudes and sensibilities that obscure and even deny the fundamental difference between youth and adulthood. Marriage, especially when seen as the institution designed to provide for the next generation, is most definitely the business of adults, by which I mean, people who are serious about life, people who aspire to go outward and forward to embrace and to assume responsibility for the future. To be sure, most college graduates do go out, find jobs and become self-supporting (though, astonishingly, a great many do return to live at home). But, though out of the nest, they don’t have a course to fly. They do not experience their lives as a trajectory, with an inner meaning partly given by the life cycle itself. The carefreeness and independence of youth they do not see as a stage on the way to maturity, in which they then take responsibility for the world and especially, as parents, for the new lives that will replace them. The necessities of aging and mortality are out of sight; few feel the call to serve a higher goal or some transcendent purpose.

The view of life as play has often characterized the young. But, remarkably, today this is not something regrettable, to be outgrown as soon as possible; for their narcissistic absorption in themselves and in immediate pleasures and present experiences, the young are not condemned but are even envied by many of their elders. Parents and children wear the same cool clothes, speak the same lingo, listen to the same music. Youth, not adulthood, is the cultural ideal, at least as celebrated in the popular culture. Yes, everyone feels themselves to be always growing, as a result of this failed relationship or that change of job. But very few aspire to be fully grown-up, and the culture does not demand it of them, not least because many prominent grown-ups would gladly change places with today’s 20-somethings. Why should a young man be eager to take his father’s place, if he sees his father running away from it with all deliberate speed? How many so-called grown-ups today agree with C. S. Lewis: “I envy youth its stomach, not its heart”? …

Deeper Cultural Causes

So this is our situation. But just because it is novel and of recent origin does not mean that it is reversible or even that it was avoidable. Indeed, virtually all of the social changes we have so recently experienced are the bittersweet fruits of the success of our modern democratic, liberal, enlightened society — celebrating equality, freedom and universal secularized education, and featuring prosperity, mobility and astonishing progress in science and technology. Even brief reflection shows how the dominant features of the American way of life are finally inhospitable to the stability of marriage and family life and to the mores that lead people self-consciously to marry.

Tocqueville already observed the unsettling implications of American individualism, each person seeking only in himself for the reasons for things. The celebration of equality gradually undermines the authority of religion, tradition, and custom, and, within families, of husbands over wives and fathers over sons. A nation dedicated to safeguarding individual rights to liberty and the privately defined pursuit of happiness is, willy-nilly, preparing the way for the “liberation” of women; in the absence of powerful non-liberal cultural forces, such as traditional biblical religion, that defend sex-linked social roles, androgyny in education and employment is the most likely outcome. Further, our liberal approach to important moral issues in terms of the rights of individuals — e.g., contraception as part of a right to privacy, or abortion as belonging to a woman’s right over her own body, or procreation as governed by a right to reproduce — flies in the face of the necessarily social character of sexuality and marriage. The courtship and marriage of people who see themselves as self-sufficient rights-bearing individuals will be decisively different from the courtship and marriage of people who understand themselves as, say, unavoidably incomplete and dependent children of the Lord who have been enjoined to be fruitful and multiply….

The Natural Obstacle

Not all the obstacles to courtship and marriage are cultural. At bottom, there is also the deeply ingrained, natural waywardness and unruliness of the human male. Sociobiologists were not the first to discover that males have a penchant for promiscuity and polygyny — this was well known to biblical religion. Men are also naturally more restless and ambitious than women; lacking woman’s powerful and immediate link to life’s generative answer to mortality, men flee from the fear of death into heroic deed, great quests, or sheer distraction after distraction. One can make a good case that biblical religion is, not least, an attempt to domesticate male sexuality and male erotic longings, and to put them in the service of transmitting a righteous and holy way of life through countless generations.

For as long as American society kept strong its uneasy union between modern liberal political principles and Judeo-Christian moral and social beliefs, marriage and the family could be sustained and could even prosper. But the gender-neutral individualism of our political teaching has, it seems, at last won the day, and the result has been male “liberation” — from domestication, from civility, from responsible self-command. Contemporary liberals and conservatives alike are trying to figure out how to get men “to commit” to marriage, or to keep their marital vows, or to stay home with the children, but their own androgynous view of humankind prevents them from seeing how hard it has always been to make a monogamous husband and devoted father out of the human male.

Ogden Nash had it right: “Hogamus higamus, men are polygamous; higamus hogamus, women monogamous.” To make naturally polygamous men accept the conventional institution of monogamous marriage has been the work of centuries of Western civilization, with social sanctions, backed by religious teachings and authority, as major instruments of the transformation, and with female modesty as the crucial civilizing device. As these mores and sanctions disappear, courtship gives way to seduction and possession, and men become again the sexually, familially, and civically irresponsible creatures they are naturally always in danger of being. At the top of the social ladder, executives walk out on their families and take up with trophy wives. At the bottom of the scale, low-status males, utterly uncivilized by marriage, return to the fighting gangs, taking young women as prizes for their prowess. Rebarbarization is just around the corner. Courtship, anyone?

Part 3: The End of Courtship »

Copyright 1997 Leon R. Kass. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Leon R. Kass

Leon R. Kass is Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and The College at the University of Chicago and author of several books, including The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature and The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis.

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