Puzzlement at Pence: How the World Lost Intimacy and Doesn’t Know It

Initials on a tree

Last week, the Washington Post reported that vice president Mike Pence avoids dining one-on-one with women other than his wife, and the internet erupted. Pence’s policy was puritanical, silly, sexist. It might, in fact, be “rape culture at work” according to one writer, because it shows “we still live in a culture that produces vice-presidents who ardently believe women are a wellspring of possible sin.”

The obvious rebuttals are, well, obvious. There’s the fact that Pence might possibly be avoiding extended social time alone with other women not because he believes women are the root of all evil but because, of the two genders, only one of them can offer any temptation to compromise his marriage. (If an influential woman avoided dining alone with other men, would that be sexism against men?) Then there’s the cynical amusement of listening to 20-something singles earnestly pontificate about healthy relationship boundaries. And there’s the hypocrisy angle: Apparently Bill’s serial adultery is no one’s business but the Clintons’, but Pence’s attempt to avoid adultery is a threat to the republic which demands endless think pieces.

But as I perused the flood of commentary which followed the revelation of what was dubbed “the Pence Rule,” I was struck by something else: the amount of sheer puzzlement over why such a self-imposed restriction might be needed or helpful. One journalist wondered whether “social conservatives actually have higher libidos on average, hence the greater perceived need to control sexual desire.”

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About modesty

I read an article recently which explained that the Christian ideal of female modesty justified sexual assault by making a man’s self-control the responsibility of the woman. My interest today isn’t in offering a lengthy rebuttal to that argument. In fact, I’ll confine myself to noting the Lord’s scathing response to King David over his adultery with Bathsheba, regardless of how he might have been tempted beforehand by her decision to bathe in plain sight of the palace. Clearly, divine appreciation for “she made me do it” excuses hasn’t increased since Adam tried it. Strawmen aside, though, the article’s underlying perspective that encouraging modesty means putting on women a responsibility that rightly belongs to men is one that I’ve seen frequently echoed in recent discussions among Christians.

In some ways, it’s an appropriate correction. There have certainly been segments of evangelical Christianity which have, in practice if not usually in theory, placed very disproportionate responsibility on women for maintaining sexual purity. I still recall hearing a young lady matter-of-factly describe how, when her boyfriend groped her while they were kissing, she would always swat his hand to help him remember (apparently unsuccessfully) not to do it again. It didn’t seem to occur to either of them that the fellow himself might need to exercise some self-control, perhaps with accompanying reading from Matthew 5:30 for motivation. And it’s absolutely heartbreaking to hear some women describe growing up terrified of predatory males whose inevitable lustfulness it was the girl’s job to prevent by becoming a social nullity swathed in protective layers of cloth. So, yes, absolutely: if we forget that the biblical model for men is Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, not David with Bathsheba, then we have gotten things badly off-balance. However, it’s awfully hard to avoid overshooting the mark as the pendulum swings back, and I’m afraid we may be seeing that happen.

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A vampire gentleman

In an interesting review of the execrable Twilight series for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan suggests that a major factor in the series’ popularity with teenage girls is the unique dynamic between Bella, the female protagonist, and her love interest Edward, who inconveniently happens to be a vampire. Flanagan writes,

Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof. […]

As he gradually explains, Edward has been avoiding and scorning Bella not because he loathes her but because he is so carnally attracted to her that he cannot trust himself to be around her for even a moment. The mere scent of her hair is powerful enough that he is in a constant struggle to avoid taking—and thereby destroying—her. […]

The erotic relationship between Bella and Edward is what makes this book—and the series—so riveting to its female readers. There is no question about the exact nature of the physical act that looms over them. Either they will do it or they won’t, and afterward everything will change for Bella, although not for Edward. Nor is the act one that might result in an equal giving and receiving of pleasure. If Edward fails—even once—in his great exercise in restraint, he will do what the boys in the old pregnancy-scare books did to their girlfriends: he will ruin her. More exactly, he will destroy her, ripping her away from the world of the living and bringing her into the realm of the undead. […] In the course of the four books, Bella will be repeatedly tempted—to have sex outside of marriage, to have an abortion as a young married woman, to abandon the responsibilities of a good and faithful mother—and each time, she makes the “right” decision. The series does not deploy these themes didactically or even moralistically. Clearly Meyer was more concerned with questions of romance and supernatural beings than with instructing young readers how to lead their lives. What is interesting is how deeply fascinated young girls, some of them extremely bright and ambitious, are by the questions the book poses, and by the solutions their heroine chooses.

It appears that young women are tired of a culture where being a gentleman means not forcing yourself on the girl after she says no. There is something wrong with a relationship dynamic where it is the woman’s role to persist in holding off an infantilized male bent on going as far as she will allow, and ironically enough, we have left it up to a moody, vegetarian vampire to remind us of that fact.

Katharine Hepburn, Paris Hilton, and mystery

One of the ideas that I found most interesting in A Return to Modesty is Wendy Shalit’s suggestion that modesty is inherently more erotic than today’s overt sexuality. A quick mental comparison of Katharine Hepburn with Paris Hilton supports Shalit’s thesis that the blunt appeal of “nothing left to the imagination” sexuality does little to compensate for the accompanying death of mystery. We want dim, flickering candles – not a bank of fluorescent lamps – when we plan a romantic evening.

I am reminded of a passage from Quo Vadis in which a debauched Roman patrician glances at a floating barge of nude women and comments that a thousand naked women are somehow less appealing than a single one. In a sex-permeated culture, we have lost the mystery that makes sex anything more than a biological act. If you’ve already seen everything, and done most of it, sex becomes nothing but masturbation with a partner – certainly nothing to get particularly excited about, which might be why increasing numbers of otherwise-healthy young men are having trouble getting, err, excited.

Nudists insist that naturism isn’t about sex. One almost immediately becomes used to the nudity of those around you, they explain, and it ceases to be sexually appealing. Familiarity, it seems, does indeed breed contempt, or at least disinterest.

You should be ashamed if you are male. Or female.

Conservatives frequently lament the cultural attitude that it is a shameful thing to be male. It is certainly a sad thing when half of our population is ashamed of one of its most fundamental characteristics; when large segments of our society believe that men ought to cringe along through life, engaging in spiritual self-flagellation over the shame of being born with a Y chromosome.

A book I’m reading has convinced me that I have been underestimating the problem by half, however. A Return to Modesty is one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently, and I’ll likely be posting more about it in the coming weeks. Wendy Shalit argues that our society’s decision to discard the virtue of modesty is “no less than an attempt to cure womanhood itself, and in many cases it has actually put us in danger.”

A young woman today has basically two options open to her: to pretend she’s a man, or to be feminine in a desperate, victim-like way. There’s Rene Denfield; she’s a boxer, her book jacket announces. There’s Camille Paglia; she’s very tough and even has a taste for gay male pornography! “Take your blows like men,” she advises young women in Vamps and Tramps. Then there are the women whose femininity is expressed by sleeping with a lot of men and then lamenting how much they resent men. Whether a young woman should opt for man or victim, the message sent by our culture is clear: it’s not a good thing to be female.

If you are male, you should be ashamed. If you are female, you should be ashamed. If you’re keeping score at home, we just reduced the options for living without shame by 100 percent…