“Yes means yes.” That’s the slogan promoting the new California guidelines regarding sexual assault on college and university campuses. The policy requires affirmative assent, and it’s designed to supplant less stringent school standards that define sexual assault as unwanted advances pressed in spite of a no. This effort to clarify the boundaries of the sex lives of college students is a response to the national outcry about date rape and the sexual vulnerability of women in the alcohol-soaked undergraduate culture. There’s a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Its April report called for sexual-misconduct policies of the “yes means yes” sort as well as better enforcement. These are not mere exhortations. Responding to growing concern, the Education Department has invoked Title IX, the section of a 1972 education law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. This puts legal muscle behind the push to require revisions of sexual-misconduct policies in higher education.
The stricter policies are needed because we’ve deregulated the intimate interactions of men and women. Our public culture no longer permits us to articulate moral limits on sexual relations, other than consent and a vague standard of decency. You can’t have sexual intercourse on the sidewalk, but in private you can do as you please as long as you don’t harm anyone, which in most instances means the consent of those involved. To say otherwise oppresses and stigmatizes people by suggesting that their sexual choices are wrong.
That was the main rationale for the Supreme Court decision about anti-sodomy legislation in Lawrence v. Texas. As a result, it is now presumptively unconstitutional to pass laws regulating sexual encounters on grounds other than consent. Our public culture does not operate in the same formal manner as does the Court, but it too has deemed thick moral accounts of sex to be matters of private opinion that are not permitted to be expressed in public settings. A university administrator may be a pious Catholic or devout Mormon, but if he so much as hints at his moral views in front of a microphone, to say nothing of using them to shape school policy, he will be denounced by a wide array of campus activists and very likely will be removed from his position.
Compounding this moral minimalism is a larger deconstruction—or at least an attempted deconstruction—of the complex but once powerful code of custom and manners that coordinated men and women. This system varies in every culture and society, but all have norms. From a very early age we train children in how to relate to the opposite sex. It’s a fundamental dimension of socialization. The codes that regulate relations between men and women structure novels and provide endless material for humor. They are different today from what they were a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago. Our post-feminist code is more ragged and incoherent, combining as it does bits of the older code with newer customs and expectations. Lacking official status and for the most part developed by young people though trial and error, the code has many variations and can be hard to discern. But it’s operative. TV shows like Sex in the City turn on the audience’s nuanced interest in the refined postmodern and urban etiquette of male-female coupling that the characters navigate in some way or another.
These ad hoc codes of conduct emerge because a minimalist ethic of consent is much too thin to be workable for embodied social animals like us. Students largely recognize this. They intuitively sense that sex is about something other than the mutual exchange of pleasure, and this leads them to live by a thicker moral code that recognizes gradations of sexual relations from hookups to serious commitments. It goes without saying that this tacit moral system (or systems—there’s no single consensus about men, women, and sex) doesn’t come close to measuring up to Christian discipline. Nor does it exhibit much in the way of rational coherence. Yet, soul-damaging as our sexual culture is today, viewed sociologically, our biggest problem is that our official restriction of sexual morality to consent—the yes that’s a yes—means we can’t talk about reality.
This problem is painfully obvious in the efforts to combat sexual assault on campus. Yale developed a training curriculum for incoming students that involved a number of scenarios of sexual encounters designed to help students understand what violates the university’s sexual-misconduct policy. In each, the names were carefully chosen to avoid “hetero-normativity.” “Ryo and Casey are dating.” “Jessie and Vic have been flirting all semester.” “Tyler and Jordan are both drinking heavily.”
Under this regime of carefully regulated language designed, paradoxically, to ensure a deregulated sexual culture limited only by consent, a surreal world is created. The central fact that sexual assault is almost always committed by men against women cannot be acknowledged. The problem can be addressed only on the restricted terms that political correctness permits. When Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield speaks frankly about the sexual vulnerability of women to predatory males, he’s denounced as the voice of patriarchy.
Thus our present situation. We have a national push to prevent women from being taken advantage of by men in the drinking culture of higher education, but we can’t say that. We’re not allowed to suggest, at least not in public, that women are in any way different from men. We can’t say they’re uniquely vulnerable. (How many men have filed charges of sexual assault?) We can’t say that what men want from sex is something different from what women want.
The reason for this enforced silence is clear. If we’re allowed to say there’s something morally significant about women as women, and men as men, then it becomes difficult to dismiss traditional views of sexual morality, all of which in some way turn on the male–female difference. This possibility terrifies our progressive regime, which anxiously prevents any public expressions of traditional sexual morality. It rejects them as oppressive and yet secretly knows itself to be vulnerable, because it can’t come up with a workable alternative.
For a long time now the university has been the liberal church. I’m not surprised that its leaders disagree with me about sexual morality. I’m not surprised that they want to suppress inconvenient truths. What I find remarkable—and morally reprehensible—is that proponents of this political correctness seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge that denying reality has a cost. In this case, the cost to female students is obvious. They’re the targets of sexual assault, though one would never know that given the strategic silence of both administrators and the media. This is debilitating. If we’re not allowed to speak frankly in public and instead must talk around or alongside the real issue, we’re unlikely to diagnose the problem accurately. Moreover, if we’re denounced when we suggest that addressing the problem should begin with the restoration—or at least intelligent reconsideration—of a code of conduct that expects men to be gentlemen and women to be ladies, campus culture isn’t likely to improve.
Liberals and progressives often say that social and religious conservatives want to “turn back the clock.” They use this cliché, along with accusations of homophobia and patriarchy, to silence us. This isn’t just caricature and calumny. It’s also a cause of many of our social and cultural problems. A healthy moral culture isn’t just a set of rules; it’s an ongoing conversation about right and wrong, honor and shame, decency and boorishness. This conversation takes place in many settings: in decisions parents make about how to raise their children, in the popular media, in academic debates. Political correctness today prohibits that conversation, preventing us from discussing reality, especially when it comes to sex, marriage, and family.
It is an irony that the progressives who fought to bring the once forbidden topic of sex into the open so that we would have to deal with its realities now so vigorously police our conversation about it. The dire restrictions that our public culture places on how we talk about these matters—especially the targeted suppression of the male–female difference—impoverish our moral imaginations. And not just our moral imaginations but also our grip on reality. Who in his right mind would imagine that the mere principle of consent can sustain even a sane, non-abusive sexual culture, to say nothing of a morally healthy one? It makes as much sense as the notion that a just economic system can be built solely on freedom of contract.
Women and Social Conservatism
Women don’t like the Republican party’s conservative message. That’s the way the press reported the results of a GOP poll leaked in late August. The facts, however, aren’t so simple. There is a gender gap in American politics, but it’s not women who are alienated from conservatism. In 2012, 52 percent of males voted for Romney, and so did 53 percent of married women. But only 31 percent of unmarried women voted for him. The female cohort that tilts strongly left is made up of single women. They’re the ones alienated from American conservatism, not women in general.
Pundits often say that these women have turned against conservatism because they’re committed to equal pay, support for child care, abortion rights, and other issues. I don’t doubt that single women favor these and other liberal policy goals. But those preferences are symptoms, not causes, something obvious when we stop to consider that married women have no less reason to be committed to equal pay. Moreover, they’re more likely to have children and so more likely than single women to have a material interest in an increase in public support for child care.
We need a deeper explanation for the gender gap—which, again, is really a marriage gap. I submit that it has to do with a deeply felt vulnerability. Marriage and traditional modes of family life provide a powerful sense of social belonging. To be a wife and mother is to occupy an established role that’s intrinsically valuable. (The same goes for being a husband and father, but guys are not the topic here.) Many women today want to be more than wives and mothers. Rightly so, and our society should support those ambitions. But whatever else a woman does, being married and having children provides an emotional safety net. Family provides an identity, a purpose, a place to stand.
Single women lack this safety net, which is why they tend to feel more vulnerable than a married woman of exactly the same educational level, status, and income. Thus the political loyalties of a single, 35-year-old McKinsey consultant living in suburban Chicago. Let’s call her Julia. Her economic interests suggest a Republican voter, especially in a high-tax state like Illinois. But in spite of her $300,000 salary, almost-million-dollar condo, and a net worth more than twice that, she’s a staunch Democrat.
Julia has more than enough money to take care of herself, and for that reason, even if she did have children, free prekindergarten education wouldn’t make an economic difference. But, unmarried, Julia sees herself as vulnerable. How is her life going to work out? What’s going to give her a deep sense of security, the kind that’s not financial but existential? Julia worries that when it’s all said and done she’s going to have to make her own way in life. She has so far, and at this point it looks as though she might never have children. That’s a daunting prospect for a woman. It always has been.
For Julia, therefore, the politics of the safety net are very appealing, even if specific policies aren’t relevant to her life. She’s alone and wants to be protected. This is an impulse that lots of money in the bank may diminish but won’t make go away. She feels as though supporting the party that promises to use government to take care of people is in her self-interest.
Moreover, and perhaps more damaging for the Republican party, Julia feels threatened by social conservatism. Insofar as people like me and magazines like First Things promote a public philosophy designed to reinforce the authority of traditional institutions and roles—that’s what it means to be a social conservative—we’re seen as “judging” those whose lives don’t follow traditional patterns.
Julia hears my social conservatism as a tacit condemnation of her life. When I criticize gay marriage, she intuitively senses that being in favor of traditional marriage involves asserting that male–female marriage should be the norm for all of us. I’m implying, however remotely, that her life is not on the best path. (This is not a false interpretation on her part.) She resents the implication. This redoubles her loyalty to a Democratic party that promises “inclusion.”
Julia’s reaction is understandable. Who wants to feel as though her life choices are being judged by others? Her problem, however, is that in all likelihood she does want to get married and have children. One very significant reason she feels so vulnerable is that she’s not confident she can. A 2013 Gallup poll reports that only 9 percent of single 18- to 34-year-olds don’t want to get married; only 3 percent of single 35-to 54-year olds don’t want to. The fact that a higher percentage of women in those age groups are not married suggests that there’s a great deal of disappointment and unhappiness out there, even for people like Julia. By many measures she seems to have won in the game of life, but when it comes to the goal of marriage and children, she’s at risk of losing.
Thus her dilemma, which is sadly invisible to her. In order to achieve the crucial life goal of marriage and have an existential social safety net, Julia needs social conservatism; she needs a pro-marriage culture. But that’s possible only if we’re able to endorse male–female marriage as the norm, something she finds alienating because it judges her life and makes her feel still more vulnerable.
Julia responds in the way liberal culture has trained her to think. Her feelings of vulnerability aren’t caused by the desires women normally feel, desires stymied by circumstances. Instead, they’re caused by the residual social expectation that women marry and have children, the ideology that being a wife and mother is more fundamental to women’s identity than being a successful management consultant or lawyer. She’s suffering from incomplete liberation from an unjust social system that privileges marriage and children. So, the answer is more progressivism. This too reinforces her commitment to the Democratic party.
Julia is stuck in a tough spot. Our society today is sharply critical of smoking, obesity, and in some circles religious belief. We insist on recycling and other behaviors deemed socially responsible. But in general our progressive culture seeks weak norms. This empowers. It creates space for individuals to experiment and go against the grain. Being a female professional is much easier today than it was decades ago, which is why Julia can be Julia. But it also disorients. In a world with weak norms, people find it harder to achieve a settled, secure identity in society. That’s also why Julia is Julia, a woman with the career she wants but at risk of not having the life she wants. Government programs won’t help, and a critique of patriarchal culture isn’t going to find her a mate. What she needs is a strong marriage culture. But that’s exactly what her political loyalties work against.
The marriage gap is a serious problem for conservatives. The cohort of single women is growing in size and influence. There are powerful voices in the Republican party that think the best way to deal with this trend is to sideline all talk of morality and culture. They imagine, wrongly, that Julia will be more sympathetic to the conservative message if politicians focus on economic issues. She won’t feel judged—and so she’ll come around to voting her economic interests.
This way of thinking is politically unrealistic. Liberals today recognize the significance of moral and cultural issues. The “war on women” theme has worked well for Democrats. It won’t be retired just because Republicans stop talking about social issues. Moreover, the mainstream media will keep the culture war alive by broadcasting the statements of conservatives who continue to speak out—the more extreme the better. As mainstream Republicans go silent on marriage, family, and the dignity of human life, outliers like the failed 2012 Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri define the party. Julia watches the evening news and it confirms her worst fears about the right.
This thinking is also profoundly short-sighted. Modern liberalism appeals to Julia because it promises to make her feel less vulnerable. To focus a counter-message on economic freedom in order to win her vote is foolhardy. In a free-market economy, risk is tied closely to reward. A pro-growth agenda asks voters to accept a bit more vulnerability—less regulation, lower government expenditures—for the sake of prosperity shared by all. It’s a good message, but it’s one that makes Julia more likely to vote Democrat, not less. It leaves the left with a monopoly on the political motifs of security and belonging.
Thus the challenge we face. Our job is to find a way to restore the effective authority of traditional modes of life, especially marriage, so that voters have a sense of existential security and a place to stand on their own. This isn’t just a way to win elections. It’s the primary way in which we should conceive of social justice. We need a social safety net based in society, not government, culture, not politics. That sort of safety net is more finely woven—and less easily manipulated to serve the interests of the powerful.
Catholicism’s Perilous Moment
The extraordinary synod of bishops on the family meets in Rome in early October. I must admit to a certain nervous anticipation. I’m not a Vatican insider—far from it—but even the casual observer recognizes that Pope Francis has created an atmosphere of uncertainty. Reception of the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried is the controversial topic likely to come up at the synod. Yet the feeling that things are up for grabs colors a number of different issues where Catholic teaching collides with the secular progressive view of sex, marriage, and family. In his famous interview, Pope Francis expressed concern that we focus too much on hot-button issues like abortion and sexual morality. He’s surely right that there is a risk of doing so. Moreover, the Church’s approach to teaching her doctrine often needs rethinking and improvement. But I fear he and other church leaders misjudge our circumstances.
Today’s secular progressives are fixated on sexual liberation. In American higher education, there’s little talk of the poor and a great deal of talk about sexual identity. Given that reality, we should lead with the message of new life in Christ. Our primary witness is to the joy of the Gospel. But if the Church does not talk about the issues that secular progressives insist upon, we’re forsaking our duty to serve the common good.
Moreover, given the relentless propaganda on behalf of sexual liberation, our silence will be interpreted by society as stemming from a lack of confidence in our own doctrine, or even tacit agreement. Every time Pope Francis criticizes this or that aspect of the Church’s witness on controversial issues, the media interpret his remarks as a sign of imminent surrender. This all too predictable misrepresentation doesn’t mean the pope (or anyone else) should refrain from saying what needs to be said. But it makes our situation clear. The idea that the Church’s hitting a “reset” button with today’s secular culture will bear good results in the West is as plausible as Barack Obama’s hope for a reset with Russia.
I can’t speak for the global Church, but in America, Catholics (and others allied with us) are being hammered. Our children are bombarded by the message of “inclusion.” We’re silenced in our workplaces, silenced in all but a few educational institutions, silenced in courtrooms where some judges deem a sane view of marriage to be “religiously motivated” and therefore inadmissible, while others go so far as to denounce it as an irrational animus. It takes courage to speak out, and many have paid a price. We’re all feeling the pressure—often acutely.
Friendly fire inflicts unnecessary casualties. That’s what it feels like when church leaders make comments that are immediately taken up and used as weapons by the editors of the New York Times. And not just the New York Times. I have no doubt that Pope Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” remark has been and will continue to be used at many Catholic colleges and universities to weaken resistance to the gay agenda. The same is happening elsewhere. If our leaders allow a vacuum to develop in the Church, it will be filled by post-Christian views of sex, marriage, and family.
This does not mean we’re approaching these issues in the right way today. In some quarters there’s a dangerous and destructive more-Catholic-than-thou mentality. Nor does it mean we don’t need to do some serious soul-searching about the integrity of our witness. Are we living what we’re teaching?
Pope Francis rightly calls us to reexamination and self-examination. But both need to take place against the background of a vigorous and articulate reaffirmation of the Church’s moral teaching. For that is what the world very much needs to hear.