Saturday, 25 February 2012

God, Marriage and Gender: Why We Are Where We Are

Sexuality in Western society: the story so far
Until very recently, the dominant view of sex and marriage in Western culture for over a century had been governed by two distinct, but nonetheless overlapping, frames of thought.
On the hand, the churches upheld and offered marriage as the proper context for sex and the basis of family life.
The theological justification for this was largely assumed rather than expressed. But if pushed, most Christians would have taken a position something like that expressed in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer — that marriage was for the avoiding of immorality, the begetting of children and the mutual society help and comfort husband and wife ought to have from one another.
Yet even without the undergirding of religious belief, society generally took the ‘common sense’ view that, given the hazards of illegitimate children and venereal disease, sex was best kept within the bounds of marriage.
People might ‘push the envelope’ of this in personal practice or philosophical principle. The avant garde lived up to their name in being ‘ahead of the rest’, but few were willing to adopt a truly radical lifestyle.
‘Secular’ society and the Church thus agreed — one might even say colluded — in maintaining the status quo of marriage as a social ‘norm’.

The sexual revolution
All that began to change in the 1960s, which saw what soon became known as the ‘sexual revolution’. How much of a revolution it would turn out to be, few realized at the time.
It is important to recognize, however, that the success of this revolution was largely a result of advances in technology.
Human beings as a whole have always been keen on freedom of sexual expression. As we have noted, however, the exercise of that freedom entailed certain risks — specifically unwanted pregnancy and disease. Syphilis and gonorrhea, in particular, took a regular and deadly toll.
To mitigate these risks, various ‘prophylactics’ had been devised, but they were crude in the extreme, uncomfortable and even dangerous. Worst of all, they were of limited effectiveness.
People might envy the fictional exploits of Don Juan, but few were prepared to face the very real dangers of such a lifestyle.
And then, of course, there was the social opprobrium attached to sexual profligacy. To father an illegitimate child was considered bad enough, to be the child even worse, and to be the mother perhaps worst of all.
Today, the attitudes involved might seem cruel, and certainly they could be harsh. But before we rush to condemn, we must admit that this disapproval was itself ‘prophylactic’. In a society with neither effective medicines nor social services, prevention of illegitimacy and illness was the only realistic option, given that there was really no ‘cure’ for either.
The first step towards the sexual revolution was thus the invention of penicillin and other antibiotics. Just as recent medical advances have impacted on our fear of AIDS, so these early medicines turned previously chronic or fatal illnesses into an embarrassing, but relatively minor, nuisance.
Another major development was the increasing sophistication of the condom, which was effective against both pregnancy and disease.
It was the invention of the contraceptive pill, however, which brought about the collapse of secular resistance to the revolution.
It is hard to appreciate today that in the early 1960s people could hold a perfectly serious discussion about whether sex before marriage was wrong, without having to invoke religious belief to support their opposition. Contraception was still of limited effectiveness. Venereal diseases were still legally ‘notifiable’. And in any case, the ‘social memory’ of previous centuries meant that people disapproved of sex before marriage even when they could not give a reason for this.
When I myself went up to university in 1968, not only was male and female accommodation segregated, but men and women were not allowed to be in one another’s blocks after 11.30pm. In my first year, on a corridor of eight rooms, just one student had a girlfriend who regularly stayed the night.
‘The pill’ changed everything. Men no longer had to make embarrassing purchases at the chemists or barbers, whilst for women here was something which exceeded the eighty or ninety percent reliability of the condom. And a girl on the pill was ready for sex ‘any time, any place, anywhere’. The era of ‘sexual liberation’ had arrived.
Yet in assessing the developments since then, it is worth reminding ourselves that this massive social change still depends on human technology. Like the motor car, antibiotics and contraceptives allow us to adopt a lifestyle unimaginable to our ancestors. But as the advent of AIDS in the 1980s demonstrated, it is a potentially precarious lifestyle collectively and individually, that relies on our being able to overcome nature, rather than living in accordance with it.
At worst, contraceptives and antibiotics are to sexual promiscuity what the gastric band is to junk food, allowing society to offset the effects of a damaging lifestyle, even whilst it admits its powerlessness to address the underlying problem.

The gender revolution
Once the pill became widely available, sex before marriage soon became entirely acceptable. The long-standing ambition of a privileged intellectual few to overthrow ‘conventional morality’ was achieved remarkably quickly, once the natural barriers were largely out of the way.
But the revolution was never going to stop there, for the intellectual questioning of the nineteenth century was not just of sexual acts but of attitudes, particularly towards the nature and roles of the ‘sexes’.
One interesting manifestation of this occurred following the sinking of the Titanic, when a leading American feminist chided the female survivors of this disaster for following the principle of ‘women and children first’. How, she asked, could female emancipation ever be achieved when women accepted their own oppression in this way? [Note: I have read this, but lost the reference. I believe it was Margaret Sanger, but if anyone can give me a reference or quote, please do!]
The example may seem amusing, or even trivial, to us. But it is a reminder that this went far beyond issues of whether women could vote or become doctors. Nothing less than a complete reordering of social relations was envisaged, and if that required lives to be sacrificed, so be it.
The paradox of feminism, of course, is that the agenda for full equality is driven by a conviction that there is something special about women. But if women are special, then in some sense they are different. And if they are different, then it must be asked in what way they are ‘equal’ to men.
Such questions, however, do not seem to be at the heart of the drive for social change. Rather, the fundamental principle seems to be a distaste for gender distinctions as such.
Thus a recent programme on Woman’s Hour looked at the alleged shortage of female lead characters in programmes made for children’s television. The question was raised, however, whether given the lack of male role models in the environment of many young children, a male bias might actually be an asset for children. The response of one of the contributors, researcher Dr Helen Mott, was telling:
“It’s got to be really important that young children growing up, perhaps in female dominated environments, have access to positive male role models, but that doesn’t mean that they have to have access to a world view of men always taking the action and taking the lead and doing exciting things. It’s incredibly important that they see men in a nurturing and caring role and that is something we that don’t necessarily see much of. [...] So if we’re going to be talking about a bias towards representing male figures then I think its important that we focus on caring and nurturing male figures.”1
In other words, it might be helpful for children to be shown some male role models, but these should be ‘nurturing’ characters, not men of action or leadership — in other words, more like archetypal women than men.
Of course, critics will maintain that it is exactly this sort of stereotyping which needs to be addressed. But this is to beg the question. Is the stereotype artificially imposed and maintained? Or is it rather a reflection of a reality that women tend to be inclined towards nurturing, whilst men tend towards action and leadership?
Interestingly, Dr Mott lamented that stereotyping, evidenced by the ‘pinkification’ of girl-related things, is actually getting worse:
“... its only really this last generation where we’ve seen such a big diversification into what’s appropriate for girls and what’s appropriate for boys ... that’s very unhelpful for the project of gender equality.”
Yet this has happened despite decades of deliberate and systematic efforts in the opposite direction, which would surely suggest that, whatever they are, the forces generating gender ‘stereotypes’ run deep in individuals and society. Nevertheless, strenuous attempts to eradicate them persist and even receive government approval.

Sexuality and ‘orientation’ 
This anathema towards gender is striking when one observes the contemporary debate about male and female roles (though as we have noted, its relationship with a strongly ‘feminist’ ideology is somewhat paradoxical).
It also manifests itself in attitudes towards ‘sexual orientation’. But that is a phrase which demands careful examination.
Many years ago, I was asked by a group of students about my attitude to people of ‘different sexual orientation’. Almost without thinking, I replied that what they were talking about was surely not a matter of sexual orientation, but of disorientation.
Well, that was the 1980s, so I didn’t get into trouble at the college where I was then chaplain, but the thought has stuck with me.
In the present context, it is often forgotten that sexual behaviour is not, first and foremost, a matter of sociology but biology. And the reasons for this, of course, go back to the contraceptive revolution.
Without contraception, most fertile couples who have regular sexual intercourse will fairly soon find that the result is pregnancy.
Before the 1960s, therefore, when people thought about sex, they thought about babies. Some people thought about the joys of having one, others thought about the risks, but everyone had babies in mind when they contemplated having sex.
In the 1973 film That’ll Be the Day, David Essex plays a boy who for a time works in a 1950s holiday camp. In one scene he is about to lose his virginity with a girl he has finally persuaded into bed. As the action begins to hot up, however, they hear the sound of a baby crying in the next-door chalet, and for a moment they both freeze.
The audience knows what they are thinking and why, for a moment, they have stopped. But the equivalent couple today would hardly even pause for breath.
It was babies, as much as anything, which once made love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. But the success of contraception (and, let it not be forgotten, the availability of abortion), has unlinked them in our thinking.
And this has had a profound influence on our thinking. On the one hand, if we ask, “When are teenagers ready for sex?” we come up with a very different set of answers from if we ask, “When are young people ready for children?”
On the other hand, the total detachment of sexual behaviours from biological processes (like pregnancy and babies) allows us to think in terms of various sexual ‘orientations’, all of which are basically equivalent in the desire felt and the pleasure produced.
If having babies is not intrinsically a part of heterosexual sex, then how is homosexual sex really any different? This is a question which has been proposed recently by the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, in suggesting that certain same-sex relationships are in all important respects identical to marriage. Indeed, the same point was made thirty years ago by the present Archbishop of Canterbury in an essay titled ‘The Body’s Grace’.
If sex is not about having babies, so the argument goes, then sexual desires and relationships can be evaluated purely on the basis of the pleasure given and the integrity involved.
But the intellectual argument goes even further. In the post-contraceptive world, sexuality is a pluriform, variable aspect of human living. An ‘either-or’ attitude to male and female is neither necessary nor accurate. Not only do we not need to be one or the other, we actually are not one or the other.
Here we move into the realm of ‘Queer Theory’. This offers a critique of culture from a ‘homosexual’ perspective, which suggests that things are really only understood properly when we reject the old polarizations of male and female.
This can be applied biologically — there are, after all, transgendered individuals who are a living embodiment of the principle that we are not ‘either-or’. But there are also bisexuals, gays, lesbians and those people who believe they really are a ‘person’ of one gender living in a physical body belonging to the other.
It is such people, Queer Theory asserts, who truly grasp reality as it is. The old ‘heterosexist’ world was an illusion, maintained for the purposes of some people controlling the lives of others. The future is bright, and it is a rainbow hue.
In the face of all this, what is a Christian to say?

1. BBC Radio 4, 17th February 2012,
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  1. Excellent article. Is it time for Evangelicals to admit that the Pope John XXIII was right in Humanae Vitae?

  2. I know what I, as an Anglican priest, can say. And it is that John Richardson is only just touching the surface of the reality. Probably, he has not paused in his own certainty about the challenges presented by the presence of LGB and T people in the Church and the world at large.

    His sola-Scriptura (macho) world-view seems sadly lacking in empathy for anything that might be assessed in any way differently from a purely biblical view-point.

    I suggest that the Bishop of salisbury may be more Christ-like in his attitude towards those whose sexual orientation is different from the understanding of The Revd. John Richardson. And difference is not necessarily sinful.

    1. kiwianglo

      You say that you are a priest? You do not believe the word of God?

      From what I read the Bishop of Salisbury is not even a Christian.

      What is the "Christ like response" then?

      Don't worry it is OK, carry on sodomizing, God doesn't care about these things and obedience to God is not required from a believer. I have compassion for LGBT people, they are going to hell unless they are saved. But the Bishop who condones this will be there long before them. The Bishop is the type that Jesus warned us about and so kiwianglo are you?

  3. This is an exceptional post - it lays out the history and issues well.

    Of course having grown up in an overly sexualized culture it is an underlying assumption that "sexuality" filled the thinking of our forebears in the way it does ours but was in some way "repressed" by fear.

    But may I suggest that in a world were survival was difficult "sexuality" as we see it perhaps becomes less central in thinking and daily life.

    I know having children, raising them and keeping them safe was the central feature of my Great Grandparents lives and I also know why this was so.

    There were no "LGB and T people" in the world inhabited by my Great Grandparents because they would not have survived, not because of prejudice but because their world was hard and daily existence by our terms was a struggle with "sexual fulfillment" very low on the list of priorities I'd suggest.

    My personal view on this matter is that the "cultural elite" have done a number on us to justify their own excesses which being privileged people they can afford and get away with.

    For the poor this has been absolutely devastating with generations of fatherless kids now and all the social problems that brings with it.

    And again this latest fad in marriage so called "gay marriage" is just an indulgence granted to middle and upper class "gays" with means to have their own selfish, self centered lifestyles sanctified

    And as is always the case the poor will pay the price for their decadence as marriage sinks further into meaninglessness beyond lavish weddings often conducted in the basest of taste.

    Is it time for Evangelicals to admit that the Pope John XXIII was right in Humanae Vitae?

    Well said

  4. Thanks for these responses.

    To Neill, my short reply is that Roman Catholic theology at this point is right in principle, wrong in application. It is right to say that a proper understanding of sexuality requires that its reproductive element be part of a relationship. It is wrong to say (though I'd have to admit I'm not sure if it quite does say this) that every sexual 'encounter' within such a relationship has to have a reproductive capability (in other words, that contraception is fundamentally wrong).

    Kiwianglo, you've given us a reaction, but nothing like a response. Sorry.

    Andrei, thanks. See also my response to Neill.

    Finally, can I please encourage the use of names and locations. I know this is not 'normal' internet practice, but then I also think dialogue on the internet is coarsened by the distancing of anonymous and pseudonymous content. If some of the people posting on the internet had to use their names and a location, they'd never say what they do.

  5. "Kiwianglo, you've given us a reaction, but nothing like a response. Sorry."

    A succint and true summation. Unfortunately, this is what Ron Smith does all the time: as I have repeatedly seen from his blog, he loudly proclaims his sympathy for "LGBT" people (presumably he supports multiple relationships for Bisexuals, then?) but is completely UNABLE to ground this in *Catholic (or catholic) theology, which embraces and unites the Scriptures, Creeds and Sacraments in its moral theology. Mr Smith doesn't understand that his views are profoundly UN-catholic and are really a kind of modern post-biblical protestantism. You don't become a catholic by wearing a set of clothes, any more than the label on a can guarantees the content of the can.

    This is a very good article, John - I hope it will be widely disseminated - I hope Titusonenine will pick up on this. You are right that Holtam's argument is really the same as Williams' in 1987.
    I liked the comment on "pinkification" (I would say adolescent girls today are getting even girlier!) - and we should note the failure of social engineering to change the fact that the great majority of nurses, primary teachers and social workers continues to be female.
    The feminisation of the Protestant Church continues apace, along with the failure of these churches to impact much on men.

    Mark B., W. Kent

  6. William Fisher, N.W. England26 February 2012 at 12:29

    Sorry if I’m being pedantic, but Humane Vitae was not issued by Pope John XXIII, but by his successor, Paul VI.

    People have been coming up with crackpot theories since time immemorial. “Queer Theory” is just one more. No justification is needed for accepting the plain fact that a minority of people are not heterosexual, so “Queer Theory” for this purpose is completely redundant. The notion that everyone ought to be heterosexual and “Queer Theory” have one thing in common: they are both forms of reality disorientation.

    1. Apologies. You are of course correct. It was not Pope John XXII but Paul VI who issued Humanae Vitae 43 years ago. In the light of succeeding events rather a prophetic document.

  7. The reasons why we are where we are go far deeper than those discussed here.

    Our current situation cannot be properly understood unless the following are taken into consideration.
    1. The work and mission of the new Marxist Frankfurt School to subvert the west through exploiting sex.
    2. The 'work' and mission of Alfred Kinsey to reduce sexual behaviour in the west to a state of anarchy.
    3. The activity and publications of Hugh Hefner & his imitators.
    4. The teaching of Herbert Marcuse in books like Eros and Civilisation in which he advocates sexual anarachy as a way to psychological freedom.
    5. The campaign by gay rights activists like Kirk & Madsen 'After the Ball: How America will conquer its fear and hatred of gays in the 90s' (1989)

  8. The reasons why we are where we are go far deeper than those discussed here.

    The real reason behind this is that Mankind is created in God's image and Satan will do anything he can to try and degrade and debase us thus reduce us to the level of animals wallowing in a pig sty or lower.

    Paraparaumu, NZ

  9. There are surely economic factors too...the rise of the age of marriage in the last 40 yrs, almost universal co-habitation etc, etc..these owe something surely to changes in peoples economic circumstances...

    Perry Butler Canterbury ( UK)

  10. Thanks Perry. On the economic front, it has been observed that contraception is a demotivation for marriage, because young men can get sex without having to commit to the economic and social involvements of a family.

    Prior to widespread contraception, young men who wanted heterosexual intercourse (the vast majority) had to get married first if they wanted anything like a regular sex-life. However, in order to get married, they had to be in a possession of a certain amount of economic 'back up'.

    With the advent of widespread effective prophylactics against pregnancy and disease, this need to be economically established has diminished.

    Furthermore, where social services provide an economic support for single mothers, the need for a male provider further diminishes.

    So certainly there is an interplay with economics, but it is complicated.

  11. John, this is, as always, a very interesting read but it seems to present sex, sexuality, gender, marriage and family in a contextless void - as though they bear no relation to any of the massive changes that have taken place in our society over the last 50 or so years.

    I think this is a result of the 'if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail' outlook. Most amalyses of this type start from an acknowledged or unacknowledged premise that ssomething or someone is responsible for this state of affairs and goes on to present arguments in a way that convict the guilty party.

    Like Perry, I wonder where economics feature in all of this. What has been more damaging to family life, pre-marital sex or the destruction of the UK's manufacturing base that resulted in the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of jobs? Particularly mining, ship-building, steel, the docks - the skilled, hard, heavy jobs that were generally done by men. How many of those cheering your analysis also supported the Thatcherite assault on the trade unions without apparently realising that the vilified unions were responsible for ensuring their members were adequately recompensed for what was often dirty and dangerous work enabling them to support a family. What happened to those men and their families when the jobs went? When all the work you could get was in call centres paying a fraction of the salary you made as a miner? And for those who made that particular transition, what happened when their jobs got exported to India and all points east?

    And what of the drugs that moved into many of our communities when the jobs moved out? And what of mass immigration that destroyed any community cohesion left?

    Family life has sufffered enormously because successive governments have pursued agendas which require its diminution.
    Fern Winter, London

  12. Fern, I'd agree with your last point entirely. From the point of view of a political and economic analysis, I can't entirely agree with your comments about Thatcher and the unions. When I worked in the West Midlands, the unions at Longbridge seemed hell-bent on destroying the industry, and workers never knew from one week to the next when they would be working and when they would be striking.

    However, Thatcherism aside, I would still assert it is 'prophylactic technology' that upholds our existing social system as much as any government policy. That and the accompanying acceptance of sex outside marriage. I would not want to live with the values of some immigrant communities, but as communities they do maintain a different 'code', even though they occupy the same socio-economic space as other communities with a much more free-and-easy attitude to families and sex.

  13. I cannot follow Fern Winter's argument at all. "Free love" was all the rage when mining, shipbuilding etc stil existed on a large scale, and became common among students once the pill was being freely prescribed. The assault on Christian chastity began in the 1960s (encouraged by leftwing feminists) and the right came along in the wake of the left once it had ditched residual Christianity. The "Permissive Society" was certainly hailed by the left in the 1960s as a remaking of the hated Christendom - a project just about completed in Britain, with a "Conservative" PM about to give the coup de grace to marriage.

    Mark B., W. Kent

  14. The one thing we haven't had any comments on is what the Christian response should be, especially as most of the population would not consider themselves Christian (other than in a very nominal sense) and certainly don't regard Christian teaching as authoritative. And I'm at a loss to know how to respond myself, other than saying that God's ways are best. But that's not a message that non-believers are inclined to listen to.

  15. Quite right, Ian. My plan is for my next post ...

  16. Mark B, I was at university in the 1970's - the heyday of the permissive society. Post-pill and Abortion Act and pre-AIDS, it was the brief hiatus when we thought we'd won final victory over the microbes. I've no reason to think the circles I moved in were in any way untypical of students everywhere and at my uni there was very little 'free love' going on. Then, as now, the pattern was for fairly early pairing-up. For sure, couples slept together but the sexual free-for-all is largely myth. The majority of people I knew had one or two partners throughout their time at uni and, generally, went on to marry them.

    Back to HIV infection. In the UK as with most of the western world, gay men account for the majority of cases. This is emphatically not the case in Africa and throughout most of the developing world where it is an overwhelmingly heterosexual problem. Aid workers have told me that it is not uncommon in African cities to find people who have between 200 to 300 sexual partners a year. If British society were really as promiscuous (probably wrong spelling, typing in haste) as John's article implies then, really, wouldn't we have HIV infection rates on par with Africa?

    I'd also question some of the historical assumptions in John's article - I think the golden age of chastity which it seems to look back to is also largely myth but that's for later. Off for a sarnie now. Fern Winter, London

  17. kiwianglo wrote; His (John Richardson)sola-Scriptura (macho) world-view seems sadly lacking in empathy for anything that might be assessed in any way differently from a purely biblical view-point.

    How is it possible to take any view other than a purely biblical viewpoint when the answer to all todays issues are contained within the scriptures if only one knows where to look and interpret them. Any other view would be creating a religion of one own with ones own insigts and opinions that are not neccessarily from God.

    I too went to College in the sixties and moved to London in 65 but my upbringing kept me and was then converted at a Billy Graham Crusade in 67. I do not accept that we have to change the way we view thing just because society has 'moved on'.

    Norman Yardy

  18. When, by statute, the word 'marriage' has its meaning extended, is there a word we may use for a contract between a male and a female for mutual support and the rearing of their biological children?

  19. Andrei wrote:

    "There were no "LGB and T people" in the world inhabited by my Great Grandparents because they would not have survived, not because of prejudice but because their world was hard and daily existence by our terms was a struggle with "sexual fulfillment" very low on the list of priorities I'd suggest."

    Ummm, no, Andrei, there were such people and their existence was known. My grandparents certainly knew those sorts of things existed and so did their parents. And one only has to read letters or journals from the period (as many people do these days when researching their ancestry) to know that people were aware of these things. I live in Sydney Australia but some of my great-grandparents lived in the UK.

    The difference was not lack of awareness, but a different attitude: LGBT was not considered 'normal' (because it isn't). And they were not considered to have the right to insist that their liaisons be called 'marriage'(because they don't). Let's try and avoid using history selectively.

  20. William Fisher, N.W. England3 March 2012 at 21:31

    "The difference was not lack of awareness, but a different attitude..."

    Precisely. As far as this matter is concerned, we now live in more enlightened times, thank God.

  21. But that's the problem, isn't it William Fisher? One person's "more enlightened times" is another person's "small group trying to push their immoral agenda onto the rest of us"!

    We have already seen where that leads in North America: splits, shrinking congregations, falling income and breaking of ties by other Anglicans around the world. Is that really what you want for CofE?

  22. William Fisher, N.W. England4 March 2012 at 11:45

    MichaelA, what the church does is entirely up to the church. If it doesn't want to face reality, then so be it. Secular society will move on regardless.