Leon Kass has an intriguing article about sex and courtship among young people in America today. He and his wife have for years taught a course on courtship and marriage at The University of Chicago. A few years ago, they published an anthology of great literature that treats various aspects of love and marriage. The book is worth reading, and I’m sure the class is fantastic.

Here are a couple tidbits  from the article:

The supreme virtue of the virtuous woman was modesty, a form of sexual self-control, manifested not only in chastity but in decorous dress and manner, speech and deed, and in reticence in the display of her well-banked affections. A virtue, as it were, made for courtship, it served simultaneously as a source of attraction and a spur to manly ardor, a guard against a woman’s own desires, as well as a defense against unworthy suitors. A fine woman understood that giving her body (in earlier times, even her kiss) meant giving her heart, which was too precious to be bestowed on anyone who would not prove himself worthy, at the very least by pledging himself in marriage to be her defender and lover forever.

Safe sex? Not so fast.

Sex is by its nature unsafe. All interpersonal relations are necessarily risky and serious ones especially so. And to give oneself to another, body and soul, is hardly playing it safe. Sexuality is at its core profoundly “unsafe,” and it is only thanks to contraception that we are encouraged to forget its inherent “dangers.” These go beyond the hazards of venereal disease, which are always a reminder and a symbol of the high stakes involved, and beyond the risks of pregnancy and the pains and dangers of childbirth to the mother. To repeat, sexuality itself means mortality — equally for both man and woman. Whether we know it or not, when we are sexually active we are voting with our genitalia for our own demise. “Safe sex” is the self-delusion of shallow souls.

What would it take to recover a higher view of sex and marriage? Could leaner times aid in that cultural shift? Can an adequate understanding of these issues be achieved apart from religious commitments and religious communities?

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Ah, if only. With abortion becoming increasingly liberalized and acceptable; and the profligate practice of putting up unwanted children for adoption (Not an especially new practice, my Grandmother-in-Law was an unfortunate example) it seems as though the field is still shifting ever toward “Free Love”, (Funny how the consequences of which are far from free) at least from the left’s traditional top-down approach. And not having any numbers or charts at my disposal, it’s hard to speak of any “trends” or “correlations”. As such, I can only speak from experience. My Sister-in-Law is 15 and she has freely admitted to my Wife about her friends’ less-than-modest ways. Not that they should all don burquas, but I believe a reasonable sense of decorum should be administered. Though, alas, this seems to be far from the case. Parents seem far too involved in their own lives to care about their children’s. And you wouldn’t expect a teacher to impart such knowledge, good heavens no. So, who are these children to look to for examples? Paris Hilton? Lindsay Lohan? Though I would hope they would have the good sense not to, I’m far from proven right. When such young, impressionable minds are subjected to such over-sexualization and liberalization of common, decent mores, it isn’t hard to wonder why so many end up in maternity wards bereft of a husband and well under the age of adulthood.

    A return to previous norms? Not bloody likely. With the glorification of sexual gratification an ever present meme in our current (I daresay) culture, I fear it will only get worse.

    Oh yes, and they don’t date. They “hangout” (Slang for hooking up) and are “friends”. All the while hanging out and forming “friendships” with other individuals, free of any sort of commitment. It seems as though even the concept of boyfriend and girlfriend (In the non-platonic) are falling to the wayside.

  2. Being a slave to passion isn’t freedom. I’ve grown hoarse with the repetition. It took confronting my own 400lbs frame (presently approaching 300lbs!) for me to finally drop the scales from my eyes and see the lies. The modern lifestyle of excess is a minefield of addictions.

    I don’t know what it will take today’s hyper-sexualized youth to see.

  3. My experiences have been slightly different than David and Kevin’s, I think, and have left me deeply hopeful that many in my generation have a vision for the modesty, humility, and selflessness that is required not just for (old-fashioned word alert) chastity before marriage, but also faithfulness afterward.

    The first reason for my hopefulness: the homeschool community in this area. Homeschooling is not a panacea, but it sure has correlated with some wonderful things here in rural NY. The youth gather in homes for weekly church meetings; their banter is wholesome, encouraging, and occasionally even witty. The parents often stay for the meeting, and none of their children are embarrassed. The youth don’t pair off — until they’re old enough to consider marriage, at which point the new couple becomes the talk of the county. People gather to help families clean their houses, take care of a family’s farm, or move a young single woman down to the big city. When the girls go on their annual camping trip, the guys come and make them lunch.

    The second reason for my hopefulness: cross-generational friendships. The college-aged women I know make it a point to spend time with the “little girls” in the church. Many of these single women actively pursue relationships with older women (we don’t call them “older” to their face:) who serve as mentors. These relationships provide great stability for both the older generations (who feel their advice is valuable – as it is) and the younger generations (who benefit from the advice).

    Those who have a vision for the single years as a time of to serve other people (not just get educated and have fun) seem to have the greatest stability in their lives before, during, and after courtship. Perhaps the key to rebuilding a culture of modesty is not to rediscover those old lists of things that passionate young people should NOT do (though I certainly can think of many things that belong on such a list), but rather to build vision for the incredibly meaningful work that single young people are uniquely equipped to do.

  4. P.S. David, huge congrats on your willingness to confront excess in your own life! It’s harder to preach to yourself, as it were, than I like to admit…

  5. I must admit, even the more modern homeschooling groups we’ve come across here in Southern California have surprising sophistications among the older youth. I don’t know if that bears out statistically in terms of life-long commitments to chastity or what I am forced to awkwardly call sacramental marriage (that is, marriage that is viewed within the Church as salvific in nature).

    But I’ve noticed that over the last few weeks my comments have taken on a road-to-oblivion tone which isn’t helpful. There is much good news, even if it isn’t the news I’m always looking for. Moreover, there is always the overriding point that virtue is always worth pursuing even in the face of the opposition of billions. A virtuous man needs no rescuing from the forces of darkness, for they are already conquered.

  6. Thanks Katherine. I like to think that ruining my body saved my soul. Or rather, my ruined body was the necessary evidence to properly diagnose my spiritual illness. Some of us have to hit bottom before we seek a cure. 10,000 days of being stubborn and consumed with pride will take a lifetime to repent. Blessed is our God who has granted me each day to do so.

  7. While it is not my intention to make light of what is obviously a serious subject, I have nonetheless always found the idea that our ancestors were somehow immune to biological pressures laughable.

    I always remember a story the elderly lady who lived next to my parents when I was growing up used to tell. She had been a rural health nurse in Appalachia during the 1920’s and 30’s. Basically, she rode a horse into very remote regions were she administered vaccines, gave out information on good health, delivered babies, and etc. Anyhow, she had a little joke she liked to tell that went as follows: “Appalachian women are tough; they only need six months from the time of their wedding night to give birth to a perfectly healthy baby.”

    One time I remember my mother asking her how prevalent these “early babies” were, and the neighbor lady said, “If I had to guess, I’d say about sixty percent of the hundreds of first babies I helped deliver were “early babies.”

    Now maybe the women of Appalachia were unique, but I kind of doubt it. Rather, I think people knew that society expected them to rectify any “mistakes” and people acted in accordance with these expectations.

  8. Robert,
    But you see, that’s the rub. I don’t know the virtue-building (or destroying) character of the Appalachian culture of that time. However, cultures in general upheld the ideals of virtue for more than practical reasons (that is, without regard to complete success).

    Another FPR’er introduced me long ago to the laudable and necessary hypocrisy in this. When folks start saying, “few folks live up to the ideals we should make our ideals reflect our people,” so endeth the experiment called civilization.

    Shame. Stigma. Shunning. These are important civic tools to preserve the quality of life within cultured peoples.

    Whether or not individuals chose to privately scorn those virtues by intent or lack of self-discipline is irrelevant.

  9. Very true Dave. In the this fallen world of course individuals often fail to uphold true morality but it remains the true and ideal form of conduct and it remains better that society stresses this, at least then some may be influenced by it.

    Anyway the answer to the OP is that we cannot really go back without a religious revival. Stronger local communities and families will help, but then again these themselves will require stronger religious ideals, but ultimately you cannot separate morality from religion any more than you can separate healthy culture from healthy cosmology. Moral action is in a sense relative to moral being which is itself subordinate to our spiritual ends.

    Not of course to suggest any sort of laxity in moral behaviour is acceptable but simply to recall that in traditional thought ethics is subordinate to theology and metaphysics, hence modernists think that religion is all about ethics and that therefore it can be replaced(which is wrong even in itself because without religion it is unlikely any socially healthy form of ethics could last for any length of time.). In Christianity this truth is put simply in the key doctrine, that even catholic-minded like myself accept, that ultimately it is grace that saves. But I digress anyway it wouldn’t really be possible without a religious revival but then again neither will be the long-term survival of society and culture if currents trends continue. Culture comes from cult as TS Eliot put it and now we are getting to the point in the West where we are almost entirely living on the capital of ages past.

  10. Robert,
    Notice that those women still got married and at least likely knew who the father of the child was. This is quite different from today.

    David,
    Congratulations. “Being a slave to passion isn’t freedom.” As a recovering libertarian, I too have had to learn this lesson.

  11. Thanks, Mark – short and to the point! I guess I see myself as recovering from the libertine aspects of liberalism/progressivism. I think that many of the liberals/progressives I hang out with these days are following the same course, albeit less willing to acknowledge the necessity of social and sexual restraints on “freedom”. I have faith this will come to them. Most already understand the imperative to establish sustainabile communities. Skeptical as they are of reductionism, sooner or later they will realize that sustainability cannot be separated from stabilizing traditions. Professing respect for elders as they (OK, WE) do, sooner or later courtship will seem as important as canning and goat-milking.

    What does a future of leaner times hold? For sure a renewal of fidelity to family, neighbors and place – moving on to “graze” in greener pastures elsewhere will be seen as parasitical by those who don’t have the choice…and/or have rejected grazing on (gasp!) moral grounds. And this will bring with it insularity and parochialism – i.e. real cultural diversity. Ouch!

  12. “Congratulations. “Being a slave to passion isn’t freedom.” As a recovering libertarian, I too have had to learn this lesson.”

    I think Burke put it best as often is there case:

    Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within(the individual.), the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

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