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Challenging male promiscuity

Greg Yatarola | Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The old double-standard – promiscuous males are studs, promiscuous females are sluts. A perennial source of outrage, bewilderment or rejoicing.

It seems this double standard is rapidly vanishing, and that chastity is almost as stigmatized among younger women in particular as among men. But insofar as the double-standard still exists, it’s usually challenged by women. Isn’t that partly what “The Vagina Monologues” is about? I’ll understand if some of you think “only at Notre Dame …” as I challenge it from the men’s side.

When I was little, a Bon Jovi song recalled being taken to a motel by some woman and being made by her into a man. There’s probably few people on Earth with less knowledge of being or becoming a man than Jon Bon Jovi; it’s common sense that one cannot give what one doesn’t have, so the idea of a woman giving men their manhood is idiotic. But common sense wasn’t my strength, and I was very interested in becoming a man, so the suggestion intrigued me.

I soon learned what was meant by it, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I hadn’t. The idea that being a man meant being unchaste was thrown at me countless times as I grew up – by teammates, upperclassmen, bosses, popular culture, sometimes even older relatives – and I still encounter it. I’d say it’s part of our society’s cultural wallpaper.

I find this attitude as bizarre as it is prevalent. Is it that sex itself makes one manlier? Our very instincts tell us no. There’s a place in our psyche in which the Samson story rings true. It makes sense to us intuitively for athletes to abstain from sexual activity before competition, as is customary. We know what Dietrich von Hildebrand meant when describing the perfumed, suffocating atmosphere of sex. And don’t we have an innate respect for asceticism? Isn’t their love of pleasure one reason we despise the French, and don’t we suspect it’s somehow connected with their lack of courage?

Okay, maybe “success” with women isn’t the cause of one’s manliness so much as its effect? Again I’d say no. On the contrary – aren’t the guys who get lots of girls usually just a bit promiscuous? Maybe a lot promiscuous?

Well, so what? Am I just that annoyed by guys boasting about fornicating, or even going to strip clubs, as if it were some kind of heroic accomplishment? Yes, but that’s not it. Having taught in Catholic schools, I’ve seen how hard it is to evangelize teenage boys. There’s many reasons, including evangelizers like me, but one major obstacle is their perception of the faith as effeminate. The liturgy’s one problem. Catholic moral teaching is another. Now, it’s terribly wrong to reduce the faith to morality, or reduce Catholic morals to sexuality. But for many people, old and young alike, a salient feature of Catholicism is the Church’s prohibitions about sex.

We need to present the Church’s teachings differently. Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that a measure of wrath is necessary to protect one’s purity. How stirring, and utterly unlike how the call to chastity is usually offered! Priests and teachers of the faith should explain the pursuit of chastity as more like joining the Marines, less like joining the Peace Corps.

There’s aspects of the faith that can’t be made attractive to men, like the commands to forgive enemies and turn the other cheek. Discipleship in Christ transcends the narrow category of masculinity. But there’s lots about following Our Lord that requires us to be as strong as we can.

The affirmation of chastity as a steep good must never degenerate into a crabbed hyper-stoicism. Nor must it nurture pride and self-righteousness, spiritually deadlier than all depravity. Least of all should it make us deny the surpassing goodness of true love of man for woman, the love that makes him want to lay down his life for her.

Popular recognition of chastity as a virtue in the true sense – an excellence, a perfection of man proper to his nature and an enhancement of his being – isn’t going to happen. Outright physical cowardice will sooner be celebrated. So we must reach individual hearts. It’s not enough to tell boys to be chaste out of respect for women’s dignity, especially when so many of the women they see show no evidence whatsoever of any such dignity. At some point, cynical as this sounds, we, men, have to stop objectifying women not because of who they are, but because of who we ourselves are. And this might sound even worse, but it’s also true that a chaste man can’t be controlled.

In a previous article I implied that it takes manlier qualities to be altogether celibate than to be profligate. Judging by my inbox, that struck a nerve. When so many boys and young men are quite comfortable discussing even their pornography habits with each other, as if those habits could possibly be anything other than profoundly shameful, it’s natural that there’s resistance to the idea of a pure heart being brave and strong. But this is a big topic, and here might be a good place for a small mind to drop it.

Greg Yatarola is a 1999 alumnus. He hopes “The Vagina Monologues” might encourage more men to consider celibacy as a life choice.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.