Mona Charen is a wise person, a principled conservative, and a wonderful writer. Well versed in many subjects, she has no specialty. She is a generalist, as befits a syndicated columnist (which she is). But she is especially good on feminism, the family, sexuality — that whole critical realm.
Her latest book is Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense. The title gives you a clear idea of what the book is about. The word “matters” is both a verb and a noun. Yes, sex matters, that is, it makes a difference. And the book discusses matters related to sex.
When we say “sex,” do we mean the act — to borrow an old expression — or male and female (“gender,” as folk say today)? Mainly the latter, I think.
Charen’s first chapter is titled “The Feminist Mistake,” a pun. In 1963, Betty Friedan published her blockbuster book The Feminine Mystique. Charen’s next chapter is “Vive la Différence” — in other words, long live fundamental differences between men and women. Later, she has “Hookup Culture,” “Having It All,” etc.
At the outset, she lays her cards on the table, to wit, “Feminism deserves credit for helping women get the vote, securing equal pay, and obtaining full civil and political rights. Those are unmixed blessings. No reasonable person questions whether women should be treated as full legal equals to men — that is beyond debate.”
There is a “but” coming. Indeed, the “but” is the book.
But did that full equality require the denigration of the nuclear family? Did it require the eager embrace of a sexual revolution that would dismantle the traditions of modesty, courtship, and fidelity that have protected women for centuries? Was it essential to declare a war between the sexes, and to deem men the “enemy” of women? Was it necessary to seed our culture with bitterness that continues to this day?
No, no. And no again.
A word about différence. “Our society devotes tremendous resources, psychic as well as actual, to the attempt to make women and men alike,” writes Charen. “Women must be roofers and loggers, and men must teach kindergarten and do social work in the same proportions.”
She then gives us an aside, supplying a fact — first a fact, then a pointed comment: “By the way, the percentage of workers who are killed on the job tends to range from 95 to 99 percent male. You rarely hear feminists decry this inequity.” Sex Matters is full of that: facts plus pointed comments.
Another comment, one that is seriously witty? “Every preschool teacher can testify to the average differences between boys and girls. So can parents. One way to describe people who insist there are no innate differences between the sexes is ‘childless.’”
Yet there are differences within sexes, of course. We all have stories. My grandmother often spoke of her two boys, raised in exactly the same way, but unalike in so many (and alike in others). Sex Matters also made me think of two daughters of a friend of mine. I knew them when they were little. Lovelier girls you never saw. One was a jock, wanting to play a variety of games with us (my friend and me). The other wanted to don tiaras, twirl around, and flirt. They were both perfect.
Charen is at home with generalizations, especially when they are buttressed by science, but she recognizes the individual as paramount. Some feminists portray women as age-old and perpetual victims. Charen writes,
I was educated before this victim narrative took hold, and accordingly, I learned that American history (and world history, for that matter) is brimming with stories of women who were brilliant, brave, righteous, inventive, and worthy of emulation — as well as treacherous, greedy, cruel, lazy, and insipid. I could never escape the suspicion that women were human beings, with all the virtues and vices of the human condition.
In preparing her book, Charen did a mountain of reading and other research. Yet she also has the evidence of her own eyes and ears.
My lifetime tracks almost perfectly with the modern feminist movement, and I can testify that the changes wrought by feminism and the sexual revolution have made men more caveman-like than they were before all this “enlightenment.” A coarsened culture saturated with vulgar sexuality, the hookup ethic replacing courtship, and the dark undercurrent of pornography — these give the worst men permission to behave in squalid fashion.
Yes, indeed. Women gave up their “sexual power,” says Charen. This was an extremely valuable tool to give up. “The results of that forfeiture are rarely acknowledged. Among the well-educated elites, women must search for love and commitment among a population of young men who have ready access to sex and less incentive than in previous decades to choose monogamy.”
I learned a phrase long ago, from an old and twinkly man working at a golf course: “Why buy a cow when milk is so cheap?”
Charen says, “No matter how much feminists attempt to deny it, women are and always will be more vulnerable sexually than men. Nor will they ever approach sex with the detachment men can manage (but shouldn’t).” I have no doubt that Charen has all the social science in the world to back her up. And yet, my own observations of life prick at me. I have seen women as equal participants in the sexual free-for-all, the “hookup culture,” matching detachment for detachment. And I have seen men on the losing and tragic end of this deal.
Perhaps it’s a matter of whom you know and talk to? I’m happy to give social science — data — pride of place. But I have a hard time contradicting my own eyes and ears.
In any event, I join Mona Charen in her call for “a sexual counterrevolution.” What a wonderful phrase! It comes in this passage: “It’s time to move past hookup culture and the sexual revolution to an ethic that encourages love and tenderness on the part of both men and women — a sexual counterrevolution. Most women know intuitively that such a culture would be preferable. Good men would agree.”
One scourge of the land is pornography. Here is a paragraph from Charen:
Feminists saw porn — accurately, in my judgment — as a degradation of women. Yet they always interpret life through the narrow lens of women’s oppression by men, which prevents them from seeing that its harm is to human dignity and not just to women as a class. Porn encourages immorality because it treats people as means, not ends — which is exactly what casual sex does. Porn is, in a sense, the logical end-point of the sexual revolution because it completes the separation of sex from love and relationships.
See how good she is at summing up big, sprawling issues, using just the right words? One of the virtues of this book — never mind the ratiocination and the truth — is the writing. I will give two examples (further examples).
Charen talks of Germaine Greer, the Australian feminist and intellectual celebrity. “She was the diva of sexual experimentation and transgression in 1970. . . . Twenty years on, she was having second thoughts, but rather than face the truth (that sexual promiscuity was terrible for women, men, and children), she grabbed the AIDS scare as a fig leaf and hid behind it.”
And how about this? The subject this time is female athletes who pose topless, telling themselves that it will be empowering or whatever. The thing is, “men who look at a photo of a topless gal don’t think, ‘Hey, there’s that impressive woman athlete. Isn’t it great that she’s not embarrassed about her body!’ No, ninety-seven men out of one hundred are going to think about sex. The other 3 percent are gay.”
Now, a grave subject, namely abortion. Charen speaks of the unborn child and its development — viewable, thanks to modern technology. “One might have thought that tenderness toward the small and weak is one of humanity’s better instincts, but feminists have been implacably at war with those impulses for decades. The ideology of ‘choice’ has been corrupting in several ways. The first is dishonesty.”
Yes — a necessary dishonesty, in a way, because once a person faces reality, the effect can be shattering. Dishonesty is a security blanket.
Many years ago, I walked past three women I knew well. One of them was pregnant, and they were oohing and ah-ing over the sonograms. All of them were pro-choice. As I walked by, I said, “Remember, that’s just a meaningless blob of protoplasm.”
They were so mad — hopping mad. I had really touched a nerve. My implication was, “That’s no baby you’re cooing over, so feel free to abort it, at any time.” I was much brasher then than now, and probably ruder, and I’m sure I shouldn’t have said what I said. But I don’t see how you can get googly over a sonogram while denying that a fetus is a human being deserving of life.
Back to Sex Matters, and another paragraph by Mona Charen:
I was in high school when the divorce tremors rumbled through the culture, and I remember what it did to friends and family members. My gloomy classmates robotically recited the popular mantra “It’s better to come from a broken home than to live in one,” but experience often belied this soothing bromide. Before too long, my classmates were seeing their fathers less often, and then Dad would announce that he had great news: a new wife whom he was sure they were going to love as much as he did. After a few excruciatingly awkward outings, those visits would fall off to nothing.
Look, I know that some divorces are necessary, as when they result from abuse or adultery (a kind of abuse, one of the worst). But when parents divorce, I can’t help thinking, “Why not just take a Louisville Slugger and bash your kids in the head?” A lot of people will not like to read this, but . . . well, that is true of virtually everything I write.
When you read Charen’s book, many thoughts are awakened in you, and many memories. I had two or three a page. Reading the chapter on “having it all,” I thought of an opera singer, who always claimed that it was a blessing she didn’t have children: They were not for her, she would have been a terrible mother, she was designed for a career — all that. Was it true? Oh, hell no. (This I know.) The more they protest, the more untrue it is.
Of course, there are those, male and female, who don’t want children. But you never hear them kind of bragging about it, if you know what I mean. The ones who brag and insist — they are spilling their beans.
My favorite parts of Charen’s book are those in which she writes personally: in which she tells of her own marriage, children, and career. More and more, I think that everything, pretty much, is biography or autobiography. These days, I find myself writing more about people than about “subjects,” or “issues.” Or rather, I write about subjects and issues through people and their stories.
Mona Charen is my dear friend and podcast partner. You would expect me to praise her and her book. Fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it, because this book awaits you. I expect that the book will be widely praised and widely attacked. Unusually, both the praisers and the attackers will know it’s true. Much of what Mona says is obvious — but it takes a special kind of courage to state the obvious, sometimes.
Last week, I was quoting Charles Krauthammer, on the subject of stating the obvious. I had thanked him for a particular column of his, one that rehearsed elementary and vital truths. He answered, “I must admit that when I write these days I have the feeling that everything I say is so perfectly obvious that there’s no need to write it. Except that these days, that’s all the more reason to write it.”
While reading Sex Matters, I thought of Solzhenitsyn. Born in 1918, he was a child during the first years of Bolshevik power. Some of the old people around him said, “This all happened because the people forgot God.” You know, that’s the way old, superstitious, uneducated people talk.
Solzhenitsyn was a great intellectual. He experienced the Soviet Union for many decades: in the Gulag and out. He devoted many, many hours of thought to the question of the Soviet Union: the whys and wherefores. And he concluded that he really couldn’t improve on what those old people had said: This all happened because the people forgot God.
What does this have to do with Sex Matters? Well, I think of the hookup culture, the divorce culture, the pervasiveness of pornography — the whole nine yards. This all happened because of a collapse of morality. Because of a rejection of the moral law.
Can you say that? On a conservative website, I trust . . .
At the end of her introduction, Mona offers these golden words: “For me, and I believe for others, giving, not having, is the key to happiness and peace.” And since I’m waxing religious, I’ll end with a hymn, by Richard Chenevix Trench, a 19th-century Anglican archbishop and poet:
Make channels for the streams of love,
Where they may broadly run;
And love has overflowing streams
To fill them every one.
But if at any time we cease
Such channels to provide,
The very founts of love for us
Will soon be parched and dried.
For we must share, if we would keep
That blessing from above:
Ceasing to give, we cease to have;
Such is the law of love.