Denial has brought chaos. A new book urges beginning again.
“Sex has become scandalous,” Ashley McGuire writes in her new book, Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female. “Sex,” she writes, “needn’t be a scandal. It should be a source of potential and the starting point for true equality. The things that make us different can’t be changed, but understanding them can help us to build a better and more just society that gives both men and women the chance to live freely and authentically.”
“[W]e live in a world of sexual denial. We are increasingly trying to treat men and women as if they were exactly the same. And then we’re surprised by the growing sexual confusion.”
Kathryn Jean Lopez: “The Sexual Revolution was like a hydrogen bomb taken to human sexuality. Though it was launched by Americans coming of age in the 1950s and 60s, subsequent generations such as my own are still living in a cloud of nuclear fallout. Our moral landscape is like the bombed-out cities after the world wars, and we are like citizens left behind to sort through the debris.” This isn’t a bit of an overkill of a description?
Ashley McGuire: Yes, I think the greatest threat to women’s equality with men is the denial of woman as a category altogether. I think the Sexual Revolution was predicated on denying fundamental realities about women — in particular, reproductive realities. The idea behind the Sexual Revolution was to “liberate” women to be sexually more like a man (or rather the most base stereotype of a man), and doing so required making her body infertile like a man’s. Or as I quote Hugh Hefner in the book, “Women were the major beneficiary of the sexual revolution. It permitted them to be natural sexual beings, as men are. That’s where feminism should have been all along.” In fact, this idea is very patronizing, referring to women as a “beneficiary” and implying that there is something “unnatural” about the feminine approach to sexuality.
In fact, the Sexual Revolution benefitted no one, and had the effect of instrumentalizing the female body for male pleasure and profit. Here we are decades later having actual debates about legalizing prostitution for “gender equity” reasons and seeing women at Ivy League schools enlist a “sugar daddy” to help them pay tuition and justify it as an empowering choice.
Lopez: Why does using gender instead of sex matter so much?
McGuire: The language of the debate is critical, as George Orwell has taught us, and we are ceding important territory by using the word “gender.” The correct, medical way to refer to the categories of “male” and “female” is “sex.” “Gender” is a practically meaningless word that did not enter the scene until a few decades ago. It has no agreed upon medical definition. Even gender theorists don’t agree on its meaning and debate among themselves about it at length. Replacing the word “sex” with “gender” quickly leads to anarchy in the debate, which is a big part of where we are today. Exhibit A: Facebook, which experimented with adding 70-something gender options to the old-school “male” and “female,” only to get piled on by enraged people saying their gender was not represented. Eventually, Facebook had to back off and offer a fill-in-the-blank, which I believe now is a mere “other.” Either words have definitions, or the debate descends rapidly into anarchy.
Lopez: How has the Catholic Church helped clarify things male and female? Could we — lay people as much as priests and religious — take the lead to help now?
McGuire: I am someone who converted to Catholicism after being drawn in by the Church’s starkly countercultural approach to sex and sexuality. Once I allowed myself to be open to reasoning against contraception, I could see with simple clarity the way it is used to instrumentalize women. I continue to marvel at the deep understanding of human beings and our complementarity with each other the Church preaches and brings into the modern era. Men in the Church such as my husband or friends who are priests, are often the most supportive of both my professional work and my role as wife and mother. And the Church has been exalting women long before we even had any rights in society. I think our culture, however, is not in a time of particular openness to differing arguments, so I think the best thing that lay people can do right now, apart from speaking the truth with charity, is to model it through our happiness. As St. John put it, by this they will know us — our love. But also our peace and happiness amid all the turmoil. I believe we can only live out the love and equality between men and women that so many are seeking, by starting with an understanding for and an appreciation of, that which makes us different.
Lopez: What did Edith Stein mean when she wrote that “The world doesn’t need what women have, it needs what women are.”?
McGuire: This quotation is admittedly a bit abstract, but I think what she meant was that our sex is a part of our identity in the deepest way. That we tend to focus on the more superficial aspects of sex (or what people often mean when they use the word “gender”), and that in doing so we lose sight of the deeper and more mysterious meaning of sex. Edith Stein went on to become a convert to Christianity and eventually a Catholic nun and a martyr for the faith. I suspect she was deeply influenced by the Christian understanding of the equality of and complementarity between the sexes. She also lived during two world wars and died in Auschwitz. Living at such a harrowing time, she no doubt thought a lot about the need for the female virtues in a fallen world. I think what she is getting at is that you cannot take a person’s identity away from a person, and that our sex is a fundamental part of our identity. And the world needs the female identity, not the superficial or exterior things we associate with being a woman.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online.