Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sex, Self-Control and Masculinity

Sara Lipton, who bills herself as a history professor, put a ridiculous op-ed in the Times about manliness and sexual self-control. The sexual scandals of our era, she said, are generally explained as an unavoidable side-effect of manliness:
. . . when it comes to sex, a certain kind of man, no matter how intelligent, doesn’t think at all; he just acts. Somehow a need for sexual conquest, female adulation and illicit and risky liaisons seems to go along with drive, ambition and confidence in the “alpha male.” And even if we denounce him and hound him from office, we tend to accept the idea that power accentuates the lusty nature of men.
But hold, on, she says:

This conception of masculinity is relatively new, however. For most of Western history, the primary and most valued characteristic of manhood was self-mastery. Late antique and Roman writers, like Plutarch, lauded men for their ability to resist sexual temptation and control bodily desire through force of will and intellect. . . Rampant sexuality was something men were supposed to grow out of: in medieval political theory, young male bodies were used as symbols of badly run kingdoms. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex — who failed to “rule himself” — was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity.

Far from seeming “manly,” aggressive sexuality was associated with women. . . .

Because of this association of sexuality with femaleness, men who failed to control their sexual urges or were susceptible to feminine attractions found their masculinity challenged. Marc Antony was roundly mocked as having been “softened and effeminized” by his desire for Cleopatra. When the king and war hero Pedro II of Aragon spent the night before a battle not in prayer or council but in bed with a woman, he was labeled effeminate.

Gakk. I have a very short list of things I want my students to learn about history, but one of them is: the past was diverse. Casting your eye over 2,000 years of history, you can find lots of evidence for almost anything. Certainly there have been societies that put a very high value on self-control, and among these the old Roman elite liked to count themselves. Certainly there have been many psychological theorists who distrusted sex, and the notion that men will be softened by too much female company is widespread in warrior societies.

Yet the opposites of all these views are also ancient. If Lipton wants to bring up Marc Antony and Pedro II, I can bring up a much longer list of famous kings and generals who were notorious for their unbridled appetites: Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Suleiman the Magnificent, Qin Shi Huang ti, Brian Boru, Henry II, Walter Raleigh, Charles II, Louis XIV. I seem to recall that Achilles and Agamemnon had a falling out over a slave girl.

The stoical, tightly controlled man has had many admirers in history, and there are many famous examples, from Solon to Barack Obama. Modern, highly bureaucratic militaries, obsessed with order and discipline, tend to be dominated by these men: Wellington, Lee, Grant, Eisenhower. Yet the model of the manly man who let all his emotions run rampant, in anger and hatred as well as sex and love, is as old and famous as that of the stoic. If there is a difference, it is in the lack of restraint of our ubiquitous modern media, and our increasing respect for female servants; if great men of the past had abused their chamber maids a la Dominique Strauss-Kahn we would never know, because no one would have bothered to mention it.

It can never be said too often that the dominant characteristic of our species is our diversity, and the main lesson of history is how many different ways we have found to live and act.

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