A Public-School Teacher Confronts Gender Illusions & Sexual Reality
A new school year has begun, and teachers swell with excitement, hoping to mold the young into virtuous citizens. Then reality intrudes as teachers find themselves fighting an uphill battle against forces much larger than themselves. I was reminded of this battle in the high school where I teach as the results of the 2019 Student Council election were announced.
As the announcement concluded, I couldn't help asking my students, "Did you notice anything about the results?" Silence. I prodded more: "Anything stand out?" Silence. I gave them a hint: "Did you notice anything about the ratio of male to female?" Finally a young man apparently felt I had given him permission to say what he had already been thinking, since during the announcement he had leaned over to the only other male in the room and whispered something. Now he said it loud enough for all to hear: "It's mostly girls."
The guy was right; out of 43 total positions, only eight had been filled by males, exemplifying a trend that seems evident in many aspects of school life. In my own Advanced Placement history classes of 52 students this year, only 14 are male. Similar ratios are evident in the top-tier class ranks in each grade level, and of the 30 students that represent the leadership of school clubs, 25 of them are girls.
I continued to inquire of my students regarding the student council results: "Why do you think it's mostly girls?" Silence. I prodded again: "Anything come to mind that might lead more girls than guys to want to participate in Student Council?" Silence. I gave them a hint: "Do you think that school, society, and culture send certain messages to guys and girls that could be a factor in these results?" Silence still.
Now this meant I had some work to do, as it told me that these teenagers had never thought much about critically evaluating the cultural messages they take in at such astounding rates every day. So, even though the "mostly girls" trend may seem innocuous, I decided I should attempt to answer my own question and uncover for my students the deeper social forces at work here.
The Sameness Message
I believe the primary reason for such schoolhouse trends is second-wave feminism's goal of achieving sameness for men and women. (Second-wave feminism denotes the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.) Notice I did not use the word "equality," which allows for distinctions, but sameness, which blurs the original lines between male and female and makes the two sexes into a mass of neutered, interchangeable parts.
This goal of sameness has caused teachers to encourage girls to be leaders, to take charge and go into traditionally male fields. To be sure, this is not wrong per se. Perhaps much of this tendency comes from a desire to compensate for past inequalities (perceived or real) and to make sure that girls can live up to their human potential. But I am concerned about the effect this sameness message will have on young men and women in the long run. Will it really help them fulfill their human potential, or does it encourage them to try to realize their dreams in ways that clash with their biological and psychological uniqueness as male and female?
Neglecting Boys, Misleading Girls
First of all, in our attempts to achieve sameness, we have neglected our young men. I see it in my classroom, where many of the boys are happy to sit back and watch, as if to say, "You want girls to be leaders? All right fine; I'll just goof off and then go home and watch Netflix (or worse)." What I see emerging are disordered forms of masculinity—the hyper-masculine male on the one hand, and the effeminate male on the other. The twin problems of aggressiveness and passivity both result from disordered masculinity, and both can stem from a sense of weakness and impotence that can erupt in unhealthy outbursts as a way of compensating for a stifled masculinity.
Neglecting the boys also makes it harder for them to learn how to have meaningful relationships with members of both sexes. How will young men learn the habits and skills needed to lead a family, a battalion, or a business if they are never given opportunities to practice as a teenager? How will they learn to protect, cherish, honor, and care for a wife if they are never encouraged to develop these traits as a teenager? You know there is a crisis in masculinity when boys pack auditoriums to hear Jordan Peterson lecture them about "cleaning their room" and "taking responsibility." Young men are starving to be shown true masculinity, and public schools don't seem to be helping them one bit, preferring instead to shame the masculine and laud the feminine.
Second, in our attempts to achieve sameness, we have misled our young women. I also see this in my classroom, as many of the girls have so bought into the message of female leadership that they focus their hopes on entering high-powered careers and avoiding marriage and children for as long as possible, if not entirely. Many of these wonderful, bright young women have never considered that if they devote so much time to their fleeting careers, they may not be able to experience the deep and lasting joys of marriage and family.
Each year I organize a roundtable discussion on second-wave feminism using selected readings from Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly, and contemporary author Suzanne Venker. For most of my students, this is their first time reading what second-wave feminists actually said, or examining intelligent critiques of them. The roundtable ends up being the highlight of the year for many of my students, as they are excited to engage with competing ideas about what it means to be male and female, and to explore ideas that are avoided in so many other classrooms.
Second-wave feminism's campaign of sameness (and the concomitant sexual revolution's deconstruction of sexuality) have been all too successful in creating the emasculated male who sits back and wallows in permanent adolescence, and the masculinized female who is a go-getter and dons the business suit. This mantra of sameness, which removes all distinctions between maleness and femaleness and the particularity of each sex, is especially problematic for teenagers going through the chemical convulsions of puberty.
The Mystery of the Other
What teens need in this chaotic season of their lives is the stability of a worldview grounded in the natural and historic understanding of sex and sexuality, which sees the family as the central unit of society. This message is particularly powerful in a world of gender confusion, for it is not a message of limiting choice and freedom, but of embracing the richer, original diversity of male and female as truly freeing, beautiful, and, dare I say, erotic. There is unending awe and mystery in this exploration of the original "other."
In the first place, our very physicality as male or female bespeaks deep differences in our embodied experiences of reality: the male's rough, muscular frame, with its organs of self-giving, is distinctly different from the female's soft, elegant frame, with its organs of reception. These differences are not just accidents of biology, genetics, or physiology, but also reveal something profound and beautiful about what it means to be male and female.
The wonder and enchantment of it all are seen in the many paeans to the beauty of the human form in poetry and art, but they are even dimly visible in the distortions and objectification of the human form that we find in pornography and in so-called transgenderism. A gender-confused person's attempt to make himself or herself into the other sex is misguided and tragic, but it also testifies to the otherness of the opposite sex.
The mystery and wonder of "the other" also play out in important ways relationally and emotionally. At risk of oversimplification, the female's embodied experience of reality tends to foster empathy, care for others, respect for life; the male's embodied experience tends to foster action, risk-taking. While we want to avoid stereotyping men and women according to these precise traits or oversimplifying masculine and feminine psychology, mounting research seems to confirm the basics of what we've thought all along—that men and women aren't the same.
Most especially, in the male-female union of marital intercourse, the most intimate of all human acts, we have been given the ultimate expression that treasures the human form and experiences the "otherness" of the opposite sex.
A Better Message
One thing that can help us avoid the overly simplistic labeling of masculine and feminine traits and the pigeonholing of sex roles is to recognize that the sexes are not to be viewed as competing with each other in a war of wills in a Nietzschean will-to-power sense. Instead, the working principle is gift; men and women, in their relationships with one another, sacrificially give of themselves to each other in complementary ways. The ultimate gift in this context is, of course, the self-giving act of marital love, which births new life and brings husband and wife further outside of themselves into the satisfying self-giving of child-rearing. Embracing this reality instead of fighting against it creates more freedom than professed liberation from these ideas.
The key is to present this message as a glorious mystery. The tired, trite message of "boys need to do this and girls need to do that," has no sustaining power to withstand the unified forces of school, pop culture, the media, and celebrities trumpeting the enticing narrative of uninhibited self-expression, choice, and feeling. This is a pivotal area where many who espouse traditional moral views fail: they may be good at saying no, but fall short in providing the story of why, which is actually what wins people over. The solitary no quickly crumbles in the face of the alluring yes of a titillating sexualized culture. That tempting yes must be challenged not only by an authoritative no, but also by a superior yes contained within the richer narrative and compelling beauty of actual, physical reality.
One can say no to the fleeting pleasures of a near-bestial view of sexuality peddled by consumerism if he realizes that what he can then say yes to is far better: the deep and lasting fulfillment found in faithful monogamy and a natural understanding of gender. The Christian storyline of Creation–Fall–Redemption–New Creation is especially fit for this task, as it explains that a better way is found in embracing delightful complementarity, which truly liberates one well beyond the competing narrative's supposed call for "freedom of expression." True freedom comes not in liberation from forms and particulars, but by embracing those very particulars.
Since culture is in large part absorbed, this alternative case must be made explicitly to challenge the overriding cultural message, because if it is not, the mainstream message will win, hands down. The story to tell is that of the beauty and fulfillment to be found in accepting the gift of one's own sex and in expressing one's sexuality in a way that conforms with the natural, created order and traditional moral precepts. Our young people need to hear that this is what will lead them to a rewarding, meaningful, and satisfying life. If this message can effectively counter the one taught by second-wave feminism and its associate, the sexual revolution, perhaps the young men will be more likely to embrace self-giving, sacrificial masculinity, and young women will be more likely to embrace receptive, caring femininity.
All that in response to why the Student Council results were overwhelmingly female. Silence.Joshua Pauling
teaches highschool history, was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University, and has written for Front Porch Republic, FORMA Journal, and Modern Reformation. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He and his wife Kristi have two children who are being classically homeschooled.