Barbara Kay: The slow, tentative return of women’s lost sense of sexual honour

Friday September 12th, 2014

AP Photo/Francois Mori
Topless in France

The sexual revolution seems to be running out of steam in the West.

 The Post’s September 11 editorial informs us that many indicators, such as a dramatically diminished interest in topless bathing in France, the bellwether of female sexual liberation, point to a return of relative conservatism in women’s attitudes to sex.

 In North America, teens of all races and classes are starting sexual relations later than in the 1990s, and rates of teen pregnancy, birth and abortion are going down. Speculating on the causes for the shift, the editorial cites the birth control pill, fear of STDs and the dawning realization by western women that unbridled, indiscriminate sexual activity entails more lasting psychological harms than is warranted by its transient pleasurable gain. One could add to this list fears of privacy invasion by ubiquitous smartphones and other empirical dampers on promiscuous self-exposure.

But I think there is a “bigger picture” factor at work here as well: namely, the slow, tentative, fragile return of women’s lost sense of sexual honour.

One of the most intellectually influential books I have ever read was cultural critic James Bowman’s 2006 Honor: A History. As fellow cultural critic Charles Murray wrote in its praise: “Ranging across psychology, popular culture, military history, the arts, and politics, Honor: a History is a tapestry of the twentieth century that uses a neglected thread – the evolution of the complicated bundle of values that goes into the concept of honour – to explain how out culture got where it is today.”

Relevant in this particular context is Bowman’s elegantly simple definition of honour as “the good opinion of those who are important to you.” Honour is not the same thing as morality (both bad people and good people act in honour’s name). Although its hold on western life today is fragile, a sense of honour is not entirely moribund in our culture. Honour codes still flourish in the military, for example. We are not always able to articulate what honourable behaviour consists in, but we usually have an instinctive grasp of what constitutes “dishonourable” behaviour.

Honour, Bowman says, is sex-specific. Male honour is rooted in physical courage; women’s honour is rooted in sexual modesty. Men are ashamed to be called out for being cowards; women are ashamed to be called out for being sluts. Morality is usually a private affair. But, as Alexis de Toqueville wrote, “Honour acts solely for the public eye.” Before the personal became the political, we made a firm distinction between public and private behavior, and as a collective, we only judged public actions. Today that line is almost utterly obliterated.

The jettisoning of honour as a criterion for judging the behaviour of others has been the assiduously pursued task of “progressives” throughout the 20th century. Conversely, the application of honour as the only criterion in judging the behaviour of others – notably the sexual behaviour of girls and women – has been the assiduously pursued task of Islamists in their own lands, and in the last several decades in the western lands to which they have migrated in critical masses.

Both of these ideologically-rooted drives represent poles of honour-related extremism. Both are socially destructive of healthy relations between the sexes. And both tend to obscure the fact that in reasonable doses, honour is a force for good in society. In the West, tribalist honour joined forces with Christianity to produce a distinctly western strain of honour, which we call chivalry. Nobody is pretending that men and women today should aspire to replicate the relationship of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, written in 1813, but there is a reason this honourable couple continues to attract fascinated and even envious attention from every new generation of women who discover them. Something in our nature craves the constraints that produce the rewards an honour code confers.

Bowman writes that there is a natural pattern to the emergence of honour societies among young men who have been liberated from family and social controls until natural self-correctives resocialize them. Men in the west seek resocialization when violence gets out of hand. Second and third generation mafiosos retreat into semi-respectability. Gang killings reach a tipping point and begin to subside. Women who have thrown off all sexual modesty begin to interrogate the cost-benefit of their behaviour (even the Sex and the City women of the cognitive elite wondered aloud, over their martinis, “Are we sluts?”), and slowly withdraw from promiscuity.

 Societies with strong honour codes have a well-developed sense of duty and sacrifice. Too little, and nothing seems worth fighting for. Too much, and everything seems worth dying for. Finding the balance is the key.

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