Our Cultural Confusions about Men and Women

I’ve said this many times. All you need to do to corrupt any group of human beings is to let them know that, as a group, they will be beyond criticism. Shake well, and wait ten minutes. This rule has particular relevance in our culture’s confused assumptions about men and women, because the good of each sex is so inextricably bound with the good of the other, that they stand or stoop or fall together.

Consider the following statements:

– Women are made in the image and likeness of God, no more and no less than men are.
– Men are in dire need of the grace of God, no more and no less than women are.
– Women, as a sex, have characteristic strengths and weaknesses, as do men, and these strengths and weaknesses are easily observable across all human cultures, in every climate, under every political and religious regime, and at all stages of technological development.
– Men have their ways of making the lives of others miserable, no more and no less than women do.

We may argue about whether the statements above are true. What cannot be reasonably argued is that they are misogynist. Suppose I say, “John is a bad man in one way that is typical of bad men. He cannot stay out of the casino.” Gambling addicts are far more often male than female. Men have invented every form of gambling there is, nor does it appear that they are going to stop.

There is no way that women would ever have come up with fantasy football, that vast system of betting on the statistics of quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers, complete with leagues and trades and payrolls and so forth – a black hole for many a man’s attention.

Am I a hater of men for saying so?

Am I a hater of women for saying so?

If I say that men are far more likely to be murderers than women are, I am speaking the truth. But what if I say that women are more likely to engage in emotional extortion? The person who beats you up is most likely a man. The person who informs the authorities when you say a disapproved thing is most likely a woman. John yells at you and calls you an idiot. Mary turns her head away and waits on the sly for an opportunity to wreak vengeance. Some Johns do that. Men despise them.

If I say that more men than women fall into dangerous ideological abstraction, and miss the trees for the forest, I believe that history will bear me out. But if I say that more women than men will fail to see the long-range implications of a policy or an idea, and miss the distant forest for the nearby trees, have I said anything that women themselves do not bear witness to?


When Nancy Pelosi was asked about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, which for the first time in American history would penalize a citizen for not purchasing a product that the government wants him to purchase, she glared, as if the question were irrelevant. It is as if there were never some next move on the chessboard.

What I say implies that men and women tend to go daft in different ways, even in opposite directions, so that they need one another as complements and correctives. That should not be controversial.

But it is controversial. And that is a peril, for both sexes.

As usual, the Church can give us a good bracing splash of cold water. Wake up! Jesus was always gentle when he spoke with women, and even his apparent brush-off of the Canaanite woman was meant to elicit her act of faith; it was a rhetorical move. But Jesus never says anything about the inherent goodness of women, or the inherent badness of men, or vice versa; nor do Paul, James, Peter, and John.

Perhaps we Christians can begin to heal the open wound of mutual suspicion, resentment, blaming, and anger between the sexes, thus. Consider it a form of prayer, inspired in turns by gratitude and humility.

Begin by thinking about the strengths and the gifts of the other sex.

Be honest. Don’t sneer at “tradition,” as if it were not the distilled wisdom of mankind, always and everywhere. Gratitude is liberating. It is the virtue whereby the receiver participates in the generosity of the giver. Fall to your knees, men, and thank God for women – and mean it. Likewise for you, women; thank God for men, no more and no less.

Then think about the weaknesses and characteristic selfishness of your own sex. Again, be honest. Humility also is liberating. What a strain it is, what a heavy burden, always to be pretending to strength when you are weak, to wisdom when you are foolish, and to goodness when you are a sinner! Give it up.

Those two exercises alone should leave you with no time to spare. If you do go on, think about the weaknesses of the other sex, and keep your own always in mind. Think about those weaknesses in a forgiving and generous way, as they are often but strengths misapplied, or the price that we finite and imperfect creatures must pay for a strength – as, for example, the greater size and efficiency of the man’s physical heart makes it the more vulnerable to a fatal attack.

And if you have any time at the end of a year’s meditations on the above, you may then think about the strengths and gifts of your own sex, but always acknowledging that they are gifts from God, and that they are meant to be used, most particularly for the benefit of the other sex.

Maybe then we might see more marriages and fewer divorces. And maybe we would again be able to laugh at ourselves. What fun it is, after all, that there are two sexes and not some vague spectrum, or some universal gray!


*Image: Honeysuckle Bower by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609 [Alte Pinakothek, Munich]. This is a self-portrait of the artist and his wife, Isabella Brant.

You may also enjoy:

Pope Leo XIII’s The True Meaning of Marriage

Bevil Bramwell OMI’s Male and Female

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.