In Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female, journalist Ashley McGuire articulates the crisis of sexual identity facing the contemporary West, all in a punchy and accessible style.
McGuire explores numerous fronts of the current assault on the reality of sexual difference: children’s toys and education, cultural discourse around the terms “sex” and “gender,” colleges and their sexual culture, the military, emergency services, the entertainment industry, legal developments, social norms, and the gender identity movement. Each front is presented through a litany of journalistic anecdotes and symptomatic causes célèbres. Together they reveal a society fraught with conflict over one of the most basic human realities—the difference between men and women.
Throughout her treatment, McGuire goes against society’s blindness to the reality of significant and unavoidable difference between men and women. Nature, of course, won’t readily function as the docile handmaid of our ideological fancies. McGuire presents case after case in which the lie that there’s no significant difference between the sexes is embarrassingly exposed. A noncompliant natural order reasserts itself, despite all our attempts to resist it. Unfortunately, in the single-minded pursuit of ideology, the rebuffs of nature are answered with redoubled efforts to erase sexual difference, accompanied by recriminations blaming an unenlightened society for the (natural) failure to realize the vision.
Beauty of Difference
The ideological fear of sexual difference, however, isn’t well grounded: were we to welcome and attend to the differences between the sexes, our respective dignity would be heightened, not diminished. To live as equals, McGuire contends, we must rediscover and appreciate our differences, no longer being “scared of our own selves” as sexed persons:
Sex doesn’t need to be a fault line in a battle, or a source of national scandal. The difference between the two sexes should be the starting point for a more authentic equality. This does not mean a return to the times when women were denied basic goods like an education or the vote. Those times suffered under an equally problematic misunderstanding of the difference between the sexes, one that denied where the sexes truly are the same, namely in their intellectual capacity and their contributions to civic life. But it is also an affront to equality to say men and women are identical, and to deny that a civilized society requires certain corrections to accommodate the unique needs of the female sex. (192)
McGuire affords us glimpses of a more positive vision, one in which our differences can be celebrated as distinctive gifts, in which men and women are not competitors but companions and collaborators, admiring and respecting each other’s unique strengths. She laments the demise of chivalry, for instance, reminding her readers that “it is sexual difference that activates chivalry, and women are its primary beneficiaries.”
Women on Their Own Terms
McGuire’s interest is primarily focused on the damaging effects that denying sexual difference has on women. A gender-neutralized society, she argues, decreases women’s happiness and well-being, alienating them from their very bodies and selves, in order that they might more effectively function in masculine roles.
For instance, women’s “emotional sensitivity with its natural fluctuations” is dulled with pharmaceuticals, enabling and encouraging “women to take on behaviors that are typically approved by men” (154). By forcing women to adapt to male norms, it blinds them to their own particular strengths—strengths by which both they and society at large can greatly benefit. Without wanting to abandon a pursuit of equality, McGuire wants us to reframe it, recognizing the equal dignity and value of men and women, each on their own terms.
The roots of our cultural failure to handle sexual difference responsibly can be traced back to the sexual revolution and the second wave of the feminist movement. McGuire singles out Simone de Beauvoir’s famous claim, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” as a crucial move in the rise of a dysfunctional ideological approach to sexual difference.
This claim, further radicalized in the thought of subsequent theorists such as Judith Butler, untethered cultural expressions of gender from the natural reality of sexual difference. Attributing the many apparent differences between the sexes to culturally imposed gender roles, the stage was set for a crusade to uproot all gender norms and to take the persistence of difference as proof that the revolution simply hadn’t been as thoroughgoing as it needed to be.
Depth of the Problem
McGuire’s book is neither an academic nor a theological treatment of the question of sexual difference, and anyone hoping for such treatments will likely be disappointed.
Sex Scandal displays many of the characteristic failings of more journalistic accounts of cultural phenomena. Cases of ideologically motivated confusion regarding sexual difference aren’t hard to come by, but might provide a distorted impression of the shape of public opinion. As McGuire herself acknowledges, “One loud customer who takes to the media can drown out 1 million others who are too busy to politicize their everyday shopping” (6).
It’s important to recognize that both the prominent reporting of scandalous cases and the power of extremists to spread their norms are greatly increased by the rise of social media, which exposes us to stories that tickle our prejudices, heightens the polarization of the political landscape, and diminishes the power of moderates. In order to deal with such a complex information landscape, I was expecting closer and more strategic analysis of the social patterns of ideological dissemination, the mechanisms by which gender ideology gains ground, and the material factors that make our society ripe for its rise.
While McGuire occasionally reveals profound moral dimensions of the questions of sexual difference, she doesn’t explore them. I suspect her own religious convictions couldn’t readily be exposed in a book aimed at a general audience. Without the more expansive horizon that the Christian faith affords (or even more developed philosophical thought, for that matter), sexual difference can’t achieve its true salience.
The magnitude of the imaginative and cultural shifts required to think properly about gender make it difficult for any book designed to be palatable to a wide readership to address many of our most fundamental societal dysfunctions. Attempts to dislodge the orthodoxies of autonomous individualism, for instance, would meet fierce resistance on many fronts.
Sex Scandal is a frequently depressing book on account of its subject matter, yet McGuire’s discussion often provides a refreshing and positive counterpoint to the destructive social trends she describes. The book isn’t an explicitly Christian book and, apart from a couple of references to papal statements on gender issues, betrays little of the author’s own Roman Catholic convictions. However, any Christian reader will find much with which to resonate.