Women’s work: lad culture and the necessary role of dignity

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This newspaper recently ran an article describing the problems surrounding “lad culture” on campus. In the piece, Alex Lupsaiu argued that legislation is often ineffective in transforming human hearts and that it is up to students to change the “cultural landscape” of campus life.

Though many recognise lad culture as wrong, and often dehumanising, my suspicion is that when it comes to taking real steps towards eliminating it, few students are interested in the task. There is a reason lad culture exists: many of us like it and allow it to. For young men, it holds the promise of casual sexual encounters with multiple women and with little, if any, social stigma attached.

The story for women is slightly more complicated. For some, lad culture may preferable, if unsatisfying, in its offer of unconstrained sexual freedom. For many others, the hope of having a committed, loving relationship with a single person has long been shattered, and hookups are perceived as the only alternative to loneliness.

Rather than trying to appeal to some abstract sense of human dignity, I would like to put forward a rather specific view with the goal of transforming our posture towards lad culture. In order to do this, I will first explain how lad culture came about. American universities are engaged in similar conversations on how to deal with “rape culture” and “hookup culture”, and I believe that all of these cultures have inherited some of their sentiments from feminism.

Second-wave feminists such as Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir identified a “problem that has no name” – a deeply rooted dissatisfaction with their female identities. The problem is clearly still with us, and the current culture has failed to supply a workable solution.

According to de Beauvoir, women cannot have a fixed nature, because, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” In this context sexual liberty means that there can be no guilt or hesitance associated with licentiousness or any other sexual decision. To object to any of these practices would be to constrain an unconstrained feminine freedom. It is this understanding of sexual liberty that led Harvard professor, Harvey Mansfield, to deem Beauvoir the “forerunner of womanly nihilism”.

By the time feminism entered into its third phase in the 1990s, the movement had become increasingly difficult to define. The Director of the Center for Gender Equity at Pacific University, Professor Martha Rampton, describes the third wave as “informed by post-colonial and post-modern thinking” with a common emphasis on the deconstruction of “notions of ‘universal womanhood’, body, gender, sexuality, and heteronormativity”. The desired result had become a form of total equality.

Today, this “equality” has come in the form of homogeneity, not equal dignity. The absurdity of this interpretation is evinced in the famous exchange between G.K. Chesterton and a female hostess:

Hostess: “Do you believe in the comradeship between the sexes?”

Chesterton: “Madam, if I were to treat you for two minutes like a comrade, you would turn me out of the house.”

Maybe that was the case in Chesterton’s time, but it is certainly not so today. It often seems that women prefer be treated with less respect and less care, so long as this ensures that they are treated the same as their male peers. Modern hookup culture is an example of the undermining of a nobler understanding of human dignity as part of an un-dignifying push for equality.

More than equality, women today need truth. Intuitions about our own intrinsic worth must be aggressively affirmed and defended.

While important, the right to “consent” is far from ennobling, yet that is all modern society is able to grant at present. To go any further would involve a stronger claim about human worth. It would require us to go way beyond what we typically think of when we hear the word “sex”. This new view of women would transform absolutely every element of hookup culture, including intercourse, oral sex, recreational making out, and “talking”. None of these would remain in their current state; they all whisper the same falsities about the mysterious glory that Pope John Paul II refers to as “feminine genius” in Theology of the Body.

What does our task look like in practical terms? First, we must no longer focus on asserting “rights” that have already been declared permanently, but cannot be directly conferred by human individuals or institutions. As women, we do not need to fight for dignity – we need to claim it is as ours and live it out.

If truth has something to do with human dignity, as Lupsaiu suggests, then defenders of truth must be prepared give a firm “no” to the practices and sentiments of lad culture and a “yes” to respect for human dignity. If sex and sexuality can mean anything, they will ultimately mean nothing. And if sex means nothing, lad culture and all its problems become permissible.

Feminine strength is needed in the transformation. This is not to say that the job that lies ahead is the sole responsibility of women or “women’s work” – it is a task for all of humanity to take up, to be sure – but it must originate within the female community. The question all women need to be asking is whether we actually want this, and if so, whether we are willing to take the steps necessary to bring about such a radical shift. Are we ready to say goodbye to lad culture?

Image credit: Kristine