In our family, we gloat over what excellent husbands (or priests) our sons will be someday because they’ve had so much practice hanging around women. Big sisters, little sisters, teenage sisters, toddler sisters, not to mention hoards of sisters’ friends – and of course their batty old mother. We have two sons, right in the middle of the family, and eight lovely daughters, ready and willing to teach those boys how to act around girls.
We joke about it, but we’re also in earnest. A dreadful number of problems arise between men and women simply because they have no idea how to act around each other. They just haven’t had any practice. Combine this lack of practical experience with a heavily pornified culture, and disaster is guaranteed.
And so we find ourselves reading stories in the news where a man and a woman who are strangers engage in sex acts that our grandparents never even heard of, and by the end of the evening, no one can even agree what happened, or why, or whether it was rape, and if so, is there any way to keep it from happening again? I didn’t link to a specific story because it’s a story I can read every day. It plays out in clubs, in schools, in churches, everywhere.
Men and women are completely baffled by each other, and when they come together, rather than a graceful or even a clumsy dance, we see boys and girls, men and women engaged in some kind of horrible, outrageous pantomime, only they’re both blind. And they’re both holding knives.
I don’t pine for the good old days. I have no illusions that men and women used to exist in peace and harmony as long as they stuck to their pink and blue gender roles. The past had its monstrous errors just like the present, and it was mainly women and children who suffered for those errors. But I think we can see that the current course correction isn’t working well, either.
Rigid gender roles were no good, but make it up as you go along is its own kind of shambling disaster.
Some Catholics, seeing the sexual and psychological chaos of so many lives, live in such rigid fear that their children will fall into sexual sin, they keep boys and girls apart as if they’re chemicals that will explode if they mix. What a dreadful mistake.
When we segregate the sexes, we teach boys and girls to be fearful and suspicious of each other – and, at the same time, we encourage a wild curiosity that will be sated in one unhealthy way or the other. John Paul II fought hard against the mindset that sexuality is an ugly, terrifying power against which we must constantly defend ourselves. Instead, he tried to make us understand that sexuality is part of all humans, even of celibate priests and sisters, and that it is powerful and profound, but very, very good.
How can a man or woman possibly come to see sex this way, if they’ve been trained since childhood to think that the opposite sex is off-limits? I pity the poor married couple who were taught that premarital chastity consists of tying your hands behind your back and gritting your teeth until the other person goes away or stops haunting your dreams. What is such a couple supposed to do when they get married? How can they flip a switch and suddenly learn how to enjoy and respect each other, when just yesterday, each other’s bodies were their worst enemy?
What happens, horribly often, is that a married man who was raised this way thinks he’s entitled to whatever he wants from his wife’s body, and she thinks she has to put up with it, because that is the reward for pre-marital chastity. Pure misery all around. There’s no easy cure for this. But friendship can go a long way. Friendships between boys and girls, and between male and female teenagers and young adults, should be encouraged. It should be welcomed – yes, even if there’s the possibility that friends will get carried away physically. There are worse things (and there is confession).
When you are friends with the opposite sex, you get used to thinking of them as more than sexual objects for your consumption, and it will be harder for you to let yourself even think of pressuring them into sex, much less assault them.
When you are friends with the opposite sex, you will be more likely to come to the defense of someone who needs help – a young woman who is being harassed or threatened by other men, or a man who is being ill-used or manipulated by other women.
When you’re friends with the opposite sex, you become a better parent to your own children of that sex, because their ways will not be so foreign to you.
And when you’re friends with the opposite sex . . . well, you get to be friends with the opposite sex. Friendship isn’t just useful; it’s a good in itself. It enriches us and makes us more human.
Friendship doesn’t solve everything. Friends can still be cruel to each other. Friends can still be blinded by sexual urges. You can be great friends with nine people and still make horrible mistakes with a lover. But true friends see each other as multi-dimensional people, some of them sexually attractive, some of them not, but still interesting and worthwhile.
It might be difficult to remain friends with someone you’re attracted to, but I reject with disgust the idea that it’s impossible for boys and girls to be friends, or that girls are somehow defrauding boys if they enjoy their friendship without wanting romance. We can be better than this. If we want to find our way out the current sexual morass, we must be.