The double standard

A conversation from a few months back:

My wife:  Don’t you think it was unfair the way people used to make a much bigger deal about a woman sleeping around than about a man doing the same thing?

Me:  Well let’s see.  Do you remember when your father let you pick out a kitten as a little girl?

My wife:  Yes.

Me:  Did he let you pick a male or a female cat, whichever you wanted?

My wife:  No.  He said I had to get a male cat.

Me:  Why do you suppose that was?

My wife is pretty cool (especially for the current generation of women), and she seemed to find this a clever response and chuckled a little.  For quite a few women, though, the “double standard” is a big deal.  It’s their trump card, their ultimate proof that Christian sexual morality is hypocritical, and can thus be dismissed.

The idea seems to be circulating that the natural, common-sense position would be to hold men and women to the same standards of chastity, but that we evil Christian conservatives with our obsession with feminine virginity went and constructed an outrageous system where only female fornication or adultery counts.  This is, of course, exactly backwards.  Any woman who mouths this garbage should be presumed a lying bitch.  Not only is it a historical fact that Christianity has always held men and women to the same standards of sexual ethics (namely, no sex outside of marriage; monogamy, marriage debt, and indissolvibility inside of marriage), this has been a peculiarly Christian position.  It is by no means the default position.  The cold light of natural reason would, at a first glance, seem to dictate something quite different.  There is simply no symmetry between the effects of male and female indisgression.  When the son of one family sleeps with the daughter of another, the burden of extramarital pregnancy does not fall equally on the two families.  When the husband of one family cheats with the wife of another, the burden of uncertain parentage does not fall equally on the two families.  For the point of view of a family, it is much more important to control the sexual behavior of the women than the men.  For most pagan religions, the nuclear or extended family is the primary religious unit, and so it is to be expected that these will tend to have different, stricter rules for women.  There’s nothing irrational about it at all.

Of course, from a global, society-wide point of view, female unchastity and male unchastity are just two aspects of the same problem.  Every sexual sin involves both; end one and you automatically end the other.  Hence it was that Europe embraced a symmetric sexual ethic.  The primary religious body was the Church, a corporation existing outside the family and thus seeing things from this wider point of view.  And so it is that this organization that feminists hate the most is in fact responsible for the symmetric sexual ethics which they imagine they will bring the West through the Church’s destruction.

22 Responses

  1. Thanks for the post.

    I guess that I’m just exposing my dull wit, but could you explain your response to your wife?

  2. “I guess that I’m just exposing my dull wit, but could you explain your response to your wife?”

    Bonald’s wife’s father only let her get a male cat as he did not want to end up having to deal with the kittens a female cat might have.

  3. Ah… Thank you Stewart! 🙂

  4. A double standard? Women expect men to pay for dates. Women expect men to approach them, not the other way around. Women actually prefer an experienced man, and then want the man to suddenly become dedicated to just her, while men prefer an inexperienced woman and want to keep it that way (in terms of number of partners). Women expect the man to provide, while women want to have the choice of working or staying home. And women expect to get the kids in case of a divorce. So who exactly has the double standard here? The real question is, why would any sane man care about what a modern woman thinks?

  5. The real question is, why would any sane man care about what a modern woman thinks?

    I dunno. Chivalry, maybe?

  6. Chivalry is surely justified for traditional women, but not for modern women.

  7. No. The whole point of chivalry is that it commands men to act in certain ways towards women on account of proper gender roles, not individual merit. Deciding that we’ll only be chivalrous to women who “earn” it is like trying to secure everyone a long and prosperous life by killing off certain citizens for organ donation and ongoing medical research. The two just don’t mix.

  8. I actually agree with you here, Bonald. Blaming Christian ethics for the double standard gets things precisely the wrong way round.

    I think that the confusion arises because particularly extreme manifestations of the double standard often correlate with Catholic (and Muslim) cultures. Take the obsession with honour, machismo and virginity seen in traditional Mediterranean societies. But you could make a strong case that those societies were violating Christian ethics rather than applying them.

    Also, you should *always* neuter a pet cat, whether it’s male or female.

  9. Surely a supporter of patriarchy should be in favour of women keeping the children in case of divorce (or separation, if one doesn’t believe in divorce)? The alternatives would represent a departure from traditional ideas about gender roles and child-rearing.

  10. I am old enough to have lived in the age when this alleged “double standard” was in force, and can say that it was far less stark and simple than feminists say it was. Young men who were, as we now say, “sexually active,” were considered to be bad, and terms like “womanizer” and “skirt chaser” were strongly pejorative.

    One reason young women were more often enjoined to chastity is that a sexually uninhibited young woman can do much more damage to the sexual and moral economy of a community than a sexually uninhibited young man. If a young woman wishes to be promiscuous, she will always find “partners.” This is not the case with the vast majority of young men. I’ve known many wannabe “studs,” but no wannabe “sluts.” If the males in a community decide they would like to start “sleeping around,” not much happens. If the women decide to start “sleeping around,” well, everyone starts getting a lot less sleep.

  11. ‘No. The whole point of chivalry is that it commands men to act in certain ways towards women on account of proper gender roles, not individual merit.’


    The whole point of chivalry is to get on a horse and plow into a formation of enemies, slaughter as many as possible – and then either rout the survivors or else retreat.

    Chivalry is a method of warfare suitable for muscle-powered weapons. Stop confusing it with the cult of courtly love.

  12. ‘Surely a supporter of patriarchy should be in favour of women keeping the children in case of divorce ‘

    That’s wildly wrong. Patriarchy trades a woman’s reproductive power for a man’s socio-economic power. The children are the property of the man. If the woman leaves, she must leave the children to serve the father.

  13. You’re assuming that it’s the woman who’s leaving. What if it’s the man who’s deserting his wife for a newer model? It seems difficult to argue that his patria potestas would survive unimpaired.

    More seriously, though, I’d have thought that it was fundamentally inconsistent with patriarchal ideas about gender roles to say that it should ever be the father’s role, to the exclusion of the mother, to undertake the domestic role of raising the children. Even if the man has been deserted, it surely compounds the injustice done to him to make him assume a feminine role that he has not sought by assigning the children to him.

  14. “Why would a sane man care what any modern woman thinks”


  15. I can’t think of a good patriarchal resolution to the problem of what happens to the children when a husband and wife split up–one reason we try to use law, religion, and social pressure to keep this from happening. On the one hand, having clear gender roles means one can unambiguously assign guilt for the separation, and it seems that should have some bearing on the matter. (It’s probably how I would decide.) The other issue for a traditional society is what *family*, rather than individual, the children belong to. A patrilineal and matrilineal society (either of which might be traditionalist) would answer this question differently and, most likely, act accordingly. In a patrilineal, patriarchal society for a case where the woman is at fault, I expect the children would stay under their father’s custody, but the grandmother or aunt would take a big role in their upbringing. Perhaps Mr. Seymour will come by and explain the Roman custom to us.

  16. Chivalry had many components, often having little to do with each other. Prowess in battle was certainly the central one, but piety and courtesy were also included. In Constance Bouchard’s excellent study of the medieval French nobility “Strong of Body, Brave and Noble”, she argues that medieval writers realized that the demands of chivalry could conflict, and this was the dramatic core of much of their literature. She enjoins her fellow historians to stop looking for a self-consistent definition of chivalry, because the chivalry of medieval courtly literature is not consistent.

    On the other hand, the Church’s ideal of a good knight, a warrior for God, does seem to be self-consistent. The Church didn’t think to highly of the whole doing-noble-deeds-to-impress-another-man’s-wife thing, though.

  17. You invited me to explain the Roman solution. It was very simple. The relationship between father and child was one of ownership, pure and simple.

    A father’s power over his children, male and female and his sons’ children, male and female, was life-long and absolute. The jurists called it the ius vitae necisque – the power of life and death and this was no figure of speech.

    Naturally, whatever they acquired was his, because they were his. He could sell them into bondage (mancipium) or he could sell them as slaves “trans tibirim” (to the tribes beyond the Tiber)

    The family was purely agnatic, relationships being traced exclusively through males.

    In practice, mothers or maternal relatives were usually appointed as testamentary guardians, the reason being that they could not inherit from the child on its death. To appoint the father’s sister (an agnate and potential heir) was thought similar to appointing a wolf as a lamb’s guardian. The classical jurists were not sentimentalists.

  18. Thank you. The Romans are sort of our gold standard for patriarchy, so it’s good to know how they treated things.

    Is it still the case that the Romans would have a child raised by the mother’s relatives if it was the mother who initiated or was at fault for a divorce? Wouldn’t that mean turning the children over to a now-hostile other family?

  19. This was true during the early Roman Republic. But this gradually declined, completely disappearing in the Roman Empire by around 200AD.

  20. Guardianship (tutela) would only arise where the father and his father were both dead.

    Of course a man could equally well appoint a member of his own mother’s family as a testamentary guardian. The were not agnates and so could not inherit on the death of the child.

    As marriage could always be dissolved by mutual consent (divortium) or repudiation (repudium), no question of fault arose and there were no judicial proceedings. The husband did have the right, under Augustus’s legislation, to retain a portion of the dowry, as compensation for fault (up to a sixth) Otherwise any agreement or arrangement imposing a penalty for divorce was void; the jurists insisted that marriage must be terminable at will and struck down any clog or fetter on this right.

  21. With the exception of women who possessed the ius librorum, granted by Augustus to women with 4 children, the position was maintained right through the classical period, up to the reign of Hadrian and beyond.

    I did not mention marriage with manus, where the wife was “filiae loco” (in the position of a daughter to her husband), so far as succession and guardianship rights went, because it had been in decline since the 2nd century BC and vanished for free women by the reign of Claudius, as is clear from his legislation.

  22. Michael, my main source for what I wrote is Carcopino’s “Daily Life in Ancient Rome”. Is this book accurate on this subject? I have read some original stuff from this time period in Rome (like “The Twelve Caesars” and “The Golden Ass” (fun book)) but nothing that really discusses family structure. Do you have any suggestions?

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