A few years ago I endured one of my more embarrassing moments in adult life. My wife and I had just arrived at our church small group leader’s home for the Monday evening gathering. There was another married couple in our group with whom we were becoming good friends; the four of us were close in age and they had been married just a few months after us. Shortly after arriving my wife walked ahead into the kitchen while I attended to something in the living room. A few minutes later I joined the group in the kitchen and saw my wife standing with her back turned toward me. I walked up behind her and gently started rubbing her shoulders. About 3 seconds into this spontaneous massage, I looked to my left and saw—my wife. With deep horror I realized I had mistaken our friend for Emily (I have insisted to this day that they had very similar haircuts). The room roared in laughter, including her and her husband, and we got good mileage out of that story the next few months.
I was very grateful that everyone in the room, especially the couple, was so good humored about it. Sometimes people describe conservative evangelical Christians as the type of folk who are scandalized by even the most innocuous impropriety. I actually think that in that kind of situation, the propriety—the sensitivity of a gathering like that to shared norms about sex, marriage, and gender—empowered the humor. My crimson blush, my wife’s awkward moment of realization, and my poor friend’s utter confusion betrayed a shared value of modesty that made the faux pas innocent and funny. What would the husband’s reaction been if, say, I had had a reputation for being handsy? How would the situation have changed if I hadn’t stopped? I think one thing is for certain: It wouldn’t have been funny.
The take du jour is that rules are bad. Everybody hates rules, especially rules between the sexes. “The man pays for the date” is sexist and archaic. The Billy Graham Rule is patriarchal and anti-friendship. Ironically, in mainstream political culture, the more intimate and explicitly sexual the interaction, the more rules—and more shaming— can apply. Try to lay down some standards for a first date or working lunch and you come off as prudish at best, pervy at worst. But if the clothes are coming off, passion must be paused for the acquisition of “informed consent.” It’s as if the rejection of public propriety has created a need for private legislation.
I don’t think many people genuinely believe that Joe Biden is a predator. For all most of us know, he could indeed be, but that’s not a conclusive inference to make from the accusations that have thus far been levied against him. It seems more correct (again, with the information available now) to say that senator Biden is a physically affectionate person who, like many, is a Thoroughly Modern Man who lives and works far above the regressive and puritanical constraints of propriety. He is “handsy” because he has no reason (until now) to not be. That’s just “who he is.”
Biden’s habits have hardly been a secret. But they have not threatened his political viability until now because the only objections to impropriety that count in our contemporary public square are individual narratives that speak from experience and describe it in predator-victim language. Prior to the #MeToo era, a criticism of Biden’s handsy-ness that focused on its inherent impropriety—e.g., it’s always inappropriate for any man to pull his non-wife in close and smell her hair and breathe on her neck—would have been labeled regressive and sex-negative. Everyone believes Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose hosted “meetings” with female employees in their hotel rooms for sinister ulterior purposes, but hardly anyone other than oppressive religious folks have been willing to say that hotel room meetings are inherently improper. We are swimming in an ocean of spotlight investigations and civil suits, while the evasive virtue of propriety remains by far the cheapest option.
Our cultural elites are clearly struggling with how to articulate sexual morality without using any morally transcendent vocabulary. They are trying and failing to fit the round peg of a stigma-less sexual marketplace into the square hole of health, equality, and respect.
Even some conservatives seem unable to put two and two together. I like Mona Charen’s reminder of the emotional and psychological benefits of human touch, and the connection she makes to some really fascinating research showing declining sex and happiness is intriguing. But even a social conservative like Charen stops short of saying that the bridge between the humane balm of physical touch and respect for sexual boundaries and consent is propriety, habits of restraint and prudence that can be deployed indiscriminately. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the androgyny demanded by the modern market economy is just a foregone conclusion for Left and Right by this point. Perhaps we are facing a severe dearth of virtue ethics. Perhaps both.
In any case, the loss of propriety in contemporary life is an example of how sexual revolution liberates the body from constraints by severing its limbs. We need not wax foolishly nostalgic about the 1940s to see that something has been lost in the post-Woodstock age. It’s true that social propriety has often reflected a double standard for men and women, especially as regards modesty and faithfulness. A Christian propriety doesn’t wink at womanizers while branding scarlet letters on their victims. Rather, it takes seriously the physical and spiritual differences between men and women, honors marriage above market economics, and models chivalry on the perfect self-sacrifice of Christ, the church’s bridegroom. It doesn’t see every male-female interaction as an opportunity for lust, but neither does it ignore the inherently gendered character of our nature. Christian propriety expects men to behave toward women a certain way not to avoid a lawsuit or curry political favor but because they are men and women.
Sound regressive? But what has the escape from propriety and modesty achieved but a porn-shaped public soul, bad faith between the sexes, a banquet for predators, and a ruthlessly opportunistic shaming system? I shudder to think of what would have happened to a naive soul in the Democratic Party that stood up 5 years ago and told Joe Biden that men ought not make intimate gestures to women who are not their wives.
At least they would have been on the right side of history.