Lytton Strachey, author of Eminent Victorians, once quipped that “[t]he history of the Victorian Age will never be written.  We know too much about it.”  Strachey was writing back in 1918, and Victorianism is still with us.  What we know today is that men and women can’t spend much time together without one or the other feeling harassed, violated, suppressed, or intimidated.  

The Victorians had the daft idea that women are “angels of the house,” cherubic creatures to be everlastingly worshiped and adored but never approached in physical terms.  That sort of prudery resurfaced during the Prohibition era and again in the straight-laced 1950s and in the grim 1970s with the advent of Women’s Liberation.  Now it’s back with a vengeance.

In many ways, Women’s Liberation was the worst Victorianism of all.  It did a great deal of damage, not least of it contributing to the skyrocketing divorce rates of that decade.  The annual U.S. divorce rate, which had hovered around 2.5 per 1,000 people for at least a half-century (with the exception of the anomaly of “wartime marriages” quickly dissolved after WWII), rocketed to over five per thousand during the 1970s.  (The steep decline of the 1990s was not the result of less dysfunction; it stemmed from an even larger decline in the marriage rate.)

The seventies were the decade in which the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir (author of The Second Sex), Betty Friedan (author of The Feminine Mystique and founder of the National Organization of Women), and Gloria Steinem (along with the myth of female victimhood associated with Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963) went mainstream and wrecked the traditional conceit of sex relationships.  That conceit was based on the assumption that romantic love and male gallantry are wholesome expressions of affection and that marriage and monogamy are the norm for adults. 

Women’s Liberation spawned unhappiness not just for the unfortunate “male chauvinist pigs,” as males were labeled, but for the “liberated” women themselves.  These women grew up to be aging radicals; miserable loners; and, in their later years, Hillary supporters.  They seem to have spent their lives balancing a large chip on their shoulders.  Whatever went wrong, it was always the fault of the “patriarchy” – a nebulous force of repression somewhat akin to Hillary’s “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Like the bra-burners of the ’70s, this social history is so bizarre that it now seems funny, or it would if it had not caused so much damage.  What is less a source of humor is the fact that Victorianism is back in the homes and workplaces of America.  Society has again decided that women must not be touched, gazed upon, assisted, or even complimented.  Women are to be unisex co-workers, classmates, and housemates – not the object of love and affection they were for ages.

Any violation of the no-touch, no-look, no-say policy is punished with the loss of employment, reputation, and standing on the part of the male.  Even the unsupported allegation of impropriety is enough to sink a career.  Public figures like Matt Lauer and Bill Cosby have been caught up in this mentality, but millions of others, many of them entirely innocent (and how does one define or determine guilt or innocence when a single word or gesture can be interpreted as a crime?) have been sacrificed on the altar of prudery.  It is a harsh new world we have entered, or re-entered.

The rules of that brave new world have been codified in nearly every school, workplace, and public institution.  At Brown University, the rules are spelled out in an extensive document detailing not just truly criminal offenses such as rape and sexual assault, but more subjective matters such as “gender [sic]-based harassment.”  Subjective or not, violation of campus rules can result in suspension or expulsion.

While many of these rules are obvious, several rules seem hazy, indeed.  For example, Brown’s rules of conduct specify that “stalking” can be defined by as few as two instances in which the purported stalker “observes” or “surveils” another person, causing “substantial emotional distress.”  How is it that the mere act of being observed twice can cause substantial emotional distress, and can a purported stalker know that observing another individual is causing distress?  Keep your eyes to yourself at Brown.

With such rules in place, we are well on our way to the hijab and the burqa.  Ironically, that sort of outfit is the logical outcome of a feminist mentality that criminalizes traditional sex relationships, thereby transforming all men into sexual aggressors and women into “objects” (and, in fact, vice versa).  The only way to ensure not being observed and objectified is for women, and men, to cover up.

I am not singling out Brown, whose rules of conduct seem generally well intentioned.  The problem is that society as a whole has succumbed to a conceit of the sexes that is not merely unworkable, but inhuman.  If the “rules of conduct” in nearly every school and workplace prohibit “unwelcome sexual advances,” including words, deeds, and looks, and the punishment for such advances include expulsion or firing, one wonders how any man or woman can ever get a date.  Who knows what “observing” might take place in the course of a romantic evening?  A goodnight kiss or attempted kiss can most certainly be branded an assault.

How does one define the “traditional” male-female relationship that has been around for ages?  It is the natural impulse, driven largely by hormones, for young men to look upon women with love and desire and for young women to welcome such attention.  Tempered by courtesy and goodwill, such impulses go a long way toward rendering life agreeable and happy.  They are the basis of what in the past was termed “male gallantry” and “female pride,” terms that may seem outdated but are far from being so.  Without such ideals and the graceful demeanor that goes with them, life is bitter, indeed.

Unfortunately, none of the institutional “rules of conduct” credits such impulses or the unwritten social contract that defined relations between men and women in the past.  That contract, the basis of a vast literature stretching from Homer to the present, has been systematically discredited by generations of feminists.

Every revival of Victorianism is followed by an equally excessive period of permissiveness as the pendulum swings back toward sexual license.  In their way, those decades of license are no better than the prudery they replace, just less mean.  What both the wild 1960s and the prudish 1970s overlooked was the deep need for loving kindness that is the basis of sex relations in the lives of most human beings.  While de Beauvoir and Friedan write of males as pigs and patriarchs, most women see them as somewhere between knights and dears.

Every generation or so, society decides that sex is a bad thing.  The “rules of conduct” under which we must live at present are painful, but life goes on.  Victorianism always causes a great deal of damage to individuals, ruining many lives, but society as a whole survives.  Soon it will be the swinging sixties all over again, and the neo-feminists will be out of luck.

Checking Amazon, I see that Our Bodies Our Selves (the 2011 revision of the feminist classic) is selling at #13,526.  There don’t seem to be many buyers for this bible of women’s liberation.  The 50th-anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique isn’t doing much better.  It’s selling at #11,818.

Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

Lytton Strachey, author of Eminent Victorians, once quipped that “[t]he history of the Victorian Age will never be written.  We know too much about it.”  Strachey was writing back in 1918, and Victorianism is still with us.  What we know today is that men and women can’t spend much time together without one or the other feeling harassed, violated, suppressed, or intimidated.  

The Victorians had the daft idea that women are “angels of the house,” cherubic creatures to be everlastingly worshiped and adored but never approached in physical terms.  That sort of prudery resurfaced during the Prohibition era and again in the straight-laced 1950s and in the grim 1970s with the advent of Women’s Liberation.  Now it’s back with a vengeance.

In many ways, Women’s Liberation was the worst Victorianism of all.  It did a great deal of damage, not least of it contributing to the skyrocketing divorce rates of that decade.  The annual U.S. divorce rate, which had hovered around 2.5 per 1,000 people for at least a half-century (with the exception of the anomaly of “wartime marriages” quickly dissolved after WWII), rocketed to over five per thousand during the 1970s.  (The steep decline of the 1990s was not the result of less dysfunction; it stemmed from an even larger decline in the marriage rate.)

The seventies were the decade in which the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir (author of The Second Sex), Betty Friedan (author of The Feminine Mystique and founder of the National Organization of Women), and Gloria Steinem (along with the myth of female victimhood associated with Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963) went mainstream and wrecked the traditional conceit of sex relationships.  That conceit was based on the assumption that romantic love and male gallantry are wholesome expressions of affection and that marriage and monogamy are the norm for adults. 

Women’s Liberation spawned unhappiness not just for the unfortunate “male chauvinist pigs,” as males were labeled, but for the “liberated” women themselves.  These women grew up to be aging radicals; miserable loners; and, in their later years, Hillary supporters.  They seem to have spent their lives balancing a large chip on their shoulders.  Whatever went wrong, it was always the fault of the “patriarchy” – a nebulous force of repression somewhat akin to Hillary’s “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Like the bra-burners of the ’70s, this social history is so bizarre that it now seems funny, or it would if it had not caused so much damage.  What is less a source of humor is the fact that Victorianism is back in the homes and workplaces of America.  Society has again decided that women must not be touched, gazed upon, assisted, or even complimented.  Women are to be unisex co-workers, classmates, and housemates – not the object of love and affection they were for ages.

Any violation of the no-touch, no-look, no-say policy is punished with the loss of employment, reputation, and standing on the part of the male.  Even the unsupported allegation of impropriety is enough to sink a career.  Public figures like Matt Lauer and Bill Cosby have been caught up in this mentality, but millions of others, many of them entirely innocent (and how does one define or determine guilt or innocence when a single word or gesture can be interpreted as a crime?) have been sacrificed on the altar of prudery.  It is a harsh new world we have entered, or re-entered.

The rules of that brave new world have been codified in nearly every school, workplace, and public institution.  At Brown University, the rules are spelled out in an extensive document detailing not just truly criminal offenses such as rape and sexual assault, but more subjective matters such as “gender [sic]-based harassment.”  Subjective or not, violation of campus rules can result in suspension or expulsion.

While many of these rules are obvious, several rules seem hazy, indeed.  For example, Brown’s rules of conduct specify that “stalking” can be defined by as few as two instances in which the purported stalker “observes” or “surveils” another person, causing “substantial emotional distress.”  How is it that the mere act of being observed twice can cause substantial emotional distress, and can a purported stalker know that observing another individual is causing distress?  Keep your eyes to yourself at Brown.

With such rules in place, we are well on our way to the hijab and the burqa.  Ironically, that sort of outfit is the logical outcome of a feminist mentality that criminalizes traditional sex relationships, thereby transforming all men into sexual aggressors and women into “objects” (and, in fact, vice versa).  The only way to ensure not being observed and objectified is for women, and men, to cover up.

I am not singling out Brown, whose rules of conduct seem generally well intentioned.  The problem is that society as a whole has succumbed to a conceit of the sexes that is not merely unworkable, but inhuman.  If the “rules of conduct” in nearly every school and workplace prohibit “unwelcome sexual advances,” including words, deeds, and looks, and the punishment for such advances include expulsion or firing, one wonders how any man or woman can ever get a date.  Who knows what “observing” might take place in the course of a romantic evening?  A goodnight kiss or attempted kiss can most certainly be branded an assault.

How does one define the “traditional” male-female relationship that has been around for ages?  It is the natural impulse, driven largely by hormones, for young men to look upon women with love and desire and for young women to welcome such attention.  Tempered by courtesy and goodwill, such impulses go a long way toward rendering life agreeable and happy.  They are the basis of what in the past was termed “male gallantry” and “female pride,” terms that may seem outdated but are far from being so.  Without such ideals and the graceful demeanor that goes with them, life is bitter, indeed.

Unfortunately, none of the institutional “rules of conduct” credits such impulses or the unwritten social contract that defined relations between men and women in the past.  That contract, the basis of a vast literature stretching from Homer to the present, has been systematically discredited by generations of feminists.

Every revival of Victorianism is followed by an equally excessive period of permissiveness as the pendulum swings back toward sexual license.  In their way, those decades of license are no better than the prudery they replace, just less mean.  What both the wild 1960s and the prudish 1970s overlooked was the deep need for loving kindness that is the basis of sex relations in the lives of most human beings.  While de Beauvoir and Friedan write of males as pigs and patriarchs, most women see them as somewhere between knights and dears.

Every generation or so, society decides that sex is a bad thing.  The “rules of conduct” under which we must live at present are painful, but life goes on.  Victorianism always causes a great deal of damage to individuals, ruining many lives, but society as a whole survives.  Soon it will be the swinging sixties all over again, and the neo-feminists will be out of luck.

Checking Amazon, I see that Our Bodies Our Selves (the 2011 revision of the feminist classic) is selling at #13,526.  There don’t seem to be many buyers for this bible of women’s liberation.  The 50th-anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique isn’t doing much better.  It’s selling at #11,818.

Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).



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