Wednesday, March 05, 2008

SYM in the Land of Sexual Plenty, or Why I'm Very Glad I'm Not a SYF

I suddenly appreciate my mensch hubby even more than usual after reading "Child Man in the Promised Land" by Kay S. Hymowitz in City Journal. (hat tip to the ever-delightful John C. Wright for the link.)

It's not that the article hasn't said anything I haven't seen for myself (and seen how it has affected the parents who support these men-children and the girlfriends--with or without children--who cannot get these men-children to grow the F up). It's that it brings in the threads--the gaming, the magazines, the stupid ass movies that seem to be constantly featured in ads--to paint a more condensed and horrifying (to me) view of young manhood (or boyhood) today:

But this history suggests an uncomfortable fact about the new SYM: he’s immature because he can be. We can argue endlessly about whether “masculinity” is natural or constructed—whether men are innately promiscuous, restless, and slobby, or socialized to be that way—but there’s no denying the lesson of today’s media marketplace: give young men a choice between serious drama on the one hand, and Victoria’s Secret models, battling cyborgs, exploding toilets, and the NFL on the other, and it’s the models, cyborgs, toilets, and football by a mile. For whatever reason, adolescence appears to be the young man’s default state, proving what anthropologists have discovered in cultures everywhere: it is marriage and children that turn boys into men. Now that the SYM can put off family into the hazily distant future, he can—and will—try to stay a child-man. Yesterday’s paterfamilias or Levittown dad may have sought to escape the duties of manhood through fantasies of adventures at sea, pinups, or sublimated war on the football field, but there was considerable social pressure for him to be a mensch. Not only is no one asking that today’s twenty- or thirtysomething become a responsible husband and father—that is, grow up—but a freewheeling marketplace gives him everything that he needs to settle down in pig’s heaven indefinitely.

And that heaven can get pretty piggish.

When I was a teen who was sure she'd never marry and didn't see herself as a future mother, listening to my girlfriends (all virgins, all planning to go to college, all career-minded as well as marriage-minded, most wanting to be moms, too, and looking forward to it) go on about what they wanted in a future husband, a term used to come up a lot among the Latinas: "hecho y derecho." A literal translation, which would be inept, is "made and straight." The connotations would be off if you took it as a straight translation. A better translation would be "finished and upright." Finished meaning complete, mature, with all his life in order. Upright meaning he was a good guy, someone you could depend on, someone who was admirable. It was the totality of maturity in one phrase.

Notably, men were expected to be "hecho y derecho" by their early twenties, mid-twenties latest. Someone who wasn't a MAN by the quarter-century mark had something wrong with him, a particular weakness of character, a sort of self-indulgence that rejected taking the reins of the carriage of full manhood.

Full manhood implies commitment, duty, and the payoff--truly deep relationships, deep caring.

The frustration of single women in search of a man who is right and will commit got highlighted in Chick Lit novels, a genre which may not be so fresh anymore, but which certainly touched a big nerve in female readership. The article refers to novelists of Lad Lit--the other side of the story, the man-boys themselves. Even male authors noticed the slacker, commitment-phoboc members of their own sex--think of ABOUT A BOY by Nick Hornsby. One author is quoted in the article, coming to this conclusion:

In a world of serial relationships, SYMs “fail to sublimate their libidinal energies in the way that actually makes men attractive,” Kunkel told a dismayed female interviewer in Salon. With no one to challenge them to deeper connections, they swim across life’s surfaces.

The superficiality, indolence, and passionlessness evoked in Hornby’s and Kunkel’s novels haven’t triggered any kind of cultural transformation. Kunkel’s book briefly made a few regional bestseller lists, and Hornby sells well enough. But sales of “lad lit,” as some call books with SYM heroes, can’t hold a candle to those of its chick-lit counterpart. The SYM doesn’t read much, remember, and he certainly doesn’t read anything prescribing personal transformation. The child-man may be into self-mockery; self-reflection is something else entirely.

That’s too bad. Men are “more unfinished as people,” Kunkel has neatly observed. Young men especially need a culture that can help them define worthy aspirations. Adults don’t emerge. They’re made.

But the article doesn't focus on why they don't need to sublimate their libidinal energies. After all, if that's at the root, as suggested, then what changed.

Well, John C. had something to say on it:

Once it was, in the name of freedom and women's equality, stigmatized rather than lauded for women to remain chaste until marriage, the supply of available demimondes and nymphs increased. A similar cultural shift away from duty-based morality toward moralities based on enlightened self interest ushered in intellectuals (ranging from the sincere to the truly strange) who then supported the pursuit of unenlightened self-interest. A decline in religious sentiment and a general contempt for marriage and family formed an coincidence of interests, a meeting of minds, so to speak, between the Hugh Hefner like exploiters of women and the Gloria Steinem like defenders of women's equality: both hated each other, but both were allied against marriage.

It is marriage and childrearing, more than any other single factor, that turns boys into men.

When marriage is optional, and man can philander or move in with concubines without benefit of marriage, moving out whenever his enlightened or unenlightened self-interest might prompt him, then manhood is optional as well. Since they have the advantages of marriage, the bed, without the commitments of marriage, the ring, and since they have the advantages of manhood, a job, without the commitments of manhood, a household to mind, a township to serve, why should these boy-men not beguile away the hours playing online games?

I remember when we used to be told about the value of saying NO to sex--the religious value (purity, physical holiness), the social value (to be seen as a virtuous woman and suitable wife, to be respected for self-control by others and self, and to not add to the burden of the community as done by unwed moms on welfare), the familial value (no premarital pregnancies stressing family finances), the psychological value (self-esteem, sense of innate vallue that told us we were worth the full commitment of marriage before relations), and the medical value (no sexually-transmitted diseases).

Make sexual purity and sanctified marriage seem laughable and antiquated, and leave someone with what the culture alone offers (no stigma for unwed sexual activity of every possible kind), and there's no reason to control those "libidinal energies." They feel good. If there's nothing standing in the way other than latex, then gung ho, let's go.

And you get your child-men. And child-women, too, no doubt, keeping them company. But that's for another article.


heather said...

I love, love, love my husband.
If one can give a standing ovation to a blog, I'm giving it.
One thing I love about Hornby novels is that the SYM is challenged to grow up and embrace commitment.

Valerie Comer said...

May I suggest men (and women) reading Wild at Heart by John Eldredge? Absolutely VITAL reading for men and for parents of boys.

Ken said...

I've been tracking response to Hymowitz's commentary, and so I came across your blog. Your analysis is among the best.

I'm a married father who spent all of my 20s as a bachelor, and carefully thought through whether or not I wanted to marry and have children.

That being said...

The child-man is largely a reaction. It is impossible to change "the rules" and environment around men and still expect all men to stay "old-school". Feminism gave women more choices. Great. But that also changed things for men, too. The sexual revolution also changed things. Men can now get sexual gratification from many different women with little effort and without having a relationship. Why? Because there are women who shamelessly do these things.

More men these days have been raised in a home without a father who is happily married to their mother. Men have also lost most "male-only" institutions. Masculinity has been mocked in the media, and attacked in academia. And thus, they do not have a model of a happy, lasting marriage and are not socialized to be marriage and family-minded AND masculine in the traditional sense.

Fewer women are marriage-and-family minded, instead focused on higher education and then making it big in a full-time career. Men now have to compete with them in the workplace, making it harder to become secure and established at a young age. Why build a nest (buy a home) if you need to be able to move from city to city to advance your career? Meanwhile, some women play both sides of the fence, wanting all of the good things feminism has brought, but still expecting to find a man who earns more than they do, who will act like one of her girlfriends (able to read her mind, will listen to her talk about her problems over and over without offering a solution), and who will pay for the dates/entertainment. Some men - some of whom do not play video games and do not live with their parents and ARE self-sufficient - say "Why bother?" and instead enjoy the casual sex with many different "hook-ups".

That makes even more sense for men who do not want kids and do not want to get married. We no longer live on the family farm or work in the family shop, where having children meant having help with the work. We're making children more of a liability than an asset.

These men see their fathers, uncles, brothers, co-workers, and friends who are either miserably married or have been emotionally and financially devestated by divorce and the loss of access to their children.

And in many cases, even men who believe in God have been led to believe that God doesn't care if they fornicate. Or, they try to be upstanding and nice guys, and find themselves paying lots of money out for dates and getting told "goodnight" at the door, while Hymowitz's New Girl Order girl then calls up a bad boy for a no-strings-attached encounter. So, some of these "nice guys" decide to become that bad boy.

And so here we are. The horse is out of the barn, and unlikely to be captured. The best we can do is demand that everyone be responsible for themselves (playing video games is fine, as long as you are self-sufficient and take care of your obligations), and keep the marriage-and-family-minded men and women from mingling with the "I don't want those obligations" men and women.

Anonymous said...

May I suggest Princess Bubble for married women, single women and children. This message reinds us all true happily ever is found in loving God and helping folks.

Petrov said...

What Ken said...