Manly Men of YorePosted: June 19, 2011
One of the most interesting and insidious aspects of complementarianism is its use of alternative (read: false) historical narratives to legitimize its claims about the timeless and universal nature of “masculinity” and “femininity.” Men everywhere have always been like X, and women everywhere have always been Y, and that’s that.
Of course, these kinds of ahistorical claims are hardly unique to complementarianism – you can see the same phenomenon at work in the counterfactual history promoted by the Tea Party and their ilk (Paul Revere’s Ride was about defending the right to bear arms against the British! The Founding Fathers fought tirelessly to end slavery!), or by anti-Muslim warmongers (Islam is a bloodthirsty religion that’s been hellbent on wiping Christianity off the face of the earth for over a millenium!). These kinds of narratives show how important history is, how powerful historical accounts – accurate or not – can be in lending credibility and influence to particular points of view and undermining others.
Unsurprisingly, the actual historical record completely contradicts complementarian assertions of a monolithic “masculine nature.” Sara Lipton’s recent New York Times article on ancient and medieval concepts of masculinity is a great example of this. Our current cultural view of masculinity holds that “all men” or “real” men are characterized by an insatiable and barely controllable lust for sex – which is why we often ascribe the sexual escapades (and far worse) of powerful men to their gender:
The conventionalis that when it comes to sex, a certain kind of man, no matter how intelligent, doesn’t think at all; he just acts. Somehow a need for sexual conquest, female adulation and illicit and risky liaisons seems to go along with drive, ambition and confidence in the “alpha male.” And even if we denounce him and hound him from office, we tend to accept the idea that power accentuates the lusty nature of men.
But as Lipton points out, for much of western history, sexual restraint, not excess, was viewed as the hallmark of mature masculinity.
Late antique and Roman writers, like Plutarch, lauded men for their ability to resist sexual temptation and control bodily desire through force of will and intellect….Rampant sexuality was something men were supposed to grow out of: in medieval political theory, young male bodies were used as symbols of badly run kingdoms. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex — who failed to “rule himself” — was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity.
At the same time, lustfulness and sexual excess were in fact associated with women, not men:
Ancient and medieval writers described women as consumed by lust and sexual desire. In 1433, officials in Florence charged with regulating women’s dress and behavior sought “to restrain the barbarous and irrepressible bestiality of women who, not mindful of the weakness of their nature, forgetting that they are subject to their husbands, and transforming their perverse sense into a reprobate and diabolical nature, force their husbands with their honeyed poison to submit to them.” [Of course, this notion of female sexuality as a weapon used to subdue hapless men is still very much with us.]
Because of this association of sexuality with femaleness, men who failed to control their sexual urges or were susceptible to feminine attractions found their masculinity challenged. Marc Antony was roundly mocked as having been “softened and effeminized” by his desire for Cleopatra. When the king and war hero Pedro II of Aragon spent the night before a battle not in prayer or council but in bed with a woman, he was labeled effeminate.
Of course in a sense this trope is not so different from our current cultural framing of masculine and feminine sexuality. Both the ancient/medieval and our model are essentially misogynistic, blaming women for sexual indiscretions or outright crimes by men, whether because of imagined female sexual aggression on the one hand, or because women supposedly stir up uncontrollable male lusts simply by existing (I’m sorry, being “immodest” or “provocative”) on the other. Still, it’s clear that our modern understanding of gendered sexuality didn’t exist in the West as recently as a few centuries ago. Kind of calls into question claims that our notions of masculinity and femininity reflect some divinely created male or female nature, hmm?