|Noli me tangere: Do not touch me.
One serious problem for young people attempting to live a chaste life, and therefore bucking the hugely powerful trend of modern western culture, is that they can too easily be seen as losers. A good deal of prestige goes along with sex and relationships, and those who miss out on these tend to lack prestige. I've been talking about women in the last couple of posts, in response to one article I quoted, but here I'm going to focus on men, and I am partly inspired by this article here.
The author, John Mallon argues that part at least of the reason some women don't get asked on 'dates' is because they are giving off some rather hostile vibes, quite probably without meaning to. He says that men prefer women who are 'kind', and these can be hard to find; a lot of women seem to make a point of negativity and cynicism in dealing with men. This is true. But his description of men and of their needs presents an image of the 'Beta' man. A man who can't really deal with women, who lacks the characteristics which women admire and find attractive. But this is a problem, and the ladies are not to blame for not giving off warm vibes to men they don't find attractive.
Let me illustrate the problem with a little personal anecdote, not from a romantic context but a purely social one. When I was preparing for my A-levels, some kind person thought it would be interesting or useful for me to have a chat with an Oxford academic he or she happened to know in my chosen subject. So it was arranged and off I went to Oxford. I met this lady academic in her college, but instead of going to her rooms she took me to the library where, she said, she needed to pick up some books. On the library desk there was an enormous pile of books, I suppose about twenty of them. They were put into two carrier bags, to go to her room. I immediately felt that this was something of a test. I gallantly offered to carry them both, and she accepted. We then went down all sorts of corridors, across quads, and up two or three of those narrow and steep staircases so characteristic of Oxford, and finally into her room. As a reasonably strong 17 or 18 year-old I would describe the weight of the books as on the painful side of bearable.
She then gave me a rather unpleasant and totally pointless interview, and I found myself on the street again in about five minutes. I had indeed been tested, and I had failed the test.
What had I done wrong? I had reacted as what we might call a nicely brought-up young man would predictably react. (I had many faults, but I was on my best behaviour.) I had been told over many years that gallantry towards ladies was expected and would be appreciated. It was indeed appreciated by pleasant old aunts and the like, but in the real world it could easily imply something else. I was inadvertently signalling not the superiority of a knight in shining armour, but servility.
The distinction is a crucial one, and is illustrated in Shakespeare's As You Like It. The shepherd Silvius adores Pheobe and follows her around like a spaniel waiting to be kicked. Phoebe finds it intensely irritating, and who can blame her? The older man, Corin, tries to reason with Silvius, in words which should be remembered by every young man who can't understand why girls aren't interested in him despite his devoted attentions.
'That is the way to make her scorn you still.'
The lady don may well also have justified her reading of my behaviour in feminist terms. For a feminist, the fact that men behave in a servile way on the strength of a chivalrous ideal theoretically based, not on servility but superiority, means that this kind of servility should be despised as an attempt to assert superiority. In short, it is patronising. As well as being patronising, it puts the man in a situation in which he is wide open to humiliation, and the feminist feels entirely justified in humiliating him.
What should I have done? If I had had the presence of mind, one way out of the problem would have been for me to tease her. 'What do you do when the library is closed? Get bags of rocks for your visitors to carry?' If done in a sufficiently charming way, such an approach could even have got her to laugh at herself. Such a strategy of course was totally beyond my social skills at the time, even if it had occurred to me.
I think I have an idea what one of those 'Pick Up Artists' (PUAs) would have done. These are people who pride themselves on presenting as 'Alpha' men, and attracting lots of women. I think such a person would have said, looking at those books, 'Oh! Let me help!' and then taken a single, slender volume from the pile.
We need to understand this strategy, even if we don't want to adopt it. It is the experience of many nicely-brought up men that all the most attractive girls devote themselves to jerks, and that their own gallantry gets them nowhere. There is a reason for this. The gallant behaviour I exhibited all those years ago was understood to signal the message, 'I am a doormat: walk on me'. The PUA behaviour is designed to signal 'I don't need you, but I can be amusing about it.' A person able to say the second thing seems to have a higher value than the person appearing to say the first thing.
We can draw a number of conclusions from these observations. Young men who want to live a chaste life are in danger of being put into the same category as the young men who can't get the girls because they are losers, so it is particularly important that they don't display the behaviour of losers. Talking about chivalry to high-minded young men is, therefore, very dangerous, unless some important distinctions are made. What they need to adopt is not servile gallantry, but the attitude of self-sufficiency which is, in fact, a central element of genuine knightly virtue. They need a masculine spirituality of self-discipline, and not a pseudo-feminine spirituality of passivity.
The 'aloof jerk' wins hearts precisely by not committing to relationships, precisely by not treating women well: not because women are masochists, but because such behaviour signals superiority and desirability: 'I don't need you'. The chaste man needs to find a way to signal the fact that he isn't 'desperate' (a word calculated to make self-respecting young ladies run a mile), not by casual infidelities and the like, but through strength of character and virtuous self-restraint.
Related: a discussion of Alice von Hildebrand's notion of female holiness.
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