MUST-READ: Dr. Leon Kass on the end of courtship

This essay has 3 parts, and it was sent to me by ECM.

Part 1 of 3.


The change most immediately devastating for wooing is probably the sexual revolution. For why would a man court a woman for marriage when she may be sexually enjoyed, and regularly, without it? Contrary to what the youth of the sixties believed, they were not the first to feel the power of sexual desire. Many, perhaps even most, men in earlier times avidly sought sexual pleasure prior to and outside of marriage. But they usually distinguished, as did the culture generally, between women one fooled around with and women one married, between a woman of easy virtue and a woman of virtue simply. Only respectable women were respected; one no more wanted a loose woman for one’s partner than for one’s mother.

The supreme virtue of the virtuous woman was modesty, a form of sexual self-control, manifested not only in chastity but in decorous dress and manner, speech and deed, and in reticence in the display of her well-banked affections. A virtue, as it were, made for courtship, it served simultaneously as a source of attraction and a spur to manly ardor, a guard against a woman’s own desires, as well as a defense against unworthy suitors. A fine woman understood that giving her body (in earlier times, even her kiss) meant giving her heart, which was too precious to be bestowed on anyone who would not prove himself worthy, at the very least by pledging himself in marriage to be her defender and lover forever.

Once female modesty became a first casualty of the sexual revolution, even women eager for marriage lost their greatest power to hold and to discipline their prospective mates. For it is a woman’s refusal of sexual importunings, coupled with hints or promises of later gratification, that is generally a necessary condition of transforming a man’s lust into love. Women also lost the capacity to discover their own genuine longings and best interests. For only by holding herself in reserve does a woman gain the distance and self-command needed to discern what and whom she truly wants and to insist that the ardent suitor measure up. While there has always been sex without love, easy and early sexual satisfaction makes love and real intimacy less, not more, likely — for both men and women. Everyone’s prospects for marriage were — are — sacrificed on the altar of pleasure now.

Part 2 of 3.


The ubiquitous experience of divorce is also deadly for courtship and marriage. Some people try to argue, wishfully against the empirical evidence, that children of divorce will marry better than their parents because they know how important it is to choose well. But the deck is stacked against them. Not only are many of them frightened of marriage, in whose likely permanence they simply do not believe, but they are often maimed for love and intimacy. They have had no successful models to imitate; worse, their capacity for trust and love has been severely crippled by the betrayal of the primal trust all children naturally repose in their parents, to provide that durable, reliable, and absolutely trustworthy haven of permanent and unconditional love in an otherwise often unloving and undependable world. Countless students at the University of Chicago have told me and my wife that the divorce of their parents has been the most devastating and life-shaping event of their lives. They are conscious of the fact that they enter into relationships guardedly and tentatively; for good reason, they believe that they must always be looking out for number one. Accordingly, they feel little sense of devotion to another and, their own needs unmet, they are not generally eager for or partial to children. They are not good bets for promise keeping, and they haven’t enough margin for generous service. And many of the fatherless men are themselves unmanned for fatherhood, except in the purely biological sense. Even where they dream of meeting a true love, these children of divorce have a hard time finding, winning, and committing themselves to the right one.

[…]That the cause of courtship has been severely damaged by feminist ideology and attitudes goes almost without saying. Even leaving aside the radical attacks on traditional sex roles, on the worth of motherhood or the vanishing art of homemaking, and sometimes even on the whole male race, the reconception of all relations between the sexes as relations based on power is simply deadly for love. Anyone who has ever loved or been loved knows the difference between love and the will to power, no matter what the cynics say. But the cynical new theories, and the resulting push toward androgyny, surely inhibit the growth of love.

On the one side, there is a rise in female assertiveness and efforts at empowerment, with a consequent need to deny all womanly dependence and the kind of vulnerability that calls for the protection of strong and loving men, protection such men were once — and would still be — willing to provide. On the other side, we see the enfeeblement of men, who, contrary to the dominant ideology, are not likely to become better lovers, husbands, or fathers if they too become feminists or fellow-travelers. On the contrary, many men now cynically exploit women’s demands for equal power by letting them look after themselves — pay their own way, hold their own doors, fight their own battles, travel after dark by themselves. These ever so sensitive males will defend not a woman’s honor but her right to learn the manly art of self-defense. In the present climate, those increasingly rare men who are still inclined to be gentlemen must dissemble their generosity as submissiveness….

The problem is not woman’s desire for meaningful work. It is rather the ordering of one’s loves. Many women have managed to combine work and family; the difficulty is finally not work but careers, or, rather, careerism. Careerism, now an equal opportunity affliction, is surely no friend to love or marriage; and the careerist character of higher education is greater than ever. Women are under special pressures to prove they can be as dedicated to their work as men. Likewise, in the work place, they must do man’s work like a man, and for man’s pay and perquisites. Consequently, they are compelled to regard private life, and especially marriage, homemaking, and family, as lesser goods, to be pursued only by those lesser women who can aspire no higher than “baking cookies.” Besides, many women in such circumstances have nothing left to give, “no time to get involved.” And marriage, should it come for careerist women, is often compromised from the start, what with the difficulty of finding two worthy jobs in the same city, or commuter marriage, or the need to negotiate or get hired help for every domestic and familial task.

Besides these greater conflicts of time and energy, the economic independence of women, however welcome on other grounds, is itself not an asset for marital stability, as both the woman and the man can more readily contemplate leaving a marriage. Indeed, a woman’s earning power can become her own worst enemy when the children are born. Many professional women who would like to stay home with their new babies nonetheless work full-time. Tragically, some cling to their economic independence because they worry that their husbands will leave them for another woman before the children are grown. What are these women looking for in prospective husbands? Do their own career preoccupations obscure their own prospective maternal wishes and needs? Indeed, what understanding of marriage informed their decision to marry in the first place?

[…]This brings me to what is probably the deepest and most intractable obstacle to courtship and marriage: a set of cultural attitudes and sensibilities that obscure and even deny the fundamental difference between youth and adulthood. Marriage, especially when seen as the institution designed to provide for the next generation, is most definitely the business of adults, by which I mean, people who are serious about life, people who aspire to go outward and forward to embrace and to assume responsibility for the future. To be sure, most college graduates do go out, find jobs, and become self-supporting (though, astonishingly, a great many do return to live at home). But, though out of the nest, they don’t have a course to fly. They do not experience their lives as a trajectory, with an inner meaning partly given by the life cycle itself. The carefreeness and independence of youth they do not see as a stage on the way to maturity, in which they then take responsibility for the world and especially, as parents, for the new lives that will replace them. The necessities of aging and mortality are out of sight; few feel the call to serve a higher goal or some transcendent purpose.

The view of life as play has often characterized the young. But, remarkably, today this is not something regrettable, to be outgrown as soon as possible; for their narcissistic absorption in themselves and in immediate pleasures and present experiences, the young are not condemned but are even envied by many of their elders.

Part 3 of 3.

Kass used to be on the President’s bio-ethics council when Bush was the President and they had pro-lifers on the council.

15 thoughts on “MUST-READ: Dr. Leon Kass on the end of courtship”

  1. One of the other factors that has signalled the end of courtship in Christian circles, is the ambiguity in male-female relationships. Many Christian men now no longer date or court women. Instead they develop emotionally intimate friendships and derive emotional support from women, with no intention of taking it any further. What used to be regarded as the behaviour of a cad is now perfectly acceptable to Christian men. Many men don’t even realize they’re doing this.

    This is a telling quote:

    “In his article Physical Intimacy and the Single Man, Matt Schmucker points out that men defraud their sisters when they indulge in this type of relationship. “Simply put,” he writes, “a man defrauds a woman when, by his words or actions, he promises the benefits of marriage to a woman he either has no intention of marrying or if he does, has no way of finally knowing that he will.”

    Single men and women are failing each other. Uncommitted intimate friendships may satiate immediate needs, but they lead to frustration and heartache. Not to mention, for singles ready for marriage, these “friendships” waste time and energy.”

    1. There’s a pretty easy fix for this: women need to stop giving it away and men would fall into line rather quickly.

    2. I feel guilty about this because I’ve actually done this several times. This means that I am a cad.

      To be charitable, sometimes facts or disagreements emerged that made the marriage seem impossible, but that does not excuse me. For example, once I was unable to reconcile the number of children and schooling with one lady, and that only emerged in the friendship. I did not think we were courting, because I had not given her a token, but she thought we were courting, even though I explicitly told her we were not courting several times. But to be fair, I should have been more careful about compliments, gifts and discussion topics. My actions were screaming “courting” even though I was denying courting was happening.

  2. ECM: You are absolutely right. I’ve been in ambiguous situations myself in my younger days. From that, I learnt to have conservative expectations with regard to men. So I never assume that a man likes me as more than a friend, unless he makes it clear that he likes me that way. On the other hand, some men take it to a whole new level and will give effuse compliments, tell a woman she’s perfect, actually talk about marriage and children – the whole catastrophe, as Zorba put it – and be double-minded because they haven’t applied their intellects to what they want out of the relationship. It’s intellectual laziness with regard to their actions. It’s also not made any better by the church encouraging men to friend-date women until they’re practically ready to walk down the aisle. I blame Joshua Harris too. Things were far less complicated in my parents’ day.

    1. Eish. Everything you say reminds me of bad things that I’ve done with women – I’m sure that I have been as bad as what you describe here, or worse! Women keep telling me that I do this to them.

    2. I agree with you! A man does not have to lay a finger on a woman, or spend a lot of money on her to mislead her.

      Marriage should be discussed, but in a general sense- no personalization. No comments like “You’d make a perfect wife” or “How do you feel about us having 3 or 4 kids?” No “we” talk unto you’re ready to say “oui” to a committed relationship!

  3. As to the main articles, I read these when they came out and I highly recommend them to anyone who has second thoughts because they’re long. Especially on the issue of sex there can be no ambiguity. Outside of marriage no sex. End of story. Men who try to pursuade women otherwise should be given short shrift by women. That is where a woman rightly exercises control in the relationship.

  4. Matt: Yes, it does. But if one takes a traditional view of gender roles in courtship, then the guys have more of an opportunity to clear up the confusion. They should make the initiating move to openly declare their intent. Men get in the friend zone because they are afraid of rejection, and they don’t make a move. On the other hand, making a move is not the done thing for us more traditional women. It is the man’s job in a relationship to clarify what is going on. Sometimes however, they drive us to ask for clarification when they behave bizarrely.

  5. Its very easy for single men to fool themselves into thinking they are just one of those types who likes to have lots of platonic friendships with women. I used to think that way, before I met my wife; I always had about 2-3 girls who I was friends with. Looking back, I was definitely using these women in the sense that I was fulfilling the natural desire for emotional support that you’d get from a girlfriend/fiance/wife from them.

    For the most part, I don’t think I hurt anyone in this; especially because in my case these were all women who had boyfriends and were married, so there was never really any doubt as to their status or my intentions. I really did think they were friends at the time.

    But when I got a girlfriend, who later became my fiance, who later became my wife, my desire to have platonic friendships with women vanished. Its just not something I care about *at all* now (no offense to you gals out there, LOL!). I’d much rather hang with guys and do guy stuff like watch football, play video games, and watch the collected works of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Bronson :-)

  6. Very interesting essay and conversation. I have to say that as a traditional Christian woman I agree with everything Mary has said, and of course Rob, who is my husband. :)

    I think that among Christians who are following God’s rules about physical intimacy outside of marriage, it can be easy to fall into emotional intimacies. Of course, among “worldly” people who are having sex outside of marriage, often the emotional intimacy is lacking. A healthy marriage has both, and in my opinion a healthy premarital relationship should have just enough emotional intimacy so that the woman can clearly understand the man’s intentions towards her.

    I think Christian men can do their sisters in Christ a disservice by sending them signals of romantic interest when none is there. This can be done unintentionally, but the effects on the woman are still harmful. I would in most cases put lofty compliments of her in this category.

    Naturally a man who is interested in a woman will make it clear that he finds her attractive, whether it’s on a physical level, intellectual, moral, or hopefully all of the above. In my marriage, I enjoy it just as much when my husband says that I’m smart or moral as when he says I’m beautiful. In fact, for an intellectual woman, compliments of her ideas can be even more effective than compliments of her beauty because her mind may be more important to her.

    Not to call you out too much, Wintery, but you’ve made made comments about women such as Michele Bachmann and other ladies that would make me think you’re interested in them if I didn’t know better. It could well be only a show of admiration on an intellectual level, and that’s great, but women can often take such things in a different way.

    I have a facebook friend who follows me around like a lost puppy giving me compliments on statements I make, and telling my husband what a lucky man he is to have me. This is cute and a stroke to my ego, but Rob and I have actually had the discussion that we allow the friendship to continue because he lives far away from us and seems harmless (and Rob became his friend too, so he could better monitor the situation).

    I don’t know if the guy even knows he’s flirting with me, but it’s very easy to string a woman along emotionally if she’s hoping for a relationship. In this case, I’m not looking for a relationship because I’m already married, so it’s harmless and I laugh him off. But when I was single I sure hung on to every compliment a man paid me, and if I liked him it sparked a hope that there could be more.

    I just think that for a man to treat a woman in a chivalrous, Christian way, he needs to be clear in his intentions towards her. My husband was super clear in his intentions toward me from the start. We met on eharmony while I was living in Japan, and since I didn’t want to come home before my contract was up (because I feared I’d get too homesick), we decided to meet in person for the first time in Italy, a place neither of us had been before! He even got his first passport and took his first international trip just to see me! Sure, it was a risk, and a bit scary in case things didn’t work out, but there was NO QUESTION how he felt about me. He even met my grandparents in person before meeting me in person! The fact that he did these things for me told me that his intentions were serious. And soon after I came back to the US to stay, he proposed to me. He didn’t make me wait to find out if he was really serious about me. But I’m sure he also knew that if he wasn’t serious, I wasn’t going to wait around forever.

    1. Good comment, Erica! And I’m not just saying that because you agree with me. ;-)

      Your mention of the man who follows you around on FB is interesting. I’ve encountered some of those myself. And as a single woman, when this comes from unattached men close to me in age, it’s more difficult to discern their intent.

      The most extreme example of this double-minded behaviour came from a man I encountered recently. He contacted me daily, and if I were not responding he would plead with me to talk to him. He also expressed jealousy when I spoke too much to certain other men and said I should rather talk to him because he was more worthy of my time than they were. I’m a busy person and a lot of people and activities need my attention. But I gave him more attention than others because he gave me more attention than other women. He constantly told me how wonderful I was, how perfectly I was relating to him as a man, how well I was folowing his lead, how impressed he was with me, etc. I tried to not get too close by keeping the topic of conversation platonic – politics, theology, economics, science. He welcomed those topics, but said he wanted to “talk about love and feelings” too. He told me about how he thought of my chastity and purity and how he daydreamed about how I would relate to him in a relationship. He insisted on giving me gifts. I refused most of them, but relented on a few. He pursued me. But it seems that he had no intention to take it any further.

      The above behaviour is extremely confusing. Thankfully, when men behave like this I don’t fall apart because my security and meaning lies in Christ, not in men and their treatment of me. But it will make me that little bit less trusting of men – even decent, Christian men. With weaker, less secure women the damage could be a lot worse.

    2. I actually had to defriend some guys when I got married. Some of their comments and messages were just too…in a gray area… and that is not a shade my husband favors, lol!

      I think its great you two communicate so well about even “minor” things.

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