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Episode 124 | November 15, 2023

Rethinking Sex with Christine Emba

How our culture's faulty assumptions about sex are harming us all

“Anything goes.” That’s what modern-day sexual ethics has taught us. So, why then, do so many of our sexual experiences lead to frustration, disappointment, and shame? Today, Keith talks with Christine Emba, the author of “Rethinking Sex” and a columnist at the Washington Post, to discover more. Christine starts by explaining why she walked away from evangelicalism and how evangelical traditions surrounding sex contributed to her decision. She unpacks the institutional failures of the church...

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Christine Emba  00:00

I'm Christina Amber, and I choose truth over tribe.

Keith Simon  00:50

I've been wanting to talk to her seen him. But since the spring of 2022, when I read her book, rethinking sex, Christine is a columnist at the Washington Post. And she recently wrote an essay called men are lost. Here's a way out. People have been talking about that essay, because she really did a good job of describing some of the problems that men are experiencing. today. We talked about her book on sex. We also talked about the problem that men are having. But that's not where we start. No. Instead, we start with why she left her evangelical faith. Let's talk to Christina. Christine Emba, welcome to Truth over Tribe. 

Christine Emba  01:53

Thanks so much for having me. Kay. Glad to be here. 

Keith Simon  01:55

I'm really excited to talk to you. I've really wanted to talk to you since your book rethinking sex came out. I think that was the spring of 2022. 

Christine Emba  02:03


Keith Simon  02:03

And then you wrote an essay in The Washington Post recently on men being lost. And I want to get into that. But let's start with this. Okay, with you at the beginning of rethinking sex, you say you grew up in an evangelical faith, but then left that. And I'm just curious, could you tell us a little bit about the faith you grew up in? And what led you to kind of walk away or transition away from that?

Christine Emba  02:27

Yeah, well, I mean, first, I'll say that, you know, I guess I left evangelicalism, but I didn't leave Christianity, actually, I converted to Catholicism, my senior year of college, and I'm still very much a practicing Catholic. But yeah, I grew up in a kind of, I guess, non denominational evangelical atmosphere, I suppose both of my parents are Nigerian immigrants, both very devout, it came to the United States. And when they did, you know, just sort of went to evangelical Pentecostal churches that they found really welcoming. The church that I went to, for most of my youth, I guess, was actually in Assemblies of God church. And I was raised a Christian, I had faith, like, it has always been a part of my life. But you know, I think around college sort of young adulthood, almost for most people, actually, if you grow up in a faith, that's when you start questioning it right? And trying to figure out, you know, is this a faith that you're going to make your own? Or is this sort of a handmade data from your parents in your community that you don't really believe in yourself? And for me, I think a lot of my sort of transition happened when I just, you know, started asking questions about hard and confusing things in my life. And I think one of the things that I found very, sort of confusing, in some ways was the question of sex and relationships and what love meant and what God actually wanted from us. And I guess I would say that I began to find what I heard in sort of an evangelical tradition and preaching a little bit unsatisfying, you know, it's okay, well, why should I do these things? Because Jesus,

Keith Simon  04:11

there was nothing more in depth or yeah?

Christine Emba  04:13

I didn't feel like kind of a backdrop for the answering of questions. Some of it felt almost a little bit glib, actually. And I don't know, I think even at that age, I was a thinker. I really wanted to engage. And so I was searching for, I guess, a way in which I could still have my faith but also be able to engage in almost like a back and forth with God and with sort of the institution that I was a part of. And I had met some great Christian friends at college, including a lot of Catholic friends, and I'd started going to mass with them. And I think one thing that attracted to me about Catholicism was that there is a really deep theological and philosophical tradition that really does involve sort of asking almost very minut questions, and there is sort of church Teaching allowance which doubt is kind of assumed to be part of it. And I found that attractive. Because again, I felt like I could never really leave my faith like I was never going to stop believing it's part of my worldview. But how could I make that real and relevant to my life to the way that I was experiencing life?

Keith Simon  05:17

Well, one of the reasons I asked is because there's a recent book out called the great deed churching. And it talks about how about 40 million Americans have walked away from evangelical faith or Christian traditions in the last, say, 25 years. And people are talking about it, writing about it, one of your colleagues, Perry bacon wrote a column on it that you've seen in the Atlantic, and the times and different people interacting with why people are leaving the faith. And one of the things that the book comes to one of the conclusions is that a lot of people who are walking away from Christianity hold the same beliefs. But there's been something about the tone of Christian, maybe politics, or maybe it's like what you said, and it's just that there's not a substantive belief system behind it that people can engage with. And so just curious what your story was what you said you knew a lot of Christians in college, and perhaps you still do and run in those circles today. So I'm just curious, are you finding that people have kind of walked away from evangelicalism in your setting? And what are some of the reasons that you're encountering of why people are, you know, maybe stepping away, drifting away from the Christian church?

Christine Emba  06:29

Yeah, absolutely. You know, it's funny, I've also written about this question to the rise of what they call the nuns, people who say that they're not attached to any particular faith tradition. But one thing about that group of people is that often they do have some kind of faith. They just aren't attached to an institution or a particular denomination. They wouldn't call themselves evangelical. But they might say that they still pray or you know, that they still believe in God in some way. And in my experience, there are, you know, a couple reasons that people have told me about one is institutional failure, frankly, and especially when it comes to people who have left evangelicalism specifically, I think around it after 2016. And that election, and seeing so many evangelical pastors and churches, sort of seemingly do an about face from the kind of moral authority that they had to endorse, frankly, a president to seems a moral, if not immoral, seemingly putting their beliefs in the background to focus on politics really turned off a lot of people from the church, you know, they saw that the church didn't have the moral authority that it said it had, you know, that it was bending to the whims of the times in a very ugly way. And I mean, I experienced some of this myself, too. I mean, I started working at the Washington Post as a journalist in 2015. And 2016, was a real, it was a real shocker for me. And I think even just watching, I had written about faith, I was part of a faith community, I am still a Christian. But pastors and Christian institutions that I really respected, suddenly rushed to embrace this person, who seemed kind of like the antithesis of loving one's neighbor of caring about the poor, have all of these things that they said they believed in was really disturbing to me. Actually, I know, it was disturbing to other people who were in the church and also people who, frankly, might have been open to the church's witness, but were disabused of that witness. I think also, there's been a lot more in recent years, attention paid to people of diverse identities, and people are paying more attention to their own identities. And I think that there are a number of younger people, especially who identify as LGBT etc, or have friends who are and have felt out of place, I think, in certain congregations or feel like they're not valued, or maybe even just think a lot about some of that a history of exclusion in churches and evangelical churches and have decided not to be a part of it for that reason. And then that leads up I think, to like just a larger factor that's at play in our politics in our faith, just in America as a whole, which is the rise of individualism. Frankly, people don't want to feel constricted, I think in some ways and want to sort of forge their own identities and paths, including their own belief systems, and, frankly, strong churches, ask of their members, you know, adherence to a particular faith. And I think many younger people especially but also older people, now kind of identify with what my friend Tara Isabella Burton refers to as sort of a remixed faith where, you know, they're taking elements of what might have been a Christian faith and elements of other things. They believe in what But it's astrology are sort of manifestation, and they kind of create their own faith. And it's not tied to an institution. They don't have to profess loyalty to one creed. It's sort of just what they believe. And it's what is easiest for them to practice and they do it on their own in their own time. Yeah,

Keith Simon  10:21

we had Tara Isabel Burton on the podcast not that long ago. So she's got some really interesting stuff about that kind of remixed faith. And I really agree with individualism, being a big driver of culture at the moment. So I think back in 1985, habits of the heart came out. And they talked to a woman named Sheila and she talked about how she had her own faith called Sheila ism. And while in some sense, it's kind of funny to think creating your own faith at the same time, that kind of idea that we can kind of tailor of faith around our own personality, our own desires, and wants is more and more popular. You bring up kind of the desire to live the way you want to. And I think that's a good segue into your book rethinking sex. At the beginning of the book, you talk about some faulty assumptions, and then you list them, and I just want to go through them here real quick. You say sex is a purely physical act. Now these are faulty assumptions, at least assumptions are challenging inside the book. But I think when people hear them, they're gonna go well, yeah, that's kind of what the culture believes right? Now. Sex is a purely physical act. Second, the absence of rules will make me happier. Third, my sex life is nobody's business. Fourth, women and men are basically the same. Now, a lot of people believe these faulty assumptions. What do you think's wrong with these? What do these assumptions get wrong about sex?

Christine Emba  11:45

I mean, I think that they're faulty assumptions. Exactly. I'm challenging people to rethink them. I think at the core of all of these assumptions is just a sort of denial of reality, a denial of how our embodiment as human persons and the spiritual aspect of our lives, as human people affects how we experience sex affects how we experience each other, and you know, what we take from the world and our actions. So for example, you know, the faulty assumption that men and women are basically the same, right? I think that's a denial of the reality that we are embodied in two different sexes that have different experiences. And that extends to our relationships and our physicality, this idea that, you know, my sex life is no one's business, but my own, denies the reality that we are embedded in communities, and that our actions, even done in private, can have an impact on other people and our community at large. You know, the idea that we can decide not to have feelings about things, basically, you know, that sex doesn't mean anything, I think is really at odds with most people's experience of physical relationship with another person and what they take away from that, and how that affects them both. In the moment, and in the days afterwards,

Keith Simon  13:09

there seems to be a huge unwillingness to recognize that men and women experience sex differently, that there's a one two, at least part of our culture wants to say, No, we are almost interchangeable. I'm sure you're familiar with this sexual identity, I think it's real. It's called demisexual. And if you look it up, it's a sexual identity that says that people only want to have sex with people that they're in kind of loving, committed relationships with. And I scratched my head and I'm like, hang on a second, I thought that is what everybody to some degree wants. And especially women have traditionally always wanted sex inside those kinds of committed relationships. Why do you think people are unwilling to say men, women are different when it comes to their experience of sex?

Christine Emba  13:57

That's a great example. That sort of joke online is that Danny sexuality, it's just the sexuality of a heterosexual woman. I want to have sex only with people who I trust and care about and who won't hurt me like, oh, no, crazy. Yeah.

Keith Simon  14:14

That one that you were talking about, the absence of rules will make me happier. And there is a kind of individualism that says I just want to do what I want to do. And I resent Christianity, or I resent anyone who tries to impose on me any sort of standard. Do you feel like that is a criticism you got of your book? Because you're kind of suggesting that there are moral implications that there are biological realities that there are cultural damage is done when we treat sex flippantly. Have you gotten any pushback? Yes, Two

Christine Emba  14:49

good questions. I'm gonna go back to the first one, actually, about men and women. So first, to acknowledge what you were saying. Yeah, I think there is a real push to make equivalent, the male and female experience in today. A society and I think it comes from a place of semi goodwill, at least I say semi goodwill, that it's meant to be a good thing, but I think it's a little bit less directed. So I write a lot in rethinking sex, about the origins of the feminist movement and the early feminist view of the sexual revolution. 50 years ago, or so there was kind of this idea, right, that men could do whatever they wanted, they were free to explore their sexuality, that was a normal thing. And women should just, you know, be chaste, and stay at home and not have any feelings and just do whatever they're told. And I think over the past, you know, several decades, there's been a push to say, like, no women have to, women should be able to explore their sexuality, their desires, understand themselves better. And, you know, in some sense, just women are real people that, you know, women have as much power and agency as men do, or they should be able to have as much power and agency as men. And if men are allowed to do all of these things, women can do them too. And just as well as a man can. And, you know, in some situations, that's definitely true. But on the other hand, I think there are frankly, limitations, or at least, you know, a specificity to the female experience. It is not true, the male experience, women can get pregnant women are much more susceptible to sexual violence. But I think there's a fear in the current moment that if one acknowledges women's difference from men, women won't be viewed as equal to men, in a sense, or they won't be viewed as you know, of equal value to men. There's a fear that by acknowledging difference, you're implicitly saying that men are better, and women are worse. So the solution has been to say, No, there's no difference at all. They're perfectly the same. Everyone is equal, actually. And that's a good thing. And I do think that it's possible to say that men and women are both human people. And all human people are valuable and different, does not have to mean worse. But that's kind of a lot of mental juggling, it seems in this timeout, quick sloganeering. And so I think the default has just been to say they're all the same, there's no difference, because that's seen as almost less threatening. So to that question, let's

Keith Simon  17:22

go to the cultures kind of minimum definition of what makes inappropriate sexual relationship and that is consent. And in the book, you talk about consent being absolutely necessary. In other words, we don't want to get rid of consent. It's just that you say it's not sufficient. It's not enough. You talk about women that, you know, you talk to you for the book, who say that they've had these sexual experiences that aren't rape, they're not sexual assault, and yet, they feel obligatory, they feel like something that they owe or something that is expected or they feel bad about themselves. afterwards. They're having sex with people, and there's consent, but it's not wanted. What should we put in place of consent? Like if consent isn't enough, it's necessary, but it's not enough. What do we need to add to it?

Christine Emba  18:11

Yeah, and rethinking sex, I talked about how consent is the floor. But it was never meant to be the feeling exactly as you say, consent is necessary, but not sufficient. And, you know, I think that, again, because we're sort of in this societal moment where people don't really want too many limitations. They're trying to have as much freedom as possible. But we do kind of still need a minimum standard of behavior to define what's sort of criminal and what's not consented sort of been settled on as the lowest common denominator consent that you got a yes from someone is sort of what separates sex from being rape or not, right. And, you know, we do need a legal standard, we do need, you know, a bare minimum of what we can say is acceptable in some sense. But when we talk to real individuals, and we're talking about how not to just be not a rapist, or not a criminal, but actually a good person, we need more than that bare minimum. Because I think most people in their romantic relationships and their sexual relationships, want more from their encounters with another person than to say, I wasn't sexually assaulted, or I'm not a rapist. I think most people want to be better than that. And so I think we need a positive vision of what good sex is a positive vision of what a good relational encounter looks like. And then rethinking sex. I define that as the idea of willing the good of the other, that if we're actually looking for an ethic, not a bare minimum, what we should be attempting to do in our relationships will be good if the other person. So that's actually Aristotle, by way of St. Thomas Aquinas. And in fact, it kind of boils down to almost the golden rule, but with you know, a little bit of EQ SRA, I guess when we're talking about willing the good of the other, it's the idea of willing the other person in the encounter, you know, making sure that their experience is good, as good as what you would will for yourself. But that actually entails more than just consent, more than just sort of asking them. First, you also have to understand what the good is when it comes to sex or a relationship in general, what is actually the Tilos of sex? Do you understand what that means? And that's actually a bar that a lot of people I think, in this moment don't really achieve. Like when I've talked to people, when I was interviewing people for just this book and asking the question, like, okay, so what is sex for? Why are you doing this? So many people didn't have an answer, they've never thought about it. So first, just understanding the good of the action, what it means period is important. And then what is the good for the other person in the encounter? And to Will someone else's good involves attention to the other, which perhaps actually involves getting to know the other person and understanding what is good for them, which then perhaps implies that maybe we don't have as much casual sex, maybe we aren't having one night stands with people we don't know. Because to Well, someone else's good, you have to know about them in some way.

Keith Simon  21:24

What is sex for the tell us of sex? I think most people would probably say, pleasure, maybe some people would say procreation. But I think that when it comes to why we have consent as a minimum, and in some sense, a maximum, it's because we want to be able to tell everybody, like you said they can do what they want to do we live in an individualistic society, we don't want rules, and we want everybody to be able to do their thing. And if we start saying there are boundaries around sex, even some that you just mentioned, willing to go to another, okay, now, what are those boundaries, and I don't know that everybody is comfortable having boundaries around sex, because that means there's right and wrong, and means I can't do anything I want, as long as I have your permission. And I think that's an uncomfortable topic. I mean, when you talk about willing the good of another, and you talk about this in the book, here's what I thought of when I read it, I think you make a fantastic argument for the biblical sexual ethic. I don't know that was your goal. Maybe it was maybe it wasn't, I don't know. But as you follow and trace along the book, and all the people you talk to and perspective, you share, you make a great argument, without ever mentioning the Bible. I don't think faith comes up, at least not that I remember outside of you saying, like, we started our conversation with you transition from evangelical faith to a Catholic faith, but I couldn't help but reading it and going, Wow, this is why we need the Christian sexual ethic to traditional Christian sexual ethic. Are you comfortable with that interpretation? Are you okay with that? Was that your intention? Or do you go? Oh, no, please don't attach that to me. You know,

Christine Emba  23:04

I am comfortable with that interpretation, actually. But I'll say a few things and explain, you know, kind of how we got to or how I got to talking about in this way in the book. I mean, first of all, when you talk about individualism in this content, as you mentioned, people are kind of disturbed by the idea of there being a moral right, and a moral wrong, or things that you might not be allowed to do, even though you want to do them, people want to be able to do their own thing. And again, I think this comes in some ways from a place that's understandable. That's not necessarily bad. I mean, I think if you look back at the past decades, the past, you know, centuries, there are people, there are groups, whether it's, you know, women, whether it's people of color, whether it's people of alternative sexualities, who have seen that sort of strict rules used to exclude that used to harm them. And so in this moment, when we're beginning to acknowledge the ways that institutions have excluded and failed people, there's this feeling that we should stay away from any rule that might hurt someone's feelings or exclude them. You know, we look back at the past and see how certain rules were unnecessary or not correct and used to harm people who say, Okay, we don't want to do that anymore. And I think that's a place where a lot of people are coming from having been hurt by too constrictive boxes in the past. And so saying, we don't need anything at all. But you know, as I say, in the book, now that we have suddenly rolled out this open field of when it comes to sexuality, among other things, people don't necessarily feel comforted by that, in fact, a lot of people feel very lost. They're not sure what to do when all of the laws have been torn down. But in writing rethinking sex, you know, it's subtitled a provocation. And I wrote it in the way that I did precisely because I was writing not just for A Christian audience, not just for people who already have a strong understanding of, you know, the Christian ethic when it comes to sex, I wanted to sort of provoke, in some ways by asking these questions by suggesting that certain assumptions are false, and allowing people to almost lead themselves to what I think seeing, to me and to you to be the obvious conclusions. When you really think through the sexual experience, the sexual culture of the moment, and why it's so unpleasant for so many people, and what people actually want from sex themselves when you ask them, I have found actually, that a lot of my work in writing about faith and writing about ethics, I'm a Christian, but I write in a mainstream publication to an audience that doesn't necessarily share my background or share my belief system. And in some ways, I'm kind of always working a little bit in translation, finding ways to ideally help lead people do what I think is the truth, certainly, in a way that is understandable, and not immediately off putting to them. So if you do read, rethinking sex, and kind of starts from the question of okay, like, what is, what is sex? I'm asking you in a sort of Socratic way. You know, I'm asking the people I interview, what is it that you want from your encounters? And what are you not getting? And they'll say things like, you know, love or a feeling of vastness in some way. It's like, Oh, interesting. What do you think you need to do to get there? What do you think is perhaps often these encounters, asking these questions of yourself and of others is a way to allow people to lead themselves, what I think become evident conclusions, because we are all made and created as humans for a purpose. And that includes how we experience encounter sex. And I don't have to tell you that, you know, Well, God told you to do this at the outset of the book, I want people to be able to get to where they need to go under their own steam in some way.

Keith Simon  27:06

Well, you do a great job of that. And honestly, I got a little bit surprised by your answer, and that I didn't quite understand you to be so intentional in kind of driving people's thought pattern that might drive them to the point where they're willing to consider what the Bible says or what God says or what faith says. And I know you're not saying that you're trying to be heavy handed in that, and you're not trying to force people that they get to make their own decisions along the way. But you're raising questions, you're provoking some conversations, and I think you do a really good job with it. I want to transition if we can to your article that you wrote about men being lost. Here's a map out of the wilderness again, in the Washington Post, it was a very long essay. In the place. It was long, it got a lot of attention. But it didn't read long. It just was like, wow, I mean, to take up that much space meant that it was an important article and important topic that the post wanted to center. And I really appreciate it. Do you think it's harder to be a man today than it was, say 1020 30 years ago, a generation ago? And if so, why do you think it's harder?

Christine Emba  28:16

Yeah, big question. I mean, I think one of the reasons why the piece ended up being as long as it was, is that there's so many different threads to try and draw together in this argument, and this question of what's going on with men today. But is it harder to be a man today? I think, in some ways, not in all ways, but in some ways, I think, yes, actually. And so for a couple of reasons. I think there are both social and economic factors that have really shifted over the past several decades, that have led to a loss of self definition, perhaps, or a lack of clarity when it comes to exactly what you're supposed to be doing. As a man in today's society. And, you know, it's that sort of almost psychological or psychic confusion that makes it harder to be a man in some ways, not even necessarily the material changes. So when it comes to just economics, for instance, you know, we have seen a total shift in the way that our economy is set up, actually, there used to be kind of a large number, a large, pretty broad base of strength based on those working class jobs that were traditionally filled by men and help them define their roles in society. And a lot of those have frankly, just disappeared been sent overseas. We as a society focus more on knowledge work, and on credentials based work. Women have also and I think this is to be clear, a great big feminist success, better lab to enter the workforce to go to college and much higher numbers, and are in some places, you know, outpacing men in their achievements. So also the sort of tradition all set up where men were able to easily see themselves as the workers, the providers for their family has been challenged because women are out there doing it for themselves these days. And that is great, I think for women but can be destabilizing to men's sense of self. And perhaps sense of purpose. I think the me to moment was a little bit jostling for men to in a sense that it became a little bit less clear how you should interact with women, what it looks like to be a good man. And then I think this has been a problem over time. And it's only growing and I think people are beginning to talk about this more openly. But there is a lack of male role models in a lot of communities. At least I think it's the number is something like one out of four American children don't totally quote me on that. So I'm not sure if I have this stat right, this moment, is growing up in a single parent home without necessarily a father figure or a male role model to look up to. And it does seem, you know, research shows that boys are far more effective than girls by not having a same sex role model around to look up to, to learn how to be a man from. And so there's kind of a sense of confusion and malaise that seems to have settled in for a lot of men because of all of these changes happening at once.

Keith Simon  31:23

To put some more statistics to what you're describing here, 60%, or almost 60% of bachelor's degrees now go to women, work force participation, has dropped in the age ranges between 25 and 54, dropped by 7%. In the last few decades, men's wages since 1979, have decreased by 14%. Friendships, men are struggling, making friends, in 19 93% of men said they had no close friends now that is up to 15% deaths of despair have increased. The New Scientist says being male is now the single largest demographic factor for early death. So one of the things you said in our previous conversation about sex is that men women are different. And I know that's hard to say in today's world, but they are. And I appreciate you being so clear on that. What about masculinity and femininity? Now, that's not the exact same thing as male and female gymnasts. And yet, they're obviously related. People have a hard time describing what does it mean to be masculine, distinct from what does it mean to be feminine? Do you have any insight in that? Or can you at least shed some light on how that confusion affects men and maybe even women too,

Christine Emba  32:43

I think it comes from kind of the same place as the confusion we talked about when it comes to sex roles. We have in the past, say 50, something years have moved from a place of sort of automatically thinking that women are less than, or worse than men to ideally thinking that women are of equal value to men. And one of the ways you know that it seems safest or more plausible to keep up that vision of equality is to say that they're not different at all. In fact, they should be respected because they're the same. And I think that the project of trying to define masculinity versus feminine data is a little bit scary for many people, because of the same reasons as trying to define sex differences, scary. The ideas of the ideal man or the ideal woman, have been used to box people in to say that men can only be this way, if you don't do these four things. You're not a man. You know, this is fear of using masculinity to construct a box that men will be placed into that they can't escape. And we're in a moment where we're trying to break out of boxes, frankly, often in very good ways. And so there's this fear of being too strict drawing the lines to close. That said, I think that I mean, you're the one who can answer this actually,

Keith Simon  34:01

who knows, maybe no, I

Christine Emba  34:03

think that for men having an idea of what it is to be a man having a clear vision of masculinity is actually really important, because masculinity for men is, in fact, more socially constructed than it is for women. You know, and this is kind of due to physical embodiment, right? Like, sort of what it means to be female, to be able to be fertile to bear a child is pretty obvious for women. For men, the role is not as queer in some ways. And so it is more socially dependent. It

Keith Simon  34:33

does seem that traditional masculinity had this idea that men were going to provide and protect. And a lot of that was rooted in their physical strength being greater than women. And yet now, it seems in our culture, like you said, information and knowledge based economy, where even going to war is more cerebral, right, that values, the intellect over kind of brute physical Strength, that we don't need men to be in that protector mode. And because women work, which, by the way, I'm all for that great, you know, women should have all the choices. But now because they are in the economy and actually leading the economy in some ways, now that provider role has been diminished. And so what men have based their kind of life on is now being undermined. And it's caused a lot of confusion, and doubt. But if we can't even describe what masculinity and femininity are, it's hard to call men to a healthy masculinity. And some of what traditional you mentioned this in the article in the post, again, you talked about the APA, the American Psychological Association, taking definition of masculinity, a traditional definition of masculinity and then labeling that toxic. Yeah, why is traditional masculinity now seen as toxic by such a reputable organization,

Christine Emba  35:58

they got themselves in a real situation with that one, because as you say, they pointed out what they saw as some of that sort of traditional features of masculinity, including sort of individualism over focus on strength, stoicism as being unhealthy, because they, as they explained when they sort of tried to backtrack on their first statement, because they might contribute to loneliness, say to isolation, that sort of thing. And so they labeled those toxic. First they describe that is traditional masculinity, and then said that it was bad. And after uproar, they wrote this letter that was like, We didn't mean to do this, but it was a little too late for them. I mean, in the essay, I referenced the work of a sociologist, David Gilmore, who did research on almost every continent, talked to men in different tribes, different countries about what it means to be a man, what it means to sort of be masculine. And he did come away with three sorts of things that repeated themselves. First of all, in almost every society, you didn't just become a man, like you might be born male. But being a man was different than just being male, you had to sort of be initiated into that and achieve something. And then being a real man involved, exactly what you described elements of being a protector of sort of your family and community, a provider for your family and community and kin. And for procreator, somebody who, you know, had a family contributed to generations after them. And these factors came up in every group that he talked to. And in this piece, in my essay, I included a call out asking people to write in and tell me who their sort of ideal of masculinity was, and why. And I got so many responses, first of all, like just a huge number of responses. And I found that despite citing is a huge range of different men, anyone from Barack Obama, to Captain Kirk, to Mr. Rogers, to LeBron James, many of the same features, the same ideals of masculinity were repeated again. And again, even in those responses. People talked about somebody who was strong, who protected those around them, especially those who are weaker, someone who took care of their family and friends and was able to shoulder responsibilities who did their duty, someone who was trustworthy, someone other people could rely on and yeah, who was strong, but who used their strength in a virtuous way. And these were features that came up again and again, which inclined to me to think that actually there is a masculinity that is understood and is looked for, but it takes different forms. And I think that was one of the things that was really important, actually, in that conversation, the broader conversation about masculinity, not trying to just define, you know, bad versions of masculine need to identify what's toxic. But again, this positive vision, what does it mean to be a man specifically? And what does it mean to be a good one? Like there are maybe features of masculinity that, yeah, obviously women can be leaders too. Women can be strong, too. I think there's a fear that if you define, you know, these as good qualities and masculinity that no woman can have them. And that's not the case. But if you're sort of embodied in maleness, what does it mean to be a good one? It's actually a clear vision that many people have. We just don't seem to talk about it as much publicly it goes unsaid.

Keith Simon  39:35

I'm genuinely confused about this topic. Because if you define masculinity as distinct from femininity, then when you say provider protector, trustworthy, ambitious, if you define those as masculinity, then it seems like a woman who possesses those things, is acting masculine. And I think for obvious reasons that makes people will feel uncomfortable, right. But on the other hand, there is something about being a man that has a drive to protect and provide and do all those things. And when we make it androgynous In other words, everybody just has this kind of androgynous character, they're trying to build trustworthy, faithful, caring, kind, whatever, and there's no differences, then that seems to fail. So, at least in my mind right now, and I'm still very much in the process of trying to figure this out, is it almost seems better to define masculinity and manhood as separate from being a child. You know, like Paul says, In First Corinthians 13, you know, I used to think like a child, but now I've grown up to be a man, you know, a very bad paraphrase. But if you think of it in that way, it's easier to define being a man versus being a boy. But it's hard, I think, to define outside of anatomy, and, you know, biological differences, the differences between men and boys. And so then men lose their identity and bad things like we already gave the statistics are following from that, I want to ask you about the manosphere, because you write about that in the article, the essay, but here's how I want to get to it is in 2018, and Bethsaida, Maryland. Yeah, high school Chevy Chase, Maryland, I believe that is very a fluent liberal, I think it went 80% Biden, it's a high school that is very progressive. And the high school ends up on the morning news. In fact, it ends up in the pages of your paper, the Washington Post, because there's a group of high school guys who have rated the high school girls according to their attractiveness, and then pass this list around. And one of the high school girls who was on that list, saw it on one of the boys computers, and was hurt by that took it to the principal male students got detention got in trouble. And then we're on like national news organizations like your own, but others, as well as being this is toxic masculinity. And my reaction to that is, well, if high school boys talking about the attractiveness of high school girls is toxic, then every high school boy in America is toxic, because that doesn't just happen in that high school happens in every single high school that exists without exception. So what I'm afraid of is that when we can't define masculinity, when we call normal male behavior toxic, we unintentionally drive young men into the manosphere. Do you buy that? Do you think that's what's happening, and maybe give a little bit of a description of the manosphere? For people who aren't familiar with it? That's

Christine Emba  42:38

an interesting connection that you draw there, I think the distinction that you were making about defining masculinity as sort of the difference between being a boy and adult man is a really good one, and seems really important. So one of the things that I think about when trying to define masculine versus feminine is, again, this question of embodiment, and context, are there specific things about being male in a male body and existing as a male in the world that are different than being female. And, you know, if you think about just physicality, perhaps some of these are being stronger, perhaps in the average woman, or being perhaps more sex driven, or visually driven than the average woman. And so to be a good man, and a good adult, a good grown up, is finding ways to channel those differences in a virtuous way. And so I think when this Bethesda situation that you described, you can call that toxic in some sense, or can be called toxic, it might be because you're looking at, you know, what it means to be a normal boy, and seeing how that sort of normality is channeled in a not virtuous way. Like, okay, maybe you are more visual or more sex driven, and like you're looking at your classmates, is it virtuous to like, look at them and just rate them by attractiveness? Like, that's probably actually not the best version of being a man, that's like, not the best version of using that strength or whatever those qualities are. And so maybe that is the behavior that's being classified as being toxic, but just the fact of being a boy, and having those impulses shouldn't be. Does that make sense?

Keith Simon  44:18

I agree with you that these boys in his high school were acting immaturely that sending around computer files with high school classmates, in ranking them and probably in any way but especially according to their attractiveness is immature, and they shouldn't have done it. And so instead of being labeled toxic, what they needed is to have some of those drives that led them to do that channeled in a more mature self sacrificing, looking out for another person caring about other people a healthier way. But when you're shamed and called toxic, that's not going to help you know, that's what drives you into this manosphere which is this area of the world on the internet that guys are out there. trying to say, here's what a real man is. And that's really unhealthy. Yeah,

Christine Emba  45:04

exactly. So I think one of the fears that people have when trying to talk about or define masculine and feminine or man versus woman, is that by saying, well, like, men have these drives, men are like this, etc. That's used as an excuse to say, Well, boys will be boys, men or men, we can't ask them to be anything other than what they are, they're just going to be like that. And use that as an excuse for bad behavior. And what we're seeing in the manosphere, as you very well defined that I think the manosphere is a network of what I call man influencers, often these like goober esque figures who appear on the internet, who give that sort of direction for life to lost or confused young men. So figures like Jordan Peterson is one Joe Rogan does this, there is a very infamous figure right now Andrew Tate, who basically have built these empires on saying like, well, I know what it means to be a real man. And I'll tell you how. The problem with a lot of these bands sphere figures, Tate is like the perfect example is that they attract young men, especially by saying, you know, you're not toxic. There's nothing wrong with you for wanting to identify as male to embrace masculinity, but the masculinity that they embody that they channel is actually a very immature masculinity often, and it's extremely amoral. Again, it has no ties to sort of being socially productive or socially good. So Andrew, Tate's manosphere version of masculinity is like, well, I have 20, sports cars, and I have sex with all the hot chicks, and I fight a lot. And in fact, he has been arrested under allegations of sex trafficking in Romania. That's his latest news. It's kind of like an immature almost teenage boys version of masculinity that's just totally untethered from social good, or from any form of higher virtue. But it's attractive to I think a lot of young men because it says, no, actually being a man is a real thing. And you don't have to be ashamed of it. And I'm sympathetic to you. But it's not really giving anything good for men to look up to for men to be. And yet he has millions of acolytes and Jordan Peterson has millions of acolytes for giving kind of basic seeming instruction, that's like, you know, make your bed exercise, don't watch too much pornography, there needs to be better alternatives.

Keith Simon  47:35

Right. And it goes back to what you said earlier about a lot of boys and young men not having role models. And then they're turning to the internet, or these men influencers, as you call them. I like that word, I'd never heard that before, to give them what they're craving. And that is direction of what it looks like to be a man. Now, obviously, there's really big differences between the entertainer and Jordan Peterson and Bronze Age pervert and Joe Rogan, and all this list of me influencers out there, they're not all the same, but they all have something in common, and that is that they are widely popular. I mean, some guys are unfamiliar with them. And they tend to doubt how many people Andrew Tate influences, but some of these people have pretty broad networks, and a lot of people are listening to them. And if we don't give them a healthier vision of masculinity, then we're going to find that we're actually feeding young boys and men into their pipeline. Absolutely. I

Christine Emba  48:33

mean, we're right to make a distinction. There's very much a spectrum, ranging from the better to the worse, and not all of these guys are the same. But I think that one of the, to me alarming things many of them have in common is that they define masculinity, in opposition to women. And often many of them suggest that being masculine involves putting women down or denigrating femininity, when in fact, obviously women are great to being a good man doesn't mean saying that women are bad. And women are not, you know, going out of their way to harm men or to ruin masculinity, as many of these guys seem to be saying. But yeah, I think you're totally right. Like there is a gap for many young men and having role models in their lives, in their communities, in their churches, to look to for direction. And because they are still searching for direction and trying to figure out how to be they go online, and this is what's presented to them in the absence of anything better, anything clearer. You know, a lot of young men will take what they can get.

Keith Simon  49:36

There's this weird thing out there that we kind of have a zero sum perspective on so many things in our culture right now. But for the sake of this conversation, masculinity and femininity as if to want men to thrive is to want women to be constrained or to want women to do well is equivalent to saying that we want men to recede from power. And there's got to be some way that we can work together because it turns out men and women do better when not only their sex, but the other sex thrives. And there's got to be a way that we can move forward with looking out for both men and women and wanting everyone to do well. But we clearly have not found that way as a society. Christine Ember, I just love talking with you rethinking sex is the book and people can find your work in the Washington Post any other place that people can find you or any other projects you're working on right now.

Christine Emba  50:30

It's been great to chat with you. There's I feel like we could talk for another hour of this. But yes, rethinking sex is available, you know, wherever books are sold, and my work is at the post, I'm on pretty much every social media outlet, because they're all changing so fast, whether it's x formerly known as Twitter, or Instagram with at Christine Amba. Just one word. And I guess I should say that I will soon be launching a sub stack, where I will be sort of sharing links in previews to future work, because I am already thinking about the topic for my next book. And that is similarly Christine Soon to launch but yeah, we'd love to hear from you guys.

Keith Simon  51:12

Well, I look forward to reading your substack I enjoy all your stuff. Thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate your time.

Christine Emba  51:18

Thanks for having me.

Keith Simon  51:20

Thanks for listening. If you found this podcast helpful, make sure to subscribe and leave a review and make sure it's at least five stars stop no just be honest reviews help other people find this. Okay,

Patrick Miller  51:31

at the very least you can share today's episode maybe put it on your social your favorite text chain and if

Keith Simon  51:36

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