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The Double Standard of Morality

Josephine Butler, The Philanthropist (October, 1886)

As a floating straw indicates the flow of the tide, so there are certain expressions that have become almost proverbial and till lately have passed unchallenged in conversation and in literature, plainly revealing the double standard of morality which society has accepted. One of these expressions is, "He is only sowing his wild oats;" another is, that "a reformed profligate makes a good husband." The latter is a sentiment so gross that I would not repeat it, if it were not necessary to do so - as a proof of the extent of the aberration of human judgment in this matter.

Here we are at once brought into contact with the false and misleading idea that the essence of right and wrong is in some way dependent on sex. We never hear it carelessly or complacently asserted of a young wom[a]n that "she is only sowing her wild oats." This is not a pleasant aspect of the question; but let us deal faithfully with it. It is a fact, that numbers even of moral and religious people have permitted themselves to accept and condone in man what is fiercely condemned in woman.

And do you see the logical necessity involved in this? It is that a large section of female society has to be told off - set aside, so to speak, to minister to the irregularities of the excusable man. That section is doomed to death, hurled to despair; while another section of womanhood is kept strictly and almost forcibly guarded in domestic purity. Thus even good and moral men have so judged in regard to the vice of sexual immorality as to concede in social opinion all that the male profligate can desire. This perverse social and public opinion is no small incentive to immorality. It encourages the pernicious belief that men may be profligate when young without serious detriment to their character in after-life. This is not a belief that is borne out by facts.

Marriage does not transform a man's nature, nor uproot habits that have grown with his years: the licentious imagination continues its secret blight, though the outward conduct may be restrained. The man continues to be what he was, selfish and unrestrained, though he may be outwardly moral in deference to the opinion of that "society" which having previously excused his vices, now expects him to be moral. And what of that other being, his partner - his wife - into whose presence he brings the secret consciousness, it may be the hideous morbid fruits of his former impurity? Can any man, with any pretension to true manliness, contemplate calmly the shame - the cruelty - of the fact that such marriages are not exceptional, especially in the upper classes?

The consequences of sins of impurity far out-last the sin itself, both in individuals and in communities. Worldly and impure men have thought, and still think, they can separate women, as I have said, into two classes - the protected and refined ladies who are not only to be good, but who are, if possible, to know nothing except what is good; and those poor outcast daughters of the people whom they purchase with money, and with whom they think they may consort in evil whenever it pleases them to do so, before returning to their own separated and protected homes.

The double standard of morality owes its continued existence very greatly to the want of a common sentiment concerning morality on the part of men and women, especially in the more refined classes of society. Men are driven away at an early age from the society of women and thrown upon the society of each other only - in schools, colleges, barracks, etc.; and thus they have concocted and cherished a wholly different standard of moral purity from that generally existing among women. Even those men who are personally pure and blameless become persuaded by the force of familiarity with male profligacy around them, that this sin in man is venial and excusable. They interpret the ignorance and silence of women as indulgent acquiescence and support.

Women are guilty also in this matter, for they unfortunately have imitated the tone and sentiments of men, instead of chastening and condemning them; and have shown, too often, very little indeed of the horror which they profess to feel for sins of impurity. Now we have the profound conviction that not only must as many men and women as possible severally understand the truth concerning their relations to each other, but also that they must learn the lesson in each other's presence, and with each other's help. A deeply-reaching mutual sympathy and common knowledge must (if we are ever to have any real reform) take the place of the life-long separation and antipathetic sentiments which have prevailed in the past.

Obviously, then, the essence of the great work which we propose to ourselves, is to Christianize public opinion, until both in theory and practice, it shall recognize the fundamental truth that the essence of right and wrong is in no way dependent upon sex, and shall demand of men precisely the same chastity as it demands of women.

It is a tremendous work which we have on hand. Licentiousness is blasting the souls and bodies of thousands of men and women, chiefly through the guilt of the men of the upper and educated classes. The homes of the poor are blighted - the women among the poor are crushed - by this licentiousness, which ever goes hand in hand with the most galling tyranny of the strong over the weak. The press and the pulpit, apparently dismayed by the enormity of the evil, the one sometimes in sympathy with it, the other losing faith in the power of God and in spiritual revival, have ceased altogether to administer any adequate rebuke. In our homes and in social circles mistaken delicacy has come to the aid of cowardice, and the truth is betrayed even in the house of its friends. The warnings of God are concealed, and young men and women are left to be taught by sad and irremediable experience the moral truths which should be impressed upon them early in life by faithful instructors.

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