Do men and women no longer admire and trust each other?


As it is posed, the question is too absolute. And I would not give any absolute answer to it. However, it does imply something; and yes, I think there is less admiration and trust between the two sexes than before. Nevertheless, there remains a strong natural attraction between the two. That makes for a more complex and, perhaps, more unstable relationship; and there I wish to offer some reflections.

Sexual attraction can be noble; then it inspires respect, and can be a preface to sexual love that is truly generous. But it can also degenerate into a mean desire that just wants to use sexuality in a self-centered way. In the case of men, the self-satisfaction sought can often be one of simple lust; in the case of women, it may just as much be one of vanity.

To be noble, sexual attraction must be preceded and accompanied by sexual admiration; all the more so if it is to lead to its natural outlet in a successful marriage. The big problem today is that both sexual lust, and sexual vanity, are becoming rampant, and are overwhelming the growth of sexual admiration.

Perhaps we can understand better what is meant by sexual appreciation or admiration if we go back to the Bible. There in the first chapters of Genesis, we are told that God made man and woman in His image. He made them equal in dignity, different but complementary. The complementarity between them, and in most cases the particular union of a man and a woman in marriage, was intended to help them to develop as persons, to reflect better some image of God’s love and goodness, and to grow in the conviction of the greatness of human life, precisely as a promise of something greater still.

In creating them, God had said, “It is not good for man—or woman—to be alone.” What, then, was the first human reaction at the meeting of the sexes? What was their original response? Admiration and enthusiasm. Here is someone like me, but different. Someone who fills in something missing in me; who, therefore, complements my life. Adam’s admiration for Eve; and Eve’s for admiration. Not, I insist, in terms of sexual desire, but of sexual admiration. So we should read that striking affirmation that they were “naked but not ashamed.” Nothing between them in that original encounter but mutual admiration.

Was there love? Conjugal love probably came later. Just as if Adam and Eve had not sinned, their descendants would also have experienced living in a world of general sexual appreciation and admiration, developing later in a particular one-on-one relationship, oriented to marriage.

Sexual admiration should be general between men and women. Sexual love develops from that. Love cannot develop without being grounded on admiration

This, as we know too well, is not the present situation of humanity. Sexuality, which is still sensed as having some intrinsic connection with love, is often experienced as opposed to it, or even destructive of it. Relations between the sexes are so easily disturbed; especially by lust and by vanity. We are all troubled by both defects. But—to repeat the generalization—the main factor disturbing men’s sexual life tends to be lust, while with women it is vanity.

Why should there be a lessening of reciprocal admiration between woman and man, if in fact this is the case? Let me offer a few suggestions.

Women’s Loss of Admiration for Men
Women used to admire men; or at least to have some idea of the type of man they could admire. Admiration for someone is almost always based on a quality that person has, usually in a higher degree than one may possess it in oneself. So, what was the basis for that admiration?

{Was it physical strength? Yes and no. There must be something, in any case, to the fact that men seldom if ever admire woman’s muscle, whereas muscle in men generally does evoke admiration in women.}

Greater physical strength in the male has been part of nature. As between man and woman, it has certainly at times been used abusively. That notwithstanding, women have generally tended to see in men’s strength not a motive of envy or fear, but of admiration and trust. They expected men, at least if they were a bit civilized, to treat them not as “buddies” but with special consideration and respect. Nor did they feel humbled if this respect was forthcoming. It was rather a matter that was due to any woman from any man of worth. {The man lacking this would rank lower in a woman’s estimation.} But, at least in the West, that “politesse” is no longer “expected,” or so we are told.

Today, then, do women really admire men? They may have a regard for the men who are ahead of them in the professional field, or simply envy them (just as men do towards other male competitors). But I think women, in general, admire men less and less. Why?

(1) Because men have become less “manly”; less aware of being particularly challenged to be strong, not so much in body, as in character: to be steady, reliable, not a complainer or a quitter, courageous, tough, with initiative. “Be a man”… {What life will expect of you. What girls or women will expect…} If fathers are slower nowadays to put this challenge to their sons, perhaps it is because their own idea of what it is to be a man has become blurred…

(2) Because of the weakened role of the father in the family. Weak fatherhood results in weak admiration in the daughter.

(3) Because men seem more sensual, tending to treat women as “sex-objects”; and to want to “use” them.

(4) And also, because of the divisive effect of radical feminism which has fostered a growing anti-male stance and message.

Men’s Loss of Admiration for Women
Men need to “look up”; to be drawn above and out of their naturally rough, calculating, and self-centered life. Love for country has often led them to generous self-sacrifice. But patriotism is passé today. Love for their family frequently had the same effect. But the desire for fatherhood has lessened today in large part because it had to be led by woman’s desire for motherhood. Women used to draw men to marriage, precisely because both men and women (but women more than men) wanted to set up a home.

Many women today seem to be losing their desire to be a mother or to have more than a minimal one-two child family. With that they are undermining a main reason why men have esteemed them. In so many cases this goes back to the man’s background. Most mothers are good, even if never perfect. And as boys grow into men, the sense of their mother’s goodness and their admiration-gratitude for it tends to grow. There may be exceptions, but the great majority of men from good family backgrounds feel they owe much more to their mother than to their father. And in a good marriage, the husband’s esteem for his wife is most firmly based on the fact that she has borne their children. This esteem has also been a powerful factor to give a growing and lasting quality to married love.

As a cause of men’s admiration for women, motherhood in marriage has only been equal to pre-marriage virginity. In all societies until ours, women have understood that virginity is a most unique treasure that a bride can bring to her husband; a treasure that inspires a man, even if his own background has been less ideal, to a deep reverence for his wife.

Sadly, it seems that many girls today are losing their esteem for virginity, and for all that pre-marriage virginity implies; that is, a well-grounded sense of self-worth, of a self not to be given cheaply or to any passing acquaintance, but to be kept in the end just for one person.

That women like to appear attractive to men is natural enough. But today many, especially among young girls, do not seem to know the difference between being attractive and being provocative. Feminine attractiveness alone can inspire men with admiration and respect. Being provocative or “sexy” simply stirs up men’s lust—which makes them desire, not admire, a woman.

Clearly, this is the way our modern westernized society is heading. The growing tendency today is for men to desire women as objects; but not to admire or trust them as persons. Admiration is being smothered in desire. Of course, there is enormous social pressure, and pressure from the media, in that direction. But each man and each women has to consider how far he or she personally yields to, or goes against, that pressure.

Sexual identity
Something fundamental is being lost, and needs to be recovered: awareness of and pride in sexual identity.

One is born male or female. Does the difference matter? Is male identity an advantage over female? Can full personal identity be achieved without any reference to sexual identity? Do men & women fulfill themselves (identify themselves in fullness) in much the same way, or is the mode of proper fulfillment also conditioned (and therefore differentiated) in each case by sexually given elements?

Human sexuality is more than animal sexuality. The man-woman relationship cannot be reduced just to male-female. Male-female simply denotes physical differences; it is a distinction apt for the animal world. Masculine-feminine is peculiar to the human world. For humans, being male or female is a starting point. Being—becoming—a man or a woman is a goal.

All of the human virtues or qualities should of course be sought by both men & women; to speak of “feminine” or “masculine” virtues, is simply to suggest that some of these virtues should probably stand out in a well developed masculine identity, while others will stand out in a well developed feminine identity. But one needs to develop one’s proper identity. Otherwise one becomes a mixed-up person, a half-and-half. Of course this is being proposed in the West as legitimate and even desirable. Each must make up his or her mind whether this is so; whether they want to develop a true sexual identity as a man or as a woman; or prefer to be a-sexual, or inter-sexual, or homosexual, or gender-free (i.e., sexually unidentifiable).

Here, rather than attempt to pin down what helps develop the distinctive identity of a man or a woman, I am simply going to suggest a few factors that undermine it.

Men’s loss of identity
We are all a mixture of good and bad, in the most varied areas. As life goes on, either the good or the bad tends to dominate; and so we become a more genuine and fulfilled human being, or a more warped and frustrated one. Sexual identity is our particular area of consideration. Let us start there with a few words on the sexual development of boys.

Boys are more aggressive, competitive, self-assertive than girls. They have a certain coarseness which needs refining. If this does not take place as they grow up, they develop into rough and even brutal men… Paradoxically, the awakening of unruly sexuality in 14- or 15-year-old boys is very often accompanied by the entrance into their imagination of the “girl of their dreams” toward whom they would feel ashamed to entertain lustful desires. If they are properly guided, as well as inspired, by true role-models, they will be better equipped to retain that element of idealistic romance that boys (and not just girls) need so that the idealism is not overwhelmed by lust (or vanity).

So, boys, just as men “need” women in order to be better… Without a woman to admire—a mother, a sister, a girlfriend, a wife—their roughness is tamed or refined, boys will never become “gentlemen.”—A “gentleman”…?!—It is unfortunate that the term is so scorned nowadays. In essence, it means a boy who has grown from a potential savage into a tamed man; “tamed” but strong, because he is also capable of gentleness and tenderness. Usually, only the inspiration of a truly feminine girl, or woman, is capable of effecting this transformation.

Unfortunately, many factors today combine to make it difficult for boys, or young men, to find that inspiration. That is not normal. Something has gone really wrong.

Women’s loss of identity
Girls and women are also a mixture: of ideals and vanity. But today, vanity seems too often to prevail over ideals. Let me give a partial illustration. Any study of modern radical feminist writings makes it clear that they have no time for “romance,” for some sort of idealistic concept of relations between the sexes. They have no time for fairy tales, for those old stories of the prince and the princess. Under their influence, romance, a romantic view of the opposite sex, is just not “cool” today… It is dated. No one lives it.

Oh, but young people do!—at least in their dreams. They, especially girls, dream of it. But it’s not a cool dream, so they keep it to themselves. Besides, they’ve been told too often that romance only ends in disillusionment. But it does not have to end that way, if only women and men could be an inspiration to each other.

The knight of old tales of chivalry put his maiden on a pedestal, and worshipped her. How is that there seem to be too few maidens today, too few to inspire boys and men to be chivalrous…? Too few who want to be a princess for a prince; to be admired for what can attract a man of worth, and inspire his respect: sympathy, concern for others, care, tenderness… Such qualities attract in a noble way.

But surely it is natural for a woman to want to be attractive to men? Yes, I think it is; nor do I consider it a bad thing—depending on what means of attraction is involved

Traditionally a woman’s femininity was her most powerful means of attracting men, especially a man of worth. If “liberation”—one of the main slogans of radical feminism—means that women are not to cultivate, but rather to despise and reject their femininity, what is left to them as a power of attraction except their bodily sexuality?

This is what has been taking place since the 1960s—the ever more pervasive fashion by which teenage girls and women sought to draw men’s attention to their female body and not to their feminine person. I am not sure if they grasped the implications of this new fashion, or if they simply did not have enough independence to oppose it. But for boys and men, it has certainly obscured the uplifting attraction of femininity. It stirs in them that very different sort of attraction which men, indeed, find hard to resist, but which, if yielded to, undermines the natural respect any decent man would wish to have for a woman. They are no longer led to admire, but simply provoked to desire. It is a situation that bodes no good for any possible future relationship between man and woman.

The way forward: the restoration of sexual identity
Restoration of sexual identity? This is precisely what the radicals don’t want. Their goal is a sort of uni-sexism; or, else, gender-of-choice: without bonds, without commitment; just the freedom to drift on an ever-widening sea of loneliness.

The only way towards restoring mutual harmony and admiration is a renewed sense of the sexes as equal in dignity, but distinct and complementary, both in family life, and in public life.

The sexes are equal in dignity; and should have equal access to any position in civil society according to individual merit. They are equal; but they are not identical or the same. Precisely in virtue of their difference, they are meant not to compete sexually against each other, but to collaborate humanly, in complementary ways; and thus, in combined work, to achieve fuller fulfillment, and bring about a better world.

It is not only the fulfillment of interpersonal sexuality in marriage, and setting up a home, and a family, that is at stake. It is clear that women are in the professional/public working field to stay. And they should be there. They have so much to give; and the world needs it.

A truly feminine identity—in the home, no less than in the public square. It is in both worlds that women can fulfill themselves. But—as women, not as ersatz or pseudo men! We have more than enough of men’s ruthlessness and dominance in public and business life. God forbid that women should try to bring more of the same to the public square. The fact is that those very qualities which fit woman to be a home-builder—her tact, her sense of justice due to each one, her readiness for service, her gift for being a peace-maker (when she wants), just to mention a few—are the very qualities needed so that she can play an outstanding role in rehumanizing our professional and public life. That is the way any true feminism needs to go: not forming tough guys, but forming thorough women.

Only along these lines can the sexes return to the way of mutual respect and admiration, with all the power this gives to combat lust and vanity, as well as to remake family and public life.

Msgr. Cormac Burke About Msgr. Cormac Burke

Cormac Burke, a former Irish civil lawyer, was ordained a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature in 1955. After 30 years of pastoral work in Africa, the United States, and England, he was appointed a judge of the High Court of the Church, the Roman Rota (1986-1999). On retirement, he returned to Nairobi, Kenya, where he continues to teach and write. His latest book is The Theology of Marriage: Personalism, Doctrine and Canon Law (Catholic University of America Press, 2015). His website is:


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    There are several universal statements in this essay. As a reader, I wondered what is the evidence for such statements. I was looking for sources that supported the statements. There were none.

    One of the topics not covered is the question of power in male female relations. What role does equality in the work place, equality in the relationship of husband and wife, equality in religious organizations, equality in professions contribute to the difficulties people experience?

    As a married man, I know there are factors of family history and culture that impact how I am with my wife. Some of those factors have contributed to difficulties I have had in relating to my wife. i.e., the paternalistic family structure of my own birth family. Male domination caused problems for me and my siblings, those problems were passed on to me and influence the way I am.

    My conclusion is that male female trust is more complex than this essay would suggest.