Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.
Prov. 25:28 (NIV)
That self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23) required of both men and women is not debated in Christian circles (see also 2 Peter 1:6). Titus 2 specifically emphasizes the need to teach self-control to older men (v. 2) younger women (v. 5), younger men (v. 6), and by implication older women who should avoid being “addicted to much wine” (v 3)—so that basically covers everyone. Also, it is clearly a necessary quality of good leaders (I Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 3:3; Titus 1:8), as the frequent and continual failure of Christian leaders in this virtue constantly reminds us.
Yet, one thing I see debated is whether we should engage in character/spiritual formation for a virtue like self-control in ways that take gender/sex into account. Some are concerned about inequitable messaging that might foster problematic stereotypes or line-drawing. As one commenter mentioned regarding my earlier post on gender and virtue, perhaps we should be “less concerned with ‘manhood’ and more concerned with personhood.” I agree with the need to prioritize our common human identity as image bearers of God; however, I am concerned about the implied neglect of gender identity. I saw a tweet posted by an academic a few months ago declaring this false dichotomy, “Jesus shows us the way to be better humans, not men.” Like the old approach that advocated colorblindness in race, this approach wants a gender-blind approach to Christian character education that avoids both gender uniqueness and the need for gender reconciliation conversations. That would be a mistake.
First, we should recognize that, similar to race, Jesus calls us to be better humans not in some abstract, identity-reducing way but in a way that takes into account all the identities that make up our humanity (e.g., to use my own example–an excellent bearer of God’s image, member of Christ’s body, husband, father, friend, neighbor, caretaker of the earth, man, steward of my body, professor, American, etc.). We find unity in Christ (Gal. 3:28), but Christ does not then reduce or abolish our other positive identities (like he does with our negative identity of being sinners). He shows us how to prioritize, enrich, and redeem them.
Second, it would be helpful if Christian academics undertook a closer study of moral excellence in these particular identities to recognize that we are often fallen in ways unique to our identities (including gender). What do empirical studies tell us about self-control in men, and women? Of course, when looking at empirical studies related to gender, the findings are almost always presented as percentages rather than simple either-ors. Thus, what is said about one gender will always apply to a certain percentage of another gender.
Still, as educators, we should recognize that our curriculum and pedagogy must at times be guided by these empirical percentages and our self-knowledge can be illuminated by them (and in fact, numerous studies talk about the importance of taking gender into account in the classroom). Thus, when figuring out the most prevalent self-control struggles for a church/student group of men/women or mixed academic classrooms, we are not trying to figure out if all women or all males do, think, say, or need, any given [you fill in the blank]. Instead, we’re seeking generalizations that might strengthen our curriculum and pedagogy with a particular audience.
The Obvious Difference
In the literature as a whole, it has been clear, as one study published this past summer noted, “…gender seems to be vital in explaining differences in the use of self-control skills”1
The first empirical reality we need to take into account is the particular challenges to self-control produced by testosterone and culture. Boys and men struggle demonstrating self-control over their physical power, especially if they have adverse childhood experience, which often results in a unique gendered impulsivity that leads to violent crime.2 The statistics for incarceration reveal that men deal with this problem the most—93 percent of jailed criminals are men.3
Educators in general should also account for testosterone-induced differences and help boys (e.g., offer recess at least three times a day for young boys) and young men in this area (e.g., embrace structured intellectual debate versus following prejudiced thinking like the quote from this scientist at a prestigious American college: “The ideal of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated”).4
Furthermore, if our pedagogy does not account for gender differences in self-control, it can produce inequities (one major study noted that elementary teachers confuse young boys’ lack of self-control with lack of academic ability which possibly contributes to the current gender achievement gap).5
In light of these empirical realities, we need to emphasize a particular aspect of God’s character especially with boys/men (and especially boys/men with adverse childhood experiences). For example, if many men have this particular issue with the control of violent tendencies in particular, it would help boys/men to study how God fulfills his purposes, uses power, and deals with “frustration.” What we immediately notice is that God is patient and not quick to anger. The phrase “slow to anger,” is commonly repeated as a description of God (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:16; Psalm 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3). In other words, God does not quickly become angry and then rely on strength to set things right or punish humanity when our sinful nature causes us to go awry.
Moreover, in Christ, we find the ultimate expression of how we are to imitate God in this regard (Philippians 2:5-8). Christ “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” Powerful and ambitious men may have a multitude of earthly resources or a great deal of physical strength, but they may have specific and extremely damaging weaknesses in their souls (such as the lack of self-control). In contrast, Christ had only the clothing he wore, but he exhibited a tremendous kind of strength, self-control, and determined pursuit of our souls—the willingness to lay aside power and anger for all humanity.
A few years ago, I had lunch with a man who told me that he recently had to decide whether or not to kill a man. Although he had been a marine trained in special combat earlier in life, at the time of our conversation, he was not a soldier or police officer. Instead, he had just discovered that his daughter had been sexually abused by a neighbor over a four-and-a-half-year period. As a result, he decided to lay a trap for the man in order to confront him about the abuse. Before springing the trap, he had to decide whether or not to kill the man. I asked, “What convinced you not to kill him?” At the outset nothing about his answer struck me as spiritual. Ultimately, he replied that he simply did not want his own kids to grow up with a father in prison. Although his answer did not appear spiritual to me at the time, I now consider it a Christ-like model in this respect: he was willing to give up his power to avenge so that others could have a better life. He laid down his desires and ambition to pursue quick justice to pursue a different form of lengthy and heart-breaking justice in court. We know this propensity to be at the core of what it means to be a good man, because it is precisely what Christ demonstrated on the cross.
But We Need Nuance
When speaking about gender, self-control and a particular topic like violence though, it is always important to recognize nuances produced by specific identity contexts or intersections. For example, in terms of violence or stalking experienced at the hands of an intimate partner, the difference between men and women is not as drastic as the above incarceration statistics might otherwise suggest. In fact, 36.4% of women and 33.6% of men “have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”6 Thus, women with violent tendencies in romantic relationships must also hear about the need to imitate God with being slow to anger.
In fact, the violence of women in intimate partner relationships is often underreported because men think reporting it would be unmanly.7 I have observed this myself when my wife and I were trying to mentor a struggling younger couple whose parents had both been drug dealers. They would get in fights and the woman was actually the one with the propensity for violent behavior (one time she hit the man with a hammer on the head). Of course, the man never wanted us to report this violence. Our curriculum and pedagogy must take into account this empirical reality as well.
Overall, the solution to problematic virtue education is not to become more abstract, but to become more specific and to teach about virtue and its practice in the context of our particular identities in particular circumstances. Certain Christian responses to concerns about cultural capitulation to unhealthy stereotypes sometimes fail to acknowledge that talking about a universal moral order that applies to both genders does not mean you stop speaking about applying virtues in specific identity contacts (including gender) and teaching about virtue in particular ways. It’s as if they think learning to be an excellent general athlete or general musician is better than discussing what it means to be an excellent basketball player or trumpet player (or even an excellent male or female basketball player–which does involve important differences based on the unique style of play). When it comes to virtue formation, a lack of specificity is not a virtue. We must focus on how to apply and habituate (or make our second nature) self-control in certain ways with certain practices in specific identity contexts. To repeat myself, virtue education and practice must be very, very specific regarding identity, narrative, and context.
When we undertake a focus upon specifics, gender differences emerge.8 For instance, studies find that although men demonstrate less self-control with regard to sexual impulses than women, however, women demonstrate less self-control regarding food. Or as a recently released study on obesity and self-control noted, “A uniform approach to weight management is unlikely to be effective, given the differences between males and females in this study.”9 Thus, university education and counseling centers should take these empirical realities into account.
Things May Change
Yet, we should be careful about making these differences of degree/percentage a matter of timeless, fixed knowledge about genders. How we are fallen in our various identities is not always static. For instance, recently and contrary to a long-held belief that image porn is primarily a “man’s issue” and women obtain their sexual fantasies by reading words (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey)—we know that thanks to smart phones increasing percentages of women now struggle with online image porn.10 I have had more female students confess this problem in writing assignments lately and not long ago, I asked a head university counselor what trends he was noticing, and he mentioned that the rise in females on his campus dealing with image pornography addiction was startling and concerning.
Interestingly, the instance where the Bible connects self-control to sexual desire (I Cor. 7:5), the admonition is directed to both genders (which is unusual for that time period when the moral agency of women was downplayed): “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” This passage affirms that husbands and wives alike need to be reminded to have sex with one another, advice offered to both in light of their common struggle to practice sexual self-control (and Satan’s attacks on both).
Overall, the Bible is quite clear that both men and women need to exercise God-like self-control and have self-control problems. Yet, as Christians who take fallen empirical realities seriously, we also should not be blind to the reality that God made men and women different, that human-made cultures also produce key gender differences, and that both realities will result in important gender differences with their virtue practices or vice struggles when measured by percentages. These differences have important empirical consequences for both the resulting lack of self-control in certain areas and the redemptive moral education and practices we need emphasize with each gender. As such, our character education must take those gender differences into account when appropriate.
Author note: Some sentences from this blog are from my recent book, Identity in Action: Christian Excellence in All of Life.
- Liat Hamam, Yaira, Hamama-Raz, “Meaning in Life, Self-Control, Positive and Negative Affect: Exploring Gender Differences among Adolescents,” Youth and Society 53, no. 5 (2021), 699. One of the first major studies of self-control published in 1929 also found extreme differences between the genders; Hugh Hartshorne, Mark May, and Julius B. Maller, Studies in the Nature of Character, vol. 2: Studies in Self-Control (New York: Macmillan, 1929).
- Constance L. Chapple, Hayley Pierce, and Melissa S. Jones, “Gender, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and the Development of Self-Control,” Journal of Criminal Justice 74 (2021): online.
- “Inmate Gender.” BOP Statistics: Inmate Gender. Federal Bureau of Prisons, September 25, 2021, https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_gender.jsp.
- Leonard Sax, “Boys Are Falling Farther and Farther Behind Their Sisters: Should We Care?” Institute for Family Studies, September 22, 2021, https://ifstudies.org/blog/boys-are-falling-farther-and-farther-behind-their-sisters-should-we-care-. The quote comes from this story: Michael Powell, M.I.T.’s Choice of Lecturer Ignited Criticism. So Did Its Decision to Cancel.” The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/20/us/dorian-abbot-mit.html?searchResultPosition=1
- Joseph Paul Robinson and Sarah Theule Lubienski, “The Development of Gender Achievement Gaps in Mathematics and Reading During Elementary and Middle School: Examining Direct Cognitive Assessments and Teacher Ratings,” American Educational Research Journal 48, no. 2 (2011):268-302. See also: https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/college-gender-gap-begins-kindergarten
- Smith, S.G., Zhang, X., Basile, K.C., Merrick, M.T., Wang, J., Kresnow, M., Chen, J. (2018). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2015 Data Brief – Updated Release. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Venus Tsui, Monit Cheung, and Patrick Leung, “Help‐Seeking among Male Victims of Partner Abuse: Men’s Hard Times,” Journal of Community Psychology 38, no. 6 (2010): 769-780, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/jcop.20394?casa_token=Is23wZ8cNGAAAAAA:t9IfQTYwQ6uheQmfFbYWSKhyfUnKxzQYS8un0wVQuQrzab286iA3WfeB1-IbJIaJsp-XfwoGmyIRgd8.
- Christopher Peterson and Martin E.P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 511-12.
- Ann Plummer and Iain Walker, “Can Self-Regulation Explain Why Not Everyone Is Overweight or Obese? Australian Journal of Psychology 73, no. 3 (2021): 326.
- Allie J. Hudson, “Do Women Struggle With Porn?” Proven Men, November 14, 2019, https://www.provenmen.org/do-women-struggle-with-porn/