An American woman told me recently that while living in Ukraine years ago she felt freer than she does now here in the US. “I could walk down the street holding a woman’s hand, and no one would mistake us for lesbians. Same with two men. And a man walking with a woman, carrying her heavy pink bag, would never be mistaken for gay. Showing affection for the same sex, men helping women with whatever they were carrying…it was expected. Those were their roles. Here, everyone thinks twice about anything they do, worried their behavior is misunderstood.”

America today is a tabula rasa—a blank slate—when it comes to sex roles. This is a disaster for everyone. Sex roles serve a function similar to generalizations. Take “Seatbelts save lives.” That is generally true, although not always. Sometimes, seatbelts prevent exit from a burning vehicle and actually kill the occupants. Holding the expectation that wearing a seatbelt will decrease the likelihood of your dying in a car accident, though, is reasonable and good. The role of the seatbelt is clear.

We no longer accept or tolerate roles for men and women. In a marriage, who will cook, who will work, who will mow the lawn, who will manage the finances…there are hundreds of tasks required to manage a household, and someone must do them. How do you decide who does what? You have a choice to make. You can either adopt the practice of following traditional sex roles, or you can start from scratch and discuss every task as it presents itself. Which option is more likely to lead to harmony, and which to endless conflict and exhaustion?

Those who argue against sex roles say they are restrictive and confining. “They take away our freedom to make choices.” But do they? Sex roles are not legally binding. Men and women are equally free in the US—to vote, to work, to go to school. If a man prefers to do all the cooking at home, and his wife enjoys trimming the trees with a chainsaw, they can certainly make those preferences known. In most cases, though, expectations based on traditional sex roles lead to clarity and an elimination of confusion in day-to-day interactions, so that mental energy can be redirected to the relational experience of the moment. Like generalizations, assumptions are not only helpful but necessary for personal and societal productivity. Without them, we get bogged down in endless negotiation and inhibited from taking action, out of fear that we may offend.

The “personal pronoun” movement is a good example of this. Until just last week, when you referred to a woman, you used the word “she” or “her.” For men, it was “he” or “him.” Now we are told that this role-based assumption is no longer valid—ever. We must introduce ourselves to everyone we meet by announcing our “personal pronouns,” and we must ask everyone what theirs are as well. Then we must remember the answer, for every person, forever, unless the pronouns have changed, in which case we must somehow know to ask what the new ones are, and then remember the new ones. Until they change again. This is madness.

Schools are now taking legal action against children for “misgendering” other students. In Wisconsin, a junior high school has accused three eighth-graders of violating Title IX by refusing to address a female student as “they,” after she decided to switch pronouns one month earlier. A successful Title IX action would prevent the students from receiving college scholarships or perhaps being accepted to college at all. Legally, they will be seen as the equivalent of a convicted sexual harasser.

What happens when sex roles are abandoned? Paralysis through indecision. If basic greetings become a social and legal minefield, they will simply be abandoned. This may be one reason why so many Americans continue to wear the ridiculous mask in public. It protects them from the social obligation of speaking to other people. There is little to be gained by interacting with strangers, when one verbal “misstep” can cost you your reputation, your job, your freedom. On the individual level, the push to abandon sex roles stems from narcissism, couched in statements such as, “We need to protect individual choice.” Yet the exact opposite result occurs. Justly fearful of vengeful retaliation for not honoring an individual’s idiosyncrasies, we are all now inhibited to some degree from fully participating in society. We are paralyzed from expressing ourselves as individuals, sharing our thoughts, and spontaneously interacting with others. In the same way that physicians practice defensive medicine, ordering unnecessary tests to protect against lawsuits, we now operate on the defensive socially, issuing silly and corrosive queries at every step of our social lives.

We must reject this childish, destructive movement to turn our backs on traditional sex roles. Accepting grammatical rules does not limit our ability to use language. In fact, rules provide the necessary structure to write and speak, in whatever form we desire. Inventing an individual language for every person on the planet is not only impossible. It is not necessary or helpful. We have a language that has served us well for hundreds of years. It is the language of the masculine and the feminine.

A man’s role is to prepare to protect, and a woman’s role is to be available to receive. With this biological and social truth as the foundation for defining the sex roles, men and women can navigate with ease their interactions with others, all the while reserving the right to renegotiate in unique situations how that role will be expressed. In language, grammatical rules can, in certain cases, be broken. But they must be broken thoughtfully and purposefully, not simply narcissistically. A return to traditional sex roles in the US will swiftly elevate the social conversation, expand individual expression, and win back the freedom we have sacrificed on the altar of arrogance that there is a new and better way to treat one another. Wisdom comes from the past, not the present.

Mark McDonald, M.D.
Psychiatrist and author of United States of Fear: How America Fell Victim to a Mass Delusional Psychosis