It's a man's world, at least around my house. With my daughter off at college it's just my husband, two teenage sons, and me; even the dog and cat are of the masculine persuasion. I've seen some majority-male households that have slipped toward caveman conditions, where underwear is washed by wearing it in the shower and dishes are washed by giving them to the dog. I am determined that that won't happen here.

Rather than draw up a long list of rules covering minute aspects of behavior, I have found that one general principle covers all circumstances. It's one my boys actually came up with on their own. The rule is (and this must be hissed in an urgent whisper): "Not in front of the chick!"

Yes, in my house, as far as I know, no one drinks from the milk jug. No one burps. Dignity and decorum rule the day. When I phone home from a business trip, I can almost hear the dishes being whisked out of the living room and the orange juice being wiped off the kitchen floor. The dog, I am given to understand, has been creating these unauthorized situations, grievous and clearly unworthy of chick review. Good thing my boys are there to maintain order. "Bad Sparky!" I hear over the phone line and picture the bewildered dog ducking his head.

The most obvious charge one could lay against this standard is that it's sexist, and indeed it is. The "Not in front of the chick" rule (or NIFOTC) colludes in a tacit assumption that, if given half a chance, men unsupervised by women will indeed behave badly. Women demand something finer of them: respect, protection, the kind of cherishing (Saint Paul suggests) with which men regard their own bodies.

I would have rejected this idea vehemently a couple of decades ago, but I gradually realized that when men don't feel an obligation to protect and cherish women, women get hurt. Men come to look out on a leveled world and treat everyone the way they treat each other—pretty roughly. The interaction of guys in my house runs heavily to broad insults, punches, and grins. They thrive on it; but girls whose exchanges regularly ran to, "Well, your nose is bigger!" would not be friends long.

Recognizing the relative roughness of men blends well with the theory put forth by technoprophet George Gilder in Men and Marriage, that men must be tamed and civilized by women. Their natural impulse is to stray and play, he says, and it is due to women's influence that they settle down in families and contribute to a coherent society.

Gilder's view of the sexes—the pure angel of the hearth and the wild, lusty fellow who must be captured and tamed—can be seen as subtly flattering, both to men and the women who are supposed to train them. On the other hand, if you're a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, it seems sexist, degrading, and, worst of all, essentialist (meaning men and women really are different). But I'm inclined to think that both Gilder and his ideological foes are missing something important: a longing in men that actually makes them want to settle down. Yes, men are rovers—but they also possess a strong instinct to plant roots.

Not only that: I would assert that women need to be tamed by men as well, particularly in moral issues. A classic image is that male justice is too harsh, too prone to blind legalism. Women are thought to temper this with compassion, by considering human variables and calling for mercy. In a typical masculine example, Les Miserables' Inspector Javert tracks Jean Valjean relentlessly in order to jail him for stealing bread for starving children.

The feminine temptation is the opposite, amending principle to fit any present situation. Where cold legalism binds men, women slip in the quicksand of rationalization. In her widely cited study, In a Different Voice, gender scholar Carol Gilligan found that women consider human factors rather than principles of right and wrong in making ethical decisions. At the most advanced level (in Gilligan's opinion), women balance their own needs with others', and the ideal of being good is supplanted by that of being true to oneself. Women at that level were able to justify abortion under all kinds of circumstances, because it was what they needed to do.

This is the way women's moral trajectory bends, unless corrected by masculine rigor. Woman's classic moral failing is the opposite of masculine legalism: manipulative duplicity in the name of self-interest. Think of Scarlett O'Hara or Emma Bovary; think of the woman who said in front of Solomon, "Neither you nor I shall have him. Cut him in two!"

Women need men to call us up toward the highest moral principles; they need us to call them down to the warmth of human love and respect for gentler sensibilities (which includes keeping dirty socks out of the den). And just as domesticity and fidelity are not imposed on men by women—in marriage as God intended it, that commitment is a potential that was just waiting to be realized—so rigorous justice is not a purely male construction to which women must submit.

It's clear that we need each other. You would almost think someone planned it that way.

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