Hugo Schwyzer says that while the three men who took bullets for their girlfriends in the Aurora, Colo., shootings are definitely deserving of recognition, more women have died for men throughout history.
Twenty-eight years ago this week, I sat mesmerized in a Monterey movie theater, watching Prince’s Purple Rain. Though almost every song in the film became a hit, the track that stuck with me as the credits rolled was the exuberantly up-tempo “I Would Die 4 You.” As we walked out of the theater to grab an ice cream, my 17-year-old self said to my 16-year-old girlfriend something along the lines of “You know, I really would die for you.”
I was hoping for wide-eyed gratitude; what I got was a gently cynical smile that belied her years. “Hugo,” she said, “that’s really sweet. But that’s such an easy thing for guys to say.” I remember that I protested ineffectually; before things got tense, we changed the subject to whether we should buy the cassette or LP version of the film’s iconic soundtrack.
As most of us know by now, just 10 days ago in another movie theater, three men really did die taking bullets for their girlfriends. Matt McQuinn, 27, Jonathan Blunk 26, and Alex Teves, 24, used their bodies and gave their lives to protect their dates. Their courage was undeniable, and is richly deserving of celebration. The question that lingers is whether their heroism represents something uniquely masculine, or simply a human instinct that transcends gender. (The media has also thoroughly covered the story of Jamie Rohrs, who ran from the theater leaving the mother of his children to protect their 4-year-old daughter and 4-month-old son by herself; their tale makes it clear that male cowardice and female bravery are also common features of our behavior.)
In men’s rights activist (MRA) circles, there’s a long history of complaining about male “disposability”—the idea that men should “die for women” because, given the way reproduction works, fewer men are needed for the human race to continue. That’s led some of these activists to complain that the Aurora heroes were fools undeserving of celebration. In the MRA mindset, too many men give their lives needlessly for women, who, as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto wondered, may not be worth the sacrifice.
All of the chatter about a lost male heroism misses the point. The reality is that these sacrificial gestures, as impressive and touching as they are, belong to a tradition that dates back to an era when far more women died for men than vice-versa. Until the advent of modern medicine, childbirth was one of the leading causes of death for women; a conservative estimate places the historic rate of maternal mortality at 1 for every 100 births. Even now, at least 800 women die worldwide every day as a consequence of childbirth.
Throughout human history, more women have died giving birth than male soldiers have died in war. As a result, in many places, women had shorter life expectancies than men. The ubiquity of “wicked stepmothers” in old fairy tales is a subtle reminder of these high rates of maternal death. From a purely demographic standpoint, it was women whose bodies were more vulnerable and disposable.
Every woman who dies in childbirth dies as a result of sex with a man. Vaginal intercourse with a man was—and in many places still is—one of the riskiest activities in which any woman could engage. Though the pleasure in the act may have at least occasionally been equal, the risk never was. Women had no more right to refuse their husbands than a low-ranking soldier had to disobey an order from an officer. Tennyson’s famous line applies as much to marital sex for women as it did for British soldiers in Crimea: “yours not to reason why, yours but to do and die.”
Throughout Western culture, when women died in childbirth they died not only as a direct consequence of sex with men, they died giving life to children who would carry their husbands’ name. While even in more violent eras, relatively few husbands would be called upon to lay down their lives for their wives, every pregnant woman knew she stood a fair chance of dying so that her husband’s family’s name could go on. If we look at all of recorded human history and ask “Who died more often for whom?” the evidence is that women made the ultimate sacrifice more frequently.
From an historical context, the kind of male gallantry we saw in Aurora is both compensatory and rarely required. When they reacted heroically to the start of the shooting, McQuinn, Blunk, and Teves surely weren’t thinking “I’m covering my girlfriend with my body because of the risks she might take in childbirth.” But the reason why we celebrate their undeniable bravery, the reason it strikes such a chord in us, may well be because it appeals to an ancient, partly-buried sense of fairness. In other words, perhaps on a subconscious level we still cling to the idea that men should be willing to die for women not because men are worth less, but because women have died so much more often for men.
Maternal mortality rates have plummeted in recent centuries, though they remain stubbornly high in many parts of the world. And despite the epidemic of gun violence in this country, very few men today are called upon to put their bodies between a bullet and the women they love. That truth is why my first girlfriend was so dismissive when I claimed that I would die for her; we both knew my mouth was writing a check that fate would almost certainly never cash.
It is right to honor the brave acts of men like Matt McQuinn, Jonathan Blunk, and Alex Teves. They did well. But in the subsequent debate about masculinity and heroism, it’s worth pointing out two things. First, it’s time to let go of the myth that men have traditionally endured more physical danger and suffering than women. In Euripedes’ Medea, the title character remarks that she “would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.” For all women, that’s a historically honest and accurate risk assessment. We may not have a Tomb of the Unknown Mother at Arlington, but the suffering of women’s bodies has been at least as important in guaranteeing our collective survival as men. In any discussion of sacrificial heroism, that truth deserves remembering.
Secondly, romantic proclamations about a willingness to die for someone else are cheap and easy. The kind of heroism that’s needed from men today has less to do with leaping in front of guns and more to do with showing up for the often maddeningly mundane tasks of living in relationship with another human being. Perhaps the greatest courage lies less in being willing to die for someone and more in being willing to partner with another human being in this difficult, confusing, marvelous business of living.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.