It’s nothing personal

July 9, 2008 | 26 comments

I came across something in Food and Wine this weekend that reminded me of the topics I was talking about over at America. The fabulous Joel Stein wrote a piece about hitting the L.A. nightlife scene with some of America’s top chefs. He writes of the following exchange at one of their stops:

At one point, [Chef Jon Shook] disappears from the table and returns with a smiley, dark-haired woman draped over his arm…Cooking, I realize, is much more useful for meeting women than writing for magazines. “You can make them any breakfast they want, ” says Shook. “Eggs Benedict? No problem. Toad-in-the-hole? I can do it.” But they explain that there’s an art to he slow tease; you can’t cook breakfast for a woman too early in the relationship. “She’ll say, ‘But I just slept with you.’ Sure, but cooking is personal. You have to hold something back, ” says [restaurant owner Sang Yoon].

I’m sure Yoon said that last line somewhat jokingly. But the fact is, in modern secular culture, it would not be that uncommon to consider cooking for someone more personal than sleeping with them.

This exchange in Food and Wine reminds me of a startling conversation I had years ago with a coworker named Jim*. Our department went out for a business lunch, and when we were tired of talking about the minutiae of our jobs we started talking about our lives outside of work. Somehow it came up that Jim was stressed out about some legal matters involving a son.

A son?! Jim was the consummate bachelor, known for his free-wheeling single lifestyle. We had no idea that he had a child. “I’ve never met him, ” he said, wiping his forehead. “I guess he’s about nine. I’m not really sure.”

He went on to explain that when he was on a consulting project in Chicago he’d gone out with the guys after work, met a beautiful woman, and “got lucky.” He’d taken the necessary precautions. It was just a one night stand, over and done with. They kept in touch a little bit over the next few weeks while he was in town, but then fell out of contact. At some point later, he was shocked to find out that she had a child, and it was his. This was evidently confirmed through testing.

“I just don’t know how it could be possible, ” he said, wondering how on earth the protection could have failed since he was so careful about that kind of thing.

We asked him if he ever planned to meet the kid. He didn’t know. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He said all he knew about the boy was that he really liked Cub Scouts and was a good student. He’d never seen a picture.

Clearly, my coworker was seriously in the wrong by not accepting his role as father. He was actually a really nice guy, so it was surprising that he hadn’t done the right thing in this situation. I don’t remember what our reaction was, but I hope that my coworkers and I strongly encouraged him to get in touch with his son. What’s striking to me now, though, is how absolutely shocking the situation seemed to him. He was just having some light fun, passing a soon-to-be-forgotten evening with a girl he met at a bar. This was the liberated high life promised to him by our MTV culture, he was just enjoying the glory of consequence-free sex. When he and the girl went back to his hotel that evening, they weren’t thinking about car seats and cribs and diaper bags — why would they think about babies, after all, when they had sex on their minds?

I imagine a little boy, perhaps sitting in a third grade classroom as we had that conversation at lunch that day. I bet he wondered about his dad a lot. I bet there were some awkward moments at Cub Scout events when other boys’ dads showed up. It’s disturbing that we live in a world where nice, normal, educated people can fall into having that much of a mental disconnect between human sexuality and the creation of human beings. The result is children who have moms and dads who hardly know each other, in the unlikely event that they make it into the world at all. It’s a disastrous situation when large segments of a society believe that the act that creates human beings, to paraphrase Yoon from above, is nothing personal.

* Some identifying details have been changed.


  1. SuburbanCorrespondent

    Wow. There you Catholics go again, trying to punish us for having sex by insisting on our being responsible for the children. What’s wrong with you guys, anyway?

    Joke. That was a joke. But isn’t that what you were taught to believe was the reason behind the Church’s stance on sex and birth control and abortion? I was. Not explicitly, but the message was there. The reason the Catholics won’t allow abortion is to teach those sinning girls a lesson. The reason the Catholics want so many kids is so they can take over the world (really!). The reason the Catholics are down on contraceptives is because they want to trap everyone into being married and miserable.

    I didn’t even realize I had absorbed these messages until I met some Catholics whose lives and actions forced me to examine what I thought.

  2. Susan Thompson

    The story about the chef reminded me of an article on I read a couple of months ago. It was something about when not to say the words “I love you.” And one of the times that was supposedly inappropriate was during sex!!

  3. Soul Pockets

    Once again great post. A friend of mine is in a similar situation. She is the mother raising a child who is now getting older and questioning about his father who he has never met.

    When a man makes breakfast for a women is it to personal because it may mean there will be some depth in their relationship? But the intimate act they engaged in that could produce a child meant nothing.
    I can’t understand it. I don’t know how anyone can justify this way of thinking. I keep all the children in my heart who were born out of something that was not personal.

  4. Flexo

    Clearly, my coworker was seriously in the wrong by not accepting his role as father. He was actually a really nice guy, so it was surprising that he hadn’t done the right thing in this situation.

    Perhaps, but let’s not come to any conclusions just yet. Yes, he should accept his obligations as a father. But his number one obligation as a father is, as with any father, to love his son. Love, in its proper sense, means first and foremost wanting and seeking was is best for the child, whether or not there are any emotional ties involved (as with the usual, modern concept of love).

    What is best for this child? Maybe it is for “dad” to get in touch and get involved; but if the child already has a father in his life — not merely a contributor of genetic material — then it might be best not to interject himself into the situation and be the cause of additional hardship, rather than the cause of healing. But be sure to send that support check in any event.

    It’s disturbing that we live in a world where nice, normal, educated people can fall into having that much of a mental disconnect between human sexuality and the creation of human beings.

    The world has embraced the relativity of truth. They have eaten the fruit, so now they think that they can create their own reality, their own truth about the human person, including human sexuality. They are pro-choice don’t you know? They believe that they can choose their own truth.

    If they choose, sex is merely a recreational activity, nothing more than a bit of harmless fun. It is nothing but recreation because they say so. Period. Besides, it is clear that God agrees, otherwise He wouldn’t have made sex so fun. Right?

    Nevermind that we engage in sexual activity with the exact same organs used in reproduction. Nevermind that the final objective of the man is accompanied by a release of pro-creative genetic material, usually into a place where it is frequently met with pro-creative genetic material from the woman. Nevermind that sex requires the use of reproductive organs, and that you cannot have sex with your elbows, although God could have made it possible to have sex with non-procreative body parts if He wanted to.

    No, no, no. We have eaten the fruit, and have become like gods ourselves, and thus can merely decree that sex has absolutely nothing to do with procreation. It is nothing but fun, fun, fun.

    Of course, if sex were not so much fun, that is, if reproduction and perpetuation of the species involved a dull and boring process instead, no one would ever engage in such an absurd activity as rubbing your reproductive organs together, and no one would ever be born, and the human species would die out within a single generation. But nevermind that there is a very good and essential reason why sex is so pleasurable, why it MUST be so pleasurable, so as to ensure the continuation of human life on earth.

    If we say that sex is merely a recreational activity and merely about “getting lucky,” then that is all it is.

  5. Sandy

    Disastrous indeed. My 20 yods attends an evangelical Christian college. His freshman year, one of his closest friends I’ll call Dee was a young lady who did not know her father. Her mother had an affair with a married man and Dee was the result. Dee knew who her father was, he may have even provided some financial support, but he wanted nothing to do with Dee or her mother. They were an embarrassing threat to his “other” family. I can’t begin to describe all the emotional problems Dee has struggled with because of the absence of a father in her life. To think of an entire generation of such young people out there (not to mention the tragic absence of an entire generation of aborted babies) is staggering.

  6. the genuine men project

    I hope that your co-worker does take responsibilty for his son, but on the other hand if he is only going to do it half heartedly, does another boy need that kind of negative role model in his life? Now, more than ever, boys need to have men that they can look to for help, support, guidance, and a friendly face in times of trouble. If your co-worker can’t come to the plate, I hope that you has enough compassion to allow other good men to be there for his son.

  7. Ronnica

    That’s a sad but true commentary on our culture. Sex is casual, but actually cooking for someone/enjoying them for more than their ability to please you in bed? That’s too personal.

  8. Jack

    I wonder to what extent your friend was “scared” of being a disappointment to his son. Maybe it he thought he could not be a good parent…maybe he felt it was good for the child to leave well enough alone. I hope not…


  9. SWP

    They’re not even called one-night stands anymore– it’s called “hooking up”– and on most campuses it usually precedes introductions.

    This according to the author of “Generation Porn”, a book you may find alarming to read.

    It’s one thing to be in a relationship with a woman and be neglectful as a father. The situation described is so much worse than that: here we have a man whose son is not even an acquaintance. We shouldn’t ask for such a man to suddenly show up.

    If young women want REAL men, they should behave like REAL women (i.e. taking a cue from the Blessed Virgin). Until our culture is prepared to admit the mistakes of women’s lib, we shouldn’t complain about the inevitable results.

  10. Kevin Adams

    Are you just assuming that he didn’t want to have a relationship with his son, or are there details to the story that were left out?

    Too many fathers are absent from their childrens’ lives by choice. However it is also true that too many fathers are prevented from being in their childrens’ lives due to actions taken by the childrens’ mothers.

    Your story didn’t give enough details to for me to discern which case it might be.

  11. Christie@tisbutaseason

    Great post. My dh never knew his father and an adoptive step-father only stayed in his life for about 5 years. This still affects him today…the way he parents our children, the way he feels about the concept of family, etc.

    I agree that we need to take a close look at what women’s lib has done to an entire generation of women (who are in turn passing it on to their children). I am certainly not removing any ownice from the men out there, merely suggesting that we examine the root of the problem.

    We are doing our best to raise our children to be quality people. However, I must admit that the “MTV culture” appears to be an uphill battle we will face. God grant us peace & grace.

  12. Jennifer F.

    Kevin – that seemed pretty clear from other details I heard later but, you’re right, it’s hard to know for sure. The main point I was trying to make was to focus on was how shocked he was by the situation.

  13. carrie-anne

    it is shocking how sex is made to be a no-big-deal issue. it makes me sad. i have two daughters and my 14yr old recieved her purity necklace last year for hewr birthday. she was so glad to have an outward sign of her feelings and beliefs. she was able to use it as a witnessing tool to her friends at school. i was ever so proud that she was able to reach out to her friends in another way

  14. Anne Marie

    Suburbancorrespondent is spot on. The messages of the Church’s self-absorption and self-interest were the dominant messages. The concept of salvation of souls and living God’s plan wasn’t a message I ever recall hearing as a child. Fortunately Church teaching is readily available for anyone who wishes to learn what the Church actually teaches rather than the silly rhetoric kicked around here in the US for the last 30 or 40 years.

  15. knit_tgz

    This is why before being a Christian and before coming back to Catholic Church I really had to thank my Biology teacher for my very reasonable view of sex and reproduction. We were teens studying the “sciencier” curriculum of high school, and she insisted, using only arguments of science and good sense: “All methods of preventing pregnancy, and I mean all, even tubal ligation and vasectomy, have a failure rate. This happens because this is the reproductive system, so the organs want to get the girl pregnant as soon as possible. So, keep in mind that, barred absence of the essential organs, in each and every sex act pregnancy is possible and should be faced as a clear possibility.” I concluded, and with me many of my colleagues, that I would never ever have sex with someone I wasn’t sure would be a good father to a child I could have, even if we separated later on. Which meant I would never have sex with someone I did not know reasonably well.

    This is not perfect, but it goes to show that sheer scientific thinking and a bit of good sense already gives rise to a better sex ethic than the “hooking up with no consequences”.

    Also, I HATE the “I’ll stay away because I’ll never be a good father” mentality. Either the child already has a father, and then OK, stay away in order not to confuse the child, or else a father that is there just sometimes and in those times strives to be the best dad he can be is way better than an absent father.

  16. 'Becca

    I’m baffled by this attitude, too! Like knit_tgz, I learned at an early age that every contraceptive method has a failure rate, so I was extremely cautious until I was ready to welcome motherhood. I was amazed by how many of my highly intelligent peers in college blithely assumed that condoms alone are so effective that one need not even consider the possibility of pregnancy or disease transmission. The stats are available for anyone who bothers to look!

    Recently I saw on Christian TV some women discussing why they regretted having had abortions earlier in life. A common reason was that they somehow hadn’t understood that their pregnancy was a future baby–they hadn’t known how conception and gestation work, really; it wasn’t that anyone told them “an embryo is not a baby” but that they’d never thought about what actually happens in pregnancy. I felt really sad for them.

    I am pro-choice: informed, responsible choice. It bugs me when people act as if “choice” means choosing reckless self-indulgence and then get all indignant about the natural consequences of their actions, like it’s just too difficult to put any thought or research into life-and-death decisions.

  17. Creative Clayer

    How funny. My husband was a chef when we met. It actually is amazing how much his ability to cook really impressed me and kept me around even though I was not looking for a relationship. But he made me dinner several times long before he ever made me breakfast. Anyway, I just wanted to add that it’s true that the ability of a man to cook really does hold a lot of power. But I don’t see it as being more personal than sex.

    I have a button somewhere that says “Sex is the leading cause of children” people just don’t seem to get it until it happens to them. I really should have a bumper sticker made…

  18. lyrl

    Suburbancorrespondent – the Catholics don’t have the take-over-the-world attitude, but there are anti-birth-control Christians that do: “Quiverfull mothers think of their children as no mere movement but as an army they’re building for God.” Attaching that motivation to Catholics is done by confused people, but it’s not a made-up reason for why some Christians eschew birth control.

    And, again, not Catholics in particular, but society has certainly viewed pregnancy as a punishment for sinning women. A real eye-opener for me was the book The Girls Who Went Away: it is about the experiences of women coerced into surrendering their children for adoption. It covers the time period 1940-1960, not very long ago at all.

    Like knit_tgz and ‘Becca, I’ve been surprised by people’s belief in the infallibility of birth control. I had added a statement in the Wikipedia condom article about pregnancy sometimes happening even with perfect use, no slippage, no breakage. I thought this was obvious. But a couple of people argued with me pretty vehemently about it!

    I complained to my husband about these unreasonable people on the internet – and he agreed with them! (This is the man who was taught in high school sex-ed that condoms fail one out of every six times they are used. “Like Russian roulette.” That untruth was obviously ineffective in conveying that condoms are fallible – I’d like to see more approaches like those knit_tgz described.)

    I did eventually find studies to support this: “Even if no breakage or slippage is observed, 1–2% of women will test positive for semen residue after intercourse with a condom.” Hopefully having that in a widely-read article is a small step in combating that kind of “contraceptive mentality”.

    I think your coworker experienced much stronger consequences than many men prior to the 1980s invention of DNA paternity testing: he was held at least financially responsible by society, and forced into an (at least financial) decades-long relationship with the mother. The spread of more effective birth control methods and the availability of abortion have enabled some women to approach the attitude toward sex some men have had for millennia. That women can do this is new, but the attitude itself is very old. It certainly can’t be blamed on women’s lib.

    It’s a complicated issue affected by a lot of factors, so I’m not sure where our society is headed on the issue of sex and procreation. But I hope it’s in a direction of pressuring both sexes to take sex more seriously.

  19. David

    Lyrl, perhaps the attitude that sex is a form of recreation predates feminism, but feminism, particularly third-wave feminism, certainly encouraged the widespread adoption of that attitude.

  20. lyrl

    I am not sufficiently versed in feminist history to intelligently discuss how feminism was involved in the sexual revolution and the sex-positive movement; still, I doubt the feminist movement (especially the fractured third wave) played anything other than a supporting role.

    Regardless, feminism is why I can be an engineer. Feminism is why I can vote. Feminism is why I have the right to not be beaten by my husband, not even with a stick smaller in diameter than his thumb. These things have had a tremendous positive impact on my life.

    The implications that “what women’s lib has done to an entire generation of women” is completely negative in nature, and that all of women’s lib is a “mistake” really bother me.

  21. Melanie @ This Ain't New York

    I am so sad to see that you are being attacked for this post. I can hear your genuine concern for all parties involved in the story (not just the boy.)
    I, for one, appreciate your honesty.
    Thank you for expressing it so eloquently.

  22. Bender

    I am not sufficiently versed in feminist history to intelligently discuss how feminism was involved in the sexual revolution and the sex-positive movement.

    I’m old enough to remember when feminism was VERY big on stressing that men should not treat women like “sex objects.”

    Sadly, somewhere along the way, such “feminism” went off the rails and embraced the objectification of the human person in sex, effectively reducing women in many respects to playthings to be used (and, of course, something to be discarded when one is done with her).

  23. David

    Lyrl, I don’t know who here has suggested that feminism has been a complete failure. I agree with you that it has been the source of many positive effects in societies throughout the world. My argument is only that feminism, or at least particular feminist thinkers, has had a hand in the proliferation of the attitude that sex is recreation.

  24. 'becca

    Where I see feminism as going wrong (relevant to this topic) is:

    1. getting carried away with the idea that motherhood is a horrible burden that prevents a woman from being a person. There’s some truth to it: Pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding are physically stressful and require adjustment of one’s schedule. Many women enjoy their careers and would rather not be stay-at-home mothers. BUT there are millions of examples of women continuing careers in parallel with motherhood and millions of examples of stay-at-home mothers being involved in the outside world through paid or volunteer work. Looking down on women who use the full range of abilities of their reproductive organs actually is a form of misogyny, IMO, a fear of femaleness as it really fully is.

    2. believing that because there was an era in which children were considered the property of their fathers, now it’s time for an era in which children are considered the property of their mothers. This is no better for the children, and it discourages men from being responsible fathers.

    Certainly not all feminists think like this, but these are the general trends I’ve seen. I watched them unfold through the ’80s as a kid reading my mom’s Ms. Magazine.

    The situation now, the “Sex and the City” type attitude toward sex, reminds me of a quote from Fran Lebowitz complaining about the direction of feminism in about 1993: “We want girls to be interested in sports, so that everyone can be an idiot.” It seems that, rather than developing healthy and reasonable ways of balancing the pleasurable, reproductive, and emotional-bonding aspects of sex, many women have decided to adopt the playboy attitude traditional among (some) men. So now “everyone” is an idiot.

  25. lyrl

    Dave, no one came out and said it. Having recently seen (on another board) a woman explicitly say that women are worse off than they otherwise would have been because of feminism, I saw that same attitude implied in comments by SWP and Christie.

    I had taken your comment as support for that view. I apologize; I see now that you just didn’t read the same intent into those comments as I did. While I think it’s important to note they are not the only or main reason casual sex is common in our society, I agree that the feminist movement has played an important role in that trend. I found ‘Becca’s comments on that role to be insightful.

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