Political Flavors

Anti-feminism is an appeal to force.

Posted in Editorials on June 27th, 2013

I’ve written before about how anti-feminism is an appeal to force.

A common MRA argument goes like this: since men are physically stronger than women, everything women have men could take away at any moment. To which I say, “No shit, Sherlock.” Does anyone ever think that women are ever unaware of their relative physical weakness in relation to men, even for a second?

I’ve been hanging out a lot lately at /r/TheBluePill which is a subreddit that satirizes “The Red Pill” a kind of super hardcore MRA/PUA philosophy.

They’ve added Red Pill Women, for ladies who agree that they ain’t shit. There I came across this gem by /u/DaddyMonster

Ladies… Men tend to find women’s lack of physical strength endearing. Arousing even. I know it makes me feel all daddylike.

Enjoy men’s strength. Marvel at it. Isn’t it sweet when you know that a man could squeeze the life out you easily, and he knows it too, but he won’t hurt you (any more than feels good)? He might manhandle you. He might be rough. He might even be very rough, but he will not truly hurt you.

A tingle of fear, safely in his strong arms you know 😉

Something that people frequently lament is that Red Pill effluvia occasionally contains a drop of truth. Confidence is sexy, for example. But what disturbs me more than how inane and misogynist they are is when they stumble on something really important and then completely miss the point.

Red Pillers frequently talk about how it’s so much more easy for (straight) women to get laid than (straight) men. They throw out stereotypes – “women don’t really like sex,” reveal their madonna/whore complexes – “women who are promiscuous have less value,” and appeal to evolutionary psychology – “eggs are expensive, sperm is cheap.” I’m not going to deny that there are social pressures on women to limit and feel ashamed of their sexualities. The difference is that feminists think that this shame is bad, and Red Pillers claim that it’s natural and good. They see female sexuality as a force of chaotic evil.

So “DaddyMonster” sees this fear women have, thinks about those who eroticize it and concludes that it’s all so very sweet. He never considered that this truth about men and women, this primal fear, is the reason it’s much harder for men to get laid. Red Pillers like to think that they know the truth. That women are “hypergamous” vending machines – say the right things “display high value” and sex pops out. It’s a lot simpler than that. It’s about self preservation.*

If anti-feminism is an appeal to force, pickup-artistry and game is an attempt to sell that force as sexy and fun.

UPDATE: In response to the question, “Why do bluepillers react so violently against our philosophies and methods?” [Violently, really?] DaddyMonster replied:

Merely poking or even beating it with a stick doesn’t work. You need to annihilate it. It needs to hurt.

Sharp sticks…

This is from the man who thinks that it’s “sweet” that most men could “squeeze the life out of” their female partners at any given moment.

*Via Dan Savage

Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser

Posted in Book Reviews on January 1st, 2013

Clarisse Thorn is a feminist writer and activist. Her book, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews with Hideous Men delves into pickup artist culture and examines it from a feminist perspective. But in doing so, Thorn takes us with her on a journey that’s equal parts exposé, personal memoir, social commentary and feminist critique.

This is a book about insecurity. Both the insecurities of the author and of the men she “chases.” I tried to keep an open mind, and while I don’t know if I can be persuaded that there is anything redeeming about pickup artist culture as it currently exists, I was very curious to see why a self-identified feminist thinks so.

Thorn writes about sex with a focus on BDSM from a feminist perspective. In the book, she spends a lot of time drawing a parallel between kinksters and the pickup artist community. She explains how people who engage in BDSM need strong communication and negotiation skills. This compares negatively with PUAs who think little of women’s consent. And yet, coming from a community where sexual negotiation is extremely specific, she is intrigued by the way some pickup artists are more ambiguous in their approach.

The book follows Thorn through her interviews with pickup artists, and also tells the story of her relationship with a man she met while writing the book. It’s very good, and I found myself wishing that the entire book was a novel singularly focused on this romance.

What I found irritating about this book is the lengths to which the author went to cover up for pickup artists, and the number of qualifiers she added to almost any criticism of their tactics.

Maybe there were some PUAs who talked about fatties and warpigs and hot bitches more because that was the subcultures social standard, and less because they thought that was a reasonable way to discuss actual people. But I couldn’t help it; I disliked them for it nonetheless.

Why would she apologize for disliking men who refer to women as pigs and bitches? She goes on to say (emphasis original):

There were a few guys in the PUA subculture who I liked – who I even trusted – who never used the worst PUA Language and never tripped my misogyny meter.

Perhaps they were self censoring? How could anyone who wasn’t a seething misogynist keep the company of those who were without absorbing some of it? The book describes how spending time with these men causes Thorn much turmoil. Why wouldn’t it have the same effect on anyone else?

Thorn writes about how much she wants the pickup artists to like her, even though it starts to take an emotional toll on her. The more time Thorn spends with them, the more confused, insecure and depressed she feels.

I never had the guts to ask PUA acquaintances to rate me on the number scale. Just thinking about it makes me feel queasy and anxious.

Perhaps because it’s supposed to? “Rating” women is a way for these men to feel more powerful than the women they are attracted to. If it was uplifting and life-affirming, it wouldn’t placate their fragile egos. They are taking advantage of your insecurities to feel better about their own.

Emphasis original:

I can’t deny that I wanted PUA’s approval.
I wanted to feel the judgement of men who spend all their time judging women’s fuckability.

What isn’t clear is if she wanted their approval from the start, or if it arose from spending so much time around men who work hard at getting women to crave their approval. The title of the book is about this dynamic – we are warned that this is a confession of someone seeking the approval of PUA’s. I’m not the only one who noticed this.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, wanting to be wanted, wanting to be hot and fuckable. But to want it from men who have such toxic attitudes about women can lead to nothing good. Thorn starts to analyze her own (meticulously negotiated) relationships by PUA metrics, and of course they fall short. She admits she is developing a bit of a fetish about pickup artists, but instead of thinking about the harm this can do to herself, she scolds herself all the more harshly:

I didn’t yet recognize that I was doing exactly what feminists complain PUAs do to women: viewing these guys primarily as objects.

Despite all of this, Thorn does an excellent job of analyzing pickup artist methods and explaining what’s wrong with the coercive and manipulative techniques. She provides extensive appendices and even explains her own classification of the different types of men that get involved with this subculture. My biggest problem with her analysis though, is not just that she is very generous to pickup artists or how effusively she praises the ones who are not blatantly sexist or abusive but how her own words contradict her argument that there are some good things about pickup artistry.

Emphasis added:

Hypothetically, PUA advice could fill the gaps left by S&M and polyamorous advice. But generally speaking, typical PUA writings emphasize manipulation and objectification and unspoken communication whereas typical S&M and polyamory writings emphasize straightforwardness and mutuality and direct verbal communication.

There’s a lot of discussion in this book about what Thorn calls “strategic ambiguity” and how some people like to flirt and play around without being explicit about their intentions, and how that is a part of the fun. That’s all well and good, but there’s a difference between being coy and being manipulative. This is an important distinction that someone as thoughtful as Thorn must understand and appreciate. Yet somehow, a body of work that typically “emphasize[s] manipulation and objectification” has many redeeming qualities? This frustrated me to no end.

It gets worse when Thorn dives in to the most vile PUAs who encourage each other to rape. When a woman says no to sex when she has been making out with a PUA, or when they are in a place where they might have sex, this is called “Last Minute Resistance.” And there are a number of “tactics” PUAs are supposed to use when they encounter this to try to get to have sex anyway, instead of just taking no for an answer. Some of them called “freeze outs” are about being passive aggressive and pouting, while other PUAs advise to just keep going and ignore what she says, until she says no at least three times, or “unless she really says NO!

Thorn explains in detail why these approaches will most likely lead to sexual assault. But this is somehow not enough to turn her away from the entire community.

There’s even more slime to be uncovered (emphasis original):

[I]t’s hard to avoid thinking that PUAs don’t care about how women actually feel, just how women act. It makes it sound like the priority is not a partner who feels okay; rather the priority is an object that provides an orgasm.

These are Thorn’s own words, her own analysis. And it contrasts harshly with the flirtations she has with pickup artists throughout the book. Many of the men see her as a challenge and hit on her unabashedly. She doesn’t go along as a ploy to get more information or view the advances as evidence that these men don’t take her writing seriously. These sexually charged interactions are savored and recounted almost pruriently. I think we are meant to swoon, although I found myself gagging and rolling my eyes instead.

Thorn is not unaware of how problematic her titillation with the subculture is. In addition to writing a feminist analysis of pickup artist culture, Thorn writes extensively about how all of this makes her feel.

Emphasis original:

There was something so hot about the idea of pickup…but at the same time, so many PUAs are so focused on using women, and I heard so much self-justification for ideas that made my skin crawl. I felt such satisfaction in “turning tables on that bullshit, I occasionally lost sight of the fact that PUAs are real people. Presumably, that’s how misogynist PUA’s feel about women.

Gotta love those adversarial gender roles.

There’s a lot to unpack there. And as distasteful as I find her argument that her intrigue was on par with our culture’s routine objectification of women, I have to admire her brutal honesty and self assessment. An entire book could have been written about Thorn’s conflicting feelings of attraction and disgust at PUA culture, and how this conflict led to a meta analysis that filled her with doubt. Asking for more seems almost like too personal and to demanding of a request. But this underlying conflict fueled most of the narrative. It’s impossible to separate Thorn’s analysis from her visceral attraction to the idea of pickup and by association to the men who engage in it. She is self aware enough to be reliable. And this should not be ignored by anyone who reads the book.

In an interview with Neil Strauss, Thorn called wading through the pickup artist community “panning for gold in a sewer.” I think that would have made a perfect subtitle for her book. Pickup Artists frequently say that men who are a part of their community have “gone down the rabbit hole.” Confessions is about a woman trying to climb out of it.

Skyfall Fail: Why the “Step One – Be Attractive” Meme is Wrong

Posted in Editorials on November 27th, 2012

This post contains spoilers!

Skyfall was mostly enjoyable, but there was a scene that left me feeling very uneasy.

Bond meets Sévérine in a swank casino and tells her that “it takes a certain type of woman to wear a backless dress with a Beretta 70 strapped to her thigh.” Through their conversation it is revealed that she was kidnapped into the sex trade as a young girl. Bond promises to help her escape if she will lead him to her boss. She tells him to meet her on her boat. The appointed time arrives and he is not there.

Sévérine appears to be taking a shower of angst when he steps into the shower, naked. He tells her “I like you better without your Beretta.” “I feel naked without it,” she replies.

The scene was disturbingly creepy on several levels. Forbes (to my suprise) and The Vagenda point out how the power dynamic here makes it questionable as to whether or not Sévérine could consent. This is important, but not the first thing I thought of.

Even if we grant that Sévérine wanted to have sex with Bond, why would someone supposedly as skilled at getting laid as he supposedly is SNEAK UP ON A RAPE VICTIM IN THE SHOWER?!. He couldn’t have waited for her in her room, in his infinitely flattering swim trunks? Or left her a note that she could meet him up on deck for a nightcap in the moonlight?

Could he have refrained from commenting on and eroticizing that she was now disarmed and could not escape?

There was an SNL skit once where it is explained that a man can avoid being accused of sexual harassment by

Be Handsome..

Be Attractive..

and Don’t Be Unattractive.

Dudes on the internet are especially fond of this and have narrowed it down into a constant drumbeat of “Step One – Be Attractive, Step Two – Don’t Be Unattractive” whenever a woman complains about a man’s creepy or boundary crossing behavior.

But the feminist critique of Bond’s behavior in Skyfall is evident as to why this is really poor reasoning. No one is denying the hunkiness of Daniel Craig. It’s just incredibly unsettling that the movie portrays sneaking up on sexual assault victims in the shower as the height of romance, or at all acceptable with anyone you don’t already know very well.

I’m not totally sold on the argument that Sévérine wasn’t capable of consenting at all. And as last nights on Earth go, she didn’t appear to have a bad one. But creepiness isn’t sexy, and Sévérine’s apparent consent isn’t a pass for Bond or the movie’s creators. James Bond – symbol of sexual prowess – should probably know better. Master of seduction doesn’t mean master of the implication.

Dr. Vajayjay’s “Privatize Those Privates!” Not At All Like Vanessa Scott’s VaginalSurgery.Info

Posted in Editorials on March 6th, 2012

Never in a million years would I have imagined myself to be using the word “Vajayjay” in a the title of a blog post that had my name on it – it’s a euphemism I find incredibly unsavory, especially because of its origins – but I will make an exception for this video. Produced in association with The New View Campaign, this video is a brilliant satire of the current state of cosmetic vaginal surgery. It came to my attention after a discussion with Vanessa Scott from vaginalsurgery.info in the comments section of a post I wrote asking people to sign a petition for greater oversight of labiaplasty. Apparently for some reason, this video and a link to my post were also featured on their website even though Ms Scott accused me of assuming women are “stupid easily misled.

What I find telling is that on vaginalsurgery.info, and in the comments on you tube, Vanessa and/or one of her colleagues makes light of it, claiming to enjoy the humor, “Obviously, if you see a doctor like this, RUN.” and insisting that in reality, cosmetic surgeons are nothing like that at all. However, on this blog, Vanessa used many of the same tactics that the fictional (and according to her sensationalized and “clearly put together by a group that has not bothered to talk with any women that have actually had the procedures done.”) Dr.Vajayjay did.

Creating A Need

In the video, Dr. Vajayjay is asked, “But labia are airbrushed out of porn, so this is not normal at all!” He responds, mugging angelically

“Can Dr. Vajayjay help it if this is what women ask for?”

On Political Flavors, Vanessa Scott says,

The vast majority of women I work with have been contemplating the procedures for years before they choose to go through with them. In interacting with doctors from all over the world, I routinely hear that their labiaplasty patients are the most satisfied post-op patients they have.

In the end all this publicity does is make more women aware that these procedures are available. And while some will be outraged, the truth is whether you approve, ACOG approves or I disapprove, these women want these surgeries and will have them.

On Youtube, “VaginalSurgery” says,

The industry is growing because women benefit from and demand them. Who are you to choose for them?

The before and after photos in this video seem to be taken directly from vaginalsurgery.info ‘s before & after page which is heartbreakingly titled, “Good & Bad.”

Make It Science

The video has Dr. Vajayjay encouraging other surgeons to use words like “rejuvination” and “labiplasty” which sound scientific but are a lot nicer sounding than “cutting off your labia, doing liposuction on the mons and injecting collagen into the vagina.”

VaginalSurgery.info calls itself, “The Most Comprehensive Vaginal Rejuvenation and Labiaplasty site on the Web!”

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists statement on this issue begins,

So-called “vaginal rejuvenation,” “designer vaginoplasty,” “revirgination,” and “G-spot amplification” are vaginal surgical procedures being offered by some practitioners.

Note that the above scare quotes are from ACOG – not The New View Campaign.

What Women Want

Dr. Vajajay advises doctors to run away when asked about research and focus on “what women want” by providing customer testimonials.

In response to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists statement that

Women should be informed about the lack of data supporting the efficacy of these procedures and their potential complications, including infection, altered sensation, dyspareunia, adhesions, and scarring.

Vanessa Scott tells me that:

The reason ACOG dropped the ball is because they know full well that their members have been doing these procedures for decades (tightenings & labia reductions). They just hadn’t been marketing them for sexual benefits. Instead of stepping up and acknowledging the procedures and providing the oversight that is now being sought, they chose to denounce them in the hopes they would scare women from wanting them.

That’s exactly what New View is saying these surgeons do – ignore research and turn the conversation back to consumer demand.

Make It Pink

Dr. Vajayjay tells cosmetic surgeons to make these procedures seem like a spa treatment. Use flowers, silhouettes and beach landscapes.

The banner for VaginalSurgery.info is a happy couple on the beach.

I don’t see anything wrong with that, per se. But it’s uncanny how accurate the parody is and to see Scott deny that it is at all accurate is quite comical.

Make it Feminist

Finally, Dr. Vajayjay advises surgeons to “make it feminist.” Remind women that this surgery is what they want and to empower women with “knowledge, choices and alternatives.”

The tagline for vaginalsurgery.info is “Compassionate Advice & Empowering Information”

Dr.Vajayjay goes on to say the best person to present this information is a woman, because, “a woman can never be sexist.”

Vanessa Scott told me:

We women are not as weak and impressionable as some would like us to believe. It is infuriating to me that we women would suggest or propagate that sentiment.

Women are not stupid and easily misled.

But since this is such a private procedure you don’t often hear them screaming from the rooftops about it. And why would they when they are deemed as “victims of society” for desiring the surgery. Is it not our right as women to desire to live happy, healthy and comfortable lives? Or does that make us weak, naive women that all want to look like porno stars?

First she claimed that I as a woman am infuriating for suggesting that these surgeries might usually be unnecessary, and that I am saying that women are stupid and easily misled. And then she dressed it all up in faux-feminist empowerment language. Make it feminist indeed.


I wish that this video was just a humorous infomercial for a fictional doctor that is competing for the clients of McNamara/Troy on “Nip/Tuck.” But it’s eerily close to the way that these potentially harmful procedures actually are marketed to women. The only humor I find is in Vanessa Scott’s denial that she is anything like the caricature on the screen.

Letter Writing Sunday Oversight for Labiaplasty

Posted in Editorials on January 22nd, 2012

In my review of Orgasm, Inc. I talked about the New View Campaign, and organization dedicated to challenging ideas about female sexuality promoted by the pharmaceutical industry.

Recently, I also watched the documentary “The Perfect Vagina” (hat tip Christopher Ryan’s facebook page) a BBC film about the growing incidence of labiplasty and other genital cosmetic surgery done on women.

The has FDA approved labiplasty in the United States even though the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement in 2007 against the procedure,

These procedures are not medically indicated, and the safety and effectiveness of these procedures have not been documented. Clinicians who receive requests from patients for such procedures should discuss with the patient the reason for her request and perform an evaluation for any physical signs or symptoms that may indicate the need for surgical intervention. Women should be informed about the lack of data supporting the efficacy of these procedures and their potential complications, including infection, altered sensation, dyspareunia, adhesions, and scarring.

The New View Campaign has started a petition, asking people to sign it and urge the FTC to regulate labiaplasty more strictly. I believe that this is an excellent course of action. Because sometimes these surgeries are performed because a person has a legitimate medical need, and because I believe that people should be able to modify their bodies as they see fit, I am not in favor of prohibiting this procedure. However, because of the risks involved, I do believe that women must be informed of them so that they can make an educated decision. Requiring surgeons to inform patients of all of the risks involved is one of the provisions the New View Campaign is calling for.

You can sign the petition here.

Orgasm, Inc.

Posted in Editorials on October 4th, 2011

Although I missed it in theaters, I was able to watch Orgasm, Inc. on DVD this weekend. It’s a documentary about the quest to find a drug that can increase sexual function in women, a “female Viagra.” What I learned was compelling.

As you might have guessed, the quest for a “female Viagra” began immediately after the original hit the shelves, drug companies were heady with success and had dollar signs in their eyes. The filmmaker, Liz Canner, follows one company racing to be the first to stake a claim and win FDA approval and also the New View Campaign, a group of activists led by several feminist academics who claim that drugs are not the answer to Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD).

For a drug to be approved by the FDA, it must treat a specific medical condition. New View claims that FSD was made up by the drug companies who are looking to sell more drugs to women. I have always been skeptical of the claim that 40% of women are sexually dysfunctional. It sounds like whatever traits these women have in common would be within the range of normal human sexuality, which varies wildly. However, I was curious, perhaps it was like nearsightedness or flat feet – an incredibly common ailment but one that was also harmful and could be easily treated.

The opposite point of view argues that if women are having trouble with sex, the culprit may be that women’s expectations of sex are much too high or that they are simply uneducated. One of the women in the movie who claimed to have FSD was capable of orgasm, but could not do so during intercourse! I was aghast. Most women cannot orgasm during intercourse. Research indicates that the ability to orgasm during intercourse might be related to a physical characteristic – the distance between the clitoris and the vaginal opening – not a medical problem.

Dr. Leonore Tiefer from New View repeatedly states that an orgasm does not come from a bottle. She talks about how sexual desire is something created by the people having sex. It seemed like a call to women who prefer to view sex as something that “just happens.” In a culture that views women as sexually passive and objects to be acted upon, this is a challenge. It is a radical shift to see oneself not only as a person who is sexually desired by others but as a person who has sexual desires and can act to pursue them.

Orgasm Inc. explores other topics related products and services related to women’ sexuality, pornography and sex toys, labiaplasty and even media personalities who have made a name for themselves advising women about sex. A storyline about a sex educator who crashes an FSD conference, and a suspenseful FDA hearing create the climax (!!) of the film. This documentary  updated my sex education – there were several stories I had heard about briefly in the news, like the orgasmatron – a spinal implant that can dispense bliss with the push of a button that I had never followed up with.

In our increasingly sex negative culture, it was refreshing to spend some time thinking about efforts being made to improve the sexual happiness of women – even if many of the people doing it have agendas that are entirely profit motivated. In exposing the marketing blitz of Female Sexual Dysfunction, Orgasm Inc. encourages us to think critically about our sexuality – something that can be a little bit scary, but can lead to great beauty and joy.

About Philandering Phil…

Posted in Book Reviews on March 16th, 2011

Back in January, when I reviewed Sex at Dawn, one of my criticisms of the book was:

[T]heir chapter about modern day marital infidelity only includes one case study of a man cheating on his wife. I will say that they did a very good job of skillfully and sensitively presenting the evidence of why a man with so much to lose would do such a thing, and making it clear that they do not mean to rub salt in the wounds of the wives who are so hurt. But there is no corresponding narrative of why a woman would cheat or why her husband should make an effort to understand her natural drives and hormonal confusion. Simply presenting evidence that men who have more partners have higher testosterone levels, and that low testosterone can lead to all sorts of issues up to an including death is sobering. But it doesn’t fiat away the fact that this does lend strength to the “standard narrative” that they are so opposed to. Instead of falling back on “Sorry honey, my sperm is cheap, her eggs are expensive and my secretary is young and fertile,” will it now become “Sorry honey my Testosterone was getting low so it was pretty much sex or death?”

Apparently I was not the only one who took issue with this chapter. The paperback edition of the book will include an addenda to the story, addressing reader feedback:

First, many men report that they had affairs simply because opportunities arose, while women—for whom such opportunities tend to be more plentiful—generally report a more complex confluence of motivations…

A woman in her 40s may well approach a “friends with benefits” situation completely differently than she would have two decades earlier, for reasons relating both to hormonal levels and life experience.

In addition to these internal factors, women tend to be more responsive to external conditions (Are the kids grown and out of the house? Is she financially independent? What would her friends and family say? Does she suspect that he’s having an affair?). Men—even highly intelligent, otherwise cautious and calculating men—often blunder into these situations blinded by something that doesn’t seem to render women quite so helpless…

A similar assessment of women’s motivations and experiences of extra-marital affairs would require far more space than we have.

I think this is fair. Men are more straightforward about their reasons for having affairs than women. I’m interested to know what further research would say about this topic. When a tempting situation arises, do men stray more easily? Or is it just that men have a set of criteria that are met more frequently?

It’s The Heartbreak

Posted in Editorials on March 9th, 2011

I quite enjoyed Benjamin Dueholm’s article about Dan Savage’s sexual ethics. Amanda at Pandagon did a good job of explaining why his argument about the free market fell flat, but the thing that bothered me the most was his questioning that

[F]or Savage, no matter how we direct its expression, our sexual self is our truest self.

I think that if Dan Savage was saying that, and I’m not completely sure that he is, the reason that he advises people to get out of relationships where their sexual needs are not met is to avoid future heartbreak. Savage knows that if a person has strong sexual desires that are unmet they will suffer silently and alone, or they will cheat and possibly destroy the relationship. This is why he encourages honesty and for people to seek out a compatible partner – because people shouldn’t force themselves to stay with an incompatible partner who makes them miserable, and breaking up is difficult enough without the feelings of inadequacy and humiliation that may accompany being cheated on.

This Aspiring Honest Nonmonogamous Dude (AHND) takes greater pains than most of Savage’s correspondents to praise his girlfriend, not only in general but specifically with regard to their sex life. They have already spent several happy years together. He is anxious about his surplus of desire, but apparently nothing else. Yet that consideration trumps all others in Savage’s answer. Sexual compatibility—in terms of libido or in terms of tolerating nonexclusivity—is the coin of the realm. Love, emotional compatibility, the possibility of a life together, not to mention irrecoverable years already spent—these must all be staked against the value of a fully deployed libido. But what, exactly, is the upshot of “calmly winding down” a relationship with a high risk of infidelity? Potential romantic partners, unlike firms in the classical free-market model, are not infinite in number, and a life of comparison shopping is not free of cost. If the aspiring HND dissolves this years-long transaction in order to find a partner who is just as lovable but less jealous, or who shares his libido at every point, he will likely have a lonely road ahead of him.

Dueholm seems to be ignoring the destruction that would be caused if HND cheated after he had married his girlfriend or had children with her. For some reason he is discounting how much potential unhappiness that would cause in the future when compared with a relatively uncomplicated breakup today. As a minister who counsels people about their relationships I fail to understand why he would think that way. And for someone who is so fond of economic terms, he has a hard time understanding the idea of a sunk cost.

Commodification and Dehumanization

Posted in Editorials on February 28th, 2011

This recent article by Mark Regnerus of Slate has been making the rounds. Christopher Ryan is quoted at the end but stated on facebook that he disagrees with it and Violet Blue explained why it makes her uncomfortable (blog contains NSFW advertisements.)

I agree with Violet that the premise is inherently “slut shaming.” That is, it challenges the idea that women’s sexual autonomy is a good thing.

If women were more fully in charge of how their relationships transpired, we’d be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on.

This conclusion, upon which the entire article is based is stated as if it were self evident. It’s not. What people say is their ideal age for marriage is within a year of the average age most people do get married. I don’t think you can blame this year gap entirely on women having premarital sex. Economic factors like the price of student loans, the job market for young people and cultural factors like the acceptability of delayed marriage also play a part.

Regnerus is also extremely vague. What are more impressive wooing efforts? Our cultural fascination with engagement rings and extreme proposals has created an unrealistic standard for men to live up to. But I think Regnerus was saying that if women had their way they wouldn’t be having sex without those types of grand romantic gestures during early courtship. This is patently ridiculous – he’s painting grown women as little girl children demanding grand gestures and valuing sex with a partner no more than a sex worker does with her clients.

And that’s the heart of what I disagree with about this article. To reduce all sex to a commodity is dehumanizing. It removes all other factors from a persons behavior. Under this model a man never has tender or loving feelings for his partner, and a woman is incapable of lust. There is no such thing as mutual affection and pleasure, only a calculated transaction. Some people might view their sexuality in these terms, but it is patently false to insist that every human person does, not to mention the way this erases gay, lesbian and polyamarous people.

Imagine if we commodified other types of interpersonal interactions the way we do sex. What if we were shaming people and blaming advances in telecommunication for how it’s lowered the “price” of a conversation. In the olden days it took months for letters to travel across the ocean. Now with fairly cheap cell phones, people don’t wait for important events to communicate. They can call to say hello and chat at any time! It used to be you had to wait until Sunday afternoon or evening to make a long distance phone call without ruining your budget. Now people can Skype every night! Not feeling outraged? Me neither.

The role that the acceptability and reduced risks of premarital sex might play in delaying marriage is probably a good thing. It’s inadvisable for someone to make the serious life long commitment of marriage just because of lust and curiosity. Those who would say otherwise are usually pushing an agenda be it religious or natalist, but never with the interest of the young person held first.

Jill, a 20-year-old college student from Texas, is one of the many young women my colleagues and I interviewed who finds herself confronting the sexual market’s realities. Startlingly attractive and an all-star in all ways, she patiently endures her boyfriend’s hemming and hawing about their future. If she were operating within a collegiate sexual economy that wasn’t oversupplied with women, men would compete for her and she would easily secure the long-term commitment she says she wants.

Get that? Jill doesn’t want to marry her boyfriend because she loves him. She wants long term commitment – the unspoken assumption is that any man would be sufficient. This is what I talk about when I say that these narratives portray women as incapable of love. It’s disgusting.

And Regnerus doesn’t stop at misogyny – he is decidedly man hating as well:

Don’t forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex. Today’s young men, however, seldom have to. As the authors of last year’s book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality put it, “Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy.” They’re right. But then try getting men to do anything.

Do you understand that men? If you are getting laid, you are incapable of contributing to society. But it’s not your fault for being lazy, it’s those nasty women’s fault for having the sex with you that you thought you both wanted. The evil sex is why there has been no scientific, artistic or social progress made by men since the birth control pill was made available in 1960.

It’s really incomprehensible to me why feminists are the ones who supposedly hate men in this discussion. People like Regnerus can argue for stripping women of their autonomy and paint men as loutish slaves to their sex drive and it’s not immediately understood as hateful to both men and women. Instead, people nod along as if he’s speaking some great truth about human nature. He’s not. He’s simply repeating outdated tropes that have yet to fade into obscurity with the passage of time.

Can I have my monogamy and happiness too?

Posted in Book Reviews on January 10th, 2011

Sex at Dawn
The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

I’ve been reading Dan Savage’s love and sex advice column for eleven years, since I was seventeen. At first I was shocked and titillated by the openness of his writing about sex. I had halfway decent sex education at home and in high school. But nothing my teenage classmates put into our Health teacher’s question box was like the letters printed in “Savage Love.” As I got older I came to appreciate Dan Savage on a different level. There are lots of websites with basic information about sex, but there’s something about a personal, yet public response from a knowledgeable person who will occasionally make fun of you that drives thousands of people to ask his advice every week.

I’d noticed that in the past 2 or 3 years Dan had started to question the premise of monogamy. He would often point out to a person grieving their partner’s infidelity, that so many people are bad at staying faithful and ask if a partner has extra marital sex once or twice in their entire life, is that really worth a messy breakup or divorce? In his book “Skipping Towards Gomorrah” Savage presents a picture of American swingers as very happy people with stable relationships. He often writes about this alternative in his column.

As some of you may know, I have recently gotten married, so monogamy has been at the forefront of my mind for most of the recent past. I freely admit to having a happy and healthy newlywed glow. Any criticism I have of “Sex at Dawn,” I have thought seriously about – I don’t want to fall into the trap of letting my current status poison my analysis. But in case I have failed, let the record show that I have admitted my bias freely.

Before deciding to marry I did think seriously about the concept of monogamy; if it were possible and if my partner and I were capable of it. Being young and in love, and at the beginning of a marriage is the wrong place to ask those questions however. It would be like asking all of the runners of a race at the starting line if they will finish. Surely some will sprain ankles or give up. But who would admit the possibility of failure when filled with the adrenaline and optimism of race day? Dan Savage’s advice to his readers gave me hope – he seemed to be saying that some people are just not cut out for monogamy. Just like some people are gay, or straight, or bisexual. If that was true, then I was good to go – monogamy feels as natural to me as my heterosexuality.

Then Dan Savage started raving about “Sex at Dawn.” I rolled my eyes. I have a really bad habit of lurking on MRA/PUA blogs until my mood is absolutely spoiled. Now I’m going to have to hear about how I’m made for hypergamy, incapable of love and should be dehumanized from Dan Savage too?!

I read the Salon review of the book, which piqued my interest.

I listened to the Savage Lovecast where Ryan said “It’s not that women are whores. It’s that they’re sluts.” And that’s when I knew I had to read the book. I had often wondered if there was an argument to be made about why and how so many cultures spend so much effort repressing female sexual desire if it did not exist, but did not know where to look. Sex at Dawn sounded like it would explore this question.

The thesis of the book is that human beings evolved in groups where men and women both had multiple sexual partners. Monogamy only came about when people adapted to agriculture. The evidence is vast, ranging from the behaviors of our chimp and bonobo cousins to specific features of the human reproductive system (Mark Twain said it best when he remarked that women should probably have harems and not men, since men could only satisfy one partner per night). What I found most convincing was the evidence that early hunter-gatherer tribes probably shared food and other resources equitably. There are different groups of people all over the world who most likely still live in the way that our early ancestors did. In those societies, some of whom have never had contact with the others, hoarding food or refusing to share is the greatest taboo. Things started to click in my mind before it was spelled out in the book. If a man must share the meat from his hunt with all of the children in the tribe, how could he possibly favor the ones that are biologically his? What purpose would it make to try and assure paternity if that knowledge could not be used? If our concept of possession and property did not extend to the very food we labored to acquire, how could we have been jealously guarding pair bonds of one man and one woman? The theory that humans were not monogamous for the vast majority of our history was becoming more difficult for me to simply dismiss.

Christopher Ryan has been careful to say that just because people did not evolve to form monogamous pairs doesn’t mean that they should not attempt it. He has famously compared it to being vegan – a worthy goal fraught with difficulty and lots of temptation.

The authors do come dangerously close to committing the fallacy that they so artfully dismantle. There is frequent reference to the “standard narrative” which both resembles the idealized version of 1950’s sexuality and the bleak perspective of those who insist that men and women must always be at war with one another because they have diametrically opposed reproductive strategies. They make the argument that women’s sex drives are powerful and capable of a lot more than any Western societies have been willing to admit. The authors dare to ask the question – if women are so naturally reserved, why are so many restrictions required of women? Would a truly asexual gender need them?

And yet their chapter about modern day marital infidelity only includes one case study of a man cheating on his wife. I will say that they did a very good job of skillfully and sensitively presenting the evidence of why a man with so much to lose would do such a thing, and making it clear that they do not mean to rub salt in the wounds of the wives who are so hurt. But there is no corresponding narrative of why a woman would cheat or why her husband should make an effort to understand her natural drives and hormonal confusion. Simply presenting evidence that men who have more partners have higher testosterone levels, and that low testosterone can lead to all sorts of issues up to an including death is sobering. But it doesn’t fiat away the fact that this does lend strength to the “standard narrative” that they are so opposed to. Instead of falling back on “Sorry honey, my sperm is cheap, her eggs are expensive and my secretary is young and fertile,” will it now become “Sorry honey my Testosterone was getting low so it was pretty much sex or death?”

I do love the fact that Sex at Dawn does acknowledge how complicated the human brain is. It has always frustrated me that so little popular Evolutionary Psychology narratives seem to address the higher brain functions performed by the neocortex. Human beings have a lot more grey matter than just our reptile brains. If we could master our environment enough to put a man on the moon couldn’t we also create an equally sophisticated view of gender roles? I had been taught that our large brains evolved because the ability to use language, solve problems systematically and build tools were tremendous advantages. Ryan and Jetha speculate that the neocortex evolved because of the complicated webs of human relationships that a large brain was required.

Another thing I appreciate about Sex at Dawn is the understanding the authors have of the context in which they are writing it. Christopher Ryan’s blog posts appear to acknowledge that many evolutionary psychology studies are used to uphold the status quo, justify sexism or just plain right wing politics (and he is unabashedly liberal.) I don’t think that scientists should self censor for fear of a particular political climate or backlash. But the way they present their work should be informed by an understanding of its consequences.

Dan Savage’s quote on the front cover of the book calls it, “The single most important book on human sexuality since Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior of the Human Male on the American Public in 1948.” Christopher Ryan has balked at this, and his modesty is very becoming. I’m not an expert on human sexuality so I can’t speak to the veracity of the claim, but it did make me more interested in evolutionary psychology than I had previously been.

Ryan and Jetha criticize people who encourage married couples to get divorced simply because of infidelity, citing studies that children are better off when their parents are married and suggesting that many of those couples would be happier trying to work past it or changing their arrangement to allow sex with other people. It has become fashionable to say that people shouldn’t make promises that they cannot keep. It’s usually my response to celebrity infidelity scandals. However there are huge pressures to marry and it’s not wise to ignore those pressures when doling out advice.

If I could ask one question of the authors, it would be this: Is there any research on what characteristics or behaviors of people who are “good at monogamy” have in common? It might seem like wishful thinking. But I have applied social science research to my personal life before. When I was in graduate school, I was living away from my husband. I read this book by a psychologist who interviewed people in long distance relationships and reported on the behaviors and circumstances that the couples who stayed together and were the happiest had in common. The book was a great source of comfort to me and we did apply some of the suggestions to our relationship.

Another acquaintance of mine set her mind on a goal of losing weight – something 95% of the people who do fail. And yet Greta has been successful. She started by researching extensively the habits and methods of people who have done it before.

I know that Ryan and Jetha wanted their book to spark debate and conversations, but ones more along the lines of “knowing what we now know about human sexuality, how should we apply this to our relationships?” I think that’s an important discussion to have as well. I have no objection to polyamory for those who wish to partake in it. But just as they have convincingly rejected the “standard narrative” of human sexuality I’m not as eager to jump on the bandwagon of another. I reject the premise that failure is inevitable. If, as they report in the book, 38% of couples report being happily married – even if half of them are lying – the odds of being happily monogamous are still more than three times better than the odds of successfully losing weight. The message that love is possible without monogamy is a vital one that needs to be repeated. But I admit to wanting both.