The Lost Girls interview, war, and its relationship to sex

In the Lost Girls interview I linked to recently, one thing that Alan Moore says stands out as resolutely wrong:

War, I still believe, is a complete and utter failure of the imagination. It’s when everything else has been abandoned or hasn’t worked. It’s what destroys the imagination. It set back the progress of the human imagination.

It’s true that war “set[s] back the progress of the human imagination,” but war is actually about resource control, with “resources” defined broadly. Resources may be primarily geographic (one thinks of the recent U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan) or they may be about commodities (one thinks of Japan capturing oil fields in World War II) or they may be people themselves (one thinks of innumerable pre-modern religious wars). They are also often sexual, or have a sexual tinge, which Moore and Gebbie do get right in Lost Girls and foreground, since sexual behaviors and motives tend to be glossed or ignored in most histories.

There are exceptions, however; consider, for example, this passage from Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II:

The number of sexual relationships that took place between European women and Germans during the war is quite staggering. In Norway as many as 10 per cent of women aged between fifteen and thirty had German boyfriends during the war. If the statistics on the number of children born to German soldiers are anything to go by, this was by no means unusual: the numbers of women who slept with German men across western Europe can easily be numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Resistance movements in occupied countries came up with all kinds of excuses for the behaviour of their women and girls. They characterized women who slept with Germans as ignorant, poor, even mentally defective. They claimed that women were raped, or that they slept with Germans out of economic necessity. While this was undoubtedly the case for some, recent surveys show that women who slept with German soldiers came from all classes and all walks of life. On the whole European women slept with Germans not because they were forced to, or because their own men were absent, or because they needed money or food – but simply because they found the strong, ‘knightly’ image of German soldiers intensely attractive, especially compared to the weakened impression they had of their own menfolk. In Denmark, for example, wartime pollsters were shocked to discover that 51 per cent of Danish women openly admitted to finding German men more attractive than their own compatriots. (164–166)

That wartime behavior became a topic of community discussion and cathartic release and punishment after the war. Still, this passage and other, similar ones from Savage Continent demonstrate that a lot of men treat women like resources in the context of war. Saying that war “is a complete and utter failure of the imagination” implies a level of goodwill that often doesn’t exist. To continue with the World War II example, it’s evident that Hitler had a phenomenal imagination, to the point that most of his adversaries and victims couldn’t believe the staggering, cruel audacity of what he was attempting. In a more recent example, in the first Gulf War it was apparent that Saddam Hussein imagined himself taking over Kuwait and perhaps Saudi Arabia, although he didn’t presumably imagine that he’d provoke a world-wide counter-reaction.

Nonetheless, the rest of the Moore and Gebbie interview is excellent and unexpectedly moving, and Lost Girls itself is, from what I know, still a singular, highly unusual, and highly recommended book.

Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs) — Wendy Plump

Vow is about adultery, and two people married to each other who both routinely commit it, and yet the most obvious question isn’t addressed until page 245 of 258:

People have asked me why Bill and I didn’t just have an open marriage. The answer is simple. We didn’t want an open marriage. If an open marriage is the route both spouses choose to go, that is one choice. It’s very cosmopolitan. I know a local couple who tried this for years, and it worked out to some degree. They had a lax attitude toward sleeping around. [. . .] But the idea doesn’t have much appeal to me. If we were able to do it, we would all do it. Almost no one I know could do it.

For a practice that “doesn’t have much appeal to me,” Plump sure did a lot of it; most people who don’t like Pilates don’t keep going to the classes. She effectively had an open marriage without labeling it as such, or getting the benefits, like hot threesomes. Not addressing the open marriage until the end is bizarre. Plumps and her husband appear to like the drama of lies more than the simplicity of truth.

A book like Never the Face (my essay about it is at the link) is about fundamentally more honest people: on its fifth page, David says to the narrator of his wife Maria, “She knows about it, and she’s okay with it.” The paragraph breaks: “What?“, the narrator thinks. Then: “For the next two days, my mind argued with itself.” Even if the narrator can’t conceptualize or accept the possibility of uncommon arrangements, her partner can. That’s what Plump and her husband are missing. Instead they get recriminations, and the problem of simultaneously wanting the other person to be monogamous while they don’t have to be. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch, and so is hypocrisy.

The overall effect yields the strangeness of art, from the level of the sentence to the level of the whole, which is why I feel compelled to write about Vow amid other projects and other purposes.

Still, Vow is spectacularly well written and yet spectacularly frustrating, because the simple, obvious solution to the problems between Plump and her husband is simply off the negotiating table. They don’t even try events like this one, slightly NSFW, described in Time Out New York.

Plump says that “I assume Bill approached the altar with every intention of doing the right thing. Don’t we all? I’m not sure that I did. Even as I took my vows, I was aware of some mocking little voice in my head, particularly when I got to that part about forsaking all others” (120). Then. . . don’t get married? Again, it’s the obvious solution to a book that’s about looking at the obvious and then doing something else.

Consequently, on some level Vow is one long yowl of cognitive dissonance and “I want.” Plump cheats, basically, because she feels like it: “So I was thrown off balance when I first met Tommy and felt an attraction so compelling I no longer cared that I was married” (8). That’s it, and at bottom it’s the reason most cheaters cheat. In Plump’s universe, feelings trump emotion; I’m not sure about the extent we should extrapolate her comments to all women, or all people, but there’s definitely a temptation to do so, though I’m going to refrain.

At one moment Plump writes:

I have tried many times to deconstruct allure. It is the least romantic of tasks, but it is marginally useful, if only to prove a point. When you take attraction apart, when you look back on what developed and how, you find that it is a physical impulse for about eight seconds before it moves on to something bigger. (50)

Many people, mostly guys, have worked to take attraction apart and to learn how to build it up. Neil Strauss is the most famous, but many others, like Roosh, have also field-tested what works in attraction, in allure. Women are now also producing their own material on overt allure. Note that I’m not necessarily endorsing Strauss, Roosh, or the linked Female Pickup Artists, but I am saying that they are attempting, through observation, trial, error, and research, to develop methods for attracting women or men—in other words, “to deconstruct allure.” Chances are that the peculiar alchemy involved in attraction will never be completely standardized, but pretending that there’s no way to “deconstruct allure” is just pointless and incorrect romantic mystification.

Plump says that “Immediately on standing next to Steven I felt a frisson snapping between us. Some neuron in my brain knocked itself loose and began rapping on my awareness, saying, Yo, are you still in there? Pay attention. You’re doing it again.” Chances are good that Steven was doing something, consciously or unconsciously, to make that attraction happen. Maybe he was just really hot. But maybe he’d begun systematically learning about what to do around women. Plenty of guys do.

Why does she sleep with these guys instead of some other guys? She doesn’t really say. What do they do? How do they behave? It’s lost to Plump, who isn’t asking why she likes what she likes: she’s just liking it. It’s the triumph of feeling and the reason so many guys, and some number of women, read The Game.

There’s also a lot of “I” in Vow: a lot of “I loved not only the way I felt with Steven, I loved who he was with me, as well.” There’s not a lot of thinking about what other people are thinking or feeling. That may explain the quality of Plump’s marriage, which demands “we” and “you” as much or more than “I.”

One also wonders why her husband, Bill, can’t or chooses not to understand presumed shifts in his relationship with his wife: “Sex with Bill became unwanted by comparison, through no fault of his. It changes utterly from an act of love and passion to an act of crushing obligation” (41). Perhaps she shouldn’t be married, then? Perhaps he should recognize what’s going on and leave? The obvious questions pile up, and Plump is telling us that she has no answers. Maybe there are none. There are only contradictions. She says that “Through it all, again, I was certain of one thing. I did not want our marriage to end. I was crushed but not finished.” For someone who doesn’t want her marriage to end, Plump behaves in strange ways.

Some niggling intellectual points bother; Plump, for example, must not have read much evolutionary biology: she writes that “They [friends] think I must have been aware that Bill was having an affair, as if suspicion were linked to some primal instinct we all have. I have no idea what imperative suspicion would serve Neanderthals such that it would repeat upward through the species to find its expression in us” (4). Leaving aside the question of mistaking Neanderthals for a major modern human ancestor, I can very easily imagine “what imperative suspicion would serve:” for men, suspicion is one way of ascertaining paternity. If you check a woman’s fidelity, her offspring are more likely to be yours. For women, jealousy is a form of resource guarding: if you want your mate’s resource capacity to be primarily devoted to you, and not to the hussy a few huts over, you want to make sure he’s not knocking her up (The Evolution Biology of Human Female Sexuality discusses these issues and empirical findings around them).

These obviously aren’t absolute, and the anthropological literature is filled with alloparenting, group sex, and other arrangements, but the basic utility of jealousy as an adaptation remains. Plump does note that her husband’s child with another woman “moved us into a whole new circle of deceit, into that tortured fraternity of women and men [ . . .] who are heaved by their loving spouses into the dirtiest of vortices—women who find out their husbands have fathered children elsewhere; men who find out their children are not biologically their own” (31). Right. It’s the “dirtiest of vortices” because of the tremendous resources invested in children. To have someone who is supposed to be investing your children investing in someone else’s is the cruel problem that jealousy is there, in part, to address.

I’m keeping Vow, though it’s the sort I would normally sell.

Summary Judgement: Hard to Get — Leslie C. Bell

Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom sounds promising but makes the classic mistake of reporting opinions expressed in a cold state, which is ver different from the hot or aroused state in which many people make their actual sexual decisions. Unless I missed it, Bell did not cite Alexander and Fisher, “Truth and Consequences: Using the Bogus Pipeline to Examine Sex Differences in Self-Reported Sexuality,” which she should have. She doesn’t consider what Clarisse Thorn does, about the micro-interactions and decisions people make.

An exercise: imagine that the genders in Hard to Get are reversed, and that male writers are talking about their relationships with women. Most commentators, both male and female, would probably make fun of them, whether overtly or through condescension, just as they would a virgin dispensing sex advice.

There is much discussion about “having it all” that I do not think troubles men, or male discourse, nearly as much. For most people, I suspect “having it all” is incoherent and/or paradoxical: it is difficult if not impossible to have copious free time and a time-intensive career; there is an inherent trade-off between the security of a relationship and the thrill of the new. In many domains choosing one path precludes others. But so what? That’s life.

The author never asks what may to be men the most important question of all: how women choose which men they want to sleep with, although one, “Phoebe,” described as a tall, attractive redhead, knows it’s just not that hard, as long as you’re height-weight proportionate (and maybe even if you’re not), to get guys: “Basically, you talk to them” (108). Is this hard to understand? It was hard for me to talk to girls when I was in middle school but like most people I got over it.

The writing is weak or boring on a sentence-by-sentence level; there is a strongly “academic” feel.

I wanted to like the book.

Hilarity Ensues — Tucker Max

Laughter, the greatest testament some books can receive, can’t be directly quoted in a review. By the metric of “number of times I laughed out loud,” I gave many, many testaments to Hilarity Ensures.

Beneath that laughter, though, there’s actually a surprisingly amount of commentary about how to live and think about your life interwoven among escapades with drunk girls, drunk guys, at least one drunk dog (that I counted), existential despair, sexual elation, three-ways, success at getting in his or her pants, despair at not getting in his or her pants, angry bouncers, angry parents, angry girls, and boats.

For an example of “how to live and think about your life,” consider this overly long quote about law school, which I include in part because I went to law school for a year, for the same crappy reasons and one different reason that every other bright but unfocused 22-year-old grad goes (the only thing I did right was quit):

Yes, Duke is a top ten law school, but the only thing difficult occurred well before I ever set foot on campus; getting admitted. Once I actually arrived on campus, I realized that not only was the hardest part done, but everything else was a complete joke. The emperor had no clothes.

Going to class is a complete waste of time. The professors don’t care about teaching; they either ramble endlessly about meaningless shit, or they spend the whole time telling you how important they are. The students are no better; the ones constantly raising their hands to talk (they’re called ‘gunners’) are all pompous suck-ups, and add nothing of value to the conversation. . . . I would say that probably 90% of what you go over in class has no bearing on either your life or your job as a lawyer. Think about that—most of what you learn in class has no application anywhere outside of law school.

Hypocrisy comes from the school itself: because “90% of what you go over in class has no bearing on either your life or your job,” classes don’t matter; school should be tightly coupled with outcomes related to your life or job. When school and outcomes aren’t tightly coupled, the school is exploiting you, and schools are particularly good at this because they’re dealing primarily with unformed humans who haven’t yet acquired the analytical skills to realize what’s happening to them. I’m not sure if Max is a reader of scholarly monographs, but if he is, First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All the Lawyers would be a natural stocking stuffer. Law schools have positioned themselves as gatekeepers who extract resources from students in return for credentialing, rather than adding real value. If they did add sufficient value to convince the marketplace that lawyers with degrees are better than those without, they wouldn’t need legal means to restrict competition. Today, you can’t effectively read for the bar, take it, and become a lawyer on your own because other lawyers don’t want the competition and law schools want your money. You, like sheep, give it to them. So did I.

Max hates hypocrites: that’s the moral, if there is one, of much of his work, and especially of the Miss Vermont Story, concerning a bizarrely immature 23-year-old beauty pageant contestant who preaches abstinence and sobriety while practicing the exact opposite with Max. Out of a misguided sense of importance and vengeance, Katy Johnson / Miss Vermont’s mother orchestrates a dubious lawsuit whose only real outcome is a variation on the Streisand effect.

I identify with that story in particular, since I was a minor league hypocrite once:

This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”

Hypocrisy ties more broadly into the girls who say one thing and do another. Though they’re mostly a source of bemusement in Hilarity Ensues, underneath the bemusement is a real critique: why lie, both to yourself and others, about what you really want? The question is mostly rhetorical, but there are answers, social conditioning being the most obvious. Max is aware of that conditioning:

The rules your parents teach you to live by are very different than the rules the world actually runs by. Most of the conventional wisdom is not only wrong, it’s a lie told to us by people who want to control us. It doesn’t help us, it helps them. Pretty much everything we’re told as children (and adults, really) by the established power structures in our lives are made-up fairytales used to reinforce that control. . . It makes sense if you think about it; the only way you can truly control people is to lie to them.

The “rules” are certainly different, although I’m not sure who the “us” and “them” are in the quoted paragraph. The lies we tell kids are real, and one reason for teenage alienation might be the slow, real discovery that much of what we’ve been told about decorum, success, and meaning are lies. Once implanted, those lies are hard to remove: “People will ignore a lot of reality in order to maintain their fantasies,” especially if those fantasies are comforting.

But Max is not advocating anarchy. He has a sense of anarchy’s consequences; in Mexico, “there is a flipside to no rules: The American safety net isn’t there to protect you from the consequences of your stupid decisions.” It’s an obvious point, yet I bet the million Max wannabes miss this insight, and miss the fact that pleasure has its pleasures and its price. In some ways Max is lucky: his own “stupid decisions” could’ve ended much worse. The “safety net” caught him. No cars hit him, he sustained no permanent physical injuries, and he didn’t encounter anyone murderously psychotic at a random bar. Lessons and memories remain, like those about how we absorb ideas when we grow up.

Lies are often propagated by parents because parents’ and kids’ interests diverge. The teenage girl having sex reaps the pleasure of the act, while her parents might end up paying much of the financial and emotional price of a pregnancy. So parents discourage sex, girls get mixed messages, most don’t have the intellectual capacity or inclination to sort truth from lie, and end up in the bizarrely bifurcated universe that provides fodder for jokes—in the United States, anyway, since “Canadians, especially French-Canadians, have a much healthier attitude towards sex than Americans,” an observation made in the context of a visit to a strip club in French-Canada.

The trick is discovering the lies. But even after discovery, most people appear to continue propagating them anyway, to their children, and want those lies propagated to their children. A surprisingly large number of potheads I knew in college became teachers, yet none to my knowledge would admit as much in a classroom. One friend teaches photography to high school students and, at the beginning of class, tells her students not to shoot nudes of people under 18, since that’s technically illegal, regardless of the central place of the nude in Western art. To her credit, she also adds this caveat: “And if you do anyway, don’t tell me.” It’s a subtle but effective dig at the powers-that-be.

The people who follow the straight path are often cursed by getting what they think they want, like law school and becoming a lawyer. Many who win such dubious victories come to rue them, like Max’s friend Hate, who “kept doing the ‘right’ thing, checking off all the boxes. . . and he kept getting fucked. All the while, the guy doing the wrong thing (me, for example) kept getting what he wanted. Sisyphus led a less futile existence than Hate: at least Sisyphus got in a workout” (notice, too, here the characteristic and characteristically hilarious allusion, recast into the modern language of the gym). Here, “right” and “wrong” are inverted: the real world is big and confusing, and one needs a strong bullshit to detector to make sense of it. If you don’t pay attention, these moments will slip by, like some of Max’s jokes: in one story, a groups of girls came over, and “one of them told me that she was afraid to try anal sex because of my first book. I told her I didn’t give a shit about her problems” (emphasis added).

Other moments involve the perfect allusion, as when a dominatrix plies her trade on Max at a party: “She was beating me with the type of anger usually reserved for people who owe money to Tony Soprano.” Or the apt analogy: “Whatever, we’re both naked and horny, and I’ve fucked way worse. No turning back now. When you try to jump a lake of fire you don’t take your foot off the gas once you’ve hit the ramp.” When you’re having sex with someone you compare to a lake of fire, you may want to reconsider your partner or quarry: but that’s also the sober, distant, far from the act person talking, not the person in the moment (the writer says, thinking back to his own dubious moments). Consider this, of Max’s friend Jerry: “He was not fucking her; he was jackhammering her so hard and fast, he was moving like one of those things that mixes paint at Home Depot.” I haven’t read so many creative sexual descriptions outside of Nicholson Baker. Or inside of Nicholson Baker, as the case may be. These metaphors create their own worlds, in James Wood’s sense in “The All and the If: God and Metaphor in Melville.”

The reaction to Max fascinates almost as much as Max’s writing itself: critics call his writing odious and worse (an example, from Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic: “He published his exploits in an unbelievably nasty little book called I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. . . .” As someone who’s dated around enough to find the occasional nutcase, I find many of his stories too believable). Yet those critics don’t often go beyond name-calling and into close reading, and calling someone’s work “unbelievably nasty” makes it more intriguing, not less, especially because Literary history serves up innumerable examples of writers who thumb the day’s decorum and later come to be revered; obvious examples include Dreiser, for Sister Carrie, which now reads so tepidly and tediously that it’s tough to get through, or D.H. Lawrence for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, given its references to anal and class miscegenation, or James Joyce’s voyeurism and masturbation.

Now, just because past writers have defied conventional norms and later received literary recognition for that doesn’t mean the two have a causal relationship, or that anyone who defies norms will thereby gain later literary recognition. But I think the quality of Max’s writing sets him apart from other people writing about sex adventures online or off, and that’s what draws me. The style affects the content, and it’s that style that makes him broadly popular, and very much unlike his literary predecessors.

But Max doesn’t wrap himself in high-brow literary paraphernalia or pretensions. He does the opposite, and that’s what I think his critics hate, along with his honesty. Drape yourself in highbrow literary accouterments and you can write what you want; do the opposite and take tepid critical punishment, which is no doubt salved by fan adoration (given a choice between groupies and a sedate, smug, and positive New Yorker Review of Books essay, which would you choose? Me too).

I think aspect of critics’ dislike of Max’s honesty comes from a particular source: there’s still a large contingent of people who want to view women as non-carnal and basically preyed on and manipulated by men (see one example, which I wrote about, in “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more“). This kind of makes sense if you’re a parent trying to lie to yourself or protect your daughter or son—or at least make them compliant. Or religious and trying to do much the same, but it doesn’t make much sense if you’ve dated a fair number of women, or are female and honest, or pay more attention to behavior than to words.

The distaste for Max’s sexual politics is hard to square with Max’s legion of willing groupies, or even with his descriptions of his pre-fame hookups: it takes two or more people for sex, and the women say yes, even if many of them choose to douse themselves in alcohol first. The refutation of the belief that women are non-carnal victims is in the behavior of the women Max describes, not Max himself. Being angry at Max is shooting the messenger: if hot women regularly put out for gallant, polite men, I think his bad boy personality would morph quickly. Women’s revealed preferences, as shown by their love of Max (or your local bad boy), might be what bothers his critics.

If women themselves were collectively more honest, they’d simply say they go out and get hammered so they can hook up with guys. Instead, they often lie to themselves and others and say they’re just going out to “have a good time” or “hang out with their friends,” or any number of other rationalizations. That word, “honest,” appears with surprising frequency, especially as it relates to gender: In Mexico, “Girls wanted to fuck, and here, as opposed to America, they were honest about it.” Why aren’t girls honest in the first place? Because their parents don’t want them to be.

There are also moments where Max wonders: “I never understand why women think drama and bullshit are attractive to guys. They’re not. I’m going to be real clear about this, ladies, so pay attention: Prince Charming doesn’t come to rescue cunty lunatics.” Here’s my guess: women don’t consciously think “drama and bullshit are attractive to guys,” but they like the attention drama and bullshit generate, especially among guys too committed, weak, or stupid to avoid or ignore it. Women engaged in vapid drama might say they want “Prince Charming” but be willing to compromise through the ministrations of whoever responds to their keening. Granted, lacking self-awareness is also a human trait more than a female one: on the side of straight men, I think about all the so-called “nice guys” who are “nice” not because they’re genuinely caring but because they think they can’t get laid acting otherwise anyway. Women often crave attention: look at the ones who go to bars to stroke desire and then ignore the desire they’ve stroked. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone said that men go to bars to get laid, while women go to get attention and maybe get laid. That fits the behavioral patterns I’ve seen.

One of my students mentioned Tucker Max in the context of literary valuation in class a couple days ago, and he seemed to want to know if Max “counted” as a good writer, or something like that (students are weirdly attuned to perceived authority: many have wanted to know about Paul Graham’s background, for example, which is the kind of thing that interests me not at all—I only want to evaluate people based solely on their writing, not about aspects of their life tangential to their writing or the accuracy of their arguments).

It seems like students themselves are wary, at least in official discourse, of trying to decide for themselves who’s a “good” writer and who isn’t. They associate “goodness” with “approved” behavior. They probably have some sense of the critical edifice above them, canonizing some writers and ignoring others. I wish I could convince them to develop their own ideas of what counts, and how it does. That’s part of stepping out of the artificial school fishbowl and into the greater literary world, where the people who win big are the ones who reconceptualize what’s possible. Max did: he mentions the thousands of rejections he got from literary agents, publishers, magazines, and others when he started out. But he also had the good fortune to see his style evolve with the Internet.

The occasional dark threads appear too, as with mentions of depression, or a moment on a boat off the Alaskan coast:

At 7pm, the dark, empty deck of a crab boat is a strange place. It’s pitch black and there’s no land, no life, nothing whatsoever. It’s complete, barren, unforgiving void. It’s just plain disturbing. The water frothing beneath the sides of the boat is literally black. Dying that way—by falling in and freezing—must be horrific.

You can understand Moby-Dick by looking at the sea; Max is encountering an existential void. If he didn’t appear to be enjoying himself so much and if I were a dumber kind of critic, I’d say something about this standing for the heart of his soul.

This is the part where a lot of reviews and essays say something bad. I don’t have much. There are occasional oddities in language: “Yes, Duke is a top ten law school, but the only thing difficult occurred well before I ever set foot on campus; getting admitted.” Why “thing difficult” instead of “difficult thing?” Usually the adjective goes before the noun. I can’t think of any stylistic or content reason for the word order reversal, or why he used a semi-colon instead of a colon. I should probably also say something about how he interacts with women, but why bother? A friend’s Dad gave her this advice when she was 12 and periodically thereafter: men will treat you as badly as you let them. And is it “bad” to give someone what they want (again: think of revealed preferences)? In America, the answer tends towards “no.” Max gives readers what they want—humor, respite, philosophy—and, whatever his critics may protest, many women what they want. Everyone is happy, save those who don’t want to confront the reality on the ground of life.

Caitlin Flanagan and narrative fallacies in Girl Land

In “The King of Human Error,” Michael Lewis describes Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant work, which I’ve learned about slowly over the last few years, as I see him cited more and more but only recently have come to understand just how pervasive and deserved his influence has been; Kahneman’s latest book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is the kind of brilliant summa that makes even writing a review difficult because it’s so good and contains so much material all in one place. In his essay, Lewis says that “The human mind is so wedded to stereotypes and so distracted by vivid descriptions that it will seize upon them, even when they defy logic, rather than upon truly relevant facts. Kahneman and Tversky called this logical error the ‘conjunction fallacy.'”

Caitlin Flanagan’s Girl Land is superficially interesting but can be accurately summarized as simply the conjunction fallacy in book form.

Then we need to be doubly dubious of narrative and narrative fallacies; when we hear things embedded in stories, we ought to be thinking about how those things might not be true, how we’re affected by anecdotes, and how our reasoning holds up under statistical and other kinds of analysis. I like stories, and almost all of us like stories, but too many of us appear to be unwilling to acknowledge that stories we tell may be inaccurate or misleading. Think of Tyler Cowen’s TED talk on this subject too.

In the Lewis article, Kahneman also says: “People say your childhood has a big influence on who you become [. . .] I’m not at all sure that’s true.” I’m not sure either. Flanagan and Freud think so; Bryan Caplan is more skeptical. I am leaning steadily more towards the Caplan / Kahneman uncertain worldview. I wish Flanagan would move in that direction too. She starts Girl Land by saying, “Every woman I’ve known describes her adolescence as the most psychologically intense period of her life.” Which is pretty damn depressing: most people spend their adolescence under their parents’ yoke, stuck in frequently pointless high school classes, and finishing it without accomplishing anything of note. That this state could be “the most psychologically intense” of not just a single person’s life, but of every woman’s life, is to demean the accomplishments and real achievements of adult women. It might be that having a schlong disqualifies me from entering this discussion, but see too the links at the end of this post—which go to female critics equally unimpressed with Girl Land.

I’m not even convinced Flanagan has a strong grasp of what women are really like—maybe “girl land” looks different on the inside, because from the outside I saw as a teenager very little of the subtlety and sensitivity and weakness Flanagan suggests girls have. Perhaps it’s there, but if so, it’s well-hidden; to me a lot of the book reads like female solipsism and navel-gazing, and very disconnected from how women and teenage girls actually behave. Flanagan decries “the sexually explicit music, the endless hard-core and even fetish pornography available twenty-four hours a day on the Internet [. . .]” while ignoring that most girls and women appear to like sexually explicit music; if they didn’t, they’d listen to something else and shun guys who like such music. But they don’t.

Since Flanagan’s chief method of research is anecdote, let me do the same: I’ve known plenty of women who like fetish pornography. She also says puzzling stuff like, “For generations, a girl alone in her room was understood to be doing important work.” What? Understood by whom? And what constitutes “important work” here? In Flanagan’s view, it isn’t developing a detailed knowledge of microbiology in the hopes of furthering human understanding; it’s writing a diary.

There are other howlers: Flanagan says that “they [girls] are forced—perhaps more now than at any other time—to experience sexuality on boys’ terms.” This ignores the power of the female “no”—in our society women are the ones who decide to say yes or no to sex. She misses how many girls and women are drawn to bad-boy alpha males; any time they want “to experience sexuality on [girls’] terms,” whatever that might mean, they’re welcome to. Flanagan doesn’t have a sense of agency or how individuals create society. She says that “the mass media in which so many girls are immersed today does not mean them well; it is driven by a set of priorities largely created by men and largely devoted to the exploitation of girls and young women.” But this only works if girls choose to participate in the forms of mass media Flanagan is describing. That they do, especially in an age of infinite cultural possibilities, indicates that girls like whatever this “mass media” is that “does not mean them well.”

I’m not the only one to have noticed this stuff. See also “What Caitlin Flanagan’s new book Girl Land gets wrong about girls.” And “Facts and the real world hardly exist in Caitlin Flanagan’s ‘Girl Land,’ where gauzy, phony nostalgia reigns:” “Flanagan works as a critic, was once a teacher and counselor at an elite private school, and is the mother of two boys, but somehow nothing has matched the intensity of that girlhood; it forms the only authentically compelling material here.” Which is pretty damn depressing, to have the most intense moments of one’s life happen, at, say, 15.

Essays: The modern genre, and why writing for the web counts

In writing about Paul Graham’s “The Age of the Essay,” I forgot to mention this:

Up till a few years ago, writing essays was the ultimate insider’s game. Domain experts were allowed to publish essays about their field, but the pool allowed to write on general topics was about eight people who went to the right parties in New York. Now the reconquista has overrun this territory, and, not surprisingly, found it sparsely cultivated. There are so many essays yet unwritten. They tend to be the naughtier ones; the insiders have pretty much exhausted the motherhood and apple pie topics.

This leads to my final suggestion: a technique for determining when you’re on the right track. You’re on the right track when people complain that you’re unqualified, or that you’ve done something inappropriate. If people are complaining, that means you’re doing something rather than sitting around, which is the first step. And if they’re driven to such empty forms of complaint, that means you’ve probably done something good.

This is part of the reason I write a fair amount about sex, sexual politics, sexuality in writing, and so forth: they’re not as deeply mined as other topics, and they’re also changing rapidly in strange, unpredictable ways vaguely reminiscent of cellular automata or Go. A lot of people do complain about writing on those subjects because they’re subjects about which people often have a) very strongly held belief that b) are not based on or supported by evidence. So a lot of people will complain that “you’ve done something inappropriate” when you write about them; that was certainly part of the response I got to Status and sex: On women in bands never getting laid and Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man and Sexting and society: How do writers respond? Lots of people have written about sex in fiction, the most obvious being The Joy of Writing Sex, but even that one has a bogus-seeming chapter on HIV. Not too many have written about it like I have (so far as I know).

Plus, almost no one in writing programs or English classes—where I spend a lot of my time—tells you to pay attention to contemporary sexual politics or how things have changed and are changing—which leaves a lot of space for re-conquistadors. Instead, they want to tell you that you can see parallels between Jane Austen’s world and ours. Which is true, but not very helpful to, say, fiction writers: if your characters have the same relationship to marriage and sex that Austen’s did, you’re probably not writing compelling fiction. You’re writing to standards that have already changed so much that people reading your work will feel like they’ve entered a time warp. Hell, as I read Updike’s work from 1959 – 2008, I can’t help but notice that he seems like he’s writing about a world that, although it’s closer to me than Jane Austen’s, is still pretty far from the one I grew up with and live in now. He has lots of naughty parts, but also lots of people very concerned with each others’ religions. They also tend to live in suburbs, which was once a big deal but which I now find pretty boring, on average; I tend to write about characters who want to or are escaping from the suburbs. Updike is a high-status writer, but I can’t help but thinking a lot of his writing does feel like he’s playing an insider’s game.

In reading The Research Bust, Mark Bauerlein implicitly points out the consequences of what happens when “the reconquista has overrun” the major position of people in “New York” or academia. It used to be you had to be an academic or journalist to write anything that might be read by more than a handful of people. Now that almost anyone can for virtually no marginal cost, the academics especially are trapped in a world of diminishing returns: people can read things other than their articles, and academic journals appear to have responded by narrowing their focus even further. Bauerlein says that “after four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point.” Literary studies of canonical writers may have “reached a saturation point,” but I see little evidence that people no longer want to read anything; one could argue that, with the advent of the web, many people are reading more than ever. The logical response to that circumstance is to do what Graham advocates: look for something new to write about. A fair number of academics have said or implied that I’m wasting my time writing this blog, since that time could be spent on academic articles. This sounds very close to “inappropriate” to me. Which might mean that I’m on Graham’s right track: by producing work outside the scholarly hothouse, and by not believing in its importance, I’m infinitesimally lowering its value. And that’s a pretty scary thing, if your whole life is based around the model of letting others validate your work. But I’d rather spend time in the “sparsely cultivated” territory of of the web than fight for a spot of dubious value off it.

Status and sex: On women in bands never getting laid and Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man

Ellen Campesinos wrote “Female Musicians Never Get Laid: The bassist from Los Campesinos! gives us the awful truth about the sex lives of touring bands,” which is a brief study in gender differences among musicians. Campesinos says, apropos of a Tweet from Neko Case, “‘Ladies in bands don’t get ANY action,’ and as a female musician with a frustrated libido, I can sympathize.” Notice the keyword: “don’t” rather than “can’t.” Female musicians almost certainly can get as much action as they want, if they’re willing to get over the various neuroses and disqualifications that Campesinos brings up in her piece. She starts disqualifying potential guys right away, getting to here:

Having eliminated fans and support-band members, we’re left with the guy hanging out at the bar whose friend has dragged him along to the gig. In a lot of ways, he’s the most appealing choice. I want to hear that someone is not fussed about us. The thing is, this hypothetical guy normally throws me some glances, and I shoot some back, but he still won’t talk to me. And I don’t want to reduce it to status anxiety or a power issue, because obviously it’s intimidating to talk to any stranger, let alone someone who was just performing.

If “this hypothetical guy normally throws me some glances” and you “shoot some back,” the solution is pretty damn simple: talk to him. Why doesn’t she? I’d like to say, “I have no idea,” but I do: she’s been conditioned to want to make the guy make the first move, and she probably wants, on some level, to be chased. She knows this on some level but closes off the possibility: “Maybe I could grow a pair and actually talk to that bar-hugging guy myself. But he might think I was making a weird face while I played.” This sounds like a psychological defense she’s using to avoid rejection. So if she’s not getting laid, it’s in part because she’s not making any moves. Welcome to being a guy, honey.

The bigger issue might be simple: Campesinos might not be interested in any guy who’s interested in her. Notice how she says of fans, which male musicians often call groupies: “(And in truth, some male fans actually are slightly creepy)”, which might also transfer to “the guy hanging out at the bar” if he were to do something radical, like, say, open his mouth. “Creepy” is one of these all-purpose words women use to indicate unformed sexual undesirability; it doesn’t really mean anything except to the woman using the term. Although I’m sure she’s right about some male fans, the word “creepy” itself also indicates that she’s closing herself off to forms of sexual expression from guys she doesn’t consider eligible—which is another way of saying that she doesn’t perceive those guys to be sufficient alpha males for her.

Over the course of her essay, she’s basically describing herself as living the anxiety-ridden life of beta males who haven’t read The Game. You can get a sense of how Campesinos’s view differs from a typical guy’s by the start of her last paragraph: “Bottom line: attempting to have sex on tour is an awkward and messy experience with little sense of eroticism.” The bottom line for a guy is that attempting to have or having sex on tour with random hot girls is an awesome experience to be repeated every night. It appears she’s just not driven to get laid that much:

I think Neko should have Tweeted, “Ladies in bands don’t get any action, but that’s okay, because you can make some nice friends and meet some really cool people instead, and worst come to worst, you can always have a wunk — a wank in a bunk. Or not. That’s disgusting.” Probably more than 140 characters, but it’s the truth.

It’s hard to imagine most men writing that they’d rather make nice friends and meet some really cool people in lieu of getting laid, but she seems satisfied to make the trade-off and would rather live in a paradox where the only men she perceives as being available or interesting are ones she won’t approach.

The approach issue reminds me of Norah Vincent’s experience in Self-Made Man. Vincent, who is a lesbian in “real life,” dresses, acts, and lives like a man for about a year. In her first attempt to approach women at a bar, she (as a “he”) is basically rejected and finds that “it didn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of their suspicion” regarding motives. After, she asks a friend, “How do you handle all this fucking rejection?” He has an answer of sorts in parable form:

Let me tell you a story [. . .] When I was in college, there was this guy Dean, who got laid all the time. I mean the guy had different women coming out of his room every weekend and most weeknights, and he wasn’t particularly good looking. He was fat and kind of a slob. Nice guy, though, but nothing special. I couldn’t figure out how he did it, so one time I just asked him. ‘How do you get so many girls to go out with you?’ He was a man of few words, kind of Coolidge-esque, if you know what I mean. So all he said was: ‘I get rejected ninety percent of the time. But it’s that ten percent.’

Campesinos won’t make the first move, apparently doesn’t like the guys who do make the first move, and doesn’t like several general classes of guy available to her as a woman in a band. She’s willing to “make some nice friends and meet some really cool people instead,” which is okay, I guess, but her willingness to substitute nice friends and really cool people for getting laid may explain why she isn’t.

So she fears rejection on some level. Here’s another theory: she just doesn’t want to get laid that badly, and she “knows” (in an evolutionary sense, if not a conscious one) she doesn’t really need to get laid at a particular time in order maximize her reproductive success. If or when she wants to find a guy to have a children with, she’ll probably have no trouble finding many candidates; her only real trouble might being too picky.

In the meantime, people who really want to get laid, get laid. (I’m thinking of some of the women I know who are incredible, expert flirts while also not being irrationally picky about guys; watching them do their thing versus normal women is like listening the NY Phil and then a high school orchestra, and it appears that most women don’t care enough to really up their game). I don’t think a lot of women really understand how much rejection men go through, or what the trade-offs involved in masculinity entail. Here’s Roy Baumeister’s description of Self-Made Man in his book Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men:

One of the most interesting books about gender in recent years was by Norah Vincent. She was a lesbian feminist who with some expert help could pass for a man, and so she went undercover, living as a man in several different social spheres for the better part of a year. The book, Self-Made Man, is her memoir. She is quite frank that she started out thinking she was going to find out how great men have it and write a shocking feminist expose of the fine life that the enemy (men) was enjoying.

Instead, she experienced a rude awakening of how hard it is to be a man. Her readings and classes in Women’s Studies had not prepared her to realize that the ostensible advantages of the male role come at high cost. She was glad when it was over, and in fact she cut the episode short in order to go back to what she concluded was the greatly preferable life as a woman. The book she wrote was far different from the one she planned, and any woman who thinks life is better for men will find it a sobering read.

I don’t buy everything Baumeister says, but he’s lucid and skilled at explaining his ideas in terms of medians, averages, and trade-offs, which most polemics and professional gender people don’t or don’t want to address. And he seems open to revision, provided that the revision is based on data and not just belief. But you can take a lot of what he says, a lot of what Vincent says, a little evolutionary psychology, a lot of band culture, and read Campesinos’s piece not as Campesinos herself does, as a means of throwing up her hands and wondering “why?”, but has having a clear theoretical framework explaining why her self-made situation came about.


Randall Munroe also recommends Self-Made Man. This New York Times review is descriptive and reasonably okay.

Status and sex: On women in bands never getting laid and Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man

Ellen Campesinos wrote “Female Musicians Never Get Laid: The bassist from Los Campesinos! gives us the awful truth about the sex lives of touring bands,” which is a brief study in gender differences among musicians. Campesinos says, apropos of a Tweet from Neko Case, “‘Ladies in bands don’t get ANY action,’ and as a female musician with a frustrated libido, I can sympathize.” Notice the keyword: “don’t” rather than “can’t.” Female musicians almost certainly can get as much action as they want, if they’re willing to get over the various neuroses and disqualifications that Campesinos brings up in her piece. She starts disqualifying potential guys right away, getting to here:

Having eliminated fans and support-band members, we’re left with the guy hanging out at the bar whose friend has dragged him along to the gig. In a lot of ways, he’s the most appealing choice. I want to hear that someone is not fussed about us. The thing is, this hypothetical guy normally throws me some glances, and I shoot some back, but he still won’t talk to me. And I don’t want to reduce it to status anxiety or a power issue, because obviously it’s intimidating to talk to any stranger, let alone someone who was just performing.

If “this hypothetical guy normally throws me some glances” and you “shoot some back,” the solution is simple: talk to him. Why doesn’t she? I’d like to rhetorically say, “I have no idea,” but I do: she’s been conditioned to want to make the guy make the first move, and she probably wants, on some level, to be chased. She closes off the possibility: “Maybe I could grow a pair and actually talk to that bar-hugging guy myself. But he might think I was making a weird face while I played.” This sounds like a psychological defense she’s using to avoid rejection.

So if she’s not getting laid, it’s in part because she’s not making any moves. Welcome to being a guy.

The bigger issue could be that Campesinos isn’t interested in any guy who’s interested in her. Notice how she says of fans, which male musicians often call groupies: “(And in truth, some male fans actually are slightly creepy)”, which might also transfer to “the guy hanging out at the bar” if he were to do something radical, like, say, open his mouth.

“Creepy” is one of these all-purpose words women use to indicate sexual undesirability for unformed reasons; it doesn’t really mean anything except to the woman using the term. Although I’m sure she’s right about some male fans, the word “creepy” itself also indicates that she’s closing herself off to forms of sexual expression from guys she doesn’t consider eligible—which is another way of saying that she doesn’t perceive those guys to be sufficient alpha for her.

Over the course of her essay, she describes herself as living the anxiety-ridden life of beta males who haven’t read The Game. The start of her last paragraph shows how Campesinos’s view differs from a typical guy’s: “Bottom line: attempting to have sex on tour is an awkward and messy experience with little sense of eroticism.” The bottom line for a guy is that attempting to have or having sex on tour with random hot girls is an awesome experience to be repeated every night, if possible. Campesinos isn’t driven to get laid:

I think Neko should have Tweeted, “Ladies in bands don’t get any action, but that’s okay, because you can make some nice friends and meet some really cool people instead, and worst come to worst, you can always have a wunk — a wank in a bunk. Or not. That’s disgusting.” Probably more than 140 characters, but it’s the truth.

Would most men write that they’d rather make nice friends and meet some really cool people in lieu of getting laid? Campesinos seems satisfied to make the trade-off and would rather live in a paradox where the only men she perceives as being available or interesting are ones she won’t approach.

The approach issue reminds me of Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man. Vincent, who is a lesbian in “real life,” dresses, acts, and lives like a man for about a year. In her first attempt to approach women at a bar, she (as a “he”) is basically rejected and finds that “it didn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of their suspicion” regarding motives. After, she asks a friend, “How do you handle all this fucking rejection?” He answers  in parable:

Let me tell you a story [. . .] When I was in college, there was this guy Dean, who got laid all the time. I mean the guy had different women coming out of his room every weekend and most weeknights, and he wasn’t particularly good looking. He was fat and kind of a slob. Nice guy, though, but nothing special. I couldn’t figure out how he did it, so one time I just asked him. ‘How do you get so many girls to go out with you?’ He was a man of few words, kind of Coolidge-esque, if you know what I mean. So all he said was: ‘I get rejected ninety percent of the time. But it’s that ten percent.’

Campesinos won’t make the first move, apparently doesn’t like the guys who do make the first move, and doesn’t like several general classes of guy available to her as a woman in a band. She’s willing to “make some nice friends and meet some really cool people instead,” which is okay, I guess, but her willingness to substitute nice friends and really cool people for getting laid may explain why she isn’t.

Here’s another theory: she “knows” (in an evolutionary sense, if not a conscious one) she doesn’t really need to get laid at a particular time in order maximize her reproductive success. If or when she wants to find a guy to have a children with, she’ll probably have no trouble finding many candidates; her only real trouble might being too picky.

In the meantime, people who really want to get laid, get laid. (I’m thinking of some of the women I know who are incredible, expert flirts while also not being irrationally picky about guys; watching them do their thing versus normal women is like listening the NY Phil and then a high school orchestra, and it appears that most women don’t care enough to really up their game). I don’t think a lot of women really understand how much rejection men go through, or what the trade-offs involved in masculinity entail. Here’s Roy Baumeister’s description of Self-Made Man in his book Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men:

One of the most interesting books about gender in recent years was by Norah Vincent. She was a lesbian feminist who with some expert help could pass for a man, and so she went undercover, living as a man in several different social spheres for the better part of a year. The book, Self-Made Man, is her memoir. She is quite frank that she started out thinking she was going to find out how great men have it and write a shocking feminist expose of the fine life that the enemy (men) was enjoying.

Instead, she experienced a rude awakening of how hard it is to be a man. Her readings and classes in Women’s Studies had not prepared her to realize that the ostensible advantages of the male role come at high cost. She was glad when it was over, and in fact she cut the episode short in order to go back to what she concluded was the greatly preferable life as a woman. The book she wrote was far different from the one she planned, and any woman who thinks life is better for men will find it a sobering read.

I don’t buy everything Baumeister says, but he’s lucid and skilled at explaining his ideas in terms of medians, averages, and trade-offs, which most polemics and professional gender people don’t or don’t want to address.

He seems open to revision, provided that the revision is based on data and not just belief. But you can take a lot of what he says, a lot of what Vincent says, a little evolutionary psychology, a lot of band culture, and read Campesinos’s piece not as Campesinos herself does, as a means of throwing up her hands and wondering “why?”, but has having a clear theoretical framework explaining why her self-made situation came about.


Randall Munroe also recommends Self-Made Man. This New York Times review is descriptive and reasonably okay.

Sugar in my Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex — Edited by Erica Jong

Sugar in my BowlI can’t really generalize about the pieces in Sugar in my Bowl other than to say that most have a quality of the forbidden about them. Michel Foucault famously argues in The History of Sexuality that we’ve always talked about sex and that the “regressive hypothesis,” which holds sex can’t be discussed, is wrong. But I think he’s wrong, or at least wrong regarding the United States: it’s still difficult for many people, especially women to speak and write of sex, which is why Erica Jong—the editor of Sugar in my Bowl—can cite what amounts to a version of the regressive hypothesis in her introduction. Maybe we’re now collectively allowed to express all kinds of sexual signs, but moving from physical expression of signs like the ones seen in movies and porn to intellectual analysis is or feels forbidden. What happens in the mind is so intimate relative to what you’ve got under your clothes. Anyone can shuck their clothes, and Victoria’s Secret has built a massive business on the promise that most of us will, but relatively few people have the ability to really express what’s happening in their minds. Susan Cheever writes that “A one-night stand is the erotic manifestation of carpe diem—only we are seizing the night instead of the day,” but one has to wonder: how many people have felt precisely that and never found the words to express it?

Without the words to express it, one can’t create the writing that will allow others to feel empathy. I don’t buy the school of thought that holds men and women can’t fundamentally understand each other, or that either sex is incapable of writing characters from the other effectively in fiction. People who want to learn what other people are thinking will find a way to do so, and, if they’re good, they’ll be able to reproduce what other people are thinking. There’s a cultural meme, for example, that women automatically “give up” sex to men who “take” it from women. While that no doubt describes many encounters, especially first encounters, it doesn’t describe all of them. Consider Anne Roiphe describing her first, or what I assume to be her first, time, after playing doctor with a boy as a child:

Years later when Jimmy and I were thirteen we were kissing in the dark at a party. We were sitting on a table in my classmates’ living room. Couples were curled up together in every corner of the floor, despite the fact that the carpet was rough and scratchy. Louis Armstrong was playing softly in the background. Abandoned in a corner was the Coke bottle that had begun it all. It was a game of spin the bottle that had brought Jimmy and I to the moment. ‘Do you remember,’ I said, ‘when we played doctor.’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Do you have hair there now?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I really need to see it,’ he said. We found a closet. I showed him. He showed me his penis, larger, straight penis, full of some mysterious fluid.

This isn’t merely a my-first-time description (although it is that too), which litter memoirs and the Internet like discarded water bottles after a concert. It’s her way of delving into what’s nominally about the development of sex but really feels like the growth of an artist:

The thing about sex is that each act while different from the other even with the same person, even with the same person for forty years, is not a single act. It builds on the sex the night before, the year before, the decade before. Sex is a matter that unfolds like an accordion in the brain, the past is connected to the near past to the present and the future stands there waiting to be attached. So the feeling in the body, the feelings for someone else, the excitement of the new or the welcome of the familiar rises and falls, depends on memory, gains its depth from what happened at the beginning, a while ago, in the imagination, in reality.

You get older, you try things, you realize that, say, writing “is not a single act,” that it “builds on the [writing] the night before, the year before, the decade before.” Experience makes you good, and, although, there’s a sense that experience contrasts with innocence and is somehow bad, Roiphe doesn’t buy it. Neither do many of the writers in Sugar in my Bowl. They’re too heavily thinkers to buy the bullshit, and when thinkers break down their lives, they realize how much more valuable experience is than ignorance. It’s ignorance, and the celebration of it, that they’re really fighting, collectively, through writing, which is a powerful and impressive thing if you take the time to think about it. Maybe even more powerful than sex, which is their putative subject and the one that branches into so many other subjects; as so often happens, writers inevitably write about other things while they nominally write about one. Those “other” things can’t help being present to those who care to look. Susan Cheever writes, for example, “Sex feels like a series of shared secrets, a passage through a maze leading to the most wonderful feelings available to human beings.” But it’s so often hidden, and hidden deliberately, that one might ask why something wonderful must be “a passage through a maze,” unless seeking is part of the finding. Others want it to be religious, like Fay Weldon when she says:

I have been convinced not just of the significance and marvel of sex, but also of its sanctity, and its healing power, and the importance it plays in our lives, and how it is wrong to deny this. And if for a time thereafter, as I fled from bed to bed in search of love, I became a positive priestess of Aphrodite, it was not for long. I had a baby, as I was bound to, and steadied up. The psychoanalyst told me I suffered from low self-esteem, but my version is I was just born to like sex, and inherited the tendency from my father.

Notice the “sanctity,” the way she becomes a “priestess,” and the way she might not be in full control of her sexuality—she’s is “just born to like sex.” So if she did it, she did it, and so what?

There’s a wide and funny drift of self-knowing hypocrisy in these essays, many of which feel like the writer is talking to their younger selves, as when Ariel Levy says: “I smoked pot when I was twelve. I dropped acid when I was thirteen. Losing my virginity was the next logical step. It’s not like these things were necessarily fun. Well, the pot, actually, was great—unless you are reading this and you are twelve, in which case it was awful.” This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”

So far as I know, we both turned out reasonably okay. So why not admit, unabashedly, “the pot, actually was great,” and leave the qualification out? I can imagine reasons, like the ones Megan McArdle pointed out:

In my experience, the big dividing line [between favoring drug legalization and not favoring it] is having kids. Read this interview with P.J. O’Rourke and discover some shocking things coming out of his mouth about how he doesn’t want his kids to do drugs. Having kids makes you realize how narrowly you escaped killing yourself–and remember all the friends who overdosed, or got arrested on a DUI, or spent their twenties working at a job that would let them smoke up three times a day, only to realize at age 35 that they had pushed themselves into a dead end. [. . ..]

in my experience, as the kids approach the teenage years, a lot of parents do suddenly realize they aren’t that interested in legal marijuana any more, and also, that totally unjust 21-year-old drinking age is probably a very good idea.

That’s not a good intellectual argument, but it is a very persuasive one that explains why we are where we are. (Does Levy have children, I wonder?) Still, Ariel’s line is funny precisely because of the discomfort she experiences at imagining a twelve year old wanting to follow in these particular footsteps.

I like Sugar in my Bowl more than it probably deserves, which may say more about my present preoccupations and less than its absolute merit. But, as I said above, while the anthology has the drawback of anthologies it also has the virtue: any piece that doesn’t resonate is only a few pages from being done and is easily skipped. And if you don’t care for reading a collection primarily about sex, you can also read it for what it says about history, relationships, politics, and writing. Jong thinks it’s also important because it equalizes an unlevel playing field some; she writes about

the fear some potential contributors had that they would not be taken seriously if they wrote for my anthology.

Anaïs Nin had made exactly the same argument in 1971 when I asked her why she allowed her diaries to be bowdlerized for publication: ‘Women who write about sex are never taken seriously as writers,’ she said.

‘But that’s why we must do it, Miss Nin,’ I countered.

And that is why we must do it. We must brave the literary double standard.

I can’t tell if she’s right, though she sounds the same note in the “Acknowledgments” section, where she writes that “Women who write about sex still get no respect—but we don’t give a damn!” Really? I don’t think I’d take someone less serious for writing about sex or not writing about it; Jong sounds certain that it’s true, however, and I wonder: who is giving the respect needed here? And, if someone is giving this respect, is it actually worth having? Isn’t an assumed position on the outside of some presumed literary establishment a necessary precondition for eventually getting in the literary establishment? The questions presume the answers, and, by creating this anthology, Jong does imply that 1) she can probably get more respect with it than without and 2) writing about sex is probably more literarily respectable now than it ever has been.

The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen — Robert Epstein

The Case Against Adolescence should be a better book than it is, much like Sex at Dawn. The central argument is that we create the contemporary adolescence experience (angst, nihilism, penchants for bad TV shows, temper storms) through social and legal restrictions on teenagers that deprive them of any real ability to be or act like adults. I’m inclined towards it, but the book would’ve been greatly helped by peer review.

Epstein is not the first person to notice. In “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” Paul Graham says that “I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults, but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects.” This means that teenagers have no real challenges—high school is so fake a challenge that a lot of people find that it poisons education for them—and that they become “neurotic lapdogs:

As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.

“Coeval” is correct, but it would be more accurate to say that being a teenager was enabled by growing economic wealth more than anything else. Once young people didn’t have to start working immediately, they didn’t. This started happening on a somewhat wide scale in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It accelerated after World War II. By now, laws practically prevent people from becoming an adult. The question of why and how this happened, however, remains open.

The Case Against Adolescence offers a dedication: “To Jordan and Jenelle, may you grow up in a world that judges you based on your abilities, not your age.” Unfortunately, we’re not likely to get such a world in the near future because bureaucratic requirements demand hard age cutoffs instead of real judgments. Should you drive when you’re “ready” to drive? How will the DMV decide? It can’t, so laws make 16 the magic age. Based on what I’ve seen at the University of Arizona, most students are “ready” to drink in the sense that they make the choice to do so on their own free will—despite the nominal legal drinking age of 21. But “ready to” can’t be readily gauged by a cop looking at a driver’s license, so we have to choose arbitrary cutoffs.

Many students appear to feel done with high school by the time they’re 16—but high school continues to 18, so, for the vast majority, they stay—not “based on [their] abilities,” but on their age. Without those bureaucratic requirements, judgment based on abilities might be more possible. In some realms, it is: this might be why the image of the teenage hacker has become part of pop culture. In computer programming, one can judge immediately whether the code works and does what its author says it should. There isn’t really such a thing as code that is “avant garde” or otherwise susceptible to influence and taste. In addition, computers are readily available, and posting work online lets one adopt personas that may be “older” than the driver’s license age. As such, working online may alleviate problems with age, sex, race, and other such issues. Online, no one automatically knows you’re a teenager. Offline, it’s obvious.

One reason why contemporary teenagers act the way they do might simply be the “role models” they have—who tend to be each other. As Epstein says, “Because teens in preindustrial countries spend most of their time with adults—both family members and co-workers—adults become their role models, not peers. What’s more, their primary task is not to break free of adults but rather to become productive members of their families and their communities as soon as they are able.” But the term “preindustrial countries” sounds wrong: countries didn’t really coalesce into more than city-states until after the industrial revolution. A lot of contemporary political problems arise from imposing European “countries” on territories with diverse tribal or clan identities. Furthermore, I’m not sure that hunter-gatherers and agrarian societies can be lumped together like this. And I don’t think most agrarians would think of others as “co-workers,” an idea that comes from modern offices.

That’s one example of the book’s sloppiness. The other is simpler: our economy increasingly rewards advanced education, which means that the economic productivity of people without it is going down. So we might have a very good reason for forcing teenagers to attend school for long periods of time, namely that most won’t be able to accomplish much without it. The keyword is “most:” there are obvious exceptions, and the kinds of people likely to be reading this blog are more likely to be the exceptions. Epstein observes that for most of human existence, people we now call teenagers were more like adults. He’s right. But there’s a problem with his argument.

Early on, he says, “For the first time in human history, we have artificially extended childhood well past puberty. Simply stated, we are not letting our young people grow up.” The reasons for this are complex, and Epstein suggests an evolutionary narrative for greater capability earlier in history than we might now assume: “our young ancestors must have been capable of providing for their offspring. . . and in most other respects functioning fully as adults” because, if they couldn’t, “their young could not have survived.” This is true, but most of human history also hasn’t occurred in industrial and post-industrial times. We’re living in a weird era by almost any standard, so the reason teenagers are treated like teenagers might be an economic argument.

They can’t produce much until they have a lot of education, and productive adults don’t usually have time to train them. As Graham says of schools, “In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.” Teens might have use for adults, but not a lot of adults have much use for teenagers. In my parents’ business, Seliger + Associates, employing me was probably a net drag until I was 17 or 18, and even then I was only productive because I’d been working for them for so long. Epstein underestimates what a “specialized industrial society” looks like. The larger point that young people are probably going to be more capable if we let them be is true. But the flip side of positive capability is the negative possibility of failure.

Epstein does anticipate part of Graham’s argument:

[. . .] in most industrialized countries today teens are almost completely isolated from adults; they’re immersed in ‘teen culture,’ required or urged to attend school until their late teens or early twenties, largely prohibited from or discouraged from working, and largely restricted, when they do work, to demeaning, poorly paid jobs.

But he doesn’t elaborate on why this might be. Delaying adulthood can have a lot of reasons, and he sometimes confuses correlation with causation: just because men and women marry later than they used to, as Epstein argues on page 30, doesn’t mean that they’re delaying adulthood: it means they might want fun, they might not need marriage for economic purposes, and they don’t need marriage for sex. Disconnecting sex from marriage probably explains as much of this as anything else does.

He does notice institutionalized hypocrisy, which is useful. For example, “Whether we like the idea or not, young people who commit serious crimes are indeed emulating adults—adult behavior, adult emotions, adult ideas. They see adults on the streets, on TV, in movies, and in newspapers and magazines doing heinous things every day. What’s more, when a young person commits a crime, he or she is demonstrating control over his or her own life.” A sixteen year old who commits murder can be tried as an adult; a sixteen year old who has sex still has to be protected like a child, even if it’s the same sixteen year old. A twenty year old sends a naked picture of herself to her boyfriend, but a seventeen year old emulating the twenty year old’s behavior can’t.

I think a lot of this has to do with parent desires: they don’t want kids having sex because the economic consequences of pregnancy are severe and because parents are often left to clean up the financial and emotional messes in a way they don’t have to with, say, 21 year olds. Part of this is because of social expectations, but part may still be because of economics, which is the great missing piece of The Case Against Adolescence. Robin Hanson notes the labor component of the child / adolescent argument. I think he’s missing one major component of his argument: parents on average probably don’t want their offspring to leave school because they associate school with higher eventual earnings and economic success that will translate to social / reproductive success. So I don’t think it’s just other laborers who don’t want kids in the workforce—it’s also probably parents as a whole.

You can find more about judicial and sexual hypocrisy in in Judith Levine’s book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, which should probably be better known than it is. As she says:

This book, at bottom, is about fear. America’s fears about child sexuality are both peculiarly contemporary […] and forged deep in history. Harmful to Minors recounts how that fear got its claws into America in the late twentieth century and how, abetted by a sentimental, sometimes cynical, politics of child protectionism, it now dominates the way we think and act about children’s sexuality.

We’re probably afraid of sexuality because we’re afraid of the costs of pregnancy and because of the United States’ religious heritage. Those “fears about child sexuality” are unlikely to go away in part because there is some level of rationality in them: we’re unhappy when people reproduce and can’t afford their offspring. So we call people who mostly aren’t economically viable “children,” even when they’re physiologically and psychologically not. It’s dumb, but it’s what we do.

Furthermore, we don’t really know why adolescence, if it didn’t really exist until the twentieth century, didn’t. Epstein cites a 2003 New Yorker article by Joan Acocella called “Little People: When did we start treating children like children?“, which notes, “If, as is said, adolescence wasn’t discovered until the twentieth century, that may be because earlier teen-agers didn’t have time for one, or, if they did, it wasn’t witnessed by their parents.” Notice the tentativeness of this sentence: “as is said,” “that may be,” “or.” We don’t know. We might never entirely know. Contemporary adolescence might, like being overweight and having a 60″ TV, be a condition of modernity, and earlier peoples might have developed it too if they’d been rich enough.

This is the part of the post where I’m supposed to posit some solutions. Problem is, I don’t have any, or any that are practical. Eliminating middle school and having “high school” go from seventh to tenth grades might one, followed by something more like community college or a real university, would be a good place to start, along with letting people enter contracts at sixteen instead of eighteen. The probability of this happening is so low that I feel dumb for even mentioning it. Not all problems have solutions, but being aware of the problem might be a very small part of the start.

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