March 13, 2020
“We fall in love so as not to get sick,” wrote Sigmund Freud. It is a brilliant sentence, and an apt example of why the insightful thinker remains well worth reading even though he is full of loony ideas and fabricated (as we now know) a number of his “case histories.”
Other people can be hell, it is true, but so can the self, we are seeing from the loneliness epidemic that marks our time. Particularly acute in the romantic sphere, the loneliness epidemic is rich with irony. Men and women, after all, have never been so free to pursue love, as they understand it. Nor has communication, in a technological sense, ever been so simple, easy, or readily available.
And yet, much of our communication today is shallow—text messaging, social media, dating apps—and there is the greater problem that, in our hypersexual era, people commonly fail to cultivate the moral virtues that make love possible. The body is ready and able, but the mind and character are lost. Hence, for instance, the #MeToo phenomenon, which should be regarded as a corollary of the sexual revolution.
It is another irony that after “sexual liberation” the young are having less sex than they did in the past, since many of them are not learning how to develop and sustain romantic relationships. And certainly, some of the responsibility for this problem must be assigned to bad parenting and bad education. In “Big Pimping,” an article published last week at The American Mind, the witty writer Peachy Keenan ponders these defects from a mother’s point of view. For Keenan, American daughters are in a bad way, and in her judgment it’s mainly mothers who are to blame:
One reason American parents—mothers mainly—are rushing their daughters onto the Pill or LARC implants (long-acting reversible contraceptives) is to make sure their offspring are not punished with babies in high school. “I can’t possibly stop her from doing what comes naturally, but I can temporarily sterilize her.”
The schools do their part by forcing children into mandatory early sex education classes that often include graphic illustrations of sexual positions and expose even kindergarteners to the infinite array of gender variants and sexual orientations newly discovered in the human genome.
Condom demonstrations on bananas? That’s so 1999.
High school sophomores now know how to prepare each other’s rectums for “safe anal play,” which is pitched as a zesty, natural activity for all genders. In 2019, California approved a terrifying, dystopian new statewide curriculum that includes a seventh-grade lesson that “identified sexual activities such as bathing together and mutual masturbation as safe options to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.”“A society in which forming a family is a kind of afterthought to sex is sure to abound with despair.”
Whew! I don’t know about you, but I’m always relieved when I finish preparing some organic, gluten free, plant-based after-school snacks and discover my sixth-grade daughter in the bath with her classmates! Because, you know, it’s much harder to transmit chlamydia in water than through intercourse. Bless you, Governor Newsom!…
When it comes to sex ed, I believe in the screenwriting theory known as Chekhov’s gun: if you show a gun in the first act, it must be fired by the third. If you show kids the sex toys (and worse) in the first grade, the sex toys will be used by high school.
Recently, NPR published “What Your Teen Wishes You Knew About Sex Education.” In the article, we meet Electra McGrath-Skrzydlewski, who made a point of telling her fourth-grade daughter Lily, well, everything. “She was very open from the get-go, even before those were things that I needed to know about,” her daughter recounts.
Lily came out as pansexual at age 12.
At an institutional level, we are creating a cursed generation of females expert at every imaginable permutation of sex with an infinite number of partners, while largely shunning the other thing, the main thing, the only thing still emitting any heat in the cold, merciless hearth of contemporary life: the dream of forming a family.
Because the shocking truth is: No one wants to wife a sex expert.
Keenan is right to emphasize the importance of female agency, and that of mothers in particular. Hypersexuality, hookup culture, pornography, illegitimate children—in regard to all these things, women are the gatekeepers. That’s not to minimize the significance of men’s agency or to pardon their vices. The point is that, given the immense sexual power women have over men, certain things just don’t happen if women are not willing (excepting those cases where women are forced to do things against their will). Of course, there will always be plenty of men who want cheap sex and who are more than willing to profit from a naked or sexy female body. But again, a one-night stand typically doesn’t happen if a woman doesn’t yield to a man’s advance. Nor would porn be the multibillion-dollar industry it is if many thousands of women weren’t willing to get naked on camera and have sex for pay.
A society in which forming a family is a kind of afterthought to sex is sure to abound with despair. About five years ago, I dated two women whose lives I found fascinating because they would have been unthinkable until fairly recently. The first was a woman in her late 20s who had never been married and had no children. Being very successful, she could have lived alone if she’d wanted to. Yet she chose to have a roommate—a gay male friend—because being alone at night after work was terribly boring and lonely.
Here, then, was a woman who not so long ago would have been occupied with forming a family by her late 20s. But in the 21st century, she was doing the career thing and, in order to get away from herself, as it were, living with a roommate. She smoked a lot of pot, she told me, for basically the same reason.
The second woman, also in her late 20s, had been married, though she had no children. The marriage lasted only about a year, however. She got married because, after years of dating, it seemed to be the sensible thing to do. After all, why date for dating’s sake? What does it lead to? But though the man was a nice guy, and had a lot to offer on paper, the marriage lacked passion, so she filed for a divorce.
Now, what I found very interesting about this woman was her social life after the marriage. On weekends, she would get together with a group of women, most of whom she didn’t even like. They would meet up for dinner, which would be followed by a night of drinks and dancing out on the town (how she met me). Between food, drinks, transportation, and cover charges, she’d regularly spend several hundred dollars a night out. And after a while of doing these activities—from which, she explained, she got little actual enjoyment—she decided that she might as well get a gig at Uber on the weekends. Having a good day job during the week, she didn’t need the money, but why not do something productive with her free time? I couldn’t disagree with her reasoning, but it still seemed rather unfortunate that this woman would work so much while getting no value from raising a family.
Is work all life is for? According to research by Morgan Stanley, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2030, 45 percent of working women ages 25 to 44 in the United States will be single.
Liberals, and especially feminists, tend to assume that women are better off now that they have more freedom and more options than they did in the past; but the two women I’ve described, and the many others like them, suggest that this assumption is not necessarily true. Instead of assuming that more freedom and more options are intrinsically valuable, we should consider what purposes they serve. Traditional gender roles, and the concomitant division of labor, while hardly a utopia, did at least work, whereas the current state of the sexes seems to be mixed at best, and not obviously sustainable.
A woman who writes under the pseudonym Default Friend tells us that
Women rack up sex partners in the high tens, get ghosted, move on, get ghosted again….
“I have plenty of options,” you tell yourself, sleeping with one man after the next, barely registering each rejection as your next date approaches….
In 2020, we are not only atomized, but we know we are atomized. We are aware that romance, especially, has become a hideous, empty shell….
Meanwhile, the landscape is so destroyed that we have no choice but to participate anyway.
Last year, a study by Rosenfeld et al. published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that heterosexuals are more likely to meet a romantic partner online than through personal contacts and connections. Since 1940, according to the researchers, traditional ways of meeting partners—through family, in church, and in the neighborhood—have all been in decline.
Corresponding to these vast societal changes, the web is now full of articles by women who are profoundly unsatisfied by their experiences with internet dating. I am fascinated by women’s romantic experiences, in part because, in some ways, they are quite different from mine, so I recently asked some women about their dating lives, and about what they think of internet dating in particular. Women, it seems, are naturally taken with all the attention and the options that this new technology provides. But people’s beliefs about their circumstances are more important, in effect, than those circumstances themselves, and the trouble with online dating is that it allows for a corrupting choosiness. Research by Christian Rudder (the founder of OkCupid) and others indicates that, on the web, women are competing for the top 20 percent of men. To a considerable extent, this reflects women’s greater hypergamy and greater sexual selectiveness. But online dating doesn’t seem to be working for women as a whole. Many women feel used by men, and many women pass over decent men because, being flooded by options, they think (wrongly) that they can always find someone better.
My paternal grandparents had been high school sweethearts. My grandmother waited for my grandfather to come home from World War II, and once he did so, they got married and raised a family. A little while back, I observed to my female cousin that in today’s culture, with all its individualism and expectation of immediate gratification, such patience and loyalty would be asking too much of many a woman, and she did not hesitate to express her strong agreement with my cynicism.
It used to be taken for granted that the point of dating was to find someone to marry, for family formation was the point of life itself. In marrying, people sought sheer personal survival and the perpetuation of the family. We should not idealize the past, of course. Many marriages, indeed, lasted because people had no other option, and this is especially true as regards women. And yet, I think it is also the case that when people had a more practical and realistic approach to marriage they were happier all in all. It’s now taken for granted that the point of marriage, and of life itself, is “personal fulfillment.” Given the actual nature of life, it would make more sense to regard one’s spouse as a fellow sufferer—someone worth suffering with and for, so as to prevent and mitigate at least some of life’s misery. It’s now assumed that we can sleep around when we’re young, but though virtue, like vice, is an effect of habit, we can nevertheless settle down with “the one” when we’re “ready.” We “deserve” all sorts of things in a partner. And this new sensibility, so sentimental and unwise, makes for a massive amount of egoism, delusion, caprice, selfishness, and perhaps most of all, loneliness.
Since, however, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the romantic sphere, it may eventually happen that more and more Americans will find their way to a more traditional understanding of sex, love, and the family, perhaps aided by a revival of Christianity. An older woman friend of mine once told me that she and her husband probably could have been divorced several times by now, but they have managed to stick it out. Real love is put to the test, and it would be good for our country if more of us would learn this vital truth.
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