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Why Buy The Cock When You Can Get the Wake-up Call For Free?

[ 5 ] October 31, 2005 |

I was prepared for a lengthy dissection of Ross Douthat’s defense of Leon Kass, but fortunately Phoebe Maltz has taken care of it quite effectively. As Maltz points out, the entire Douthat/Kass “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” argument rests on the foundation that withholding the milk doesn’t really entail any sacrifice for women. But, of course, since women in fact like sex too, the whole creaky edifice collapses and sinks back into the swamp from which it emerged. Take away these crude gender stereotypes (men–want teh sex!!!!1!!1 women–reluctantly acquiesce to passively provide it if given material benefits and security), and there’s no argument left. And, of course, these gentlemen also seem unaware that there are men who actually enjoy the company of women, and would happily consent to join committed relationships with them even if they could get laid without doing so. As several commenters pointed out about the first Kass argument, we’re back to the classic Straussian claim that true friendship is something that only exists between men. (About the only thing you can say for this nonsense is that it’s almost as insulting and imperceptive about men as it is about women.) The explicit basis of the argument is the kind of feeble tautologies that have been used to justify male supremacy since Aristotle–which, of course, brings us back to the second part of Leon Kass’ argument, in which he elaborates on his claim that female contraception is destroying society. Douthat, of course, embraces a more genteel version of this biological determinism:

But maybe, just maybe, she should be willing to let men – even middle-aged men, and even conservative intellectuals – take stock along with her. Heck, maybe she could even give them the benefit of the doubt from time to time. For instance, when they claim not to be anti-sex or prudish, she could allow that they might actually mean it. Or again, she might examine their “retrograde notion of female vulnerability” and acknowledge that when it comes to sex and its consequences, women are more vulnerable then men – and that it might not be the end of the world for men, even conservative men, to occasionally recognize this elementary fact.

The problem, of course, is that the simple biological fact that women have children does not mean that women must be more “vulnerable”; this is only the case if we choose to deny them the available technologies, and the information necessary to use them, that permit reproductive freedom. And, of course, this biological fact does not define the natural essence of women any more than the fact that we have to eat means that our nature can be reduced to gatherers and consumers of food (or that are natures are being alienated when we take advantage of technologies that permit most of us to obtain food produced by a small fraction of our population.) What’s striking to me is–despite the grandiose natural law language in which the lipstick is often applied to this philosophical pig–what a remarkably impoverished conception of women this is, how crudely reductionist. The ability to give birth is certainly a wonderful thing, but it hardly defines the “teleological meaning of [a woman’s] sexuality,” let alone her entire being. And one can’t help but notice, of course, that leaves men free and women unfree, from which rises the indefensible double standard so beloved by Kass.

I do agree with Douthat about one thing–I cannot empirically prove that women are now “happier.” I certainly believe that freer women are, in fact, happier in general, and this seems to be the logical inference from the fact that so much legal and social repression was required to compel women to be reduced to following their narrow teleogical destinies, but these claims are inherently beyond empirical evidence on some level–how do you measure happiness among whole genders comparatively across generations? Which brings us back to Maureen Dowd. Professor B suggested in comments that I was being a little cruel with my glib dismissal, and I probably was, but let me explain what I found so bad about the article. Amanda does an excellent job of explaining that her “feminist” analysis is remarkably weak, blaming feminism for trends that are much better explained by the incompleteness of the feminist revolution that of its consequences. But there’s the even more ridiculous implication of her article–captured wonderfully by Jessica’s “feminism isn’t your dating service” line–that the fact that wealth and power seem to benefit women somewhat less than men in the dating market has some sort of major political consequences. While this may be a manifestation of serious actual injustices, in and of itself it doesn’t mean anything. Mating “markets” are, by their nature, arbitrary and unfair–there are always some things that are more valued than others, and no preference order is any less arbitrary than any other. As it happens, if you looked at the women I have been seriously into I think you’ll find they have little in common physically but almost all have IQs well toward the right end of the curve (and given the audience of an obscure lefty blog, I’m guessing this pretty common among readers), and I guess if my preferences were more generally shared this would benefit Dowd. But so what? It seems to me that conventionally attractive women who don’t have high-wattage IQs or Ivy League degrees or whatever are just as “deserving” of stable relationships as anyone else, and so for that matter are women who have neither quality. Dowd’s frustrations are as worthy of empathy as anyone else’s, but it should also be noted that women who have bad skin or are overweight or are poor single mothers face rather greater obstacles in the dating market that conventionally attractive wealthy women who are perceived as too powerful. So, really, the premise of Dowd’s article is very silly and self-serving. (I will have to send in an article for the Times about how the fact that the job and romantic markets don’t place the highest premium on political science teachers who know a lot about baseball, abortion law and pretentious French movies, and how this proves that the New Deal is a sham.) Whatever one thinks about feminism, the fact that the traits most valued in the dating market don’t precisely map onto your best features is neither here not there with respect to the justice of any particular social arrangement.

And, in an odd way, Dowd and Kass/Douthat make the same mistake: their failure to recognize the simple truth that freedom doesn’t guarantee happiness; no way of organizing society can produce such an outcome. Both–K/D in triumph, Dowd in disillusionment–claim that because the (partial) feminist revolution has left people left some women unhappy some of the time it’s a failure, but this is obviously not the right standard to apply. Despite her exaggerations, I do think there is some truth to Dowd’s claim that the traits of many successful women would be seen as more desirable if they were men (and these are relevant insofar is they’re connected to the persistence of patriarchal stereotypes, although Dowd largely fails to make the connection.) And similarly, I don’t deny that Kass knows female undergraduates who are neurotic and unhappy. The problem with these observations is the “compared to what?” question. Free markets in sexuality are like other free markets; some people benefit more than others, and often even people who are “objectively” successful are less happy than they expect to be. But even Marx realized that the fact that economic free markets have serious problems isn’t a good reason to pine for feudalism, and similarly the fact that some people remain unhappy when core relationships are based on romance instead of being a fundamentally economic arrangement isn’t a good reason to go back to arranged, male-dominated marriages. Dowd isn’t wrong when she says that trying to make connections with others is a bewildering experience, and it’s natural to wonder why one can fail to achieve their goals when they seem to have a lot to offer. But this isn’t the post-feminist condition; it’s life. Even if women were fully emancipated, even under a social order of perfect justice, while may people will find stable, loving relationships, it will remain true that love will burn and fade, people will make bad choices, some relationships will end miserably, and some will choose celibacy or have it thrust upon them. Freedom and equality don’t guarantee any particular ends when it comes to human relationships, which are inherently capricious. But they nonetheless remain a better option than just being marginally comfortable in chains.

Lindsay has more.

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