Monday, January 26, 2015

Sexual Liberation And Sexual Inequality

Whatever, by Michel Houellebecq. I love that The Independent called the book "funny, terrifying, and nauseating."

I was reading MathBabe the other day and she linked to this piece by a professional dominatrix who was arguing that greater sexual liberty would make the world a better place. Especially, she said, if men felt free to be themselves instead of being laced into some absurd masculinity, then they might relate to women in a better way.

Here's a passage I find appealing:

" the majority of my sessions, I am creating a space for men to explore areas of their sexual lives that society feels are unmanly; they come to me to be penetrated, to be used, to serve, to submit, to worship, to be taken. A client might have any or all of a bewildering array of fetishes, but they mostly come to me to experience something well outside the very narrow confines of what society says that it means to be a man."

As she goes along, she develops an idea that feminism, if it rejects a certain kind of sexual moralism and narrower views about sexuality, might contribute to men's well-being in wide-ranging ways, including sexual liberation of a kind that would allow men to be themselves and perhaps be less caught up in problematic kinds of masculinity and aggression.

Basically, I agree with this idea. Years ago I on TKIN I wrote a post that said, "You know how they say, 'If you want peace, work for justice?' Well, if you want sex, work for feminism."

Really, nobody is more for sexual liberation than I am. One of my philosophical research projects is devoted to developing theoretical concepts of sexual freedom and autonomy that go beyond the crude kind of "you can't tell me what to do" -- concepts that can articulate a sense of positive sexual freedom, the freedom to be yourself sexually, which surely goes beyond the right to be left alone and not told what to do. So, yeah.

And yet. I think it's important to acknowledge that there are certain problems that sexual liberation will not solve, and could plausibly exacerbate. And I think that some of those -- contra to the spirit of the essay -- are linked to anger and aggression.

First, as one of the MathBabe commenters said: "Unfortunately there is tension between liberty and equality, and complete sexual license would probably increase sexual inequality rather than diminish it."

Here is an elaboration of that idea, expressed in what I take to be the canonical text on the matter: the novel "Whatever" by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq:

"It's a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It's what's known as 'the law of the market.' In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a total liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude."

If that's too wall-of-texty for you, here's the Cliffs Notes. Basically, if sexuality is constrained by commitment and monogamy, then roughly speaking each person gets one -- or maybe a few -- sex partners. That is, it's something like "each person gets one person," with a little wiggle room around the edges.

If you're at the top of the sexual hierarchy -- the most attractive, rich, accomplished, fit, sexy -- commitment and monogamy mean you might attach yourself to one person and have a few affairs or see a few prostitutes. At most.

If you're at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy, commitment and monogamy mean there will be other people of your preferred sex/gender for partners who will also be at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy, and you can form commitments and marriages with them and then have sex with them.

So with commitment and monogamy, the people at the top and the bottom would be having some sex with not too many people. Once things open up and those constraints go away, you get immediately into a more sexual "haves" and "have-nots" situation. And what's more of a trigger for male aggression than being a sexual have-not?

Gendered attitudes about sex are obviously complicated, but even leaving all of that aside, I guess I'd want to say that sexual inequality could be, in itself, a bad thing, and that the fact that some people never get to have sex at all would be, in itself, a very bad thing, and that even just the concept of "hierarchy" in sex is a bad thing. Bad, that is, for women and men alike.

I don't think any return to the constraints of commitment and monogamy are what we should be aiming for. But I wish we could talk about sexual inequality in a constructive way that wasn't all caught up in anger, aggression, indignation, and blame.

Monday, January 19, 2015

My Eroding Love Of Luxe

Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679), In Luxury, Look Out. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I used to be kind of in love with luxury. I loved beautiful clothes and I figured when I had enough money I would buy some. I daydreamed about owning a Ferrari or some other absurdly expensive car. I grumbled, silently, about the ugly buildings in the big public universities I've long been affiliated with, vaguely imagining that someday maybe I'd be walking some beautiful ivy covered halls and feeling a rightful place in the world.

I don't want to overstate anything. I've never thought luxury was unproblematic, and I've always been very aware of both the practical problems of luxury, e. g., fancy stuff made in horrible working conditions, and the abstract problems of luxury, e. g., the fancier your stuff is the worse everyone else feels. Luxury is often non-sustainable, elitist, whatever. I've always known that. So it's not like I had some plan to get rich and surround myself with luxe. I just had a certain kind of love. Probably unrequitable, but love nonetheless.

As I get older, though, that love of luxe is rotting away.

I think the first sour note was introduced between me and luxe when I started to have enough money to buy an actual purse. As a young person I just carried a backpack, and when I got to grad school I found a Coach bag in a thrift store for thirty dollars which I used for years. After a few years of having a real job, I thought: I could get a proper bag, something nice.

I don't know if you've ever shopped for a woman's purse, but the situation out there is pretty out of control. Coach, it turns out, is actually seen as the poor-woman's-nice-bag, even though the purses are a few hundred dollars apiece. A proper "nice" bag, like from Prada, you're talking a few thousand. Something luxe, like a Birkin bag, you're talking many thousands of dollars. (In case you need help, Forbes has an article for you: "How To Buy Your First Hermès Birkin.") 

I don't know if this is just me or whether you have it too, but seeing all those bags, it makes the "nice" but reasonably priced bag seem a little ridiculous. Like, am I really going to spend serious money and get something way inferior and not even something considered proper luxe?

I wrote about this problem before, where I called it the "hedonic stairmaster." Once you're in consumer goods mode, how do you settle for 3, or even 7, on the ten-point luxe scale? You just keep climbing. I can't stop.

So our my relationship with luxe was already strained. And then we had the economic crisis and sudden focus on inequality and poverty and things started to be tough on everyone. Then things that were too luxe started to feel weird to me. Not just in the cognitive way I'd understood before, but in a more visceral level. I started to emotionally connect those beautiful Birkin bags with something that felt bad, something I didn't want to be a part of.

Weirdly, the financial crisis doesn't seem to have had this effect on many people. Everyone's all about the luxe now. High end malls are doing better than ever, while J. C. Penney can't catch a break.

Anyway, lately I've come to appreciate even the ugly buildings I work in. It feels like they form a suitable and appropriate venue for the discussion of ideas. Honestly, at a time that feels like a financial struggle for a lot of people, it starts to feel like there's something odd about the whole sitting-around-in-beautiful-buildings-talking-about-stuff thing. What are we, priests?

In some ways the intellectual thing works best when the status aspects are ratcheted down as much as possible. And there's nothing like utilitarian architecture and crappy lighting to quietly ratchet down the status aspects of what you're doing.

Just a couple of months ago I taught Rawls in my Introduction to Philosophy class, and we were talking about inequality. As I walked back from class, I passed through the quite elegant new addition to our building which is part of the Accountancy program, through the double doors, and into the dim and grim hallway that my office is in. Don't get me wrong: my office is book-lined and has a window and I've got zero complaints about it, but drabness-wise, our building is up there.

And suddenly I found myself so happy to be leaving the luxe Accountancy space, with its huge windows and fancy staircase, to pass back into the drab. I remembered how much harder it is to shake things up and be a rabble-rouser if you're spending a lot of money -- especially money that came from someone else. I remembered how the ivy halls of my daydream connect the physical space to a history in which some pretty unsavory elements, like racism and sexism and classism and all kinds of other things -- were even worse than they are now. I remembered how the drab physical space could help put me and my students on a more equal footing, could be welcoming and non-intimidating to them -- with both of us having to acknowledge that even a Starbucks has a more luxe interior than the space we're in.

Bag-wise, I never did buy anything nice. I've gone back to wearing a backpack. For fancy occasions, I bought one of those standard nylon Longchamp bags. And, of course, I've still got my thrift-store Coach.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Universalizing The Female Niceness Tax

Woman on a Striped Sofa with a Dog, by Mary Cassatt, via Wikimedia Commons

Frequently I find myself dealing with what I think of as the female-niceness-tax. If you're a woman you probably know what I'm talking about. It's the way some men, men we don't know, talk to us in a way that asks for care, concern, a listening ear, some moments of our time, a bit of sympathy. Not all men. But enough men that it's a thing.

Sometimes it's men you're attempting to deal with in a consumer or economic transaction, like you're taking a taxi ride and the driver won't stop talking to you, and other times it's just people you run into when you're trying to do something. Like the other day, I was getting the snow scraper out of the car of someone I know and someone else was kindly wiping snow off their car, and it turned into this whole like let-me-tell-you-some-things "guy confidential."

Often it's a tale of woe, like when someone wants to tell you about how they had some illness, or got screwed by some other person, or got fired unfairly, or got rejected from school, or whatever. Sometimes it includes Q + A, which in this context means Questions and Advice, like where you say you live in X place and the guy says "You live where? Why do live there when you could live in this other place? You should live in this other place, it'd be much better for you."

Snow scraper guy talked to me for about ten minutes, and hit most of the big categories, including details about how he, too, was going to do a PhD but there was X problem and the police got involved (we'll just leave that story there for now). It was about 15F, and it was still snowing, but I was clearly expected to be nice and stay and chat and listen and make appropriate sympathetic sounds.

The nature of this "expectation" is interesting, because obviously nobody is forcing you. But usually, at least in my experience, the implicit trade-off is pretty clear: you can stay and listen and be nice, or you will be thought to be a bitch, or called a bitch to your face, or worse.

It can be annoying. You're there hoping to get back to your thoughts or your book or your project or your music and instead you are thrust into this dilemma: stop what you are doing and do a little niceness work, or deal with some angry fall-out. Either way, it's like a niceness tax: pay up or else.

The reason I think of this as a female-niceness-tax is that for some reason I'm not clear on, the men who talk to female strangers this way don't seem to talk to male strangers this way. These men, when they encounter other men, seem to have a different game going on altogether. Either they say nothing, or they want to impress, or they want to exchange opinions, or show off some knowledge. But silence among men often seems acceptable. One of the advantages of being out in the world with a guy instead of alone is getting to dodge the female-niceness-tax.

In the modern world, the payment of the tax feels unfair to me, a constant drag on my ability to do the things I need to do or the things that gain modern would currency like accomplishing things or making money or getting tasks done so I can move on to something else.

Here's where it gets complicated, though. Because it's easy to be indignant about the tax and it's easy to express that indignation by saying the tax should be abolished, that women must be left alone to go about their business, that this constant interfering in their mental lives is bad, a wrong, a problematic way that people relate to one another.

But do you really want to say that a small attempt at human connection is an essentially problematic way to relate to others? I don't. I actually wish people could be a bit nicer and warmer to one another all the time, not a bit colder and harsher. So someone needs a pat on the back, an attentive listener for a few minutes, someone to say "wow, that sucks that that happened to you."

In my view, the problem with the tax isn't that it's there, it's that we're the only ones paying it. I wish it didn't have the particular gendered component that it has. Even the negatives of the gendered component really count as negatives only because our society has become so peculiar in making the pursuit of exchangeable commodities like money status and prestige so essential to an OK life.

So rather than abolish the female-niceness-tax, can't we just make everybody pay it?

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Crisis Of Epistemic Overconfidence

Alchmemy illustration in the Italian book Della tramutatione metallica sogni tre (1572?) by Gio. Battista Nazari], via Wikimedia Commons

The world is complicated, so sometimes we don't know what's up. When you don't know what is going on, you can still have opinions about the best thing to do. But what you can't do is present those opinions with confidence, like Oh that, we have that all sorted out. And yet -- it seems like that's exactly what people do. It's infuriating.

Often I feel like when you look into why people told you to believe something, it was like some version of "sounds reasonable," "makes sense to me," "sounds legit."

For example, the more we learn about nutrition, the more it seems that whole idea of eat-less-fat be-less-fat doesn't really add up. Just like the whole eating-cholesterol causes high cholesterol didn't add up. Just like the whole massive doses of vitamin C or E or whatever didn't add up.

And then you find out that the reason people believed them had to do with things like "fat has more calories per unit weight than carbohydrates," or "some vitamins are good so more is probably great" combined with some vaguely suggestive empirical studies.

Sounds reasonable. Also sounds absurdly oversimplified. And turns out, it was. Yet things like this are often presented as well established and they've had huge effects on our lives.

There are so many things like this in medicine. When I was a kid, everyone said that even a low fever should be treated with aspirin, since it seemed reasonable that a fever would be bad for you. Everyone also said to treat swelling with ice, since it seemed reasonable that swelling was bad and you should try to counteract that. But now we know: fevers and swelling are both ways the body helps fight whatever is wrong with it. Which, once you think about it, also seems reasonable.

Of course, the same thing happens in economics. In this Times op-ed defense of economics being a science, Raj Chetty says the fact that there are constant disagreements, epistemic uncertainty, and extremely limited opportunities for controlled studies doesn't mean economics isn't a science, since "big picture" medicine has the same problem, and it is certainly a science.

It seems to me maybe if you have enough big picture problems it'd be more accurate to say "could be a science" than "is a science," but leaving that aside: the reason the science issue seems important to people is mostly because of the truth, objectivity, and certainty aspects that come in its wake. People want to know: does this activity present results that tell us what is going on?

And the answer there seems to be mixed at best.

It's fine that economics and big picture medicine are difficult, and that answers there "remain elusive," as Chetty puts it. But if you don't know, act like you don't know. Don't go throwing your weight around, shaming the butter-loving, the aspirin-reluctant, the anti-capitalist. 

They might not know what is going on, but face it, you don't know what is going on either.