Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, April 09, 2012

What Is the Invisible Hand Doing to That Poor Woman?

Everybody talks about the sexual revolution, but no one does anything about it.

In a post published on April 16 (but with such verve that it propagated backward through time), Margaret Talbot looks at the sexual revolution through the lens of "Girls," a new show on HBO. After discussing the possibility that pornography has made women's lives worse (the cited example is that it has taught boys bad kissing technique), Talbot has this to say about capitalism and the sexual revolution:

When people talk about the sexual “revolution,” they can make the changes in sexual mores seem more intentional than they were, more like a strategically planned uprising with a neat manifesto. In some ways, it was: the feminist movement did call for, and then achieve, greater sexual freedom for women, and access to birth control and abortion as rights. But unintended consequences, and particularly economic forces, have played perhaps an even bigger role in arranging the new sexual landscape: certain moral barriers drop, and then capitalism rushes in with, say, Internet porn, stoking old desires and creating new ones. Like the young women on “Girls,” most young women in the real world are surely grateful for their sexual freedom, but they didn’t necessarily want it shaped by sleazy entrepreneurs. To paraphrase Marx, women make their own circumstances, but not under circumstances of their own making.
So my only real point here is that this is what capitalists do. Pornographers are sleazy, perhaps more sleazy than other capitalists, but fundamentally when you cede territory to the market this is precisely what you are inviting. The question is never whether a social institution is good but whether it is better than the alternative. To the extent that the sexual revolution consisted in curbing the influence of traditional social institutions, it is the natural and inevitable consequence that capitalism, with all of its assorted sleazebags, would rush in. After the king has been deposed, as the Vikings are rampaging through the streets, the citizens might say, "It turns out there were some downsides to the revolution." The king, if he is still alive, might respond, "This is the fucking revolution."


Blogger Alan said...

Is she actually saying that porn and the like have "played perhaps an even bigger role in arranging the new sexual landscape" than the achievements of the feminist movement? She uses the broad category of "unintended consequences, and particularly economic forces," but her example is porn, and her example of its deleterious effects is teaching boys bad kissing technique.

Even if porn's harms are actually much worse -- I doubt it, but I'm not exactly a neutral arbiter given my profession* -- it's hard to imagine that they outweigh the benefits of "greater sexual freedom for women, and access to birth control and abortion as rights." These things are staggeringly valuable. Moreover, they occurred in conjunction with the establishment of a new social order in which women have vastly more respect and opportunities, and in which degrading wrongs against them have been curbed. Porn may be more demeaning to women than it used to be, but the world sure isn't.

Maybe I'm giving this too strict a reading, but it does not seem to be a ceteris paribus argument or a mere admonition against Whig historicizing. It actually seems to be an argument that women today may be worse off than they were before the revolution because their sexual freedom is being "shaped by sleazy entrepreneurs." If so, that's nuts. A society of liberated women who have to deal with guys who watch (and learn from!) sleazy porn is better than a society of second-class-citizen women who have to deal with guys who treat them as if they're in> sleazy porn.

Perhaps you are instead merely citing Talbot's argument to lead into your point that "[t]he question is never whether a social institution is good but whether it is better than the alternative." This may be true, but it's essential to keep in mind that social institutions don't exist in a vacuum; they are highly interdependent. Also, their existence isn't binary, but rather a matter of degree. So the choice is never between a given social institution and its alternatives, but rather between various possible worlds in which related social institutions flourish to varying degrees. For example, although the institution of the long-term committed relationship may be better for society than any of its alternatives given human nature and child-rearing, this obviously does not mean we should prefer the possible society in which the long-term committed relationship most flourishes. So presumably your point is just that the sexual revolution wasn't a costless, unmitigated success. Fine, but Talbot seems to be saying something much more radical and much less plausible.


1:32 AM  
Blogger James said...

Yeah, I think the dangers of porn are, if I may, overblown. a casual review of the evidence suggests that porn has not been so disastrous for women. Also, while some people may learn bad kissing technique from porn, there are other lessons to be had. For instance, I have learned that two fellas can have a pretty good time even with no ladies present.

I think Talbot's problem is that it's very difficult to make the downsides of the sexual revolution matter to her readership, which is (I presume) disproportionately well-educated and affluent. Porn is a stand-in for all the distasteful ways that sex has been degraded by capitalism. (In my view, porn is probably less harmful than, say, beer advertising.)

In any case, my point is that sexuality is going to be shaped by something. You can de-centralize it and trust that something good will emerge, but that is not just a judgment that the centralized norms are bad but that the forces of capitalism are better. It has probably been a success with respect to something like airline deregulation, but when it comes to sex we can't really predict how things will turn out. It might seem harmless or even advisable to pixelate genitals in porn, but you might end up with bukkake. (Again, I think bukkake has probably done less harm than beer commercials, though perhaps not on a per-viewer basis.)

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