‘Sexual Careers’ In Late Roman America
This world, I swear. Hanna Rosin’s piece in The Atlantic starts like this:
The porn pic being passed around on the students’ cellphones at an Ivy League business-school party last fall was more prank than smut: a woman in a wool pom-pom hat giving a snowman with a snow penis a blow job. Snowblowing, it’s called, or snowman fellatio, terms everyone at this midweek happy hour seemed to know (except me). The men at the party flashed the snapshot at the women, and the women barely bothered to roll their eyes. These were not women’s-studies types, for sure; they were already several years out of college and proud veterans of the much maligned hookup culture that, over the past 15 years or so, has largely replaced dating on college campuses and beyond.
One of the women had already seen the photo five times before her boyfriend showed it to her, so she just moved her pitcher of beer in front of his phone and kept on talking. He’d already suggested twice that night that they go to a strip club, and when their mutual friend asked if the two of them were getting married, he gave the friend the finger and made sure his girlfriend could see it, so she wouldn’t get any ideas about a forthcoming ring. She remained unfazed. She was used to his “juvenile thing,” she told me.
I had gone to visit the business school because a friend had described the women there as the most sexually aggressive he had ever met. Many of them had been molded on trading floors or in investment banks with male-female ratios as terrifying as 50-to-1, so they had learned to keep pace with the boys. Women told me stories of being hit on at work by “FDBs” (finance douche bags) who hadn’t even bothered to take off their wedding rings, or sitting through Monday-morning meetings that started with stories about who had banged whom (or what) that weekend. In their decade or so of working, they had been routinely hazed by male colleagues showing them ever more baroque porn downloaded on cellphones. Snowblowing was nothing to them.
In fact, I found barely anyone who even noticed the vulgarity anymore, until I came across a new student. She had arrived two weeks earlier, from Argentina. She and I stood by the bar at one point and watched a woman put her hand on a guy’s inner thigh, shortly before they disappeared together. In another corner of the room, a beautiful Asian woman in her second year at school was entertaining the six guys around her with her best imitation of an Asian prostitute—“Oooo, you so big. Me love you long time”—winning the Tucker Max showdown before any of the guys had even tried to make a move on her. (She eventually chose the shortest guy in the group to go home with, because, she later told me, he seemed like he’d be the best in bed.)
“Here in America, the girls, they give up their mouth, their ass, their tits,” the Argentinean said to me, punctuating each with the appropriate hand motion, “before they even know the guy. It’s like, ‘Hello.’ ‘Hello.’ ‘You wanna hook up?’ ‘Sure.’ They are so aggressive! Do they have hearts of steel or something? In my country, a girl like this would be desperate. Or a prostitute.”
So there we have it. America has unseated the Scandinavian countries for the title of Easiest Lay. We are, in the world’s estimation, a nation of prostitutes. And not even prostitutes with hearts of gold.
Is that so bad? Or is there, maybe, a different way to analyze the scene that had just unfolded?
Well, yes, I suppose there is. And one could describe the aftermath of Hiroshima as a wonderful opportunity for urban renewal.
Rosin then undertakes what reads like a boosterish, Chamber-of-Commerce-meets-Erica-Jong defense of hook-up culture as empowering of women. Why? Because they have learned how to become just like men. Rosin:
At Yale I heard stories like the ones I had read in many journalistic accounts of the hookup culture. One sorority girl, a junior with a beautiful tan, long dark hair, and a great figure, whom I’ll call Tali, told me that freshman year she, like many of her peers, was high on her first taste of the hookup culture and didn’t want a boyfriend. “It was empowering, to have that kind of control,” she recalls. “Guys were texting and calling me all the time, and I was turning them down. I really enjoyed it! I had these options to hook up if I wanted them, and no one would judge me for it.” But then, sometime during sophomore year, her feelings changed. She got tired of relationships that just faded away, “no end, no beginning.” Like many of the other college women I talked with, Tali and her friends seemed much more sexually experienced and knowing than my friends at college. They were as blasé about blow jobs and anal sex as the one girl I remember from my junior year whom we all considered destined for a tragic early marriage or an asylum. But they were also more innocent. When I asked Tali what she really wanted, she didn’t say anything about commitment or marriage or a return to a more chivalrous age. “Some guy to ask me out on a date to the frozen-yogurt place,” she said. That’s it. A $3 date.
But the soda-fountain nostalgia of this answer quickly dissipated when I asked Tali and her peers a related question: Did they want the hookup culture to go away—might they prefer the mores of an earlier age, with formal dating and slightly more obvious rules? This question, each time, prompted a look of horror. Reform the culture, maybe, teach women to “advocate for themselves”—a phrase I heard many times—but end it? Never. Even one of the women who had initiated the Title IX complaint, Alexandra Brodsky, felt this way. “I would never come down on the hookup culture,” she said. “Plenty of women enjoy having casual sex.”
Rosin says that research shows that far from seeing themselves as victims, young women today are managing their “sexual careers” without shame or apology, seeking sexual adventure with an eye toward eventually settling down into marriage.
Read the whole thing. I wrote the other day about how a gay culture of promiscuity is a “culture of death.” This is a heterosexual version of the same. It is a culture of spiritual death. I see one of my primary jobs as a father as raising my sons and my daughter to hate this culture, and to resist it, mostly by learning to love what is good, true, and beautiful. Nothing — nothing — about the hook-up culture is good, true, or beautiful.
A friend said to me the other day, “I sometimes think that homeschoolers are the Benedictine monks of our time.” He was referring to this much-discussed statement by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.
I am tempted to believe — more than tempted; in fact, I do believe — that there is very little to be saved in our decadent culture, only things to be suffered, and endured, and preserved through this present darkness for a more sane age to come. How do we do that? That is the most serious question facing us. It’s not going to happen through politics.
UPDATE: Is this only a tiny subculture, from which Rosin inappropriately generalizes? I wouldn’t count on it. Remember PBS Frontline’s “The Lost Children of Rockdale County” from 14 years ago? If you haven’t seen it, you really, really should. You can view it on that link. The dead eyes of these teenagers is the most affecting thing, and the hatred they all developed for three girls who refused to participate in their culture.
From an interview on the site with a prominent medical school professor, in which he cites the pornification of society, and the loss of parental backbone, as contributing heavily to the problem the documentary highlights:
What is so disturbing about the program is not that we are witnessing a rare event in the United States, but rather an event that is quite common. First of all, the use of sex to attract friendships and maintain social connections (or to disrupt others’ social connections) is age old and the fact that this is a white upper income community does not make it particularly surprising despite the editorial comments of the commentator. Rather, there may be a perception (there appears to be this bias in the program) that these events are rare in suburban America. The events are not rare; it may be that as adults we tend to be less willing to acknowledge them in this kind of community than in lower income communities.
Another issue that was touched on in the program was access to pornography, with young people as young as 12 and 13 imitating what they saw on the Playboy Channel. In truth, we know that juveniles have easy access to pornography through the Internet, cable television and the corner magazine rack. The solution is not more laws or greater restrictions, for rarely have such interventions worked. Rather, we need to have adults continuously, visibly and actively present in the lives of young people. We need to have parents who are authoritative in their parenting, not authoritarian or laissez-faire as we saw in the program. Authoritative parents set clear boundaries, discuss and negotiate the rules but then follow through with pre-established consequences. Authoritative parents are both firm and fair. Rarely did we see such parents in the program. Rather, we saw parents who were unable to connect with their children and even when they did, they thought that caring was all that was needed. It isn’t. Rather, adolescents need guidance as well as encouragement and they need to know that their parents, their relatives and the adult network in the neighborhood are all watching them, are all concerned, and see their upbringing as a priority. While the program is entitled “The Lost Children of Rockdale County” the reality is that these are the lost parents of Rockdale County and even after the syphilis epidemic and even after the town hall meeting, it is clear that the adults in the community are as clueless as they ever were.
In community after community across America we look at adolescent problem behaviors and we define them to be the result of problem adolescents. While we are happy and comfortable to scapegoat young people, we often don’t look to the environment that we as adults have created that allow a situation to develop.