I spoke to the lovely Triggernometry boys about pornification, the dopamine machine and why I don’t think the end of progress is a reason to be miserable.
“A reactionary feminism seeks to honor women by accepting as givens the things that make us human: our bodies and our relationships. It asks how we might frame our obligations justly, between the sexes, in the interest of the common good. Women must negotiate new social and economic conditions, not in a spirit of zero-sum conflict with men, but alongside our friends, husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. The aim is not to return to some imagined perfect past, but to reach a future unshackled from the dystopian pursuit of progress. The only escape from a nightmare of atomization and war between the sexes is the recognition that we are embodied creatures, and that interdependence is not oppression but the very thing that makes us human.”
“In the digital age, Adam Smith’s artificial separation of sympathy from the market is dissolving, along with the industrial-era divisions between the domestic and commercial. In their place we’re offered a single order of unchained and monetized desire, in which there is no outside limit to selfhood – with even our bodies increasingly seen as infinitely malleable to the demands of self. Our emotional lives are now big business, whether in the commercialization of desire via online dating or pornography, or the countless digital temptations that hook our brains to the next social-media dopamine hit. We no longer pursue our interests in a market informed by sympathy-driven moral sentiment; rather, we are consuming units in a “marketplace of sentiment” where every desire is valid providing it can be monetized.”
Charlotte is a 23-year-old Harvard graduate. Beautiful and willowy, she grew up in — her words — ‘a super-liberal environment’. You might expect to find her Instagram full of sexy, pouting pictures. But Charlotte has deleted all the bikini photos from her online life. And six months ago, she embraced ‘modest dress’: nothing that exposes her collarbones or shoulders and nothing that reveals her legs above the knee.
Narayan is seven years older than Charlotte. He is what matchmaking 18th-century matrons might have described as ‘very eligible’: a clean-living, highly educated and charismatic single guy with a well-paid job in tech. He’s the embodiment of Jane Austen’s famous observation that ‘a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’. And contra all the modern laments about single men preferring to play the field, Narayan actually wants to get married.
Narayan and his close male friends are all around the same age. They’re all elite guys working in tech and finance — and all either dating to marry, or already married. In what amounts to an informal 21st-century marriage brokerage, they and the wives of already-married members of their friend group collude to track down potential partners. But they’re picky — and Narayan is blunt about the criteria. It’s not just about being educated, ambitious or pretty. ‘Guys who say they don’t care about their wife’s sexual history are straight-up lying,’ he tells me. All the men in his group, he says, would strongly prefer their future wives to be virgins on marriage. Some categorically rule out women who aren’t: ‘No hymen, no diamond’.
Charlotte and Narayan are not the uptight fundamentalists or ugly, embittered feminists of stereotype: they’re members of the Ivy-educated jeunesse dorée. They’re pushing back against a culture of sexual freedom they see as toxic not just to individual wellbeing, but even to the long-term health of American society. They’re the forefront of what ‘Default Friend’, a Bay Area writer on sex and relationships, terms ‘the coming wave of sex-negativity’.
Welcome to the sexual counterrevolution.
Though I’m not personally a consumer of porn (and would not be telling you if I was) it’s impossible to avoid the subject altogether when our Very Online discourse has a habit of disintegrating, at the fringes, into a kaleidoscopic array of weird sex things – whether that’s cartoon rabbits with big knockers or whatever else floats your boat. The key factor is that if someone can think of it, someone has thought of it – and as night follows day, there’s almost certainly porn of it.
Some anonymous internet wag once joked that the actual content on the internet is only about 5% while the other 95% of the internet is pictures of cats, and pornography. The numbers themselves might be a bit exaggerated, but two of the top ten most visited websites in the world – and the only two which aren’t big-brand social media sites – are XVideos and Pornhub, clocking up a total 6.7bn monthly visitors between them.
But pornography isn’t a static thing, any more than desire is a static thing. Pornography is more like a force field, that affects the content it represents. While I was thinking about this, it struck me that the three fundamental laws of thermodynamics ofer an almost perfect heuristic for the dynamics of this force field. So the three laws of pornodynamics are as follows:
- The First Law of Pornodynamics: the law of conservation of libido
Both liberals and conservatives are fond of wanging on about the sexualisation of culture, and how the pervasiveness of pornography and porn-inspired imagery, whether in marketing or just the culture in general, means we’re all saturated with sex and really just can’t get away from it. But at the same time it’s often noted that young people are having less sex. The connection between these two phenomena is obvious when considered in the light of the First Law of Pornodynamics, which argues that the sum total of human libido is a constant, and the more of it we expend on wanking the less will be available for actual interpersonal encounters.Continue reading “The Three Laws of Pornodynamics”
I thoroughly enjoyed this challenging but very interesting chat with Simeon Burke on faith, motherhood, feminism, why I don’t believe in progress and why the term ‘post-liberal’ doesn’t really make sense because all politics is post-liberal now.
Had the most wonderful epic chat with the delightful Benjamin Boyce, where we roamed across such terrain as the psychotic side-effects of postmodernism, why nihilism isn’t the answer, why I don’t believe in progress and what’s left out of the internet’s parody of the social. It’s on YouTube:
Scuba diving is both magical and terrifying. Put on your gear, slip under the surface, and find yourself freed from gravity. In the glory days Before Coronavirus, I remember diving through the clear waters of coastal Turkey, drifting on warm currents and rolling to stare at the sunshine playing on the surface, from underneath.
But even as I rippled through the deep, marvelling at flashing schools of fish, there was a trade-off: constant self-control. Don’t breathe out through your nose. Don’t sneeze. Never, ever panic. For a short while it’s possible to pretend that you have the freedom of such an alien world, but in truth you’re only ever a tourist, granted safe passage thanks to technology, training and self-discipline.
Something about this sense of crossing an uncrossable threshold surely also powers our obsession with mermaids. And it is an obsession: mermaids are everywhere. Monique Roffey’s novel The Mermaid of Black Conch: A Love Story recently won the Costa Book Prize, while “mermaiding” — swimming in the sea wearing a “mermaid tail” — has gained a cult following in Australia. And you only need to browse the girls’ clothing selection in a high-street shop to find countless cartoon girls with fish-tails, sequinned and sparkly, smiling at you from t-shirts, dresses, wellies, duvet sets, pencil cases and the like.
As a parent of a four-year-old, I’m more familiar than I’d like with mermaid content, and Disney is a rich source. Sofia the First: A Mermaid Tale is a favourite with my daughter, who is entranced by the moment when Sofia is magically transformed into a mermaid and dives underwater. There, she swims in circles exclaiming: “This is incredible!”. And it is. The rest of the story is almost an afterthought, with the whole narrative punch condensed into that moment of metamorphosis, and the dive into a new and mysterious realm.
If mermaids offer an enchanting dream of transformation, perhaps it’s no surprise that the transgender movement enthuses about the special place mermaids have in their iconography. Activist Janet Mock links this to Ariel, heroine of the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid, who chafes at her underwater life and longs to visit the world beyond.Continue reading “What the modern mermaid leaves out”
The Motherhood Blind Spot
The text below is my opening remarks from Res Publica’s 17 December 2020 seminar on post-liberal feminism, with Kathleen Stock, Louise Perry, Nina Power and Nimco Ali. Watch the full video below:
Before I had a baby, I believed all the usual liberal things about men and women. We’re all basically the same apart from our genitals. We all aspire to freedom and want to choose our relationships and values rather than have them imposed on us. A successful career is something everyone aspires to. Unequal career outcomes are the result only of sexism. Women can do anything men can: we just need the freedom to try.
Then I got pregnant, and found I was no longer a free individual as before. Instead, I was something my liberalism had no language for: a person in a symbiotic relationship. But my symbiote wasn’t some kind of parasite, she was a longed-for baby. She was loved and wanted as well as dependent, and her wellbeing was more important to me than pretty much anything else.
Then I found out this feeling of symbiosis didn’t end when I give birth and was physically separate from my baby. I regularly woke in the night a few seconds before she started crying for milk. I’d lose the ability to think clearly when she needed food. The only time I’ve ever damaged a car in 20 years’ driving was trying to get it round a tight corner with a hungry baby screaming in the back.
All these things get less overwhelming as a baby gets older, but talking to other mums my sense is that feeling of being not totally separate from your kids never really goes away. I’m 41 now, and my mum still often phones moments after I’ve thought of her. I call this the Mum Bluetooth. We have no language for talking about it. This blind spot has political repercussions for women.
Babies are weirdly missing from mainstream feminism except as a problem to be solved. Either they’re an unwanted pregnancy, or they’re holding your earning potential back, or they’re causing ‘unpaid labour’ (also known as caring work) which isn’t shared equally by men.
The unstated premise behind all this is that individual freedom is the highest aspiration for all humans, and inasmuch as female biology pushes against individual freedom women’s biology needs to be overcome.
The Economist, writing about the loss of earnings that accompanies taking a career break to care for children, calls this the ‘motherhood penalty’. That is, for a feminism that’s premised only on freedom and individualism, motherhood is not a superpower. It’s a punishment.
This grudging relationship of femaleness to the ideal liberal subject goes all the way back to the first liberal thinkers. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, one of the foundational thinkers of modern liberalism, didn’t even believe women could be free in this way, and envisaged an education for men that trained them to be independent liberal subjects while women should be raised as charming, compliant support humans.
It wasn’t long before Mary Wollstonecraft challenged the idea that liberalism was just a boys’ club. She claimed education, freedom and emancipation for women on equal terms with men, kick-starting the movement that eventually became feminism.
But here I’m going to be provocative and suggest that actually, in a way, Rousseau was right. Women are less well-suited to liberal autonomy than men. But this isn’t an argument against women, or motherhood. It’s an argument against liberalism.
If we believe the ideal human condition is autonomy, we have no way of thinking about humans as interdependent. And motherhood is the most concrete example of interdependence. An unborn baby is not a separate individual, but nor is it a parasite, or merely a thing.
Even after a baby is born, it’s not really a separate person. The paediatrician Donald Winnicott famously said ‘There is no such thing as a baby, only a baby and someone’. I wasn’t imagining that feeling of being merged, that was so strong when my daughter was tiny. It was an accurate understanding of her condition. If I, or someone else, didn’t love and care for her, she’d die.
In the framework of freedom and individual rights, we have no language for this interdependence.
Liberalism is a doctrine that gives a good account of human society only if you airbrush out all states of dependence. That means that to make the privileging of freedom work, you have to look away from childhood. From old age. From illness. From disability. And if you base your worldview only on freedom, you’ll also end up scribbling out the other side of dependency, which is care.
So it should come as no surprise that we have more freedom than ever before, but we also have a care deficit that no one knows how to address. We clapped for carers during the lockdown, then went straight back to underpaying them. We wince at every nursing home scandal, but have no idea what to do about them, because ignoring dependency and undervaluing care is baked into the liberal worldview. And women, whose biological superpower is the ability to create new humans through a process of symbiosis followed by years of loving care, find that superpower treated as though it’s in fact a handicap.
The sociologist Catherine Hakim has argued that developed-world women’s working preferences actually break down roughly as follows: 20% of mothers prefer to spend all their time with kids, 20% prefer to focus mainly on career, and the remaining 60% prefer a balance of the two. That certainly accords with my anecdotal experience.
But what this means is that 80% of women prefer to make some space in their lives for priorities associated with caring. And yet, because feminism has the liberal blind spot around dependency and care, we find the preoccupations of feminism heavily skewed toward the priorities of that 20% of women whose main priority is individual self-actualisation. That is, the 20% who want a career on the same terms as men. So we have a feminism of childcare, pay gaps, workplace etiquette, celebrating the achievements of successful women and so on. What about the other 80% though? Are we not also women? Whenever I tell people I don’t want to work any harder because I prefer to make some time for family, I sometimes feel vaguely as though I’m letting the side down. But loving your kids shouldn’t be a source of shame.
To be clear, I’m not arguing for sending women back to the kitchen. What I’m saying is that a number of key issues for women can’t easily be addressed unless we stop pretending it’s possible to worship individual freedom and also advocate for women.
If we privilege freedom over biology, we end up writing female bodies out of feminism altogether. That means obstetric care, reproductive healthcare and family issues are no longer specific to women.
It also means even where sex segregation is in place for women’s safety, this becomes difficult to defend. Likewise, if we see males and the careerist female 20% as the workplace default, we’ll struggle to rethink work in ways that meet the needs and preferences of the 80% of women who prefer a balance.
That in turn means a huge proportion of women will end up spending their working lives either having fewer kids than they’d like, which is now the norm all over the West, or else chronically guilty and burned out trying to live up to feminist ideals that were supposed to free us.
To repeat: this is not an argument that there’s something wrong with women. It’s that there’s something wrong with worshipping freedom and calling it feminism. The feminisms that reject this privileging only of freedom and seek to re-centre the women’s movement on female bodies re diverse and there’s plenty to disagree on. This is a space where conservative Christian thought overlaps with radical feminism, as well as with others such as me who don’t fit neatly in either of those groups.
My aim here is just to name the blind spot. To create more space for acknowledging the overlapping themes of women’s bodies, motherhood as a superpower, and the politics of love and interdependence.
Nothing makes it more self-evident than gestating a baby that we belong to each other, not just to ourselves. That’s an idea I’d like to see embraced not just by feminists, not even just by women, but by everyone. It’s sorely missing from our atomised and adversarial politics.