Sales and Sex Ability
A recent Washington Monthly profile of Dan Savage draws this interesting* parallel between modern sexual norms and consumption patterns:
“Classical liberalism, however, may prove just as inadequate in the bedroom as it has in the global economy, and for many of the same reasons. It takes into account only a narrow range of our motivations, overstates our rationality and our foresight, downplays the costs of transactions, and ignores the asymmetries of information that complicate any exchange of love or money. For society as a whole, it entails a utopian faith in the capacity of millions of appetites to work themselves out into an optimal economy of sex—a trading floor where the cultural institutions of domesticity once stood. And for the individual, it may only replace the old sexual frustrations with new emotional ones. People who think they are motivated only by lust may end up feeling love; people who forswear any strings may feel them forming; and perfect transparency may prove an ideal no less unattainable than perfect monogamy. I think of a heartbreaking letter in 2010 that illustrated many of these problems at once. A man who saw a woman every other week for four months heard from her, two months after ending things, that she had gotten pregnant and had a miscarriage. Savage was all but certain that the woman’s story was false. But regardless, he said, “your emotional obligations to her ended when the relationship did, and your financial obligations ended with the miscarriage.” Savage’s advice may have been practical, but it had all the warmth of a legal waiver of liability.
* Note: By “interesting”, I don’t mean what people usually mean when they post something like this and call it interesting: i.e. “here’s something I agree with and want you to as well.” Instead, I mean something like, “Hmmm… I’m really not sure what to make of this argument. What do y’all think?” (You’ll notice I do that a lot here.)
This may be one of those instances where I ask Leaguers or Rufus to talk to me like I’m 5.
What is the connection between Classical Liberalism and a lack of commitment with a sexual partner, or for that matter being unemotional, as Savage appears to be by his quote here?
This strikes me as less of an interesting analogy than an example of, “Me and my readers hate liberals, and here is a thing that I don’t like either, so it must be liberal and therefore a thing all liberals support.”
I honestly can’t think of any other explanation for this paragraph. It’s a looooong reach that I think says more about this writer and his beliefs than it does about sex or liberalism.Report
I can’t explain the paragraph. Seriously, I was just posting it to ask, “Wow, what do you folks make of this?” Not as a, “heh, heh, indeed” sort of thing.Report
Ah, I also forgot to link to the damn thing. That would help. Hold on.
Incidentally, the paragraph before set this up as:
For Aristotle, we are what we repeatedly do. For Dan Savage, we are what we enduringly desire.
As it happens, this vision fits rather well in a society built around consumption. If Savage’s ethical guidelines—disclosure, autonomy, mutual exchange, and minimum standards of performance—seem familiar or intuitive, it’s probably because they also govern expectations in the markets for goods and services. No false advertising, no lemons, nothing omitted from the fine print: in the deregulated marketplace of modern intimacy, Dan Savage has become a kind of Better Business Bureau, laying out the rules by which individuals, as rationally optimizing firms, negotiate their wildly diverse transactions.
I got that. I am just saying that this strikes me as more of a “another day, another argument I have to blog about why the left is destroying America” thing than anything else.
I curiously await the League’s resident defenders-of-all-things-right-wing to come in and explain why if I want to hook up with someone who’s really good in the sack that will also communicate in a loving way I need to start going to Daughters of the American Revolution meetings, or whatever this guy’s point is.Report
As one of the resident squares on the league, I think that I am willing to defend monogamy and sitting still as being good for the soul.
I don’t want that enshrined into law or anything, though.Report
I too am a fan of monogamy (my wife will back me up on this); and I don’t care for Classical Liberalism. It’s all of the leaps the writer is making in both of the quotes Rufus posted that is making me roll my eyes.Report
I don’t know what “Classical Liberalism” has to do, exactly, with this… I mean, Jefferson-era feminism wasn’t exactly Dworkinesque.
I think that he meant the sexual revolution liberalism and, as such, it’s yet another essay about how sexual liberation is just another kind of oppression.
If that Sex in the City chick wrote the column, it would have included “We have to take off our emotional burkhas!” or some crap like that.Report
See, here’s where I think he was going with it: “classical liberalism” as a synonym for market liberalism, and then arguing that treating sexual negotiations as being similar to consumer choices in a free market doesn’t really work very well. I thought it was more a critique of Savage’s sensibility than of the sexual revolution or the left- although he might well mean that Savage is representative of thought on the left.Report
I wish he had kept going with a proposed solution.
“We need regulators who don’t have a conflict of interest who can see what parts are being exploited and what parts are being ignored. Social justice demands a fair redistribution.”Report
And would each American then have a minimum/maximum standard or quality and quantity that they were mandated to achieve? Or would it be like a cap and trade deal, where if I wanted to get lucky for a third time in a week I’d need to get a voucher from someone who was abstaining?Report
Would this be a state or a federal issue?Report
I kind of think you’d have to make it at the State level. I have a hard time believing you could get Californians and South Dakotans close enough to being on the same page for it to work.Report
I’m not familiar with his work, although the writer is apparently a Lutheran minister. I think what he’s saying is the same argument Michel Houellebecq has made- that an open sexual market creates winners and losers in the same way an open market in anything else does. It struck me as pretty weird and simplistic in Houellebecq too, but I’m not sure it’s just a ‘bash the left’ sort of argument. It seems an eccentric argument if anything. I’m not sure I can wrap my head around it.
His critique of Dan Savage as over-stressing sex in relationships is similar- it is true in a sense, but a weird claim given that Savage is a sex columnist.Report
I think you’re misunderstanding Rufus. He was writing about “classical liberalism,” which is seems fairly distinct from how the term “liberal,” by itself, is used in day-to-day political conversation. Looking at the entirety of his post and his point about Dan Savage’s advice, he seems to mean “liberal” in the pro-capitalist, markets-are-efficient sense. Maybe “neo-liberal” would have been a better word choice.
Having read the League for awhile, I feel pretty certain that this post was made in good faith. You’re acting like Rufus is some kind of Dennis Prager-esque prig when he’s not.
(BTW, if they haven’t banned Bob Cheeks, they should. He’s the most obvious troll working today)
Well, I didn’t think RTod was assuming that about me so much as about the writer.
Incidentally, I don’t really take the original writer as a prig either- I think he’s saying that Dan Savage, by treating sexual negotiations as the alpha-and-omega of a romantic relationship is missing all of the complexity of love. It’s a fair point, but again Dan Savage is a sex columnist.Report
V-man, dude, you are like ‘enlightened!’ Nothing worse than a confessing troll.Report
Boy, this will be the third time I’ve had to say this, and I’m not sure where I’m not being clear – but I’ll try just one more time:
I don’t think Rufus is being a prig. First of all, he may be the most constantly nice person on the whole sight. More to the point, he was pretty up front about not even having an opinion on this post, and wanting to know what others might think. And so I obliged.
And I still think that the author’s point (from the two bits we have here) that Classical Liberals enjoy soulless, immoral and destructive relationships is just the other side of the coin that declares Conservatives are inherently racist… and that his case seems more like over-reaching for an argument to back up a predisposed opinon about your opponent than a thoughtful observation.Report
And that was one of my questions- is he talking about political liberals or market liberalism? I really can’t tell, although I think he means the latter. But who in the world actually thinks of sex in those market terms, aside from prostitutes?Report
Some schools of radical feminism, maybe.Report
That’s interesting. Do they think of sex in market terms or in terms of class? I always thought of radical feminism as taking the old Marxist categories of class and genderizing them.Report
I think I was thinking of Dworkin, having read excerpts from _Intercourse_ the other day.
Good god, I don’t miss the 80’s at all.Report
There’s a blog post there, you know.
I don’t miss the 80s at all either, but not really because of Andrea Dworkin. I just remember that decade as a sort of day-glo cultural dead zone- like Florida.Report
“a sort of day-glo cultural dead zone- like Florida.”
I don’t have the stones to write it.Report
Having just now gone and read the whole article (thanks for going back and posting) I think, maybe neither? I find it interesting that the paragraph you found interesting/confusing and posted is right about the point in the article that he really began to lose me.
I think we all have a tendency to take things that are very, very fringe and waaay out of our experience (birthing fetish? ew…) and assume that they line up or speak to others who are out of our experience but more mainstream. Usually though, the fringe is just the fringe. And wanting someone to poo on you probably has little to do with where you stand on Keynesian economics.Report
Don’t forget the Johns.Report
Do the johns look at it that way though? I always figured the prostitutes saw it only in terms of business and the Johns might or might not have fantasies that there was something more going on.Report
Sort of like the relationship Activision and Guitar Hero enthusiasts have?Report
First of all, he may be the most constantly nice person on the whole sight.
Thanks for that, incidentally. I’m actually considerably nicer in person than I am here, but I’m trying!Report
Also, having now read the whole article, is bad that when reading his arguments that inability to perform well for your partner in bed is not a good criteria for your partner to use on you, the very first thought I had was he must not think he’s very good in bed?Report
Classical liberalism, like any other –ism, is a one-way proposition, a set of axioms and principles. An –ism is a strategy which might enumerate some set of tactics, but fundamentally classical liberalism is a reaction to what came before: the Divine Right of Kings, State Religion and the like. Classical liberalism gives us the Individual as we understand him today, the rule of law, human rights, the consent of the governed.
Sexuality, more than any other aspect of our lives, defies explanation. How many of us have seen a friend go through a particularly bitter divorce, only to see them end up in a relationship with the carbon copy of the asshole they just divorced? There was a day when the happy couple couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Time passes, the relationship goes sour and the now-alienated partners go among the mutual friends with their one-sided (and mendacious) tale of woe, trying to enlist the friends to their side of the argument.
Comes a time when it’s more than I can tolerate: I have told one such recruiter to quit weeping, get the fuck off my couch and go home: I had told him from the start he was making a mistake. I’d watched the happy first fondle each other on that selfsame couch, open their (expensive) wedding present on it, then argue, then fight on it and now I was evicting him from it until he went to counseling and learned he was his own worst enemy. I came in a week later to find his partner on the same couch, trying to enlist my wife. She didn’t even get an explanation, I just told her to leave immediately: she knew what had transpired the week before and was unwelcome until she too went to counseling.
In adolescence, the brain goes through a process called myelinization. The brain becomes more efficient, reducing the number of synaptic connections and the nerves add more myelin as insulation. For this reason, it remains possible for someone to learn a new language after adolescence but they’ll always speak it with an accent: a language learned before adolescence is spoken without a foreign accent. I contend the same is true of sexuality: we acquire an “accent” in the process of adolescence. With additional cognitive power derived from a more-efficient brain, our identity comes into focus, including our sexual identity. Where once we were little children with little plastic brains, we become ourselves.
Contra Rev. Dueholm, I contend we become more classically liberal over time as our sexuality matures. We learned modesty as little children and our first sexual encounters are furtive, swimming in a sauce of novelty and transgression. They’re seldom fulfilling: we learn the rules of the sexual contract as we go along. If we’re lucky, we find compassionate lovers who offer us satisfaction and teach us the reciprocal Arts of Love. Auden:
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.
I’ve read Dan Savage for years in the Chicago Reader. I don’t really approve of much he says. For all his talk about responsible sex, sexuality cannot be tamed. It is fundamentally selfish: there’s nothing sadder than analyzed sex. Joe DiMaggio once complained of Marilyn Monroe, that she’d periodically interrupt coitus to ask if she was doing it right.
If sex exists beyond the boundaries of the committed relationship, all the early romances ended tragically: Tristan and Isolde, Arthur is sired on Ygraine by deception, Morgana le Fay, Guinevere and Lancelot, Mordred. Ultimately even besotted Merlin succumbs to the charms of Niniane who will not love him ere he teaches her all his magic and traps him in a magic tomb.
Woody Allen joked “Is sex dirty? Only if it’s being done right.” For all of Savage’s proscriptions and admonishments on personal responsibility, sexuality merrily laughs at our rational minds and leads us along willy-nilly, to despair and wisdom and if we are wise, to love. Robert Frost:
Whose purpose was it, His or Hers or Its?
Let’s leave that to the scientific wits.
Grant me intention, purpose and design –
That’s near enough for me to the devine.
And yet with all this help of head and brain,
How happily instinctive we remain.
Our best guide upward farther to the light:
Passionate preference such as love at sight.Report
“I’ve read Dan Savage for years in the Chicago Reader. I don’t really approve of much he says. For all his talk about responsible sex, sexuality cannot be tamed.”
Exactly. It’s also notoriously difficult to put into words. I sympathise with his attempt to- certainly there will be readers- if we could talk about sex all day, we would. But it’s a bit like talking about the ocean: you don’t get much closer to capturing it the longer you talk.Report
Perhaps in its notoriousness, we have made sexuality difficult to put into words, but the words are there. The poets have expounded upon sexuality at great length but Americans don’t read much poetry. They listen to songs and watch movies, they watch porn, but for some reason poetry doesn’t resonate with the culture at large.
There’s a school of thought which says we are prudes and therefore obsessive about sex. I’m not sure I buy into this conclusion, but there is a note of truth to it: the most-prudish cultures are the most sex-obsessed. Our problem, I contend, is the “and they lived happily ever after” ending to our stories about love: there are few happy endings, if any. There aren’t any in the ancient myths as I tried to point out with the Legend of Arthur and there are none in the earlier myths. Oscar Wilde said trying to stay in love is like trying to stay drunk.
Love is a word which carries too much freight. I don’t believe in Love as advertised: Love is defined by the lovers themselves. It comes in many small packages, only one of which is sex. Love is an ongoing thing, requiring constant maintenance. The Happily Ever After ending might work well for a movie but it’s a disaster in real life. In the old Archie Bunker show, Meathead asked Archie why he wasn’t more romantic with Edith his wife. Archie sneered and replied “You don’t keep running once you’ve caught the bus.”
Dan Savage has a role to play in delineating the difference between love and sex: as such he’s done yeoman’s work in throwing cold water on gooey and treacherous Romance business which always leads lovers to despair, the real end of the story. But what does he offer us instead? Hard-nosed acronyms about cheating bastards? Sure, he has a written persona he has to maintain: for him, writing about sex is a living but his tendentious schtick would improve if leavened with the triumphs and pratfalls of love. Consider the potential of humor: I’ll bet my life every one of us has a hilarious story related to sex we could tell, had we the nerve and wit. Sex is not transactional. It is surrender to passion, to take and be taken, to put aside the rational and be united in the act of love. It is often ridiculous, tender, silly, heartbreaking and funny, the most human act of all.
Moi, je ne dis mot, pour garder l’espoir d’un accord.
Nous serions disposés à abandonner le corps
S’il n’était déjà si solitaire dans le drame,
Il fait toujours minuit lorsqu’on parle de l’âme.
I can’t say a word, to keep the hope of an agreement.
We would be willing to abandon the body
If it weren’t already so lonely in the drama,
It is always midnight when talking of the soul.Report
Odd Blaise, for all this that you’ve written I don’t see much to anything that Dan Savage himself would disagree with. Sexuality cannot be tamed? He agrees emphatically. He has repeatedly stated in his advice that if you pit man made social constructs against an individuals’ sexuality in a head on fight that, ceteris paribus, the sexuality is going to win. Dan Savage generally strikes me as preaching an open eyed acknowledgement of sexuality and merely suggests that as people explore their sexual natures that they not be dickweeds about it. Beyond that simple underlying maxim most of his writing is an exploration of what does and does not constitute dickweedish behavior.
What specifically do you disagree with Dan Savage about?Report
The possibility of taming one’s sexual desire for the sake of another most definitely exists within the Savage moral imagination. I frequently discuss the “price of admission,” that is, the personal sacrifices, large and small, that make long-term relationships possible.
Look, Dan Savage has his own brand of ethics and writes lots of books and all, and for those who feel they’re being helped by his ideas about honesty, hey, it bears repeating that literature has taught me love is defined by the lovers themselves: there are no yardsticks and there are no price tags. This much I do know, anyone who charges a price for admission and anyone who pays such a price will always keep that price in mind.Report
I had no idea you were such a romantic!Report
As a fan of Savage and someone who read the critique I’ve always felt that the profile does some annoying bending and twisting to try and fit Dan into the hole they file him in. Savage doesn’t ever suggest that all relationships should be viewed as a bloodless legal arrangement. But he does have a fondness for A) cutting through a lot of emotional bullshit that obscures underlying important facts in given issues and B) viewing casual sex (for fun) in the more contractual manner.Report
Yeah, I can see that. My problem with the article is the attempt to assign a worldview to Savage in lieu of him actually articulating one. I mean, he might have elsewhere, but taking a bunch of sex columns and saying, “this is how he understands human life” is bit weak. Really, anyone who’s not in a given relationship but commenting on that relationship will end up oversimplifying it; this doesn’t mean that they don’t have a useful perspective to offer.Report
There are a lot of times when an objective perspective grounded on some set principles can offer a lot of value. The emotion laden realm of sexual entanglements is one of them. Which is probably why Savage does so well.Report
I don’t disagree that his perspective is valuable- actually, all I was getting at with this post is that the ‘classical liberalism doesn’t work with sex’ criticism of his work is pretty bizarre, Gus. The thing to remember about set principles, though, is that living relationships have a tendency to make a mockery of them.Report
No arguement from me there Rufus, though who is Gus?Report
Silly/mildly obscure reference:
I think you are all missing something here. The author establishes that Dan Savage is a social-sexual libertarian. He espouses honesty, fairness, and ‘free’ exchange in the social-sexual-emotional aspects of how people interact. He tries to relate this to a economic libertarian (not liberal) mindset about markets.
The Lutheran Minister is a fan of Savage, and undoubtedly Savage’s perspective has impacted his advice to his parishioners. What the Minister is concerned with is the genuine conservative concern of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ when rebuilding our sexual and social mores.
He argues that economic libertarianism has damaged society in ways unexpected, and perhaps the same could happen with social-sexual libertarianism.
Yes, perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it is an interesting hook for an essay. And an interesting point to ponder, as yes, imho, economic libertarianism has failed, and continues to fail as public policy. Libertarianism looks fine on paper, and even better in thought. But fails miserably in the face of corporate and state power structures that are it’s antithesis. It is so easily corrupted that the end result barely has any resemblance to a ‘purist’ libertarian’s intent.Report