Monday, March 7, 2011

Commodity Fetishes and Fantasy Girls

This DoubleX article about the possible correlation between women’s sexual liberty and men’s achievement bothers me for two central reasons. The first is how it links the notion of a sexual economy in which the man buys sex at a market rate to numbers that suggest women want marriage and babies. The article then suggests that women are ‘underselling’ their sexual capital in order to fulfill their desire for marriage etc., such that the man whose commitment they purchase is varying types of underachiever. Following the logic, I am left with a society of women so desperate for the paradigmatic American family that their standards have just melted away.

The second is the idea that women’s substantive empowerment in all arenas, including the bedroom, actively creates conditions that demotivate men. I don’t disagree at all with the ostensible thesis of the article, which is that men still have the upper hand in hetero premarital relationships. I do find it a bit scary that at one point it argues that more women means more “feminist” sexual permissiveness and thus, more male satisfaction. Feminism, or at least sexual openness, is thus just another way for women to satisfy the male fantasy, while a regressive focus on filling the Lacanian ‘feminine lack’ through marriage is the logical secret to men’s achievement. In a Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalytic framework, desire is the motivator of all describable acts, meaning that without the tantalizing pull of the ‘unassailable’, sexually unavailable woman, the man has nothing to strive for and thus becomes a PBR-swilling, entitled twerp. Or so the psychological logic of the article suggests.

The sexually available woman, who for whatever motive is willing to enter into the sexual relationship, gives a man exactly what he wants according to his fantasy. But with the mystery of “Woman” so easily plumbed, he has no reason to struggle for sex or anything else. According to this construction, women who know what they want and aren’t afraid of their sexuality are apparently holding men back. Or to be even bolder, feminists are holding men back.
The article is not so explicit, but in the past year I’ve seen a few variations on a theme in which the rise of women in the culture and economy threatens the very necessity of maleness. There was even an issue of The Atlantic magazine that worried whether the further growth of women’s power in North American society would make men obsolete. One thing they share, regardless of the sex of the writer, is a more traditional masculine perspective where a man locates his worth in his career, his family and his wealth. This new trend of worrying about the future of males seems to ask, if women’s success only makes life worse for men, then what is the worth of women’s success?

Frankly, I dislike being asked to question the worth of my success because twenty something boys are supposedly underachieving. Also, I’m not waiting for a man to commit to me, nor am I sexually ‘cheap’ (even at the ripe old age of twenty-two). But perhaps that’s just me.

Really though, I know some pretty cool young guys who are down to have relationships, but want to wait on the ‘serious’ part of those relationships (i.e. cohabitation or engagement). Maybe the young women in the article have expectations that are inconsistent with the guys they date because the guys are inappropriate choices. But maybe those bad choices are because women feel sex is bad unless it happens within the context of a ‘serious’ relationship, but they don’t act upon that feeling because modern women are expected to be more open to casual encounters. That second expectation finds support from both feminist and macho perspectives precisely because modern notions of sexual appropriateness mean easier fantasy fulfillment for men along with more sexual empowerment for women. We’re describing young women whose relationships are dissatisfying because they are made to feel like bad women for succumbing to the powerful expectation that sex is the norm in all relationships, regardless of how sexually active they wish to be.
Patriarchy isolates women from fully occupying their sexuality by confusing us all, women and men, with wildly contradictory messages. First it teaches us that sexual women are bad, but then it dictates that men should only value women for their sexual function. Combine that with the aftereffects of the sexual revolution for both sexes, and you have women who have been encouraged to act bad as long as doing so gets them a husband, and men who expect women to be sexually receptive without demanding respect.

As a culture, we still believe strongly in the redemptive power of marriage; strongly enough that a so-called hooker can become a “good” woman, erasing a history that discomfits mainstream culture, or a mistress can become a fairly respectable political wife. Though they are vivid, antithetical to the American family and definitely not virgins, becoming someone’s wife redeems them. In the movies, bad women have been redeemed from Hitchcock’s Marnie to Pretty Woman, and the way they take the leap into respectability is a nice wedding and a future of channeling their sexuality into sex with the husband. Marnie isn’t saved by her marriage, per se, but her husband imagines their forced marriage will reform her wild ways. When she resists his imposition of values and does not want to have sex with him, he (perhaps) rapes her. He has fulfilled his part of the bargain by marrying her and thus saving her from herself and so he takes his due by insisting upon the sexual relationship. He is owed sex because he saves her from living out her life as a bad woman.
If girls grow up secretly believing marriage is what saves women from being floozies, then of course they’ll be disappointed when sex is frankly expected of them and not treated as part of a process of emotional involvement. Marriage is hardly an option in most sexual relationships, utterly defying the cultural bifurcation of femininity into sex object or wife.
Ultimately, the issues at hand follow a common thread. They ask: does women’s success always have to be at the expense of men? Can we talk about this without blaming women somehow? What do you think?

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