The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, May 3, 2018

"Obtuse, Cold-Blooded, Sickening Drivel": Hanson and the The "Redistribution of Sex"

Sometimes you make a mistake in letting one sail over the plate. I was appalled by George Mason University Professor Robin Hanson's post advocating the "redistribution of sex" as a proposed solution to violence among self-identified "incels" (short for "involuntary celibates"). But then, rather to my astonishment, it got picked up by NYT columnist Ross Douthat.

Indeed, Douthat tried to normalize Hanson's piece by citing an essay in the London Review of Books by Amia Srinivasan, which, while pointing out the socially (and thus politically, in part) constructed nature of desire, unequivocally answered the question with a solid no:
The question, then, is how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question usually answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion. It is striking, though unsurprising, that while men tend to respond to sexual marginalisation with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, women who experience sexual marginalisation typically respond with talk not of entitlement but empowerment. Or, insofar as they do speak of entitlement, it is entitlement to respect, not to other people’s bodies. That said, the radical self-love movements among black, fat and disabled women do ask us to treat our sexual preferences as less than perfectly fixed. ‘Black is beautiful’ and ‘Big is beautiful’ are not just slogans of empowerment, but proposals for a revaluation of our values. Lindy West describes studying photographs of fat women and asking herself what it would be to see these bodies – bodies that previously filled her with shame and self-loathing – as objectively beautiful. This, she says, isn’t a theoretical issue, but a perceptual one: a way of looking at certain bodies – one’s own and others’ – sidelong, inviting and coaxing a gestalt-shift from revulsion to admiration. The question posed by radical self-love movements is not whether there is a right to sex (there isn’t), but whether there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires.
Douthat offers "an alternative, conservative response, of course — namely, that our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate." He acknowledges that this "is not the natural response for a society like ours. Instead we tend to look for fixes that seem to build on previous revolutions, rather than reverse them."

Douthat's seeing a convection between Hanson's post and Srinivasan's effort to expand empathy and compassion and push back on the social construction of desire, while defending the right of individuals to choose their own partners doesn't speak well of him (he reductios her arguments ad absurdum).

Douthat suggests that "incels" will turn to technological solutions, which I think is both profoundly sad, and wildly optimistic. I'd just suggest that Douthat has rather missed the point of the manifestos of Alek Minassian and Elliot Rodger, who murdered 6 people in 2014, and who Minassian perversely titled "Supreme Gentleman."

They are not looking for respect for their celibacy. Rather, Rodger's and Minassian's manifestos sound in domination, in a sense of entitlement to women's bodies, whether or not the women's souls are involved. They sound in status, and a truly toxic masculinism--the "Pick-up Artist" as a totemic figure.

As for Hanson--well, Hanson's post reminds me of Herman Wouk's phrase in War and Remembrance (p. 151): "obtuse, cold-blooded, sickening drivel." He suggests that "Sex could be directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation." In an update, he is surprised that his talk of sex being "directly redistributed" has caused such recoil:
A tweet on this post induced a lot of discussion on twitter, much of which accuses me of advocating enslaving and raping women. Apparently many people can’t imagine any other way to reduce or moderate sex inequality. (“Redistribution” literally means “changing the distribution.”) In the post I mentioned cash compensation; more cash can make people more attractive and better able to afford legalized prostitution. Others have mentioned promoting monogamy and discouraging promiscuity. Surely there are dozens of other possibilities; sex choices are influenced by a great many factors and each such factor offers a possible lever for influencing sex inequality. Rape and slavery are far from the only possible levers!
Note that he does not rule them out, and never expands upon his earlier words about "direct redistribution," focusing in the update on the cash alternative.

Moreover, Hanson is treating sex--that is, the sexual use of a woman's body, to be more precise--as a commodity. There is nothing about the woman's desire, or lack thereof. No empathy for those whose sexual availability is treated as a public good to be parceled out as needed for the needs of others.

Simply put, Hanson shows no awareness of women as human beings in their own right, as having inner lives of equal complexity and value to those of the men whose needs he seeks to address. It bids fair to replace in obliquity Richard A. Posner's infamous 1985 Columbia Law Review article in which he treats rape as a "market bypass." (To be fair, Posner grew in his decades as a judge, and I suspect he probably flinches on remembering this particular piece.)

If there was ever a question that we as a culture need feminism, men as much as women, Hanson is Exhibit "A."


Teramis said...

Very interesting commentary, John. These social attitudes are problematic, and I like that there is an evolving social conversation around these issues. Thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking contribution to the subject.

rick allen said...

I have to admit being rather bowled over by these late movements, which seem so unmoored from reality, but in some way are such a predictable consequence of what my whole life has been called the "Sexual Revolution" (though its undoubted victory seems to make it less revolutionary than status quo). I've said more than once that the last election sealed the triumph of the sexual revolution, with the Betty Friedan wing unexpectedly losing out to the Hugh Hefner wing.

I'm not sure if I find your appeal to feminism an adequate response. Surely the root of the problem is the commodification of sex, not the imperative to commodify feminine needs equally. The practice of prostitution has been commodifying sex from time immemorial. I don't think the answer, at least for a Christian, is to ensure that the prostitution business runs according to the nondiscriminatory norms of an efficient and free market.

"Sexual politics" has become such a common term that it seems irredeemably reactionary to question its appropriateness. But I question it (mostly leaving my questioning quiet). We have always known that "the course of true love did never run straight." But I don't think we've thought we could remedy that by subjecting it to the market, or promulating a legally enforceable right . Is it too late to same that maybe something, somewhere, is outside of the market and the law?

Anglocat said...

Teramis, thank you, and nice to see you here.

Rick, good to hear from you, too. My point about feminism is that the Hanson blog post in question is not, unlike sexual freedom movements, predicated on mutual autonomy, but on making women’s bodies available to men, and doing so without any consideration for the interests or desires of the women involved. Hanson seems to suggest government support, or “nudging” as an option at least to achieve this. Commodification of sex is only part of what’s so appallingly wrong with Hanson’s post; it’s expressly commodification of women’s bodies, either by undermining or overcoming their personal autonomy.

rick allen said...

I think I understand your point, but it seems to me that much of the sexual revolution was precisely about "making women's bodies available to men," whether through pornography, or the decoupling of sex from any sort of commitment, or new attitudes making virginity or celibacy, once honored and respected ways of life, into matters of derision and ridicule. The new "incel" culture is rather horrifying, but it's not hard to see where it came from.

I don't mean to be arguing with you. I seldom comment on the internet these days, but I follow a few blogs with interest, among them your own, and I appreciate your thoughts. I have long tried to put up a brief post summarizing my own thoughts about where we've arrived in the relation between men and women and find that it's extremely difficult. So I appreciate your broaching the subject.

If nothing else these last few years have caused me to doubt my own judgment of what is possible. Twenty years ago I thought it impossible that we would reach a point where the relationship of biological sex to marriage would not only be denied, but declared constitutionally irrational. Or two years ago the thought that, if a president were to be caught paying hush money to cover up an affair with a porn star, our main question would be whether such a thing violated campaign finance statutes. In light of what might be called my lack of social imagination it's hard to just dismiss as crazy this notion that a "right to sex" might somehow come into existence through the imperative of equality.

This is not to say that I consider our time any better or worse than any other. I hope I'm not yet so old to be ragging on about the "good old days." But as a fellow lawyer I'm sure you'd agree that, if there is a fault with societies where lawyers predominate, it is the sense that if we can work with anybody, then we can defend anything, and that therefore just about anything can be justified by a clever enough attorney. I've been proud of the way our profession has redeemed itself in resisting the worst impulses of the current administration. But as an admirer of Socrates from way back I'm afraid we have a lot of the sophist in us, and it has had its effects.

Please pardon the running's a rare slow Sunday.

Anglocat said...

Sorry to have taken so long in replying; I just saw your comment now. I do agree about the pitfalls of sophistry in our society, and yes, it’s an occupational hazard in our profession. That there was just the shadow side to the Sexual Revolution you describe is true, as the fact that there was genuine liberation, in the sense that women have been in some ways freed from unjust limits, only to find new social constraints—eternal youth expected, commodification, etc.

I think somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the notion of men aspiring to being gentlemen, in the Trollopian way. Of having a code not precisely of chivalry—the medieval era is long gone—but of the generosity of spirit that marked the best aspirations of what it is to be a gentleman, in the moral sense, not the class sense.

Maybe we need another generation or two to work out how to maximize the benefits, and combat the shadow sides, of these tectonic shifts. I know Steven Moffat’s a TV writer, but his constant appeals in the last year to kindness have rung a bell with me, especially his line that “hate is always foolish, but love is always wise.”

As always, glad to hear from you, Rick.