Gender, Convention, and the Power of Meaningful Choices

By Matthew Stolz

I usually try to avoid getting sucked into the lower depths of internet political debates, but a close friend of mine sent me this article at the beginning of winter break, and I have been thinking about it ever since.  On the surface, the article is a response to some responses to an earlier post by the same author regarding some sociological findings about the vague correlation between the gender of one’s children and one’s political leanings that supposedly speaks to pervasive expectations and fears regarding female sexuality.  The author, Ross Douthat, is The New York Times’ token conservative op-ed columnist, so it’s unsurprising that his musings on the sexual mores of other people’s daughters caught the attention and ire of the greater feminist blogosphere (and justifiably so, in my opinion).  Still, I keep coming back to Douthat’s rather lengthy response to these criticisms for a couple of reasons.  First, I think it’s important to note that he and his thoughts are, at least in part, products of our campus and our culture (his columns are still archived on The Crimson’s website, if you want to peruse).  Second, I think that this article points toward some profoundly consequential issues in feminist theory, even if it does not address them explicitly.  Douthat’s argument is a good jumping off point for an exploration of some interesting questions about gender, social conventions, and freedom that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, questions that I think are essential for understanding what it means to call oneself a feminist in our time.

Before I dive in, a brief but necessary recap of the debate.  On December 14, 2013, Douthat published a column about a recent sociological finding suggesting that having a daughter makes a parent more likely to vote Republican.  He interpreted this finding to reflect cross-generational discomfort with the pervading sexual mores of the millennial generation (characterized loosely by ubiquitous hookups, the decline of traditional courtship, etc. (I want to note that there are obvious problems with the terms “pervading sexual mores” and “millennial generation,” but for the sake of argument I will let them slide)).  The basic conclusion is that parents become more conservative because they’re afraid to set their daughters loose in the anarchic sexual landscape that currently blankets most major US urban areas.  For the most part, the responses from feminist bloggers take Douthat to task on the low-hanging fruit of his most blatant transgressions.  It is true, as they point out, that his use and contextualization of source material are highly suspicious, at least from an academic sociological perspective.  It is also true that that his unspecific recommendations for restructuring our generation’s sexual mores raise some bread-and-butter concerns about paternalism and otherwise unsavory conservative tendencies.  Douthat ignores most of these criticisms in his response, focusing instead on a quite prescient argument from Marc Tracy interviewing Adelle Waldman in the New Republic.  The two argue that Douthat’s main error is that he does not trust young people (especially women) to make their own sexual decisions, leaning instead on outdated social conventions with suspiciously patriarchal overtones.  Douthat responds by pointing out that sexual decisions are always, whether we like it or not, defined by social conventions, then he goes on to interpret other sociological findings in order to argue that a more conservative sexual culture could make everyone (but once again, especially women) happier and more fulfilled in their sexual relationships.

As soon as I hit Douthat’s cursory response to the criticism from Tracy and Waldman, I knew there was something important going on in this exchange.  On the surface, the disagreement over the proper role of social convention in sexual behavior should remind us of the good old freedom/convention narrative that has been a fixture of Western social thought dating back at least to the infamous pear theft story in Augustine’s Confessions.  The idea here is that Tracy and Waldman, in the venerable tradition of second-wave feminism, argue that historically speaking American social conventions regarding female sexuality have been almost uniformly unjust.  In response, the best way to fight these injustices is to deconstruct the conventions and thereby give women (and by extension men (second-wave feminism usually leaves out other genders)) the freedom to make fulfilling sexual decisions without the pressures of convention.  Douthat, following a particular strand of poststructuralism extending from Heidegger through Foucault, reacts by claiming that this conception of freedom defined against convention is more or less bogus when pushed to its limits, as we are all always shaped by and dependent upon social conventions of one form or another when making everyday decisions.

I realize that I just threw down a bunch of names and philosophical references that may be utterly meaningless to a good portion of my audience and may obscure the stakes of a discussion that, at least in my opinion, has profound implications for our day-to-day lives.  Let me try to say all of that again by way of an example.  Waldman notes that in her recent novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (which Douthat references extensively in both columns), the title character ends up in a long-term relationship with a woman he slept with on the first date, a plot element that is supposed to fly in the face of malicious social conventions telling women that they should not sleep with their partners too quickly lest they come across as slutty, disreputable, not worthy of respect, etc.  The subtext of Waldman’s statement is that in a society without these sorts of conventions, women would have more freedom to explore their desires, test out different types of relationships, and generally come to know themselves better.  Douthat argues that even if Waldman is right regarding the maliciousness of the conventions we have, she fails to recognize that fighting their injustices is only, at most, half the battle.  The problem here is that human beings need convention to make sense of their world and each other on a very basic level.  When Waldman’s two characters sleep together after their first date, they are both making their decisions and interpreting their experiences through the lens of social conventions that give meaning to foundational concepts like sex, desire, relationships, etc.  Even if female sexuality was totally liberated from the hegemony of patriarchal conventions, the characters would still need some rubric for deciding basic questions like “what kind of emotional significance do I attach to my desire in this context?” or “do I even want to have sex with this person?”  Douthat argues that freedom from patriarchal conventions is not sufficient to answer these sorts of questions.  Indeed, the only way for the characters to answer them is to work from (or against, as the case may be) a set of social conventions that allow them to see themselves with reference to a broader set of moral values, communal expectations, shared significations, etc.  Without convention to structure this macrocosmic understanding, individual freedom is neither just nor unjust; it is simply meaningless.

This disagreement is of course not very challenging if we think about it carefully.  If we accept Tracy and Waldman’s premise that many American social conventions regarding sexual behavior are unjust and set it alongside Douthat’s premise that we cannot simply get rid of social conventions without losing all sense of meaning in our day-to-day lives, then a straightforward solution emerges.  The real work of sexual liberation is twofold: we have to fight unjust and misogynist social conventions where they exist, and we have to work to replace them with new conventions that are more fulfilling and egalitarian.  I will be the first to admit that this conclusion feels rather flat and intuitive, and I remain open to the criticism that it is not a particularly interesting or challenging thesis.  Still, I think that there is more to it than meets the eye.  Conventional revolutionary thinking (from Marxism down to the many breeds of mainstream feminism) usually assumes that fighting injustice and promoting justice go hand in hand: one follows the other naturally in the course of the struggle for a better society.  I, for reasons that will hopefully become clear, think that this assumption is mistaken.  The work of constructing new social conventions requires far more care and thoughtfulness than the work of diagnosing and purging the old, and in that sense the main virtue of Douthat’s response is that he both makes an effort to set up a framework of social conventions regarding sexual behavior (even if the details of this framework are, at least in my opinion, disturbingly regressive) and pays at least some lip service to the profound philosophical difficulties that accompany such a task.

Here’s what I mean.  Douthat argues that we should promote more conservative sexual mores for young women by way of the premise that the documented sociological phenomenon of “pluralistic ignorance” warps women’s conceptions of sex.  The basic idea here is that we live in a society where heterosexual male preferences are normative.  At least in the sociological literature, males consistently report that they are more comfortable with a wide range of sexual activities with a new partner (ranging from “sexual touching” to “intercourse”) than do their female counterparts.  The problem, however, is that both males and females fallaciously assume that people of both genders (the sociological study limits itself to men and women) report comfort levels close to that of the expressed male preferences.  Hence the term “pluralistic ignorance.”  Douthat argues that this evidence suggests that we should empower women to express their more conservative sexual preferences over and against the convention of normative male preferences.

In defense of this claim, Douthat leans on the authority of the sociological findings to avoid doing the difficult work of conceiving new social conventions from scratch.  His basic argument is that sociologists know what women want, so all we need to do is realign social norms and expectations so that they better fit those stated preferences.  I think that this is the point where Douthat drops the ball (I mean this in terms of the philosophical structure of his argument; I don’t think there was ever a point at which I agreed with him content-wise).  The problem here is that Douthat fails to give full heed to the ways in which social conventions constitute on a very basic level what we as human beings can desire and understand.  He does not entertain the possibility that both women’s and men’s stated preferences may themselves be products of social convention and not expressions of “true preference.”  Indeed, an honest engagement with Douthat’s poststructuralist framework may lead us to the conclusion that the very idea of “true preference” is totally meaningless.  That being said, I want to give him a generous reading, so I will admit that he does attack the weakest form of my argument when he objects to what he characterizes as the first possible response to the sociological literature.  This response is a classic incarnation of the extremely controversial “false consciousness” argument that runs throughout what Foucault would call the tradition of localized critiques (such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism).  The basic claim is that unjust conventions cause the sexual conservatism among women that we encounter in the sociological findings, and that women’s preferences would change radically were the conventions abolished.  The clear problem with this argument is that it requires all young American women to stand up and admit that they are too oppressed to know what they want sexually, which feels about as patronizing as the social conventions that such a strategy aims to topple.  Still, I do not want to dwell on this point too much.  As I plan to show, there are plenty of ways to promote new conventions within the poststructuralist framework without veering into the problematic territory of false consciousness.  I simply mean to point out that Douthat’s argument at least touches on the fringes of reasonableness, and that this should remind us to proceed with an abundance of care and caution.

At this point, I think it’s clear that the stakes of this discussion have grown to much bigger proportions than those of sexual behavior alone, so I’m going to drop the examples that have grounded my argument thus far and move on to a more abstract engagement with the promises and dangers of social conventions surrounding gender.  This requires, unfortunately, one final detour into the world of high theory, so bear with me.  One of the classic divisions separating second- and third-wave feminism is the one between the humanist and gynocentric camp.  Put briefly, the humanist feminists (most notably Beauvoir, Friedan, and their ilk) make the now familiar argument that patriarchal social structures oppress women and relegate them to housework, childrearing, submission to husbands, etc.  This is the line of thinking that led activists to encourage women to take on traditionally male roles, leading to higher female enrollment in universities, more female representation on political, corporate, and other governing bodies, and other such advancements.  The gynocentric feminists (most notably Irigaray, Iris Marion Young, Kristeva, and their ilk) reacted against this humanist argument on the grounds that it implicitly elevates traditionally masculine pursuits and ways of thinking above traditionally feminine ones.  The problem is that if we are only concerned about getting women into corporate boardrooms, then all we end up doing is perpetuating a social structure where we perceive economic striving and achievement as having more dignity and value than activities like housework or childrearing, thereby reinforcing the modes of thinking that gave us patriarchy and misogyny in the first place.  In response, the gynocentric feminists spilled a lot of ink trying to theorize new social conventions that do justice to the power and dignity of traditionally feminine ways of being.  I don’t want to delve into the details here, if only because this post is already getting too long and I haven’t really come to any good conclusions yet.  But I think that this unresolved debate illuminates the difficulties inherent in any attempt to construct new social conventions.  The problem with the humanist feminists is that they never really break free from patriarchal ways of thinking, so their version of liberation turns out to be little more than the assimilation of women into positions of power within unjust social conventions.  The problem with the gynocentric feminists is that they never really break out of the logic that designates some ways of being as masculine and others as feminine.  This may be a pragmatic political strategy, but I am personally suspicious of any proposed social conventions that rest on essentialist arguments about gender identity.

Here’s what I think is at the core of the issue.  We all have a rough idea of what the good life looks like.  It would be great if we lived in a society where gender does not affect your ambitions, modes of thinking, sexual preferences, etc.  In that society, social conventions would confer dignity independent of traditional gender roles, recognizing, for example, the virtues of housekeeping alongside those of corporate leadership.  But if I’ve convinced you of anything with this post, it should be that the task of constructing this good life is far more complex and difficult than people like Douthat and his critics make it out to be.  In my last blog post, I came to the conclusion that, at least in the case of hookup culture, breaking down oppressive social structures is all that matters.  Once people have the freedom to make informed and conscious decisions, I argued, the problems of misogyny and patriarchy will work themselves out.  I am now convinced that taking such a stance was intellectually facile and irresponsible.  Freedom is only of derivative importance here.  The real meaty work of liberation is figuring out how to construct social conventions that present us with sets of choices that are well reasoned, just, and above all meaningful.  One of the most important insights of Kierkegaard’s version of existentialism is that he reminds us how empty freedom can be if we are forced to choose amongst categorically bad options.  This maps directly onto our earlier discussion of sexual preferences.  If women’s choices are skewed by pluralistic ignorance or shaped by a dominant masculinist culture, then the act of choosing loses some of its value (maybe not to the point where we can raise the alarm of false consciousness, but some of its value nonetheless).  I am reminded here of the old Soviet dig against the foibles of late capitalism: sure, it’s great that we Americans get to stand in the grocery store and stare blankly at the few dozen varieties of peanut butter at our disposal, but in the end a peanut butter sandwich is just a peanut butter sandwich, so who really cares about our beloved “freedom to choose”?  We need sexual conventions that provide meaningful choices for everyone, not just more choices.  As I’ve tried to show, there are plenty of ways to construct social conventions that do not heed this demand properly.  Douthat’s call for more conservative sexual mores, Tracy and Waldman’s call for personal freedom, the arguments from false consciousness, humanist, and gynocentric feminism all miss the mark in some way or another (though some more egregiously than others).  I will be the first to admit that I don’t have the answers.  I don’t know what it takes to imagine (much less construct) a set of just, liberating, and meaningful social conventions regarding sex or really any other gendered issue.  I don’t think anyone knows the answer, and if I wanted to be a true Foucauldian I would claim that I don’t think any one person can know the answer.

This might be coming across as overly pessimistic, and I’ve been racking my brain to find a way to come up with something that offers a loophole or a silver lining or a definite program of resistance or whatever.  I don’t think I’m going to escape the pessimism, but here’s what I have to offer: this kind of poststructuralist critique, this way of recognizing the profound and constitutive hold that social conventions have over our most basic ways of being, is a really sobering way to look at the world.  At its best, it demands a sort of humility that I don’t think you find in most political philosophies, be they archconservative or radical feminist.  To recognize yourself as both a product of and agent within dominant patriarchal discourses and conventions can, I think, lead you to a radical reconception of your sense of self and other.  This reconception offers up what a Hegelian would call the promise of true recognition.  If you understand the complex forces that constantly shape what you can understand, believe, and do, you will be in a better position to recognize where those forces come into play with other people and, perhaps more importantly, the ways in which your perspective inhibits your ability to understand them.  To live this way is to recognize yourself and your limits in a way that illuminates all the other selves out there and all their highly individualized sets of limits.  The moral then might be that we live in a world with a disturbing poverty of meaningful choices.  And the only way to move toward the construction of new social conventions is to recognize each other as less than perfect products of the conventions we have, all just trying to make things work with the limited tools at our disposal.

When the two characters from The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. sleep together after their first date, each chooses to do so under immense pressure from social conventions.  They live in a sexual culture that shames female sexuality, idolatrizes heterosexual monogamy, and throws around the phrase “sexual conquest” without the slightest hint of shame or horror.  Under those sorts of pressures, I doubt that either character could honestly say what they want out of the encounter.  There simply are not enough meaningful choices in such a situation.   But they still have to choose to do something, and it should be clear at this point that even such minor day-to-day choices have profound personal and political consequences.  The right way to proceed, I think, is neither to ignore the social conventions nor lean too heavily upon them.  Each character needs to recognize the other as a function and perpetrator of convention, occupying a unique niche in our society’s nexus of sexual power.  This sort of recognition is, I think, what leads to honest discussion, respectful decision making, and (perhaps) a step in the direction of better social conventions.  It’s an admittedly weak promise, but hopefully one that does justice to the immense complexity of the issue at hand.

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