Infinite Recurrence


There was a story bandied about a few months ago about a Harvard professor named Harvey Mansfield who gave a lecture arguing for a New Feminism.  Mansfield's principal activity these days seems to be writing books on masculinity, and the gist of the New Feminism he calls for is a return to the modesty and prudence of the days before the Old Feminism.  The New Feminism seems to look an awful lot like Non-Feminism, but that's not the point I'm trying to drive at.  Others have dealt with this more effectively than I.

The broad argument is that women are harming themselves by being promiscuous.  Mansfield takes as a first premise that the one thing women are after in romantic relationships is marriage.  Men seek only sex.  Women don't care too much for sex except as a means to the end of marriage.  Men would never get married if they could avoid it, because the only reason they seek the company of women is for sex.  In the traditional scheme, women were modest and seldom had sex outside of marriage.  Men were generally thwarted in their search for sex without marriage, because most women were unwilling to give it.  A woman used sex as a bargaining tool; she would offer a man what he truly wanted and could not obtain, sex, if only the man would give her the One Object Without Which No Woman's Life Has Meaning, a wedding ring (I'm sorry, I'm allowing editorial commentary to slip in.  I shall avoid this in the future).  So in a society where women generally don't consent to sex outside of marriage, women can leverage their control of the Sex Market to force men to grudgingly consent to matrimony.

But sadly, Mansfield argues, the balance of power has tilted with the rise of Feminism.  Now women have sex outside of marriage all the time.  Men can get sex without marriage, so therefore there's no reason for a man ever to marry.  Why buy the cow, to use the parlance of our times, when you can get the milk for free? 

I'm not posting this to argue against Mansfield.  Anything I could say has already been said, better, by the people I linked to above.  To choose just my favorite of the many reasons why he is wrong, he has created an explanation for a phenomenon that does not exist.  From what I understand, the average age of first marriage has slowly increased in recent years, but the rate of marriage has stayed roughly the same.  That is, despite female promiscuity and the lack of any reason for men to get married anymore, men and women defy all logic and continue to get married at roughly the same rate they did back in the days of feminine modesty.  Mansfield has thus created an explanation for a theoretical problem that, bafflingly, has failed to materialize in real life.  But that doesn't mean women shouldn't adopt Mansfield's New Feminism, just to be on the safe side in case people start acting in the way that he theorizes they ought to be acting.

No, my purpose here is to point out that Mansfield's argument is not a new argument.  It can be found throughout history and throughout our literature.  In fact, it can be found in the very first official novel written in the English language, Samuel Richardson's Pamela

(I should point out that there is some debate as to whether Pamela is truly the first English-language novel.  Gulliver's Travels was published before it, and some have argued that it should be accounted first among novels.  The objection raised is that Gulliver's Travels is nearly a novel, but not quite.  Gulliver's Travels is structured as four independent stories.  Each has its own plot and does not rely on the others in any way; they can be read and understood in any order.  The only common thread is the main character, Gulliver.  Gulliver's Travels, therefore, does not meet the criterion that a novel present a unified, sustained narrative of some length.  It is more a collection of novellettes.  Pamela, on the other hand, has its own problems.  It is an epistelary novel.  That is, it is a novel in the form of a series of letters, with only one brief omniscient narrative segment of about a page-and-a-half midway through the book.  It doesn't necessarily meet the standard template of a novel, either.  But my understanding is that Gulliver's Travels's failure of sustained narrative is more fatal to its claim to novelhood than Pamela's unusual means of storytelling.  I, personally, am in the Gulliver's Travels camp, but only because it seems a shame that the English language should have to claim a work as milk-curdlingly awful as Pamela as its first novel.)

Pamela tells the story of a young middle-class girl who works as a maid.  Her principal occupation during her free time is writing excruciatingly boring letters to her parents, which Richardson has thoughtfully compiled and forced us to read.  One day she is kidnapped by a wealthy young landowner with romantic designs upon her.  She is forced to live as his captive at his isolated estate.  Through devices I no longer recall and don't care to look up, she rebuffs all of his sexual advances.  Eventually he gives up and marries her, and she lives happily ever after as the wife of her kidnapper and attempted-rapist.  But she's married, and that's all any woman wants, right?

The moral of the story is clear: if a woman remains chaste, eventually a wealthy but morally off-kilter lord will marry her and make all her dreams come true.  Women use chastity to get marriage, which is both the only thing that will make them happy and everything they need to be happy. 

This message is driven home further by Richardson's second novel, Clarissa.  Many authors, talented though they may be, only have one novel in them, and just keep re-writing that novel as long as it will sell.  English's first novellist was one such author.  Clarissa is exactly like Pamela but for 3 key distinctions: 1.  Clarissa is about five times longer than Pamela.  2. Clarissa came from a wealthy family, while Pamela was middle class. 3. Pamela succedes in warding off her kidnappers advances.  Clarissa, despite her best efforts, fails, and is raped about half-way through the book.  This makes all the difference.  Pamela, by keeping her virginity, is wondrously well wed and lives happily ever after.  Clarissa is tossed aside after her kidnapper gets The Only Thing Men Want from her.  The rest of the novel is a series of further debasements, and Clarissa dies a destitute, lonely whore. 

Mansfield and his ilk are making the same argument that Richardson made in the form of bad novels 250 years ago:  For women, chastity leads to marriage and happiness.  Sexual impropriety will mean that no man will want you.  You won't marry, so your life will be meaningless.  You'll never find happiness and you'll die alone and miserable. 

I wonder if Mansfield would consider using Pamela as his model of the modern New Feminist.  It wouldn't make much of a sales pitch, but it would honestly admit that that New Feminism is neither new nor feminist.


Well, you know, the virgin/whore dichotomy never gets old. Apparently. Did you ever have to read Tess of the D'Urbervilles in school (or, god help you, read it willingly on your own)? A hundred years ago and a hundred and fifty years after Samuel Richardson's books were written, it was still necessary to point out that if you're foolish enough to let a man fuck you you will eventually be discarded by your husband, most of your family will die, your neighbors and old friends will shun you, and you will wind up back in the arms of your rapist paramour but then stab him to death and be executed for it. Obviously.

In terms of analysis I tend to view this recurring argument as a myth more than as a piece of rhetoric. You can't really argue with myths, which saves me a great deal of elevated blood pressure. All you can really do with them is look for the essential motivation of the people buying into and repeating them. So?

If you view sex (or the enjoyment of same) as a male privilege rather than a universal activity, then, in order not to be surrounded by the offensive behavior of willfully sexual women, you need to invent and propagate a reason for women to avoid sex. The virgin/whore dichotomy, defining whoredom as having had sex even once, ensures that the obedient, abstaining woman will not have any opportunity to discover that sex is fun or that many of the alleged consequences are fictional. So then all you need is some pressing justification for said dichotomy, which here (any of these heres, in fact) is a double-whammy of stick and carrot taking advantage of the fact that most people would rather be married than universally shunned. (The way I see it, the assertion that men don't care about marriage is largely irrelevant since the moralizing here is aimed squarely at women's behavior and not at men's. You can shrug off an assumption about your motivation, even if it's incorrect, fairly easily if no one's using it to tell you what to do.) Women! If you have sex you will die alone. If you don't, you'll have a stable conjugal life. No-brainer, right? Men! If you're with me here, you can help spread this myth and it'll make sure you're not threatened by too many sexually-active women. If you're not with me, there's little reason for you to actually oppose me, because I'm not saying a thing about the consequences of your actions, whatever they may be.

Okay, so I haven't started on why one would view sex as a male privilege or be threatened by female sexual activity in the first place, but a) I really don't know and b) I'm sure if I did manage to get started on that we'd be here all day.

The myth framework is definitely the proper lens to examine these works through. Richardson himself was a student of myth; he composed his own version of Aesop's Fables before writing Pamela, so he was consciously familiar with these legends. I'm sure the sex-leads-to-doom (for women) myth has been around a lot longer than English literature, and probably longer than the English language.

(Another failing of Pamela as a piece of literature: I know about Richardson's Aesop's Fables because he stops the narrative in the middle of the book to insert a ham-handed pitch for it. That is, in one of Pamela's letters she writes something to the effect of "I have been so bored in my captivity! The one bright spot has been my delightful discovery of a most wondrous retelling of the tales of Aesop, transcribed by the brilliant Mr. Richarson. I am lead to understand it can be purchased from fine booksellers on the London market, for a modest price, at that! I would recommend you endeavor to find a copy.")

Having said that, I think it's appropriate to point out that Our Man Mansfield is not presenting this as a myth or a fable, but as a legitimate argument for modesty and chastity. The apropriate reaction to a myth is to appreciate its purpose and the reasons for its invention. It is not to dishonestly present the myth as an original and reasonable argument for your viewpoint.

Do you know much about Evolutionary Psychology? An argument from Ev. Psych. was the one piece of evidence Mansfield brought to the table. I'm pretty ignorant of the theory behind it, other than that it argues that patterns of thought are heritable and go through a darwinian vetting process just like opposable thumbs.

I'm a bit suspicious of Ev. Psych.; it gets trotted out a lot as a means of explaining male/female differences, but the arguments beg their questions. That is, the process for arriving at them appears to have been "I see difference X between men and women. I believe this difference is innate. How can I derive a vaguely evolutionary explanation for why this difference is innate? Aha! (Insert explanation). Now, (Explanation) proves that difference X must be innate." The explanations tend to be flimsy and fairly easily taken apart.

Of course, most of my exposure to Ev. Psych. is in the from of arguments made by conservative pundits and other Professional Opinion-Havers. It could well be that there is a wholely respectable field of scientific Evolutionary Psychology that is bastardized by the pundit class. Have you encountered it much in Anthropology/Sociology?

I haven't really encountered much evolutionary psychology in anthropology. I'd probably see more of it if I were in social/cultural anthro instead of archaeology, but since I avoid social/cultural whenever possible, my exposure is limited. I'm thankful for that because, like you, I'm generally quite suspicious of the arguments made under ev. psych.'s auspices. My opinion might be different if not for the fact that my circle of acquaintances seems to be made up primarily of people with alternative sexual identities/relationship models/gender roles/other things that are typically ignored, denied, or excluded by the logic of evolutionary psychology. I noted with interest that Mansfield, when asked a question about queer folk, dismissed them as simultaneously inappropriate and irrelevant without attempting to justify that position or fit it into his general model. It kind of detracts from his attempt to present his position as one of good reason. Just, you know, slightly.

I still worry that there may be more to Ev. Psych. than I give it credit for. A meandering explanation:

I spent too much of today reading a stupid flamewar at Feministe involving a law school message board I used to read. To summarize: The board has some good information on it, but well over half the posters are immature assholes who use the anonymity of the internet to post on such topics as "Feminists: Too ugly to rape?" and "When will chinks learn to shut up in class?" Jill at Feministe is a law student blogger at NYU. A few months ago someone at the board found her blog and posted unflattering comments about her. This, aparently, has lead to sporadic posts on the board about Jill: "Have you seen her in class?", "What's she look like?", "Any Jill sightings?", etc.

After ignoring them for six months, Jill finally responded when a thread was posted at the board calling on people to rate her appearance. The thread elicited such comments as "That nose ring is fucking money, rape her immediately," "I really want to kick her in the box for some reason," and "I would hate-fuck that cunt." Jill posted about it on her blog, and some representatives from the board showed up in comments to defend the board. The arguments for the board boiled down to "We're just blowing off steam! I guess you feminists can't take a joke. Besides, it's free speech!"

What gives me pause about dismissing Ev. Psych is something said in the comments by SD, one of the board defenders. The discussion had gone off on a tangent about feminism, and SD said, "I don’t know a ton about feminism, but I know some and it’s enough to know that (1) it’s mostly knee-jerk reactionary and (2) has run its course as a useful movement." This annoyed me, for obvious reasons. There's a sophisticated argument for feminism, and those are some pretty summary conclusions to reach about a philosophy you know little about.

But, at this point, the only encounters that I've had with Ev. Psych. have been in feminist rebuttals of poorly-written pieces by Professional Opinion-Havers. Similarly, it seems that SD's knowledge of feminism largely comes from the hairy-armpitted Feminazi straw-women erected by Anti-Feminists.

So it feels like, if I'm going to get mad at SD for dismissing Feminism on the basis of caricatures made by the philosophy's opponents, I can't then dismiss Ev. Psych. on the basis of rebuttals made by its opponents. I should at least make a good-faith effort to learn what it's about before passing judgment.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on December 30, 2005 3:00 AM.

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