If You Want To Understand Modern Sexual Ethics, You Have to Talk About Prostitution

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My latest post at the Ploughshares blog focuses on an encounter I had in a Havana taxi with a middle-aged European sex tourist and his jinetera, or bought girlfriend.

It’s a story I’ve thought about telling on this blog several times, because we talk about natural law a lot here. And, sitting in the backseat, watching that fat, fatuous, hairy-eared old man paw the girl next to him, and knowing they would soon be in bed together because he was paying to make it so, one word came to my mind: unnatural.

I think that reaction is pretty normal. When I tell the story to friends, their response usually starts with a shiver of disgust. I think it’s fair to say that prostitution is less socially acceptable today than it has been in the past. There’s evidence, for example, that men are much less likely to pay for sex now than they have been in the past, and Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have argued that falling demand for bought sex has drastically reduced prostitutes’ earnings over the past century.

We see this in cultural expressions, too: today’s lit world is hardly the same as the one where “Norman Mailer told Updike he should get back in the whorehouse and stop worrying about his prose style.”

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If folks on the religious right are going to stick to the idea that the Sexual Revolution has reduced our sexual ethic to consent, they need to reckon with that shiver. Denny Burk, for example, just responded to Belinda Luscombe’s new Time piece on the dangers of porn by lamenting, “We are at a place in our culture in which sexual morality has been reduced to consent.” Further, he says, it has “delivered to us a generation of men who think of women as objects to be used and abused for their sexual pleasure.”

But the declining demand for prostitution suggests to me that, today, sexual morality has not been reduced to consent. When it involves adults, prostitution is consensual.

Further, the idea that this generation of men (more than previous generations!) thinks of women as objects for use and abuse is a truly bold and hard-to-defend claim. I’d say the reason visiting prostitutes has become less socially acceptable is because it’s harder and harder now to think of women as objects. I know that’s what got me in the colectivo: looking at the guy, I wondered, Why on earth would you have sex with a woman who’s only doing it for the money? Prostitution starts to become unthinkable when you care what the woman thinks.

IMG_0511In other words, when women have a voice in sexual matters, prostitution naturally tends to decline. The same could be said for other conservative freakout-bait, like incest and polygamy. While you may hear advocates for those things using the language of the Sexual Revolution, culturally, those things are less prevalent in modern societies than in traditional ones.

I don’t expect this to convince many on the right, who have invested so much in the narrative of moral decline that they can’t get their minds around any type of good news. If, for you, data showing teenagers are having less sex is a sign that we’re losing our cultural virility, then you can certainly see decreasing prostitution as a symptom of our porn-addled decadence. But I write it anyway, as a reminder that there is another vision of sexual ethics, and that there are other narratives to explain our world.

Plus, I’ll take any excuse to post photos from Cuba. Pico Iyer is right: it’s the easiest place in the world to take pictures.

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Sexless as the Bees? Complementarity and Country Life

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[Photo by Leann Mueller]

Over at Public Discourse, Susan Hanssen writes glowingly about the Vatican’s recent colloquium on complementarity, claiming that the lessons taught there echo the lessons found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic 1932 children’s novel Little House in the Big Woods. Hanssen distinguishes between the roles that Wilder writes for “Ma” and “Pa” in the novel. “Pa and his gun are essential to the family’s survival,” Hanssen writes, while Ma is the novel’s civilizing moral influence. She is also the one who trains her family to recognize beauty, who “completes her useful work by making it beautiful.”

“The family is only whole and safe when it is founded on the complementarity of masculine and feminine,” Hanssen concludes, and worries that without the influence of voices like Wilder’s (and the Vatican’s), we risk becoming “sexless as the bees.”

By coincidence, my wife and I just started reading Little House in the Big Woods to our daughter at bedtime. I think Hanssen is misreading the novel, and I’ll explain why in a follow-up post.

For now, I want to focus on a larger issue at work in Hanssen’s post (and other posts I’ve seen lately): the idea that what she sees as “genderlessness” is a modern thing, and something very different than what we would see in our more rural past. Now, I don’t live in the past, but I do work in the country, and from what I’ve seen, gender roles in ranch and farm work are more fluid—not less—than they are in the average US home.

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[Mary’s cattle]

The first cowboy I met while working at the ranch was, in fact, a cowgirl. Her name was Mary, and she was probably fifty, and she leased some of my boss’s acres for part of her herd. She’s moved on since then, and now the same land is leased by an older married couple who have lived in the area their whole lives. Most mornings, I see the husband doing his morning chores in their red jeep, but it’s no surprise, either, to see his wife out doing the same jobs—with or without him. As Barney Nelson wrote in Texas Monthly in 2011:

Men, women, and children can and do cowboy. The word already mixes gender: cow (female) and boy (male). Within the ranching world, even cowboys are seldom referred to collectively as ‘cowboys.’ We just call each other by our given names: Jeff, Candi, Chris, or Liz.

“Historically,” Nelson writes, “women did anything they wanted to do—they went up the trail, rode saddle broncs, and owned ranches in their own names.” If that shocks you, it’s probably because you don’t really know what cowboys do. As Nelson puts it, “The job requires tenacity, not virility, patience rather than strength, and the willingness to do whatever needs doing, not heroics. All these qualities are as easily found among women as men.”

If you think about it, the tasks a cowboy might be called to perform are all gender-twisted anyway: he might spend an afternoon or an evening midwifing a new calf; his wife might spend her days husbanding a bean patch. He will probably be comfortable cooking for himself and cleaning his own clothes; she will probably know how to butcher stock and shoot a gun. Because just like he can’t escape the stereotypically feminine aspects of the job, a rural woman can’t avoid being called on to do “masculine” things. Men are better protectors than women? Maybe. But a woman needs to know what to do if she comes across a rattlesnake, too.

That’s why, from what I’ve seen, being a grownup is valued more out there than fitting into gendered roles. Which is not to say that you won’t sometimes hear rigid gender stereotypes among ranchers and farmers, just that those stereotypes fall away pretty quickly next to the practical necessities of country life. People are more concerned with what’s getting done, in other words, than with who’s doing it.

“This makes a woman of a man,” Wendell Berry says of farming, “… in the body’s pride and at its cost.” A rancher, farmer, or cowboy needs to be able to put aside pride in his or her masculinity or femininity and do whatever the hell is necessary to do to survive. But in return, Berry tells us, comes a new kind of pride, one a lot like what Joan Didion calls self-respect.

But what about the complementarity of Little House in the Big Woods? Doesn’t it matter that everyone in that family has an important role? Well, yeah, and I’ll talk more about that in my next post. But, basically, I’d say that the complementarianism of Wilder’s book is a lot less rigid than Hanssen imagines it to be, and that it can easily be used to describe families like Charity & Sylvia’s. Of course, that puts it at odds with the vision of complementarity that dominated the Vatican colloquium. Little House in the Big Woods, I’m afraid, doesn’t do what Hanssen says it does. Again, more on that soon.

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For now, I’ll leave you with another link to Barney Nelson’s essay, which I recommend highly—not just for what it says about gender, but because it’s a very realistic depiction of the types of people (men and women) I’ve met over the past few years. Also, don’t miss Leann Mueller’s photos, which accompanied the story when it ran in Texas Monthly.

Women Reading: Fragonard and Carrie Schneider

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In Touchstone Magazine, Arthur W. Hunt meditates on Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1776 painting “A Young Girl Reading” (pictured below). Hunt, a professor of Communications, compares the girl in the painting to the students in his classes. Of the girl in the painting, he writes:

If Fragonard’s painting apprehends the ideal as imagined by French-speaking families, then one must ask, Who is this girl? I would suggest that she is a portrait of civility, intelligence, and virtue. In her, a suitor would find refinement and the embodiment of what was best about French culture, such as it was prior to the American Revolution. Her depiction is not, however, isolated to the tastes of Paris. She would be the ideal in Philadelphia as well. No doubt there existed a hundred like her within a mile of Franklin’s print shop.

His female students, in contrast, are girls with gadgets. Obsessed with their smartphones, they don’t read anymore, at least not deeply, Against Fragonard’s painting, Hunt offers us images of women from iPod commercials: “The iPod girls groove to music, for which the device was originally designed. They crank their arms and shake their booties. Today these devices serve multiple purposes—taking pictures, watching movies, checking email, and playing video games. The iPhone and iPad also serve many of these same functions. You can even use them to read books. But whether girls actually use these gadgets to read books is another question.”

From all of this, Hunt foresees the end of civility, which he illustrates by telling us that he recently saw a girl belch on campus while her friends laughed. The young girl reading is gone, and with her “all that she signifies—sophistication, depth, urbanity, intelligence, refinement.”

First, let me say: I share some of his concerns about the addictive power of smartphones, and about the rhythm of modern life, and the possible effects of these things on our collective attention span.

That said, Hunt’s article shows all of the trademarks of the Myth of Moral Decline: hyperbole, a blindness to goodness in modernity, and a fatal case of confirmation bias. By taking Fragonard’s girl reading as an emblem for an entire era, he’s overlooking all of the other images that time period might provide: of shopkeepers, farm girls, slaves—many of whom would rarely have had the time to lose themselves for an afternoon in a book, and who probably could not have regularly managed the three hours per day (which seems like a lot to me!) the average contemporary college student spends reading, according to a survey that Hunt cites. And taking the dancing girl from the iPod commercial as an emblem of modern life… Well. Don’t get me started.

Rather than writing a rebuttal to his post, though, I want to point you all to the gorgeous photographs from the series “Reading Women” by Carrie Schneider, featured this week in Slate. Schneider, like Hunt (and like me!), is anxious about our changing reading habits: “We are entering the era of the end of the printed page!” she says. And: “I think there is something physical, visceral about reading a book that is unlike anything else. And again, there is something rare about the depth of concentration that can be experienced while reading. Living in a culture obsessed with speed, ‘progress,’ consumption—these moments of pure immersion, belied by stillness, are rare, political, and powerful.”

So her photos are idealizations, like Fragonard’s painting, but they present a broader ideal. Schneider photographs diverse young women, reading texts from a diverse array of authors: Gwendolyn Brooks, Catherine Malabou, Edith Wharton, Angela Davis. And the images are undeniably, thrillingly modern. Whereas Hunt imagines Fragonard’s girl with a book providing stimulating conversation for her husband, it’s impossible to imagine Schneider’s women limiting their aspirations to that.

Maybe, looking at Schneider’s photographs, it’s easier to have a little more sympathy for modernity—to believe that the girl glued to her iPhone on the subway really could be reading a philosophical treatise, or that the girl laughing with her friends on campus might then retreat to her dorm room to get lost in Virginia Woolf.

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(By the way, the same issue of Touchstone contains a more… um … strident attack on modernity, from our good friend Anthony Esolen, including the phrase “addled, sub-marital illuminati.” It’s pure-dee, unfiltered, high-octane Esolen. Read it at your own risk.)

Baroque Homecomings

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Anyone reading this blog probably also reads every word Elizabeth Bruenig writes, so I feel no need to point y’all to her beautiful post on longing, capitalism, and football in Texas. But I did think of a way to make myself useful, since I know that some of my readers come from outside of Texas.

Bruenig writes:

Homecoming is a fifth season in Texas. It asserts itself in hazy late summer and reigns until the depth of autumn. Traditionally, the boys give girls homecoming mums to wear, and the girls give the boys garters. The mums can cost upwards of $100, some larger than dinner plates, their ribbons trailing the ground. They sport miniature mascots, fake flowers, blinking lights, lashings of glitter and sequins, and each year grow more ostentatious. My mother has a collection of four from when she was a high school cheerleader.

I never got one. I never got asked to a homecoming dance, or prom. My mom tried to show me how to do my makeup.

The homecoming mum, in this form, is a uniquely Texas tradition, and it struck me that, though Bruenig describes the practice well, readers might have a hard time visualizing exactly what she’s talking about. So I thought it would be worthwhile to link Bruenig’s post to these photographs by Nancy Newberry, which were featured last year at SlateJezebel, and NPR. Okay, that’s just about everywhere, but still, maybe you didn’t see them.

These are mums:

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Look at those things! They take engineering. They take effort. They make no sense and they offend all notions of proportion, style, and good taste.

One of my other gigs is writing about Latin American literature and culture for my department’s literary blog, and right now I’m tasked with writing up a new exhibit at the Benson Latin American Collection on the legacy of the Baroque in the New World. The exhibit connects the ostentation of the triumphal arches that Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora designed for the entry of a new viceroy into Mexico City in 1680 with the postmodern poetry of Severo Sarduy and the kitschy art of the landmark MCASD exhibition on the “Ultrabaroque” (2000). The idea is that the baroque is a spirit and a style, rather than a historical period. In this, the exhibition follows a 2012 book by Monika Kaup, in which she argues that we can see the spirit of the baroque in North American lowrider culture and in certain styles of hip hop, and hip hop-influenced visual art.

The cool thing about the baroque (understood this way) is the way it travels, the way it infects (José Lezama Lima compares it to a glorious virus) and devours (Haroldo de Campos compares it to cannibalism) the cultures it encounters. The Benson exhibit traces Sor Juana’s New World Baroque not just into modern Latin American writing, but into a drive-in theater in San Antonio and into contemporary installations like (San Antonio native) Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s Infinito Botánica.

This is pure hypothesis, but considering the fact that football culture is common throughout the American South and Midwest, but the mum-giving ritual is pretty much limited to Texas, the US state that shares the longest border with Mexico, I don’t think it’s crazy to read the mum as a manifestation of the baroque spirit.

At the very least, Texas mums share the strange appeal of baroque art. They trade in superficiality and excess, yes, but also in exuberance and  accessibility—or at least the illusion of accessibility.  Mums are expensive, as Bruenig points out, but with them distinctions between high and low culture disappear. As with the baroque, you only need a sense of awe, not “taste” or an upper-class sensibility, to appreciate their splendor. Newberry’s photos capture all that, I think, and in doing so, illuminates the ambivalence that Bruenig expresses in her essay.

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