It's about as difficult as finding a spire in a haystack, but Bill Bennett has been reading the New York Times and discovering evidence of cultural decline. In a CNN.com essay, he picks up on recent columns by Maureen Dowd and Frank Bruni and reaches the conclusion that, as the headline puts it, "Hookup Culture Debases Women."
Dowd's column, Bennett writes, "looks at E.L James's 'Fifty Shades of Grey,' a trilogy of erotic, bondage-themed fiction":
Dowd cites the remarkable success of the trilogy among Generation X women--the contemporaries, allies and beneficiaries of the modern feminist movement. And yet, the narrative flies in the face of women's progress. For example, a contract that the girl signs with the man stipulates that "the Dominant may flog, spank, whip or corporally punish the Submissive as he sees fit, for purposes of discipline, for his own personal enjoyment or for any other reason, which he is not obliged to provide." If this is progress for women, what would regression look like?
Bruni's column is more meandering, but he begins with a similarly themed TV program, HBO's "Girls." As Bennett explains: "In this unglamorous, dull version of 'Sex [and] the City,' [Lena] Dunham stars as a contemporary, twenty-something woman playing second fiddle to the bizarre, dominating sexual fantasies of her boyfriend":
Bruni goes on to grapple with Dunham's loveless sex scenes and wonders whether today's onslaught of pornography and easy sex has desensitized men to the point where they view women, to recall the words of an earlier day, only as objects. Even the act of sex itself is boring to some men unless it is ratcheted up in some strange, deviant fashion--all at the expense of the thoroughly humiliated and debased woman.
In the act of degrading women, men are also degrading themselves.
Now wait just a second. How does an essay about "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Girls" turn into an anti-male screed? Both are written by women for women. Dowd notes, but Bennett omits, that the real first name of author E.L. James is Erika. As for "Girls," Bruni points out that Lena Dunham "is not only its star but also its principal writer and director." And if it's anything like "Sex and the City," no heterosexual man will ever watch it except as a favor to someone of the opposite sex.
We don't dispute Bennett's contention that pornography is degrading to women, but it takes no courage or insight to say so. "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Girls" sound degrading too, but Bennett seems to shy away from confronting the fact that this degradation amounts to female pornography--produced by women for the entertainment of other women. In postfeminist America, it's so much easier and safer to scapegoat men.
Female and male pornography are very much two sides of the same coin. While the former tends to be literary and the latter visual, neither has much pretension of being high art (except when such pretensions are useful in First Amendment cases). More interestingly, both present a similar sexual fantasy world, in which women are submissive and men dominant--though because each sex is interested in its opposite, female porn emphasizes the male-dominance aspect of the fantasy and male porn the female-submission aspect.
Bennett, Dowd and Bruni all puzzle over the seeming contradiction between the success of feminism in "empowering" women and the cultural products of which the trio disapprove. It should be noted that neither dirty pictures nor dirty books ("romance novels," as they're euphemistically called) are anything new. But it may be that they have become more graphic, more popular or both. At the very least, it is clear that the sexual fantasies of men and women do not conform to the feminist ideal of relations between generic and equal "persons."
This conundrum stumps Bennett and Bruni, but Dowd has a bit of an insight:
Helen Fisher, the anthropologist and Rutgers professor, warns keening feminists: "Let's not confuse the bedroom and the boardroom. This is the world of fantasy and play." In the animal kingdom, she says, females surrender and males dominate, with female robins looking for the male robin with the reddest breast and best leafy real estate.
We Homo sapiens follow the same pattern, known as female hypergamy (mating upward). In the 1970s, anthropologist Heather Remoff studied the mating habits of American women. She published her findings in "Sexual Choice: A Woman's Decision" (Dutton, 1984). "What does a woman want?" Freud famously asked. Remoff conducted in-depth interviews with a demographically diverse group of 66 women to come up with an answer.
Based on these conversations, Remoff developed "profiles" of 261 men who had been their sexual partners. She asked the women, among many other things, what attracted them to these men: "Out of a total of 45 traits that were coding possibilities, 23 were mentioned frequently enough that I consider them to have a general association with male sexiness."
Here's the list, along with the percentage of men who were described as having each trait (obviously each man had multiple traits): good-looking (43%), intelligent (40%), good income potential (40%), control of social resources (37%), food provided (36%), control of material resources (36%), protective toward female (35%), male older (30%), male dominant toward female (28%), confident (26%), well-educated (23%), good build (23%), aggressive (22%), generous (22%), accurate focus (21%), chemistry (21%), eye contact (19%), baby fantasies (18%), outstanding talent (17%), high status (16%), tall (16%) good with children (15%), female's parents approved (5%).
The attraction to most of these traits is a manifestation of female hypergamy--especially "good-looking," which turns out to have quite a different meaning for women than for men: "Every woman responds to a man whose looks correspond to her particular stereotype of power," Remoff observes in a passage she italicizes.
Of the 23 traits associated with male sexual success, Remoff identifies eight as being particularly associated with reproductive success. That is, these traits were commonest in the 43 men who fathered children by the women Remoff interviewed: good income potential, control of material resources, male dominant toward female, well-educated, generous, baby fantasies, good with children, female's parents approved.
Women's desire for powerful men conflicts with feminism's pursuit of female power--a pursuit that has been official policy since 1964, when Rep. Howard W. Smith of Virginia, a segregationist who was also a feminist, amended the Civil Rights Act to add the words "or sex." For nearly half a century, the federal government has made a priority of increasing women's income, educational attainment, status and control of social and material resources. At the same time, mainstream culture has encouraged women to be more assertive and men more sensitive. Male dominance is a thing of the past.
This effort to equalize the sexes has created a sexual disequilibrium. For a high-status or powerful woman, a higher-status or more powerful man is hard to find. Although that works out nicely for the highest-status men, it is much more difficult for the average man to make himself an attractive prospect for women. Result: a lot of lonely people of both sexes, and an eager market for pornography of both the visual and literary kinds.
Bennett concludes his essay by observing that if men and women want "deep sexual satisfaction," the best place to find it is "in what is often called, derisively, traditional marriage." No doubt that is true. But Bennett seems focused on the effects rather than the cause of marriage's decline. He seems to think that the ideals of feminism and traditional marriage are compatible: "In the 1970s we were told to respect women, treat them as more than sexual objects and treat their humanity the same as ours."
In truth, the feminist ideal inevitably corrodes the marital one. Look again at that list of eight male traits that make for reproductive success, which in the 1970s, when the out-of-wedlock birthrate was much lower than today, was a good proxy for the propensity to marry. With respect to at least four of them--income, control of material resources, education and dominance (arguably also generosity)--feminism has sought to elevate women relative to men, thereby making men less attractive to women.
With some exceptions such as the late Rep. Smith, women have been the driving force behind these revolutionary social changes. It won't do to blame men for the decline of marriage and the degradation of sexual culture, except perhaps to the extent that they have taken the path of least resistance and acceded to feminist ideology rather than challenging it. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what Bennett does in his essay.