Monday, July 11, 2011

Erica Jong's poisoned sugar

One of the weaknesses I have, as a Catholic writer who focuses largely on issues of sexuality, is that I haven’t kept up with feminist literature. So it took me by surprise to see an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Erica Jong, who vaulted into the spotlight so many years ago with her book Fear of Flying, titled: “Is Sex Passé?” (“God, she’s not dead yet?”)

In editing her most recent work, Sugar in My Bowl, Jong noticed a distinct difference in attitude towards sex between the younger and older women: “The older writers in my anthology are raunchier than the younger writers. The younger writers are obsessed with motherhood and monogamy.”

It makes sense. Daughters always want to be different from their mothers. If their mothers discovered free sex, then they want to rediscover monogamy. My daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, who is in her mid-30s, wrote an essay called “They Had Sex So I Didn’t Have To.” Her friend Julie Klam wrote “Let’s Not Talk About Sex.” The novelist Elisa Albert said: “Sex is overexposed. It needs to take a vacation, turn off its phone, get off the grid.” [Wasn’t it Andy Warhol who said “Sex is the biggest nothing of all time”?] Meg Wolitzer, author of “The Uncoupling,” a fictional retelling of “Lysistrata,” described “a kind of background chatter about women losing interest in sex.” Min Jin Lee, a contributor to the anthology, suggested that “for cosmopolitan singles, sex with intimacy appears to be neither the norm nor the objective.”

Lee’s comment could have been drawn directly from  Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying, by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker. While 92% of the young singles — the “emerging adult” category — studied by the authors claim they want love and romance to precede sex, 29% of the men and 18% of the women had had non-romantic “hookups”. Thirty-six percent of the men and 22% of the women have sex about two weeks into a relationship, 70% and 61% by the six-month mark.

As Mary Hasson comments in, “Indeed, relationships are stunningly short. Young adults report that 14% of their past romantic relationships were over and done within a month (shades of high school), over half ended by six months, and just 24% made it to the one-year mark.” While young people value monogamy, in practice it becomes what Regnerus and Uecker call “serial monogamy”, a commitment facsimile for a demographic seemingly losing interest in marriage.

The result of this “couple, decouple, repeat” atmosphere of short-term exclusivity? More partners for women equals more sexual regret, diminished emotional health and increasing distance from sex. According to Regnerus and Uecker, “a sustained pattern of serial monogamy — implying a series of failed relationships — hurts women far more than it hurts men.”

Jong ponders:

Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.

And that’s where you hear the sound of ideology reasserting itself over fact. Jong blames the distancing of women from sex on a “lust for propriety”. However, the fact is that multiple partners better fits the male reproductive strategy than it does the female; the woman has more to gain from marriage and commitment than does the man.

The basic flaw in radical feminism has always been the unconscious assumption that, to be equal with men, women had to unhook themselves from their biological differences and adapt what were considered traditionally “male” attitudes, values and behaviors. Men held the political and social power, made the important decisions and did the important and interesting jobs; women kept the home and raised the children. To have equal value with men, women must therefore do what men do and have what men have … including the social and legal ability to step away from childrearing.

But women, despite the feminist rhetoric, have always had a choice: they could say “No”, which puts them in the traditional role of the “gatekeeper”. In adopting and adapting the male strategy, women didn’t so much lose this role as lose sight of its power over men. Now, in sexual “markets” where women generally outnumber men, such as in colleges, men no longer have to grow up, become responsible and committed to get what they want from women, as the women compete with each other to surrender early and often.

Thus, Jong spends a couple of paragraphs worrying about the “loss of equality” (i.e., birth control and abortion), not realizing that these two institutions have contributed to the mess while failing to solve the original problem: men treating women as sex objects. She still doesn’t get it: Women can assert their equality best by respecting their authentic feminine genius as “bearers of life”. Birth control and abortion only create an illusion of autonomy while enabling bad judgment.

Jong admits that “Different though we are, men and women were designed to be allies, to fill out each other’s limitations, to raise children together and give them different models of adulthood.” Exactly; the Catholic Church calls this design feature “complementarity”. But, “When sex becomes boring, something deeper is usually the problem — resentment or envy or lack of honesty.”

The answer is “lack of honesty”. The concept of free love has always been a lie. No amount of sugar will sweeten its poison.