Free love on the free-love freeway

Christopher Shea linked to this post at the Awl, in which Tom Scocca threw up all over Mark Greif’s earnest look in n+1 at sexual freedom as a way out of capitalism’s confinements. Greif writes,

“Sex without consequences” becomes the metaphor for cooperative exchange without gain or loss. For basing life on the things that are free. For the anticapitalist experience par excellence.

Scocca’s retort to this sort of sentiment: “What is this CUDDLE-PUDDLE BULLSHIT?”

Though Scocca is taking a deliberately obtuse and unsympathetic tack to squeeze out a few laughs at Greif’s expense, this is a fair question. Greif is polemicizing about “repressive sentimentalism” but puts forward his own sort of sentimentalized absolute — sex for pleasure. (What David Brent celebrates as Free Love on the Free Love Freeway.) Greif’s interpretation of domination as repression ignores Foucault’s arguments about the political uses of pleasure. I’m tempted to call this move repressive tolerance, though that doesn’t quite fit. Actually, Greif is arguing that gay-marriage rights are a form of repressive tolerance, masking the underlying domestic system of oppression. Power, however, can work through permissions as well as through prohibitions in the sexual sphere as well. One can end up in the trap of competing to see who can become the most liberated, a competition that suits consumerism — which aids this pursuit with a variety of lifestyle accouterments — just fine.

Greif’s take on free love is grounded in an essentialized version of libido:

Yet you have to stick with sex, as a utopian—even when you’re not a particularly lubricious person yourself.

You have to defend sex because we still have no better model than the actual, concrete sexual relation for a deep intuitive process opposed to domination. We have no better model for a bodily process that, fundamentally, is free and universal. It does not produce (there is no experiential remainder but pleasure) nor consume. It is cooperative (within the relation of the lovers) and, in that relation, seems to forbid competition. It makes you love people, and accept the look and difference of their bodies.

The amount of qualifications Greif has already had to put in that proposition is a clue that it’s pretty dubious. I’m reluctant to agree that a sexual relation is “a deep intuitive process.” It seems more a labile, tentatively constructed thing, highly normative as opposed to instinctual. I’m totally with Greif that marriage supports patriarchal arrangements regardless of the gender of those marrying, and that a radical restructuring of society would require a drastic reordering of domesticity. (Laura Kipnis makes a similar argument in Against Love.) But free-love utopianism feels like a short-circuiting of the sort of theorizing necessary to address the problem, which is ultimately one of who performs the socially necessary emotion work. Sex is great and all, but it is not the only “authentic” form of pleasure. To regard sexual relations as directly given to our consciousness is to submit to a fantasy about sex’s pure spontaneity, the final destination in the quest for an unmediated private and personal relation, independent of society.

But sexual desire is far from “universal” in its expression. The sexual relation is not necessarily economic in nature, but that doesn’t it mean it pre-exists economic relations or is capable of purifying them or that it is automatically egalitarian. Sex doesn’t inherently make you “love people.” That claim reimports the sentimental cant about love that he began by wanting to banish. Also, “Sex without consequences” is not really possible because all actions have consequences. Ruling out one particular set of consequences does not mean there are none at all. It seems morally foolish to posit as the ideal the ability to act without consequences — not to go all existential, but that makes for a freedom that is inherently meaningless. Acting in the world is the self’s pursuit of responsibility, but advocating the pursuit of pleasure “without consequences” as model behavior seems like a wish to abdicate it in the search for oblivion.

It seems to me Greif is more on the right track when he talks about the seductiveness of the existing system of marriage:

Domination depends rather on the beauty of sex with consequences, the pleasure of sex with consequences, to guarantee commitment to the family-centered fold. Women’s straight desire and wish for love and pleasure is the thing that’s supposed to seduce women back into the system of inequality—a beautiful inequality mentally structured by childbearing and the determination of your life course by the consequences of desire. It is beautiful, in its way; as oriental despotism was beautiful, too. You must give something up to leave the system—or else the system is revealed as naked and weak. Thus feminism always needs to be pictured publicly as sexless, man-hating, or just manless—not to mention babyless—or it would become appealing. (Indeed, baby love may furnish the greater lifetime erotic satisfaction for straight women, on the traditional system.) If desire fails to pull people back into patriarchy, patriarchy’s arsenal is diminished.

Yes. It seems that feminism needs to reach a point where it need not be deliberately “represented” at all — a point at which it so thoroughly saturates our values that the fact that someone is a “feminist” wouldn’t jump out at us. In other words, it needs to cease to be an identity and simply be a practice.

Chris Dillow linked to a paper that takes an entirely different approach to marriage.

I’m intrigued by this new paper on the economics of marriage by Gilles Saint-Paul.

He begins from the premise that the gains from marriage arise from innate biological differences between men and women – that men can have loads of children, but don‘t know which ones are theirs, whilst women cannot. Given this, marriage is a potentially mutually beneficial trade. Men get to know which children are theirs, which is utility-enhancing if they care about the human capital of their offspring. And women get someone to help (if only financially) with child-raising.

This, in Dillow’s interpretation, means that “repression of women’s sexuality operates to the benefit of second-rate men. If women were free to shag around, they’d only go with the best men and ignore lower-quality ones. Repression and marriage thus give second-rate blokes a chance.” When women pursue “sex without consequences,” by this reasoning, they curtail the possibility for sexual liberation for those average men who won’t find willing partners. That sounds a lot like the “nice guy syndrome.” Here’s a definition from the Urban Dictionary:

A annoying mental condition in which a heterosexual man concocts oversimplified ideas why women aren’t flocking to him in droves. Typically this male will whine and complain about how women never want to date him because he is “too nice” or that he is average in appearance. He often targets a woman who is already in a relationship; misrepresenting his intentions of wanting to be her friend and having the expectation that he is owed more than friendship because he is such a good listener. He is prone to brooding over this and passive aggressive behavior.

He is too stupid to realize the reason women don’t find him attractive is because he feels sorry for himself; he concludes that women like to be treated like shit.

As Greif notes, Houellebecq’s novels are about this problem — free love becomes institutionalized, yet “nice guys” find themselves under more pressure than ever to use prostitutes in order to get in on the action. Maybe Greif in his essay is trying to find a way to circumvent nice guyism without giving way to Tucker Max-ism, intellectualizing what is easily reduced to an alpha-male evolutionary premise in order to redeem it, dignify it, preserve it as “hopeful.” But as anyone who has seen the preview for Tucker Max’s movie knows, there is no hope for humanity.