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« A Modest Proposal Regarding Taxes | Main | Modern Architecture and Sexual Anxiety »

March 04, 2003

Free Reads -- Caitlin Flanagan on Sexless Marriages

Friedrich --

The personalities of some of some young people these days seem as freakish to me as the bodies of weightlifters and silicone babes do -- overdeveloped where pumpy media delights and career dynamism are concerned, yet completely atrophied in the inner-oomph (ie., spiritual, erotic, artistic, just-living, "character") department. What’s going to become of these kids when the pizzaz of youth passes and it comes time to start drawing on deeper resources? Reviewing in The Atlantic some new books about sex and marriage (especially the new two-career marriages), Caitlin Flanagan seems struck by the same question.

When I was a teenager, in the 1970s, I was always quite happy to accept a baby-sitting job, because I knew that once I got the kids to sleep, I could read The Joy of Sex for an hour or two; I don't think I baby-sat for a single family that didn't have a copy. There was a sense that young parents of that generation-granted, I grew up in Berkeley, which may have skewed the sample considerably-were still getting it on. Similarly, the characters one encounters in Cheever and Updike, with their cocktails and cigarettes and affairs, seem at once infinitely more dissolute and more adult than most of the young parents I know. Nowadays, American parents of a certain social class seem squeaky clean, high-achieving, flush with cash, relatively exhausted, obsessed with their children, and somehow -- how to pinpoint this? -- undersexed.

She’s perceptive and funny, and she’s certainly describing some of what I see going on around me. How about you?

The piece is readable here.



UPDATE: A little birdie tells me that this piece was already highlighted on Arts & Letters Daily, so I can’t pat myself on the back for having made a pioneering find. Damn.

posted by Michael at March 4, 2003


"overdeveloped where pumpy media delights and career dynamism are concerned, yet completely atrophied in the inner-oomph...department"

What culture holds up for us as an example of "the good life" today is remarkably different from the example set twenty or so years ago. It's all slick and processed, and I wonder if the new generation doesn't like sex as much because it can't possibly compare with the perfected images of sexuality in the media. Better to focus on the career and purchase some of those products that will make us more perfect, and then maybe we can have sex like the people on TV.

I read a review of a Jewish Guide to Sex some time ago, which had very pragmatic views on the subject. For example, it didn't condemn pornography as wrong in itself. It just warned that if you used pornography, your relationship might wither as you compare your partner to the professionals. At least the line drawings in "The Joy of Sex" were of relatively average folks, and wouldn't leave the reader feeling inferior. (I haven't checked out the new edition. Are they using photographs now, and are they supermodels or the boy and girl next door?)

Posted by: Nate on March 5, 2003 11:05 AM

Nate, according to a recent review, the furry funky line-drawn couple of the original edition are still there.

C.F. writes with vigor, but she tends - even when ostensibly questioning a particular stereotype or convention - to buy into the most simplified baseline assumptions. In this essay, she bases here arguments on the notion that women are silly and fluttery, and become frustrated - not when men don't get the job done - but when they skip the frills and fluff.

I wanted to have her publicly flayed after reading this graph:

"we've learned during this thirty-year grand experiment is that men can be cajoled into doing all sorts of household tasks, but they will not do them the way a woman would. They will bathe the children, but they will not straighten the bath mat and wring out the washcloths; they will drop a toddler off at nursery school, but they won't spend ten minutes chatting with the teacher and collecting the art projects. They will, in other words, do what men have always done: reduce a job to its simplest essentials and utterly ignore the fillips and niceties that women tend to regard as equally essential."

Wringing out the washcloth and straightening the bathmat are not a fillips, it is an essential way of extending the time you can take between laundry loads. Chatting with the teacher is hardly a nicety, it serves the same purpose as networking does in the male work world. So what the man has done is taken credit for doing a job, and left a lot of cleanup work for the woman.

In real life, this chit-chat and colleting art projects often includes collecting memos about holiday cupcakes or permission slips for field trips and every single woman I know has a horror story about scrambling to deal with last minute requirements. Lack of chit-chat also means that, if there's a biting incident, or a stolen juice box, your child may not get as much benefit of the doubt...

Assumptions - women would only withhold sex because they were angry? We aren't interested in sex for it's own sake? And what happened to men who are threatened by successful women?

Later in the essay, during the discussion of early home ec manuals, she never is very careful about which sources she quotes. (As an aficionado of home ec manual and social engineering films, most of which were designed to give rubes who made it to the suburbs on the GI bill a quick guide to life outside the hookworm belt, I am always cheesed by this attitude.) And then she fails to prove that there's anything, in fact, wrong or different about the home ec guidelines. That is, unless we assume that x, y, and a are helpful in a successful marriage, we have no reason to listen to women's complaints when women are doing x, y, and half of z, with men's responsibility reduced to half of z.

Why is she so steamed by "The notion that even educated middle-class American women had to put out in order to get a damn refrigerator—even that they might "yearn" for one" when she is saying that women withhold sex because they "yearn" for the man to do a few things to make domestic life easier. Two sides of the same coin, except that a freezer has do with laughable traditional housewife roles, and "babysitting" the kids so wifey can spend three hours getting a proposal together seems modern... until you ask why the heck watching the kids isn't a 50-50 thing in a household with two working parents.

Although it was a fun essay, C.F. never gives any real evidence for less sex. Not even asking some gyno, "Hey, you've been practicing in Scarsdale for 40 years, are your 32-year old married patients having as much sex today as the 32-year old married patients of the late-fifties and early sixties?"

Sorry for he long post. It just riled me to see the same old argument that the time and convenience of having a decent place to live is entirely worthless, and women should just be past that silliness. Half the articles I've read in MS over the years have, when you get down to it, said the same thing.

Also - The Joy of Sex? "Everything You Always Wanted to Know" is much juicer. That pretty much explains C.F. right there.

Posted by: j.c. on March 5, 2003 3:05 PM

Every time I read Caitlin Flanagan in the Atlantic, I consider cancelling my subscription. I fault the magazine for for choosing to fill the small space they allot to writers on women's issues to a retrofemme nitwit like Flanagan. She is so out of touch, calling herself a "stay at home mom" when she has a well-paid job, nanny, and the freedom to do what she likes. And she has made it abundantly clear that her own erotic life leaves much to be desired, both in frequency and in quality. Do we really need to read that in EVERY piece she writes? I cringed when I read her January piece, and I grimaced at the piece in this month's issue. We all made the realization about the immigration/domestic employees issue YEARS ago. This is not a new idea. Just shows how very out of touch she is. Yuck. Get me Katha Pollitt, please...

Posted by: Dani on February 5, 2004 12:07 AM

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