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Why buy the cow? My poor, shattered childhood dreams. Or not.

June 7, 2011

A response to Andrea Mrozek

 I’m not in the habit of writing responses to newspaper opinion pieces, generally – especially not in cases where I disagree so strongly with the author’s position as to suspect that they may merely be trolling. Take Margaret Wente, for example: I once wrote a response to her piece regarding gender trends in the blogosphere (on my main blog, The Snarky Optimist) but have since not bothered to take the bait, seeing as every time she publishes something, it seems designed purely to get a rise out of those Internet folk who fancy themselves progressively-minded.

The Ottawa Citizen, however, is my city newspaper. And although I am not a regular reader I did feel obliged to respond to Mrozek’s article after I came across it on Twitter, courtesy of the incomparable Nadine Thornhill. Part of the reason I have chosen to respond is because those who have objected in the comments section on the Citizen website disagree with Mrozek on very different grounds than I do myself; another part is the fact that I think Mrozek writes with ostensible sincerity and good intent. Her heart is hopefully in the right place, but her argument – perhaps inadvertently – supports toxic social practices.

I will start by saying that the phenomena Mrozek describes are real, and I am not attempting to dismiss the perspectives of anyone whose lived experience reflects the practices elucidated in Mrozek’s article. The commodity model for sex – and that is what we are talking about here, really – does exist in many people’s lives. But it is something that should be dug out and exposed for the problem it is, not advocated for.

So let’s begin. There are so many things wrong with this article that I hardly know where to start.

“Statistics show roughly 90 per cent of young people say they’d like to marry, but that fewer Canadians actually are.”

While I cannot be sure what age group Mrozek is referring to or what “statistics” this claim refers to, she bases her entire argument more or less on the idea that “young people” who express interest in marriage and who do not subsequently wed during their lifetimes are unhappy and unfulfilled.

The solution she proposes is basically that women should band together to withhold sex, which will convince more men to propose marriage. I think that is a horrible idea that contributes to sexist notions about relationships and sexuality – sexist notions that hurt both men and women, and contribute to a culture of materialism, deception, heartbreak and violence.

But let’s rewind for a moment and look at Mrozek’s basic idea: that if “young people” who express an interest in marriage are not growing up and getting married, we have a serious social issue that needs solving.

The fact of the matter is that not all childhood dreams are either realized or shattered – a great many of them are outgrown or replaced with other dreams as we grow older, mature, and begin to understand that happy lives need not be lived according to a particular formula and, indeed, that there are many different forks in the road. I have nothing against marriage, but I also believe that it is not an essential condition for happiness in all cases.

Mrozek’s formulaic approach to attaining marital bliss is not only grossly heteronormative, it is out of touch with reality.

Let’s say we ask some “young people” if they would one day like to visit Paris. This seems like a pleasant enough idea, so 90% of them reply in the affirmative. Fast-forward thirty years. According to Mrozek’s model, all those who have not visited Paris are somehow unfulfilled. Never mind those who visited Paris and had a terrible time. Never mind the guy who has chosen to visit Rome, Taipei, Antarctica and Moscow instead. Never mind those who decided that maybe visiting Paris doesn’t fit their lifestyle or needs anymore. Paris or bust!

I say this simply to illustrate that the idea on which Mrozek bases her identification of a problem (a problem that she proposes solving with the commodity model) is weak at best. Maybe some of those 90% of young people grow up and change their minds, or they do not find an appropriate partner, or it doesn’t suit their lifestyle, or they are polyamorous or asexual or they live in a country where they cannot legally marry the person they love. But let’s move on to the meat of her piece.

I was actually impressed by the sheer audacity with which Mrozek not only identified, but embraced and argued in favour of, a commodity model for sex. What she refers to as “the sexual economy” is a toxic social practice in which intercourse is a product that women posses (as what Mrozek calls “gatekeepers”) and that men must purchase, ideally by proposing marriage. The problem, as Mrozek sees it, is that women are underselling access to their bodies, and therefore devaluing sex, killing “romance” and ruining everyone’s chances at getting married.

Mrozek – who I am assuming identifies as a woman – herein reveals a certain amount of female privilege in occupying a “gatekeeper” position, but does not appear to realize that such practices hurt women, and they hurt men. And carry some pretty damned offensive implications about sexuality and the desirability of differently gendered partners.

“…men, on average, desire sex more than women and are less discriminating about how they fulfil their ‘demand’ for it. Women, on average, have sex for different reasons than men, ‘supplying’ it in exchange for, among other things, commitment, communication and closeness.”

Looking at sex in this way reflects not only an essentialist conception of gender and sex, but also the idea that sex is a thing (a product or service) as opposed to an activity in which two (or more) people can engage in with each other. Mrozek is not alone in ascribing to this theory: it exists and, sadly, it reflects the lived experience of many men and women.  

South Park basically summed up this model in the ninth episode of their thirteenth season:

“Kyle, every boy pays for kisses. Do you know what I am saying? If you’ve got a girl, and she kisses you, sooner or later you’re paying for it. You’ve gotta take her out to lunch, take her to a movie, and then spend time listenin’ to all her stupid problems. Look, look at Stan right there. [Kyle turns to see Stan, who’s listening to Wendy over at the merry-go-round] Why he’s gotta sit there and listen to her stupid motherfuckin’ problems just ‘cause she kisses him? If you ask me, that’s a lot more than the five dollars my company charges.” – Butters

But my point here is that the commodity model sucks, and we should be working against it rather than trying to prop it up. Women should not be expecting – or wanting – to exchange sex for drinks or wedding rings. It’s just a bad way to approach things.

If you think I am wrong, I recommend that you read “Towards a Performance Model of Sex” by Thomas Macaulay Miller. Thomas is a lawyer that blogs over at Yes Means Yes and is a great writer to investigate if you are interested in the problems with the commodity model, or issues of consent, or dynamics in BDSM relationships. Check it out.

In the meantime, let’s get back to Mrozek’s nonsense, shall we?

“For the price of sex to rise, women would have to band together in a cartel of sorts and support one another in waiting longer. This might bring about desired outcomes for many women, like commitment, or marriage or simply a return to courtship, a now anachronistic idea that a man might woo a woman over an extended period of time to prove himself. A Waiting Women’s Cartel might bring back the poetry and roses, so to speak. The current sex economy does not harm women who are happy to have a liberal sex life. It harms women who have higher standards to start with, because suddenly they are competing in a marketplace where the price of sex is decidedly lower than they would ever pay, and men are aware of this.” [Emphasis supplied.]

In this model, not only do women not enjoy sex for reasons similar to men, the bodies of men have no value. If sex is something that men purchase from women with commitment and wedding rings, then we are saying that physical intimacy with a man is devoid of pleasure and value, that women are prized for their bodies and men for their material wealth. We need to fight this because it hurts everybody. The worst part is that Mrozek seems to think that this way of looking at things is “actually empowering”.

Let’s begin by looking at how the commodity model is harmful and hurtful to men, beyond the repulsive, obvious fact that it means men are expected to shoulder the financial burden in all potentially sexual relationships.

1. It promotes body shame and low self-esteem in men.

If women possess sex and men must buy it, then men’s bodies have no value and their bodies are not sources of pleasure or objects of desire. Hugo Schwyzer, one of my favourite masculinity issues writers, has on several occasions written better than I ever could about this problem.

We raise boys to believe that their bodies are dirty and gross. The female nude is beautiful, we’re told by our culture, while the male nude is awkward. The penis is an object of fear and derision, disgust and ridicule. And while porn in its ubiquity teaches women that men are aroused by close-ups of female genitalia, men grow up with a sense that their penises are valued only for what they can do (stay hard and get the “job done”) and not for how sexy they look.

This cruel – and inaccurate – treatment of the male body can lead to toxic behaviour born out of the very understandable and human desire to be found attractive for reasons other than performance or status. In a piece related to the one quoted above, Schwyzer discusses how this shaming of men’s bodies and rejection of women’s capacity to be aroused for purely sexual reasons can contribute to infidelity and sexual violence. And it’s true.

Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing.

The very real hurt and rage that men often feel as a result of having no sense of their own attractiveness has very real and destructive consequences. It’s not women’s problem to solve; it’s not as if it’s women’s job to start stroking yet another aspect of the male ego.

The answer lies in creating a new vocabulary for desire, in empowering women as well as men to gaze, and in expanding our own sense of what is good and beautiful, aesthetically and erotically pleasing.”

2. It dismisses the emotional needs of men.

The commodity model asserts that women will exchange sex for financial gain, stability, and emotional fulfillment. It also dismisses the possibility that men can seek similar fulfillment or, if they do, that these are not needs that can be met in a sexual relationship. In the commodity model, men’s feelings are devalued along with their bodies. This reflects a very poor opinion of women (but we’ll get to that) and it reflects a weak, primitive opinion of men, essentially arguing that they engage in relationships in order to gain access to women’s bodies, and that all their needs matter less.

3. It rejects the man’s right to consent.

The idea that men invariably want sex and women are the gatekeepers plays into the idea that men are insatiable sexual creatures. It says that it should never be the man who wants to delay sex. Why are we so keen to tell young people to “wait until they are ready”, and yet turn around and assume readiness on the part of young men? The expectation is that if a man is not actively seeking to purchase sex, there is something wrong with him or there is something wrong with his sexual partner. It says that the woman gets to say when sex happens and the man is expected to be sitting there in slobbering anticipation of her agreement. It supports the idea that men cannot be sexually assaulted because they always want it, and is behind the often appalling treatment of men who choose to report sexual violence. The commodity model assumes consent on the part of the male and ascribes dysfunction (or homosexuality) in the case of its absence.

And that, my friends, is fucked right up. There are many more reasons why the commodity model is harmful to men, but we’ll leave it there for the moment and identify a few reasons that the model is harmful to women.

1. It shames the sexual desires of women.

In a system where women are the sexual gatekeepers who are expected to exchange sex for material gain or emotional fulfillment, women are told that they should seek sex for emotional reasons. It is abnormal or dirty to want sex for reasons that are purely sexual, or both sexual and emotional. Here’s the thing: most people, both men and women, desire sex for a combination of emotional, social, and physical reasons: the commodity model rejects the beauty of human complexity and nuance. It shames women for having sexual desires. Put plainly, ladies, according to the commodity model, if you want it before he does or if you want it more than he does, there is something wrong with you or there is something wrong with him. You are ugly and your sexual desires are dirty.

The idea that women should seek sex for emotional rather than physical reasons is what leads so many women to seek medical treatment for lower back pain when what they are actually experiencing is chronic vasocongestion (what we colloquially refer to as “blue balls” in men). It leads to slut-shaming, devalues sexual interaction with women who actively seek it (or what Mrozek calls women with lower standards or “liberal” sex lives) and contributes to an overvaluation of virginity. It sets up the expectation of unidirectional pursuit or pressure.

2. It rejects the capacity of women to provide emotional, social, and financial fulfillment to their society and to their partners.

In a world where the man provides material wealth and emotional stability in exchange for access to women’s bodies, women are essentially being taught that they are primarily valued for their bodies, and that in a relationship and in life their intelligence, their personality, their skills and interests are a secondary concern. It tells women that they only have value to men as long as they are sexually desirable, and that young women should therefore focus on developing their sexual desirability rather than their other skill sets or personal goals. It tells a woman that all she is expected – or even all that she is capable – of providing to her partner is the honour of opening her legs. And that is simple misogyny.

To conclude, I would like to say that many people may think “well, that’s just the way it is”. But I am of the opinion that if things are going to change, and if we are going to move towards a world where our sexual partners are people with whom we engage in a mutually enjoyable, collaborative activity as opposed to someone with whom we complete a transaction, then we need to challenge people who approach sexuality in this troubling, reductive way.

Let’s move away from metaphors involving free milk and buying cows, and start looking at sexual activities as diverse, complex, and as unique as the individuals that engage in them. It doesn’t matter what 90% of “young people” might muse about marriage — let’s focus on making those futures genuinely fulfilling, happy, and safe.

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From → General

6 Comments
  1. cows are hot

  2. Rox permalink

    Just wanted to say I am very happy you took the time to write this. Opinions I would have loved to voice myself, except I am no writer. Thank you!

  3. My pleasure, Rox! I am very glad you took the time to tell me so. 🙂

  4. Ghost permalink

    Awesome article, I came across it while googling reasons why men won’t commit and the how the birth control pill has affected marriage rates. Definitely bookmarking this blog.

  5. Thanks for posting this! I’m new to your blog and I absolutely love it so far.

    There’s no way to Facebook rec’ these posts, so I’m just letting you know, I did.

    Now off to type “Hugo Schwyzer” into Amazon…

  6. Hi Janna,

    Thanks for the kind comment. Although I favourably cited many of Schwyzer’s words in this old post, I should mention that recent things have come to light regarding his history and involvement in the feminist movement that makes me disinclined to encourage anyone to seek out his work. It’s a big controversial mess, to say the least. More information here: http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/on-hugo/

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