Monday, December 9, 2013

Sexism and the Horror of Sex

Standup comedians make much of their living by poking fun at the battle between the sexes. The audience laughs in lieu of thanking the comedian for providing an excuse to disavow the liberal convention of overlooking the manifest cultural differences between the sexes. The comedy often becomes sexist in that the comedian exaggerates the differences between the social roles of men and women, but those differences are real.

The Mystery of Sexism

Nevertheless, the battle of the sexes is mysterious. Sure, some individuals are worse than others, but a collective demonization of women by men and then a counter-demonization of men by women, after feminism, can hardly be justified. There’s a cold war between heterosexual men and women, so that each group has stereotypes of the other, driving each to oppress the other or at least to fantasize about doing so. To be sure, I’m not saying this culture war is entirely inexplicable. Historically, men have tended to oppress women, because men are more aggressive or arrogant; at any rate, men have had more control over the levers of culture and so their stereotypes of women became more widespread, which created a vicious cycle in which men used those stereotypes to justify keeping women as slaves, and women internalized the prejudice, adapted to that cultural environment, and played such degrading conventional roles as the virgin, whore, or crone. But after the modern revolutions, women could define themselves as persons having an equal status with men, which gave women the rights to be educated and to enter the workforce. Now, partly for economic reasons (specifically globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs due to increasing competition with machines), but also because modern women have more influence over the dissemination of cultural myths, it’s masculine men who are persona non grata in Western, liberal cultures; whereas women were once universally objectified by men, men are now being feminized, emasculated, and duncified in popular culture so that the effeminate gay male has almost replaced the traditional masculine hero.

Again, power and cultural influence explain much of this demonization. But there’s a mystery here, too, which is that we should expect heterosexual men and women to have bonded over what’s typically regarded as the greatest experience in life, that being romantic love culminating in sexual intercourse. How could men or women stand to see each other collectively belittled when sexual tension underlies virtually all of their dealings with each other? Shouldn’t the memory or the prospect of sex make those in power ashamed of demonizing the weaker sex, whichever either happens to be? After all, if heterosexual men rule, tend to look down on women, and yet want to have sex with them, what does that make those men? And if women rule, buy products popularized by ads that portray men as buffoons, and yet women are sexually attracted to competent, masculine men, what does that say about women? Why do men and women sabotage themselves by denigrating the object of their greatest affection? Sexism seems self-defeating, as is strikingly apparent in the ultra-conservative Middle East in which many women are so brutally objectified that they become asexual, such as when they’re forced to wear burkas. In that case, archaic religious memes explain why men with the same sexual lusts as anyone else would repress them and prevent women from tempting them by displaying their enticing body parts. Still, this only pushes the mystery back a step, since then we must ask what drove Muslim men to accept such a sexist religion in the first place in spite of their shared sexual experience with women. How could they have been convinced to condemn their sexuality with such thoroughness, overriding their powerful sexual instinct?

This is the mystery of the war between the sexes. How could heterosexual men and women be made to openly loathe each other in general, despite their bonding over what’s supposed to be the greatest experience, the fulfillment of the meaning of life, and so on, namely the experience of romantic love as expressed especially in the sex act? The solution is that the sexual experience is the source of the conflict, because sex is misrepresented by the cultural happy-talk about it. Of course, sex is exciting and fun and physically pleasurable; just about everyone desires sex more than anything else. But sex is also an existential horror which forces us to confront our embodiment, mortality, animalism, and underlying impersonality, not to mention nature’s mindlessness and thus the subversive implications of atheistic naturalism. The sex instinct is so powerful that we can’t help but celebrate sex in popular culture. But we do so only by showcasing sex in the abstract or meaningless sex between objectified or glorified actors. Our personal sex lives are shameful things that must be kept secret. If you deny this, back up your denial by posting to the internet the details of your sex acts, including your real identity and recordings of your deeds so the public can judge for itself. No, the bond between romantic partners is very much like that between partners in crime: only the sexual partner knows the humiliating nonsense the pair of them gets up to in the bedroom, even if it’s just the look of the person’s face during orgasm, and each partner holds the power of blackmail over the other. I’ve discussed this at length here, here, and here, so I won’t belabor the point.

What I want to point out now is that sexism corroborates that rather surprising conclusion about sex, which is that however great sex may be in short-sighted hedonic terms, sex is also traumatic for everyone. Most animals have no existential crises, but we’re cursed with them by our knowledge which subverts our hopes and dreams. It’s because sex is a secret horror and heterosexuals are forced to bond over that experience, that as soon as men or women acquire the cultural megaphone, they broadcast their insults against the opposing side. Why? Because each gender reminds the other of that shared horror and of sex’s unsettling philosophical implications. Because whenever we feel sexual lust, we’re partly disgusted and ashamed and we scapegoat the object of our lusts to keep our fragile ego intact.

Feminism and the Emasculation of Modern Men

Men’s objectification of women is well-known and has been comprehensively analyzed by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum (see the introduction of this article). So let’s look closer at women’s sexist attitude towards men. Women don’t have nearly the same physical power over men that men have historically had over women. Moreover, for hormonal or practical reasons having to do with the necessity of raising infants, women may not be as aggressive, territorial, or cold-hearted as men, on average. That is, women generally become motherly as they nurse their babies. Traditionally, men have defined themselves more as hunters, warriors, or leaders than as fathers. And a mother is tenderhearted, nurturing, cooperative, and so forth. Thus, even after women obtained their civil liberties, women are still in no position to enslave men. And yet women’s sexist fantasies are on display in every culture in which profit-seeking companies are forced to compete for the attention of female consumers. Notoriously, those fantasies are incoherent. For example, romance novels are filled with masculine heroes who attest to women’s innate sexual preferences, which is to say that those novels exist for evolutionary reasons, that women crave strong, confident and capable men to protect them while they raise their infants. And yet women also long to punish men for the centuries of misogyny. Thus, popular culture overflows also with crude portrayals of men as dunces, bunglers, or immature losers, as in Judd Apatow movies. In Western advertisements over the last couple of decades, women almost always have the last word while men are the butt of the jokes. The female character just smiles and shakes her head as her husband makes a fool of himself.

Again, you see the contradiction here which sets up the mystery: women are sexually attracted to X (masculine men), but some of their fantasies feature the negation of X (emasculated men), given that the pop cultural duncification wouldn’t exist were women not susceptible to it; and the paradox is resolved when we appreciate the two-sidedness of sex, which is at the root of this conflict. Evolution designs women to want certain men, but women are people, not merely animals, and so they become horrified by everything touched by nature’s undead hand, namely by the sex act, by their sexual desires and by the objects of those desires. Thus, as soon as women get a chance to air their existential grievance and to bend the cultural noosphere to their will, they punish themselves and the indifferent natural processes by reveling in a fantasy world in which their sexuality is frustrated, in which men are cretins rather than the barrel-chested, lantern-jawed adventurers that women instinctively long for. This is a case, then, of women’s self-loathing, which explains the contradiction in their sexual fantasies.

Curiously, the romantic comedy movie often features both sorts of men and since this sort of movie is usually formulaic, its dramatic tension consists merely in the question of whether the heroine will end up with the conventional or the unconventional hero. As feminism has become more commonplace, the unconventional hero tends to win out. See, for example, The Wedding Crashers, in which Owen Wilson plays the unconventional hero (his nose is bulbous and he’s funnier than he is physically powerful), while Bradley Cooper plays the conventional one who is eventually demonized as a corporate villain, a sexist cheat, and a spoiled bully. The heroine chooses the former only after he publicly humiliates himself by admitting what a cad he’s been, crashing weddings to pick up women. In fact, the Owen Wilson character stands between the conventional romantic hero (the alpha male)—who’s vilified in this case—and a trio of creepy or emasculated male characters. There’s the somewhat metrosexual Vince Vaughan character who earns his masculinity only at the end when he punches out the Cooper villain; there’s the disgusting Will Farrell character who miraculously quenches his enormous libido by seducing vulnerable women while living with his mother; and there’s the heroine’s Golem-like, closeted gay brother. This movie, then, deals with the conflict between the female viewer’s interests, by settling on the compromise embodied by the Wilson character.

The Big Bang Theory provides another example. This popular TV show is only superficially about geek culture; really, it’s about the conflict between women’s sexual desires and their existential disgust with those desires, which the show resolves by slowly transforming the repulsive male characters into masculine romantic partners. The show works as a bait and switch trick, luring male viewers in with the promise of a celebration of omega male independence, since the show features four nerdy, emotionally stunted male characters, only to spring the sentimental feminine values on the viewer by romantically pairing most of the nerds with a strong female character (and working its way up to pairing off the fourth, metrosexual nerd). So the cluelessness of the four nerds allows female viewers to vent their disgust with men and thus with sex, using the Penny character for that vicarious purpose, and trains the male viewers to be less masculine. Meanwhile, the nerds’ slow transformation into more masculine men caters to women’s instinctive preference, which persists despite feminism. Other, less successful romantic comedies land too squarely on one side or the other, demonstrating their anti-feminist, conservative leanings by awarding the heroine with the traditional male hero, which ensures her status as a second-class citizen, or afflicting her with an antihero or an omega male, in which case the movie loses its status as a romantic comedy.

You could go on and on, tracking feminism’s impact on popular culture and studying the ingenious techniques used to tie the mass entertainments into knots so that the producers can ingratiate themselves with the self-loathing female consumer. I’ll discuss just one other example, which is the popularity of gay culture. (The word “gay” is a vacuous euphemism, but “homosexual” sounds too clinical and every other term is fraught with peril, thanks to the apparent presumption that gay people are so fragile they’ll break into a thousand pieces if you try to apply a category to them. So I’ll skirt the issue with the rest of them and resort to the politically correct euphemism.) While gay people’s civil rights didn’t follow from the feminist revolution, the prominence of gay people in popular culture exacerbates the feminization of heterosexual men. This has given birth to a new male orientation, to the so-called metrosexual which I take it is similar to the bisexual except that the metrosexual is sexually attracted only to women while pretending otherwise by means of gay-friendly affectations.

Again, this medial style provides a compromise which mitigates women’s self-loathing due to their cognitive dissonance. What’s happened is just that there are more gay celebrities now than before, and since popular culture infantilizes the consumer, some men have taken to imitating gay people the way babies imitate their authority figures. These heterosexuals pretend to be gay with respect to their choices in fashion and entertainment. (Another example of such infantilization is the way some heterosexual men submit to the fashion industry’s ideal of female beauty, which seems the handiwork of the self-indulgent gay male designers who prefer to work with female models that look like teenage boys.) This imitation of effeminate men hardly appeals to either heterosexual men or women, as such, given their inherent sexual preferences, but the metrosexual thwarts those preferences just half-heartedly enough to allow women to vent their disgust with the obligatory rigmarole of sexual interactions. Women can obey their feminist imperatives and avoid degrading themselves by lusting after dominant males, by engaging with heterosexual men who disguise themselves as gays but who can still dominate the pseudo-feminists in the bedroom. Metrosexuals afford these modern women the chance to symbolically flagellate themselves for having the anti-feminist cravings in the first place, while still delivering the evolutionary goods. Inner female conflict resolved!

Now, you might be wondering whether men are as similarly ambivalent about sex as women. Yes, both sexes project their contempt for their bodies and for the undead processes that lead those bodies to act as instruments for producing another generation of bio-puppets. But, as I said, men have had the advantage of literally enslaving women for centuries all over the world. Men therefore haven’t had to tip-toe around their fantasy of expressing their hostility towards the forces of sexuality; they’ve codified that fantasy in their society’s laws. In traditional societies, husbands own their wives because they regard their women as subhuman. But this dehumanization is just the fulfillment of men’s misdirected fantasy of rebelling against nature. Being rational, self-aware creatures (in addition to being bio-puppets much of the time), men are properly horrified by their animalistic instincts which they overcome through rational and linguistic self-control. But because their self-control is limited and their existential reaction to the world is too distressing to follow for long, they still partake of sex. They too, then, loathe themselves and scapegoat women by dehumanizing them while pretending to be supernatural elites. However, because men actually enslave women, men needn’t fight the battle between the sexes so indirectly, with mere ideological weapons. Men express their sexual instincts by physically dominating women, while their misogyny expresses their incomplete enlightenment, that is, their low-grade horror for sexuality in general.

By contrast, women can’t physically enslave men, which is why there are no known matriarchies, and so women must hope that at least some men ignore the ideological triumph of feminism and secretly retain their masculine characteristics while still serving as women’s scapegoats. That is, since women can’t feminize men by force or literally emasculate them, women have only ideologies at their disposal which can indeed train men to be less manly; however, a complete feminist triumph would be counterproductive, since women’s evolved sexual preference for alpha males would then go unfulfilled. Thus, women are forced to play a double game, teasing men with their new cultural power and enjoying the way men are forced to grovel and humiliate themselves in the climate of political correctness, fostered by liberalism, while also wanting to take it all back and longing for a return of macho men. In either case, sexism is a type of mental projection for the purpose of scapegoating, based on what I’d call partial enlightenment. Full enlightenment would lead a person to renounce sexuality as a horrific cliché. Hardly anyone is fully enlightened, and so instead of owning up to the fact that we loathe ourselves because we know we’re playthings of the undead god which is the mindlessly changing cosmos, we play cheap tricks and exchange insults based on gross stereotypes. We don’t confront the true reason for this ancient conflict between men and women, because we prefer to think of sex as a gift that makes life worth living. Instead, sex is sugar-coated poison. And again, if you doubt that, tell the world about your sex life and leave no stone unturned! 

12 comments:

  1. If I love the booze but hate the hangover, does that make me an enlightened existential rebel? I guess not.

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    1. I'm not sure I see the connection, Ardegas. Are you saying a macho guy wouldn't care about the hangover?

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    2. The connection is that sex and romance, like some things in life that are good, have some nasty side effects, and there is no need to feel like an existential rebel just for being able to see that. Oh, and there is no need to be a macho guy in order to hook up. Should people avoid sex? That's not for me to decide. It may well be that from a cost/benefit analysis sex is not worth the effort for some people.

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    3. I see the connection now. The difference, though, is that there's nothing like sexism with regard to drinkers. Sure, there's some hostility towards drinkers if they drive drunk or get into bar fights. Likewise, if men or women weren't actually equal at performing certain tasks, there might be some legitimate negative evaluation of the poorer performers. But that wouldn't be sexism. So sexism, meaning oppressive stereotypes potentially or actually leading to enslavement of either sex, remains a mystery, no? How, then, would you explain the mystery of sexism? Or do you think there's nothing mysterious about it?

      People's sex lives are obviously none of my business. I defend renunciation of certain instincts or impulses for the sake of a more creative life, but I'm not trying to tell people what to do. In this article, I'm just offering an explanation of sexism.

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  2. One day I'll expect you to push a point by demanding people hand over their credit card details and bank password, or they aren't really comfortable with so and so concept.

    By contrast, women can’t physically enslave men
    Odd notion.

    I think this is a bit of a fantasy. Confusing lack of slaver inclinations for a lack of capacity to enact slavery, choosing the preferable causal reason.

    I'll have to come back to this post, I think.

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    1. This article is a little tongue-in-cheek, a little facetious, but not entirely so. The size difference between men and women is, I assume, the main reason most societies are patriarchies and there have been no known matriarchies. Women can't generally bully men over a period of centuries to establish the sort of anti-male culture needed to justify a practice of enslaving them. In Europe, the Middle East, and just about everywhere else, women were men's slaves for centuries, in that they were second-class citizens and legally owned by their husbands or fathers.

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  3. Can't casually bully men - ie, continually using small hints of using height (however we judge that as relevant) towards violence. It's hardly that there's a significant difference - just a small difference applied over time (think a trickle of water forming the grand canyon (and think an Australian resorting to an American reference...lol))

    But then again I don't think the only way you can get a matriarchy is the same way you get a patriarchy. Why does a matriarchy have to involve bullying?

    I don't buy the self loathing premise. If there is a sort of 'make men look stupid' thing in the media and it's based on female culture, its a culture of romantic political manouvering (pun not intended). They pretty much plan to live large chunks of their lives with or even the rest of their lives with these things. It's an urge to have some control over the situation. Unfortunately the default method (because it's the easiest) for gaining some control is essentially 'negging' the other.

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    1. Maybe an alternative to using the threat of force to establish a slavery regime would be having the gift of the gab, so that you could talk your victims into taking on a subhuman role in society. But I think force would be the main way.

      The point about self-loathing isn't a premise, it's a hypothesis that's meant to solve the mystery of sexism. Granted, it's somewhat facetious and I certainly don't claim to have proved it's true. But it's consistent with much of what I've written elsewhere.

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    2. Well, you wrote both this and what you've written elsewhere! That would tend to bring in consistancies! :P

      Also, with big bang theory, do I detect a sense of...betrayal?

      What happened to the wishlist idea, in regards to the characters developing (if they didn't already have) some sort of quality that appeals to some kind of women/individual women? Never mind the idea of a wishlist working just as much in general - of the Penny character developing some qualities that appeal, for example?

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    3. It takes a lot of thought, actually, to be consistent over so many writings, especially if you're covering many topics. But consistency isn't really so crucial to my writings, since I take them to be speculative artworks. Truth and practical reliability are almost irrelevant when it comes to philosophy/religion.

      The wish list idea, which we've discussed elsewhere, is that some instincts or archetypal ideas which begin as delusions may inspire us to develop from animals into people. My point about the Big Bang Theory is that it is annoying to see feminist or romantic cliches tarnish what began as a show for omega men. The connection with the wish list idea isn't so clear, since the wish list is part of our collective evolution. In the case of the four male nerds on the show, they're simply being pussy-whipped, no? Not all personal development is existentially authentic. Sometimes, we betray our ideals...

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    4. I don't really dig your omega ideas, though I understand the small mindedness of some that invent much the same thing (a small mindedness grounded perhaps much in a fear of your undead god sort of idea...though equally perhaps that why you stick with the omega idea. It's a 'place', after all).

      But was it a show about celebate 'omegas'? And by celebate I mean including one night stands - I don't mean abstaining from sex, I mean abstaining from connection.

      I will pay that it is a basically a trope that any comedy series devolves to romantic entanglements for content - because romantic entanglements make for such easy content. I've certainly been dissapointed before by that - as the background romantic sub plot becomes the foreground plot and everything else is punted to the background (blah!).

      But, apart from Penny, I find the big bang women to be fairly unconventional women in various ways (and even Penny, as she uses an analogy from star trek to speak with another women who is predating/profiteering on the nerds infatuations, becomes unconventional). Omega women? With omega being more having built their own identity rather than just succumbed to the status quo's default identity. Again, I'll note I don't buy into the omega stuff super much.

      But anyway, was it supposed to be celebate characters? And you resent the final hold out, Sheldon, still being on his way to hooking up? For nanowrimo I wrote a character who was a female sniper based on his woman (who I forget the name of now, forgive me!). Funnily though I based it on her character previously - there was an episode where Sheldon said to her 'What happened to you?'. At that point my character was from an older version of her. Though I kind of really like her as the clinical sniper savant. And she helped me get my 50k of words out (but hell did I rely on alot of fight scenes to do it - because they are soooo fun to write!), even though she wasn't the main character.

      Is the choice of celebacy important to you and they sort of overtook that?

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    5. I agree with you on the Big Bang Theory. It is just a standard way to develop a show for ratings. Then again, if the majority of the viewers were nerds themselves, I doubt they'd be interested in seeing the usual romantic plots. But of course, the audience has expanded way beyond that base.

      This isn't close to my favourite show or anything. In fact, I don't find the show particularly funny. I'm interested in the show for sociological reasons. I'm curious about how society regards omegas.

      The choice of celibacy isn't as important as a character's personal integrity. The big question for me is how the TV show will deal with the conflict between social norms and the omega characters. Will the norms win out, so that the omegas are turned into betas? Will the victory be ambiguous, so that the betas will retain some socially acceptable omega qualities?

      The trickiest character is indeed Sheldon since he's mentally ill. Raj's illness seems cleared up (his inability to talk to women unless drunk). Will Sheldon be cured or will the show use Sheldon's alienated viewpoint to critique social norms? This last question is the most decisive for me. Obviously, this is the show's missed opportunity and it's the reason the show is so popular. Sheldon does criticize society, but the norms usually have the last laugh--at Sheldon's expense. Sheldon's just a child, after all. The ultimate question is where the show will land with regard to Sheldon's relation to society.

      Another show which deals with similar themes is the new Sherlock with Cumberbatch on BBC. I've just started watching it, and Sherlock is very similar to Sheldon Cooper. They're both actual hyperrationalists as opposed to wannabe ones like most new atheists. But Sherlock is much more subversive as a character, since the Sherlock character is more godlike compared to the ants who are the average folks scurrying around him. Big Bang Theory is very tame compared to what it could be, given the Sheldon character. In fact, I might just write another dialogue exploring what the Big Bang Theory should be doing, if it weren't so interested in protecting social conventions for the sake of ratings.

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