Archive for the ‘Sex’ category

April 16, 2015


Figure_skating_beesWhen a non-crazy parent — Alice Dreger — sits in on her son’s sex-ed class, taught by someone who thinks sex is, well…

Read it and weep.  A taste:

The lesson Jerry wanted to impart? This: “You’ll find a good girl. If you find one who says ‘no,’ that’s the one you want.”

He actually said that. If a girl says no, “that’s the one you want.”

Silly me! I have been teaching my son that if a girl says no, you exit politely and get the hell out of her space.

Oh hell, one more morsel:

Ms. Thomas’s dire warnings continued: “It takes only one sperm to fertilize an egg. It takes only one act of sex to get pregnant.”

I wanted to raise my hand and blurt out, “Not if it’s anal or oral!”


You get the drift.  Dreger’s twitter feed for the last day or so is a hoot and a half too…or would be if it weren’t so damn depressing.

Dreger’s problem — or the East Lansing High School’s — is that the school has contracted at least part of its sex ed curriculum to the usual suspects:

The abstinence class is part of the district’s overall sex education unit. According to Fletcher, it is called SMART for Sexually Mature Aware Responsible Teens. It’s provided by an independent contractor working with Pregnancy Services of Greater Lansing, a group that counsels pregnant women to avoid abortion.

Lori Bolan, the administrator of SMART, said East Lansing has been using the program for 22 years to cover abstinence. She said it is fact-based using Centers for Disease Control statistics.

“We are trying to give them an option,” she said. “We’re just one portion of what the school provides.”

And yet, inevitably:

Bolan declined to provide the PowerPoint used in the class and the instructor’s name

This last report is from the local paper, which also seems to think the problem isn’t the crap material, but Dreger’s impertinence in giving it a public ridiculing, writing that her choice to live tweet was a shonde:

unfortunately for East Lansing schools, she found a spot with wifi.

In the end, this is yet anothe example of the perils of privatization.  “Independent contracting” of sex-ed to anti-sex, anti women’s autonomy pressure groups is analagous to handing a donor a badge and a gun, or turning convicted criminals into product for processing in private prisons…and so on.  Public goods — an accurately educated school population; professionally policed streets; socially agreed and imposed punishment and rehabilitation are not “luxuries” to be doled out to high bidders or motivated donors.

Or rather they are, but not in civilized societies.

Images:  Photo of bee figure skaters (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) via bugeater.

Titian, Danaë with Eros, 1544.

My New Favorite Judge

July 7, 2014

Would be Bush 41 appointee Richard Kopf*, a member of the Federal District Court bench for in Nebraska.


Because of this:

In the Hobby Lobby cases, five male Justices of the Supreme Court, who are all members of the Catholic faith and who each were appointed by a President who hailed from the Republican party, decided that a huge corporation, with thousands of employees and gargantuan revenues, was a “person” entitled to assert a religious objection to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate because that corporation was “closely held” by family members. To the average person, the result looks stupid and smells worse.

[h/t Talking Points Memo]


Judge Kopf elaborates:

To most people, the decision looks stupid ’cause corporations are not persons, all the legal mumbo jumbo notwithstanding. The decision looks misogynist because the majority were all men. It looks partisan because all were appointed by a Republican. The decision looks religiously motivated because each member of the majority belongs to the Catholic church, and that religious organization is opposed to contraception.

Kopf adds both in a disclaimer both truthful and politic that he is not saying that the majority in the Hobby Lobby decision were actually driven by the considerations that it really really looks like they were. But the point is made — and he adds the equally valid observation that there was no actual necessity for the Supremes to take the case in the first place. Such judicial passivism, he says, would have been better than this result.

In that context, the good jurist has the temerity to offer advice to his betters:

Next term is the time for the Supreme Court to go quiescent–this term and several past terms has proven that the Court is now causing more harm (division) to our democracy than good by deciding hot button cases that the Court has the power to avoid. As the kids say, it is time for the Court to stfu**

To which I say, Amen and Amen.

*As the TPM piece linked above reports, Kopf achieved a measure of — fame is not quite the word — notice for an earlier blog post advising young women lawyers how to dress for court.

**I do love the link that Judge Kopf kindly provided for his less internet-meme-familiar readers to that last term.

Image: William Hogarth, The Court, c. 1758. You’ve seen this one before, I know. I generally try to find a new image for every post, but this one so perfectly captures the contempt I feel for the current Court that I just keep coming back to it. Sorry.

Annals of Stupidity (Sex in America Edition)

July 22, 2012

Via the Guardian, we learn of the latest act of stupidity in America’s war on sex:

The International Aids conference, held in the US for the first time in 22 years next week, is a chance for the country to celebrate its contribution to HIV and Aids prevention. Yet in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington DC, state police forces are stopping, searching and arresting sex workers – and using condoms found on them as evidence to support prostitution charges, undermining decades of HIV and Aids harm reduction work in the process.

Via the Human Rights Watch report that forms the basis of the Guardian piece we learn this:

Police use of condoms as evidence of prostitution has the same effect everywhere: despite millions of dollars spent on promoting and distributing condoms as an effective method of HIV prevention, groups most at risk of infection—sex workers, transgender women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth—are afraid to carry them and therefore engage in sex without protection as a result of police harassment. Outreach workers and businesses are unable to distribute condoms freely and without fear of harassment as well.

Carrying guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition around town? No problem.  A couple of dozen condoms? Call out the guards!

File this under WASF.

PS:  If you want to read a clear-headed account of sex-work, HIV, and appropriate public health responses, see my friend Elizabeth Pisani’s excellent The Wisdom of Whores. (Go to the right hand column of the website.)  As Elizabeth regularly notes, condoms are hardly a perfect barrier to STD infection, HIV in particular, not least because in real life it turns out to be hard to persuade oneself/one’s partner to use them as needed every time they are needed. That said, condoms from an essential component of a sex-worker’s ability to take direct action on her or his own behalf as she or he goes about a working day (or night).  Creating barriers to their use is both stupid as a public health measure and an unacceptable — I would say, un-American — infringement on an individual’s right and duty to take care of oneself.

Bonus: Video via Elizabeth’s site from condom maker DKT’s home video collection:

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(Translation of the caption at the end:  “With a year’s supply of free condoms, any place is the right place.”)

Image:  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The ladies in the brothel dining-room, 1893

Yes Dear, I Remember When Women Were People Too

March 31, 2011

Yes Dear, I Do Remember When Women Were People Too

by Tom Levenson

Blogging  in haste whilst waiting out the sprout’s martial arts class, this from the ACLU blog seems an excruciatingly appropriate follow up to ABL’s post below:
On December 23, 2010, [Bei Bei] Shuai, a 34-year-old pregnant woman who was suffering from a major depressive disorder, attempted to take her own life. Friends found her in time and persuaded her to get help. Six days later, Shuai underwent cesarean surgery and delivered a premature newborn girl who, tragically, died four days later.

On March 14, 2011, Shuai was arrested, jailed, and charged with murder and attempted feticide. Had Shuai, who is being represented by National Advocates for Pregnant Women and local attorneys, not been pregnant when she attempted suicide, she would not have been charged with any crime at all.

I’m fair gobsmacked with outrage and sorrow at this.

Full disclosure: this story strikes home personally—there is a history of depression and associated suicide on one side of my family, and the thought that someone enduring that particularly vicious illness being further tortured by the modern inquisition is just grotesque.  No one who has either suffered major depression, nor anyone who has loved someone thus afflicted would see the state of Indiana’s actions as anything other than vicious.

That this action is enmeshed in religious and political fanaticism and intolerance of views other than those of particular faiths and cults does not excuse the behavior.  The reverse, in fact.

Beyond my personal revulsion and rage at those who would so use a woman already mired in sorrow for their own ends,* the only thing I want to add in this brief piece is that the actions of the state here are part and parcel of a pattern of GOP lawless exercise of state power under the color of law.  Here’s the ACLU blog again on the way Indiana prosecutors are abusing the criminal statutes at their disposal:
The state is misconstruing the criminal laws in this case in such a way that any pregnant woman could be prosecuted for doing (or attempting) anything that may put her health at risk, regardless of the outcome of her pregnancy.

That’s right: according to the ways the laws are being applied here, the state of Indiana believes that any pregnant woman who smokes or lives with a smoker, who works long hours on her feet, who is overweight, who doesn’t exercise, or who fails to get regular prenatal care, is a felon. And the list of ways these laws could be construed to unconstitutionally prosecute pregnant women goes on and on.

That is, as this report goes on to argue, in the view of the prosecution, women are not autonomous citizens.  They are wards of the state…and while I’m sure the earnest sex-phobic, women-denigrating apologists of the right (I’m looking at you, Ross Douthat) would argue that matters would never get this far, I don’t see how the theory of the Indiana prosecution wouldn’t stretch to cover the “reckless” behavior of any fertile, sexually active woman.

After all—if you don’t know whether or not you are pregnant, how can you responsibly risk any potential fetus by injesting the demon rum or what have you.  If there is any woman, or any friend to any woman out there who thinks that the GOP can be trusted with their body, they need to think long and hard on the show trial of Bei Bei Shuai

Image:  Cate Bischop Sorrow, before 1928

The GOP War on Women (And Families) Continues

February 18, 2011

Deep thinker Mike Pence’s amendment banning federal funding for Planned Parenthood has passed the House, 245-180.

This cuts $363 million that would otherwise pay for the full range of family planning services Planned Parenthood provides.

That would be this operation:

Our skilled health care professionals are dedicated to offering men, women, and teens high-quality, affordable medical care. One in five American women has chosen Planned Parenthood for health care at least once in her life.

The heart of Planned Parenthood is in the local community. Our 85 unique, locally governed affiliates nationwide operate more than 820 health centers, which reflect the diverse needs of their communities.

These health centers provide a wide range of safe, reliable health care — and more than 90 percent is preventive, primary care, which helps prevent unintended pregnancies through contraception, reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections through testing and treatment, and screen for cervical and other cancers. Caring physicians, nurse practitioners, and other staff take time to talk with clients, encouraging them to ask questions in an environment that millions have grown to trust.


Planned Parenthood is a respected leader in educating Americans about reproductive and sexual  health. We deliver comprehensive and medically accurate information that empowers women, men, teens, and families to make informed choices and lead healthy lives. Planned Parenthood is proud of its vital role in providing young people with honest sexuality and relationship information in classrooms and online to help reduce our nation’s alarmingly high rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. More than 1.2 million youths and adults participate in Planned Parenthood educational programs every year.

It is certainly true that Planned Parenthood provides abortion services, none of which are paid for by federal tax dollars.*  Mostly, though this is what it does:

In 2008, they reported that contraception constituted 35% of total services, STI/STD testing and treatment constituted 34%, cancer testing and screening constituted 17%; and other women’s health procedures, including pregnancy, prenatal, midlife, and infertility were 10%. According to Planned Parenthood less than 2% of visits involve abortions.

So, in essence, the House GOP has decided that in order to prevent federal tax dollars from paying for abortions they already don’t pay for, they are willing to see more — many more — Americans suffer sexually transmitted infections, die of cancer, endure untreated complications of pregnancy, menopause and the inability to bear longed-for children.  Say that again: to prevent any federal dollar from passing in close proximity to a private one that paid for an abortion, GOP religious zealots are willing to make it harder for infertile couples to bear children.

Why, I ask, do the modern Republican party and all those self-styled “conservative” radicals hate women — and America — so very, very much.

*Except, possibly, in cases where the abortion is necessitated by an act of rape or incest.

Image: attributed to Albrecht Dürer, Syphilis, 1496.

My Contribution to Closing the Enthusiasm Gap this Fall + Some Link Love

July 28, 2010

You’ve all heard, no doubt, that the big advantage the GOP + its tinfoil auxiliaries have this fall is the reported greater enthusiasm for such goals as repealing the non-existent-but-zombie-death-panels than that felt on the Democratic side for, among much else, preventing the return to power of those that got us into our current fix.

Well, there’s lots to do about that, and what follows won’t help much.  But it won’t hurt, either.  Enjoy:

Now, some links for edification, amusement, and perhaps action.  (Don’t miss the one above — Sen. “Diaper” Dave Vitter is a source of never ending wonder.

And in partial response to Vitter’s astonishing fail, check out Atul Gawande’s latest on end-of-life care (and the consequences of the absence of such care). I plan to blog on this a little later, but don’t wait on l’il old me.   The article is essential reading.

I’ve been meaning to tout this for a while but again, as a partial response to Vitter, to the ongoing Jeremy Lord “lynchgate” fiasco, and to a whole range of shenanigans too miserable to recall here (enthusiasm gap, remember) check out Batocchio’s elegant The Five Circles of Conservative Hell.

This is a little self-aggrandizing, given how Jennifer Ouellette begins her analysis, but she’s got a lovely takedown of Amazon anonymous reviewers of science books up at Cocktail Party Physics.

Henry Farrell’s got me salivating over a novel about, among other things, the birth of linear programming.

I’m a few days behind in my reading (days?–ed.), but I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight Kathy Olmsted’s lovely reminiscence about Daniel Schorr.  It’s not the memories that stand out, in fact, as it is the critical assessment of the state of journalism, especially on TV.  Not to give it away, but there are only two cohorts:  Schorr and not-Schorr, and one is vastly different, and better, than the other.

And what would the sultry days of summer without an official celebration of Sex Week.  Carl Zimmer is on the case.

More grimly, Ed Yong, who continues to do so much work that I suspect him of being a collective of at least three symbionts occupying the same meat envelope, writes of the dangers to phytoplankton from a warming ocean.  This is fate-of-the-planet stuff.  Which is why, of course, we should return the party of global warming denialists/defeatists to power.

And with that eternal return of the same (thanks, Freddy!), I’m done for now.

That’ll do for now.

Correlation Ain’t Cause, but Mississippi’s Fear of Sex Has To Make You Go Hmmm.

July 16, 2010

I learn via the Maddowblog, (h/t Balloon Juice) that Mississipi Public Broadcasting got its knickers in a twist because one (count ’em — one) listener got the vapors over some mildly sexualized content on an episode of Terri Gross’s program, Fresh Air.  (Miss PB claims that a review of Gross’s show revealed a pattern of naughty bits. (h/t Gawker).

Balloon Juice’s Mr. Mix points out that Mississippi PB’s effective “zero tolerance” policy for mentions of sex on the radio adds up to  an essential omerta on matters lubricious, bouncy-bouncy, reproductive and all the rest.

That made me wonder.  What occurs in the context of such fear and trembling at the thought that humans have bodies and do things with them?

Well, I can’t say I was terribly surprised.  As of the latest statistics I could get my hands on quickly (Friday-afternoon-heading-for-a-BBQ blogging, you know), in 2007 Mississippi had the highest out-of-wedlock birthrate of all states, with such births accounting for 54% of the total.  As of 2006, Mississippi teens out-reproduced all their peers, boasting the top birthrate in the country for the 15-19 age group.  And as for the nasty problem referenced in this Sublime song…

…Mississippi maintains its leading position, coming in first in its incidence of chlamydia and gonorrhea, and eighth on the league tables for primary and secondary syphilis.

Now, as the title of this post ought to make clear, I’m not saying that a statewide choice to hold one’s hands over one’s ears and shout “I’m not listening!” — whenever discussion begins of sexual behavior, reproduction and contraception and all the rest sully the Magnolia State’s sensitive souls is — has any connection to the fact that so many more of its citizens than those of other states suffer the real human costs that come with unprotected and unconsidered sex.

But it sure is a coincidence, ain’t it?

Image: Anthony Van Dyck, “Cupid and Psyche,” 1639-40

Science Online 2010 Brain Bubbles: Duck Genitalia Doggerel

January 17, 2010

As has been amply twittered, (search #scio10), one of the hit of this years Science Online conference has been Carl Zimmer’s account of the extraordinary sexual equipment of ducks.

Not only did it serve as an object lesson (and what an object!–ed.) on the intricacies of science journalism in the age of the web, it became a running theme throughout an evening in which the tool a duck’s penis most resembles received an excellent work-out.

My own response?

Why a limerick, of course.

So, for all of you who sadly had to miss this most excellent meeting, I offer you this take-home.  With no apologies.

There once was a mallard quite amorous

Whose genitalia were certainly glamorous

But its left handed screw

Rotating quite true,

Brought results that were sadly calamitous.*

*The calamity here implied could either be the destruction of the silicone vagina used in early versions of the experiment in question, or from the implications of the idea being tested that the co-evolution of duck penises and vaginas occurred in the midst of sexual competition to enable or prevent forced copulation. For the detailed account of the experiment in question — here’s the paper.

Update: Via @JBYoder, this. You will all be punished until moral improves.

Image: Song Dynasty (960-1229) album painting of a duck.

Sexual terror kills people: a sort-of follow up to David Brooks’ sexual queasiness.

November 19, 2009

A few days ago I wrote this screed of disdain about David Brooks data-less, thoughtless complaint about the vapid sex lives of Kids These Days™.*  I have more than once commented on the evil consequences of marrying sexual queasiness to bad science, social or otherwise — and it struck me that  it is important to remember that Brooks’s queasiness about sex has a broader context and worse consequences.

The thought came to me as I was reading my pre-pub copy (what used to be called a galley) of Rebecca Skloot’s marvelous new book The Immortal Life of HEnrietta LAcks.  Rebecca has written a work that  is proximately the story of HeLa —  the most ubiquitous (some would say ferocious) human cell line used in modern biology — and the woman from whom those cells were derived, without her knowledge or permission.  It’s more than that, of course — an inquiry into race and its twisted history in America, family, medical practice and medical ethics, the autonomy — or lack therof — with which we all inhabit our own bodies, and much more besides.  I’ll blog about it properly closer to pub date, but put this one on your list.

Within all that, the factoid that got me thinking was Rebecca’s discussion of the particular type of cancer that killed Henrietta Lacks so swiftly and cruelly: cervical cancer, the sequel to her multiple infections with HPV-18, one of the most malign of the 100+ strains of Human Papilloma Virus.

HPV infection was and is an epidemic.  In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control reported that

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., with about 20 million people currently infected. Women have an 80 percent chance of getting HPV by the time they are 50. HPV is most common in young people who are in their late teens and early 20s.

That is:  about 7 percent, give or take, of the American population — closer to ten percent of the adult population**–are infected with a virus whose consequences range from nothing to death in predictable proportions.  The same CDC report tells us that each year 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and that 3,600 will die of it.

For those of you keeping score, the number of women who will die this year of the disease that killed Henrietta Lacks is about 80% of the total US military deaths in Iraq since 2003 — 4363, according to the latest AP count.  It is greater than the number of combat deaths in that period:  3,476.

There is this difference of course:  death is a necessary component of battle.  War is the imposition of national will by violence, in one short hand definition, and within that context, people will die.

By contrast, no one — or rather, within a generation, very close to no one — need die of HPV infection.  The HPV vaccine, approved by the FDA in 2006, protects against four of the strains of HPV, including those that cause genital warts and cancer.  It is effective, according to the CDC, and safe:

As of June 30, 2008 VAERS has received a total of 9,749 reports of potential adverse events following HPV vaccination. Ninety-four percent (94%) of these reports were about non-serious adverse events.

Six percent (6%) of adverse events reported for the HPV vaccine were considered serious, which is about half of the average number of serious reports for other vaccines. In comparison, the overall average in VAERS for any serious adverse event following vaccination ranges from 10% to 15%; therefore, the percentage of serious reports for Gardasil® is less than the overall average for other vaccines.

The CDC goes on to caution that the number of adverse events actually caused by the virus vaccine is almost certainly lower than that number, due to the post hoc ergo propter hoc problem.

The virus vaccine is recommended for girls aged 11-12.  Why?  Because this is before the age of likely infection, given that HPV is a sexually transmitted pathogen.

We all know where this goes.  The notion of protecting girls from a deadly disease transmitted in the context — oh get the fainting couch ready — of the sexual lives of their older selves is terrifying, at least to some.

So much so that  those terrified of especially female sexual appetite and expression (see for an allegedly respectable example, Chunky Reese Averse Ross Douthat) would rather kill people than acquiesce in the possibility that human beings might on occasion make the beast with two backs.

Recall:  Texas secessionist Governor Rick Perry wasn’t always 100% crazy.  Back when the loon quotient was down to no more than 95% or so, he actually, in a moment of clarity in 2007, signed an order that all require all sixth grade girls in Texas to receive the HPV vaccine.  The response?  As you’d expect.  Texas legislators “rushed to file bills that would override the governor’s order, which they said revokes parental rights and could encourage young girls to be promiscuous.”

To his credit Perry stood up for modern public health:

Providing the HPV vaccine doesn’t promote sexual promiscuity any more than the Hepatitis B vaccine promotes drug use,” Perry said Monday. “If the medical community developed a vaccine for lung cancer, would the same critics oppose it, claiming it would encourage smoking?”

Soon, though — damn soon — in fact, he lost.  Though he complained — accurately, that the legislators who had voted in favor of the bill overturning his executive order would rather tell women that  “We could have prevented this disease for your daughters and your granddaughters, but we just didn’t have the gumption to address all the misguided and misleading political rhetoric,” he lacked the votes to prevent his veto from being overturned, and allowed the bill, unsigned, to become law.

Perry, it should be noted, still defends this decision.  I have no time for just about everything Perry stands for  — but on this one, he has it right.

So let’s recap:  we face a disease that kills more women in this country each year than have died in battle in the last six in our war in Iraq….

…that will be allowed to persist in the lives of our daughters because to some people it is more important to pretend that human beings don’t have sex with more than one person in their lives than it is to prevent wholly avoidable suffering.

So, finally, to return to why I find David Brooks’s maundering about the sex lives of New Yorkers so pernicious is not just because of the gaping crater of intellectual shoddiness at its heart:  it that he offers a well-spoken version of the attitude that declares, whatever may actually happen in real human experience, women shouldn’t have the temerity to uncross their legs.  Remember the corollary of that belief as well:  if they do, then, by gum, disease, distress and death are merely the appropriate consequences for such sin.

Last note:  when ever I hear the term “value voters” I throw up in my mouth.  The single central value of just about any ethical system, including those advanced by the sages of traditional religion, is that it is wrong to use other people as objects, rather than subjects, individuals of intrinsic value.  Requiring others to die to avoid unpleasant contradiction with one’s own value system is not a virtue.  It is, in the only true sense of the word, the very definition of a sin.

A pox upon them.

I mean that literally.

Oh — and one more thing.  If anyone wants to draw the obvious connection to the current health care debates (Joe Stupak, are you listening?  Senators?) then I think that is an entirely appropriate link.  The entire anti-health care movement is in the end a decision to allow innocents to die in large numbers in order to achieve other ends; it sacrifices individuals in the service of either or both abstract “values” and the financial interests of various elites.  Mere sin hardly covers the case; evil is more like it.

*I later found out that Brooks’ silliness was deeper than I thought, for I chanced across the original article in New York magazine in which the editors described the process by which they accumulated the sex diaries that so confounded the gentle Mr. Brooks.  These were, which I’m sure will surprise no one, wholly selected for maximum effect.  Producing social commentary on the basis of sought-and-found soft porn purveyed to prop up an at-risk publishing model is something only the credulous or the contemptuous-of-their-readers would attempt.  Consider this an exercise for the readers to decide which it might be.

**and yes, I know that plenty of under-18s will have HPV infections.  This is numerical shorthand here — an attempt to express scale.  It is not, as I hope the language makes obvious, a precise claim.

Update: minor but crucial edits above (for “virus” read “vaccine” twice) thanks to the eagle eye of  Lovable Liberal.

Images:  Albrecht Dürer, “The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse” 1497-1498

Berthe Morisot, “The Balcony” 1872

Why Does Anyone Listen To David Brooks? Women and Sex Scare Me edition

November 6, 2009

The punditocracy is, as we all know by know, frighteningly well populated by naked emperors.  David Brooks is not the most egregious — not for lack of trying, I admit — but given the competition, I’m not even sure if he makes the top ten.

But he is exemplary, and his column of November 2 provides a great case study of how elite opinion composes itself — and yet makes, seemingly, no contact with the world of experience the rest of us inhabit.

In that column Brooks advances the following argument: that the sexual adventurers have never had it so good — or at least so easy — thanks to the advent of cell phones and social media…and that the rise of this technologically-enhanced libertinism has cast all of us out of “the Happy Days era” — his term, to our sorrow and loss.


Where to begin?

Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates has already identified the essential flaw in this particular column.  He writes of Brooks — and “conservative” (actually radical) nostalgia:

This is a theme residing in the conservative soul–a professed, thinly-reasoned skepticism of the fucked-up now, contrasted against a blind, unquestioning acceptance of the hypermoral past. This is a human idea–most people, like those slaves, believe some point in the past was better. And indeed, in some case the past was demonstrably better. But the writer who would argue such has to prove it. He can’t just accept his innate hunch.

Exactly so.  To put the same thought into the frame of this blog:  it is a central theme of what happens around here that much journalistic sin would be avoided, and much gain for the republic accrued, if only the habits of scientific thinking penetrated the punditocracy (and the citizenry at large, of course).

If you are aspire to a job like the one Brooks holds, and you want to think and write well about our world, then you need to acquaint yourself with the standard tools of a scientist working on more or less any problem:  notions of quantification; of the importance of empiricism and of analysis;of what might be called informational hygiene  and the proper skepticism in the face of claims of fact unsupported by a clear portrait of how those “facts” came to be known…all the tools with which researchers try to make sure that what they think they know is real.

And if there is a single unifying flaw that connects most of the really disastrous punditry and opinion “journalism” flooding the intertubes these days, it is that so many — and most of the most prominent — don’t come close to this standard.  Rather, their approach seems to be dominated by the “too good to check” approach to whatever received wisdom they may wish to purvey…

…which brings me back to Mr. Brooks.

His essential claim is that reading the accounts of 132 New Yorkers who chose to offer  New York magazine with a diary of one week’s worth of their sex and social lives demonstrates that modern technology has fundamentally transformed courtship, love, and by extension the fabric of meaning in society.

It’s a superficially plausible argument.  It certainly feels as if various technological developments — geolocation for one, the ease with which it is possible to converse with multiple individuals or groups over multiple information channels for another — have the power to alter, even undermine, the experience of a one-on-one conversation, carnal or otherwise.

But, as Ta-Nehisi says, prove it.

And this Brooks doesn’t — and he fails to do so in a way implicates him in twin sins:  claims of fact unsupported by the evidence, and flaws of logic that undermine each step of his argument.

Let’s watch, shall we?

First of all, the entire premise of the column rests on sample bias.  He bases his conclusions about all manner of things — sexual habits, commitment and ritual issues and all the rest, on a gloss of  the words of 132 twice-selected people who chose to share their sexual adventures with an audience of millions.  Remember — these came from  (a) those that chose to write about their sex lives and (b) who  did so with enough gusto to be selected for maximum audience titillation by some folks aiming to sell magazines.

Problems anyone?

Brooks, lazy but not dumb, is of course alert to half the issue.   He writes,

“people who send in sex diaries to a magazine are not representative of average Americans.”

But never mind.  Because Brooks knows the answer already, these unrepresentative adventurers are, suddenly, representative:

“the interplay between technology and hook-ups will be familiar to a wide swath of young Americans.”

So what is this territory, foreign to us greybeards for whom Brooks wishes to serve as Virgil, guiding us through the sexual underworld enjoyed by Kids These Days?   “On nights when they are out, the diarists are often texting multiple possible partners in search of the best arrangement.”  This, Brooks writes,

leads to a series of marketing strategies. You don’t want to appear too enthusiastic. You want to invent detached nicknames for partners….You want to appear bulletproof as you move confidently through the transactions.

So, let me get this straight: Brooks is saying that texting produces novel sexual marketing strategies…and, that folks raised to sexual maturity in the “Happy Days era” gained a pureness of heart that derived from their lack of have access to the same technology.

The logical flaw is obvious, I think:  there is a difference between saying technology renders something easier and that such technology makes the same practices possible.

And empirically, I have to say that reading this made me wonder if Brooks has either pulse or memory.  The notion that in some glorious past folks seeking the or  many mates haven’t cloaked themselves in confidence or tried to game the chase between hunger for the most desirable and the potential loss of the available misses everything I observed in myself and my peers from junior high school on.

More concretely, if you don’t trust personal recollection (and why should you…see above), then look to the literature.  Data matters.  What people have done when they approach such questions systematically, helps those who would think with their gut or other organs straighten themselves out.

You can begin with the Kinsey studies of 1948 and 1953, which show that depending on socioeconomic class, between 67 and 98% of men engaged in premarital sex — the bane of Happy Days nostalgia, with 68% doing so before they turned 18.  The number for women topped out a 50%.

(Half a nation of bad girls back there in Daddy Eisenhower’s ranch house?  Who knew?  Everyone.  Except of course, Mr. Brooks).

Or, more recently, one could check the National Health and Social Life Survey for data on numbers of sexual partners (and much else besides), collected in a massive survey in 1992.  There, you will find that within the prior year 11.7 percent of women and 23.4 percent of men of all ages had more than one sexual partner, and that the pursuit of such variety is skewed — surprise! —  to folks 18-24, of whom 32.3 percent report playing the field.

That is:  Brooks has no idea whether the anecdotes on which he bases his conclusion that we’re doomed to emotional evisceration describe anything that is in fact new — and there is plenty of evidence within easy reach of a bit of googling to suggest that sexually active folks have been, well, active for a while.

Doing even such minimal research, is dangerous, of course.  It might make it more difficult to write passages like this.

Once upon a time — in what we might think of as the “Happy Days” era — courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts — dating, going steady, delaying sex — was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment.

Say what?

This is nonsense on so many levels.  Remember the Kinsey numbers:  lots of sex happened in the ’50s, much of it outside the formal bounds of the guardrails in question. For a literary confirmation, you might want to check in on this text.  It’s post Ike but pre Free Speech Movement (the other FSM).

And then there’s the logical flaw here:  one of Brooks’s favorite cons, the false dichotomy.   Does Brooks really think that social media exist outside social institutions?  In that case, who are the people being texted in the diaries that so offend his sense of propriety?  As I read through them, it looks kind of familiar folks from neighborhoods, workplaces and friend/family networks.


Over the past few decades, these social scripts became obsolete. They didn’t fit the post-feminist era.

Ahh…now we get it.  Women who might like (a) jobs that give them economic independence and (b) sex, made enormously less life-changingly risky by access to reliable contraception, are at fault.

But yet again, data matter.  Here is where the real idiocy of the whole column comes into play.  Brooks asserts that nasty sexually active women (and presumably their sexually engaged partners) have destroyed a traditional path of encounter-relationship-marriage.

Brooks knows this how?  He doesn’t say, because, I infer, he doesn’t actually know anything at all.

He doesn’t cite data on changes in the number of sexual partners over the years; he doesn’t discuss the long term patterns — pre texting, post contraception — that show a drop in both marriage and divorce rates.

He doesn’t note the fact that the number of unmarried living-together couples has increased tenfold from the Happy Days era to know, a reservoir of committed couples not captured in the marriage and divorce statistics.  (It has nearly doubled since 1990, and one wonders what would happen to the marriage statistics if only cohabiting same-sex couples enjoyed the bare minimum of equal protection under the law.)

And so on:  whatever the data may be, with whatever problems of interpretation, Brooks doesn’t engage any of it, and thus has no basis for saying that familiar patterns of human mating have fallen prey to the evilss inherent in text message.

I’ll give Brooks this.  He’s clever.

Unlike Serious Person wannabe Megan McCardle, to take a favorite target here, he doesn’t commit himself to many real claims of fact that could simply be shown to be false.

Rather, as in the three paragraphs leading to his Extremely Serious Person conclusion, he avers, (a) that “the opportunity to contact many people at once seems to encourage compartmentalization” [aside:  was this man never at a party with more than one object of desire present?–ed.]; (b) that same opportunity” …seems to encourage an attitude of contingency;” and it  (c)  “…also seems to encourage an atmosphere of general disenchantment.”

Now that’s playing it safe.

You can’t quite call him wrong…because it only seems that he is completely off track…

Except I can and will.

Worse still, he is gutless.  He thinks he knows something so important that it must not be false, and therefore should not be checked.  That is, as any scientist knows, the fastest ticket to hell anyone nominally committed to reality can buy.

I’ll close with one last example, just because it gives me an excuse to post some Youtubes I wanted to get up there anyway.  Brooks writes

Across the centuries the moral systems from medieval chivalry to Bruce Springsteen love anthems have worked the same basic way. They take immediate selfish interests and enmesh them within transcendent, spiritual meanings. Love becomes a holy cause, an act of self-sacrifice and selfless commitment.

But texting and the utilitarian mind-set are naturally corrosive toward poetry and imagination. A coat of ironic detachment is required for anyone who hopes to withstand the brutal feedback of the marketplace. In today’s world,the choice of a Prius can be a more sanctified act than the choice of an erotic partner.

Oh my dear FSM.

It’s not just the women, it’s those damned environmentalists too.

Lot’s to dissect here, but why?  Brooks is mailing it in through this passage, as he has for the column as a whole,  I suppose.

I could point out that “texting” and “the utilitarian mindset” are not equivalents, either as entitites in the world — one is an action, the other is a worldview — nor as complementary phenomena.  One may txt a love letter — hell , whole novels are written on cell phones — while it is almost overwhelmingly obtuse for Brooks to use a scary word like  “utilitarian” to mean, I think, “instrumental,” and not that philosophical position that is, at least for some, the gateway to a truly humane understanding of our obligations to our fellows.

I could note that his maunderings about love as a holy cause is the stuff of Regency Romances, and capturing none of the extraordinarily rich history of both the idea and experience of love and marriage, that legal commitment that is as much about property law as it is about passion. (See Middlemarch if you want eloquent testimony to that hard truth). [Update: or as Tim notes in the comments, ponder the history of love as the enemy of sound marriage — as in Tim’s on-target example of the source of tragedy in Romeo and Juliet.]

I could note that Wallace Stevens was an insurance man, William Carlos Williams a doctor, and that poet laureate of anti-Semitism, the man whose poetry was better than his cause, T. S. Eliot, was a banker.  And yet somehow these men, fulfilling their utilitarian obligations within the brutal feedback mechanism that is the market, somehow managed to write a lick or two more imaginatively and poetically than one Mr. David Brooks, himself a prosodic peddlar of easy nostalgia and misremembered pasts.

But why bother, when Brooks’ true sin in this passage is his attempt to neuter the Boss.  I mean, Bruce Springsteen can surely write as romantic a ballad as anyone… but he’s also written this:

And this:

And, if you really want to get your Jersey groove on, this:

(and if you think this one’s a paean to self sacrifice and selfless commitment, you might want to ponder the concept of fever in the context of love.  Just sayin.)

Seriously, Mr. Brooks.


Trust me on this.  There is nothing more painful than watching an aging never-cool guy — long past the need for coolth — trying to be catch the wave just once in life.

Which means, right here and right now:  Don’t go bandying your Bruce at me.

That is all.  [Ain’t that enough?–ed.]

Images:  Alexander Vladimirovich Makovski, “I am bored with you,” 1897.

Sir Frank Dicksee, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” c. 1890.

Jan van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait” 1434