Recently, Hanna Rosin, senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, picked a fight with Caitlin Flanagan, author of Girl Land, in an article meant as a preview to her book The End of Men.
In the Rosin/Flanagan debate, Rosin sticks up for a culture she sees as liberating to women because it reinforces the ‘post-feminism’ societal leveling, i.e. women making as much or more money than men and having greater access and leverage in high status career fields, while at the same time treating them to dick, delicious dick. Flanagan rallies around working class girls who, by their squeamish refusal to participate in the ‘grown-up’ world of casual sex in the academic world, often retreat to marriage and relationships and away from school.
No big surprise here, I am decidedly down with Flanagan’s Girl Land, and anyone who knows me will tell you that my own life history echoes that of her working class subjects who enter college and feel estranged from their more upwardly mobile, callous and achievement-oriented peers. I got engaged before my freshman year, married between freshman and sophomore years, and transferred to a Seven Sisters school because I was fixed on the naïve notion that it would be more appropriate and allow me to focus on my studies.
I was entirely confused when my refusal to participate in school rituals cost me. It did not cost me in terms of my GPA or my relationships with faculty, but in terms of peer support. People would say things like, Aren’t you coming to May Day?!
Every spring these women would reenact the arcane dance of vestal virgins around a giant pole. I would merely smirk. Why are you sluts putting on airs? I like Isadora Duncan, too, but this is too much.
One semester, I split up from my husband and ended up cocktail waitressing in a pool hall in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania for a couple of weeks. The owner tried to impress me with big fish tales of being in the Philly mob, because I told him I was a writer. He said I could interview him, but that I would have to do it in the nude so he could make sure I wasn’t wearing a wire. The dean had cautioned us against getting retail jobs at places like The Gap because working represented a distraction from studying and a lack of priorities. I had planned to double major in English and psychology, so that I could pursue social psychology. I was particularly interested in pursuing criminal psychology post-graduation, but I was told that I was on too much financial aid to double major.
No matter how I played it at school, I was always cast as stuck-up and strange. But occasionally my fellow students would come to me and ask for guidance about love when relationships approached a serious enough level. One very bright, ambitious friend of a friend sidled up to me one day and said in this deep, worrisome tone,“Penelope, how do you know when you are in love?”
“I don’t know, Ahmara” I said. “Do you really, really like the way he smells?”
Another semester, a group of students I barely knew but who knew me as “the married girl” came to me and asked me if I would meet with a senior whose Muslim family had just arranged for her to marry. They were concerned about how she would make the adjustment. When I did meet with her, it was evident that she and I were worlds apart. Both families involved were extremely wealthy, as was the case with many of the school’s international students, and she and her husband were tracked for post-graduate careers in law and finance. She was already commuting from a penthouse in Manhattan, and the diamond studding her finger could have put my eye out. We had a very cordial conversation. Mostly it involved her apologizing obliquely for the culture of arranged marriages and my listening, stunned, searching for the proper level of political correctness and tact. I left feeling like I had somehow let her down, and I resented the gaggle of students who had so misread our lives as to put us in this awkward circumstance.
All this talk about sex and economics is very accurate, but it is also boring and ahistorical. I want to know what senior citizens would say about these books. I have a feeling they would roll their eyes and say, “What, you people think you invented sex and jockeying?” Read Margaret Atwood. Read John Barth. Or Holinshed, for that matter, or Wycliffe or the Bible.
For Rosin fans to contend that women weren’t equally savvy, savage, sexual aspirants in the pre-Title 9 days of diaphragms and corsets is like saying that football was less interesting in the days of leather helmets. Impact forces were less, but finesse and agility were more highly prized. If what is lost to us on the male side is chivalry, ferocity and cunning on the female side have certainly, in my estimation, taken a blow as more and more women go passively through their day at the office enduring a blitz of what has apparently become a pornographic level of small talk, doing the intellectual work of the day, crunching numbers, writing policy, researching foreign affairs, and not questioning their own lives and surroundings enough. They do not seem to understand that, if we have entered a new economically driven phase in sexual relations, and I’m very skeptical here (such is a uniquely insular, domestic view—for an excellent overview of some of the increasingly prevalent forms of sexual violence against women, see this article by global health science expertsCharlotte Watts and Cathy Zimmerman ), we may be condoning new norms of behavior the way we condone hazing for marching bands, fraternities and sororities. But unlike hazing, it isn’t an initiation rite; rather, it’s a constant standard.
The central problem with all this analysis is that it blanketly equates money with power. It excuses what is still in legal terms sexual harassment on the basis that paygrade status and rank in the office offer clearcut directional channels and that as long as women are able to flourish by manipulating these channels all things are equal and okay.
After the recession went full-blown, and when I was still working as a reporter, I had a very nasty, eye-opening encounter with the culture of finance grads in a bar in Stamford. An extremely drunk recent graduate kept slapping my ass on the dance floor in a way that I considered rather violent. There was a wind-up involved. He told me that he had expected to get a job with one of the firms in the area, but there were none available. He asked me what I did, and I told him.
“I don’t have a job yet,” he said, “IS THAT ALL RIGHT WITH YOU?”
He kept saying it, in between slaps, and I kept saying, “Hey, I have a job, and I’m still broke. Cool it.”
A few months later, he was on the local news. He was an up and coming amateur boxer who dedicated all his fights to his deceased mother. He was working an entry level job at one of the firms. He came across as a lovely, pugnacious, triumph-over-tragedy kind of guy, which, maybe, in his sober state, he was. My point is that Rosin and Flanagan and recent commentators ignore the age old truth that female dominance breeds contempt, and contempt breeds violence.
Global statistics tell a vastly diferent story about how women and girls who aren’t even afforded the opportunities to achieve power in the workplace are increasingly subject to violence, intimidation, rape, torture and abduction. The old standard, oft-quoted statistic that 1 in 3 women are subject to an attack of a sexual nature, still applies. Can we afford to showcase the United States as a global economic superpower but not draw links between an increasingly sexually crass culture in the academies and institutions at the top and the spread of sexual violence worldwide?
In her article, Rosin reported that sexual violence in the country is on the decline by a whopping 70 percent. Oh, really? I mistrust these statistics. A side effect of all this upward mobility of women in the workplace and in the halls of academia has been that women have clearly stopped reporting incidences of minor sexual crimes because they have been reprogrammed to construe this behavior as innocuous attention seeking and to therefore feel proud of it being leveled against them. Or, if not proud, nonplussed in a very dumb, unreflective way.
Cynicism is a form of intellectual laziness.
Plus, why sleep with people when you can just seduce and intimidate?
I have some firsthand experience with this. A week before I started a graduate program for creative writing, I was startled awake by my roommate, with whom I’d already been having issues of missing or bounced rent checks and what I considered churlish, uncouth behavior. He groped me. I asked him to stop and leave, and he did. I reported it to the police, but found it difficult to concentrate on my studies when I was tasked with getting a restraining order, evicting him from the premises and potentially testifying in court. Almost everyone I talked to at school and subsequent social engagements said, “That happened to me in college” or “that happened to my friend in college” or “that could happen on any college campus in America.” The comments, no matter how well-intentioned, felt belittling to me. So, too, did the process of seeking a deferment, especially given that I’d slyly, indirectly hit on a male professor by cc’ing him on a page-in-my-diary email to my second cousin describing myself more or less as a personal trainer who is bad with money but who loves to cook and give blowjobs. The email bounced back as marked UNDELIVERABLE, probably due to the inappropriate nature of its contents. (I maintain my doubts/hopes.)
I’m reminded of how ruefully I greeted this new term ‘metrosexual’ when it first came out, and how I groaned inside when I realized that subjecting men to the rigors of consumerist image construction did not represent a diminishment of psychological pain worldwide but an expansion of it. When I was in personal training school, I would laugh off the idea of dating a fellow trainer or a gym rat. Why would I want to date someone as vain as me? I told my friends. Similarly, to see myself and other women adapting to using sex for workplace gains, or using the workplace to make sexual gains, is a sad, antihumanistic trend. Making women pigs and men prissy is not progress; bad behavior in reverse is still bad behavior even if it makes Americans more money or is commonly practiced by the increasingly elite and tight subset of Americans who make a lot of money. Let us not let the rich set the table for all of us.
I decided not to pursue the charges against my roommate in court. I wanted no further grievance between us, but I am pretty sure that I was also reacting to the underlying just-get-over-it-tone of my new peers. Also, I was being cynical. I thought that no prosecutor or judge would be interested in my analysis of my roommate because in my written statement asking for a restraining order I cited my work experience as a police reporter for credibility and described my roommate as a “sexual predator.”
By the time I am faced with going to court, I back down because in my experience people in the legal field have nothing but contempt for the insights/judgments of journalists, and I don’t even have a job in journalism anymore. It’s an ingroup/outgroup thing. From being a journalist, I know that an even more contemptible category is wannabe cop.
The most grating post-incident conversation I had was with a pair of graduate students, the son and daughter-in-law of a friend. Both graduated with honors from Yale. The woman earned a degree in psychology and has worked in clinical settings as a counselor of the poor and underprivileged in New Haven. She is currently working on a doctoral thesis in performance studies at another Ivy League university. Her subject: ‘the legal system as theater.’ When the incident comes up on our way to dinner, and I tell her that I didn’t even go to court, that I was myself engaged in graduate studies, she misses the point. I instinctively feel that she has greater sympathy for my roommate, who immigrated from Haiti when he was fourteen. Maybe if I’d been inured to these encounters by going to Yale, I would not have so overreacted?
When I tell her the charges were fourth degree sexual assault, she quavers.
“Is there any way you could have resolved it amicably?” she asks.
I want to scream at her…I threw the case, M. IS THAT NOT AMICABLE ENOUGH FOR YOU?
I referred her to the work of Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist I interviewed in Philadelphia for a community news weekly and whose work deals with the ways in which crime, even violent crime, in the ghettos of Chicago is actually a sophisticated, multi-layered system of mediating economic disputes.
Of all the cat calling and sexually charged board room talk , Rosin writes:
“The sexual culture may be more coarse these days, but young women are more than adequately equipped to handle it, because unlike the women in earlier ages, they have more-important things on their minds, such as good grades and internships and job interviews and a financial future of their own.”
I find this staggeringly stupid and insensitive, especially to women of previous generations who also had those things on their minds in addition to darning socks, birthing children, helping construct the atom bomb and designing the spread spectrum communications system used by the military during World War II which laid the foundations for later computer/radar technologies and is still used to remotely operate garage doors. See Hedy Lamarr. Good grades and internships and the trappings of external achievement are no consolation against naked aggression, however sophisticated the aggressor appears. And it really doesn’t matter what the economic status of the aggressor is.
I have twice been exposed to porn at work by a male superior or manager. The first time I was working as a waitress. The second time I was manning the circulation desk at a paper that my husband had launched with a stockbroker turned publisher in Philadelphia. When the managers of Orlando’s Italian restaurant in my hometown viewed porn on the office computer, they’d do it openly, try to find the most outlandish, stomach-churning shit possible, then ask the female staff what they thought about it, and we’d weigh in.
When I went to ask my husband’s boss a question after working eight weeks without pay because staff were abandoning the fledgling paper like rats off a sinking ship and he was having trouble making payroll and found him watching a nude cartoon woman on his computer jumping up and down, we both pretended like nothing was happening, two violinists on the Titanic. Neither of these encounters fit neatly into Rosin’s high-ceilinged, high-financial stakes worldview, but of the two, I prefer the former because it is at least inclusive of my point of view.
That women benefit “in the long run” by making economic gains over and through this supposedly new system of power arrangements ignores psychological cost. The Atlantic Monthly also recently published “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a long complaint about the impossibility of work-life balance of this “new” breed of female overachievers exemplified by the likes of Hillary Clinton.
So progress is making women unhappy because “they can’t have it all.” Where does this sense of needing/wanting to “have it all” come from? And when is someone going to stick up for people not having it all? When I was working in Fairfield County, I initially felt sorry for the wives of CEOs and lawyers and bankers because they had about them an air of desperation. They expected me to keep them current in this sexual marketplace by helping them be slender and attractive into middle age. My sympathy ran one way, until I realized that if their husbands came home to them and reported that they’d decided to give up their six-figure incomes for, say, teaching high school or social work, that the wives would have pushed the speed dial function on the phone for the divorce attorney.
Once again, the slick social commentators turn to money, not happiness, as a measure of progress and find that men and women are equally “progressive” and equally “unhappy” now a days. Yea for gender equality!
While I was working for an all-female fitness studio in Westport, Connecticut, one of my clients, a woman who billed herself as a feminist therapist who specialized in helping women empower themselves, especially post-divorce, tried to recruit me into a dating service. She was a paid consultant. The men had to pay $110,000 to belong to the service.
“I can only bring in 9s or 10s, Penelope,” she told me. “You’re a 10.”
I just about threw up in my mouth.
But, wait, it gets worse.
When I tell her that I don’t think I would do very well in this ‘service’ because I am only the manager of a fitness studio, and I don’t think I can relate to these other candidates, she says, “Oh, no, they like it when you have a career. They like it when you have things of your own that you’re doing.”
My cousin is a Marine. She served two tours in Iraq. When she entered the service for the second time, my mother said, “I think something must have happened to Morgan to make her want to do this” in this tone that implies my cousin’s hutzpah is rooted in sexual trauma.
“I’m pretty sure you’re right about this, Mom,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure that something was junior high.”
I have been in and out of many male-dominated settings. I have been teased and eyed up and cajoled and have understood it all and suborned it all when there is a measure of real, intellectual respect and more writing to be done. Now I would say work is no different, but there is a layer of respect based on physical as well as mental prowess. Training a male client is not easier or better than training a female client, but sometimes it can be more time-efficient as when I encounter resistance and say, “Do you want me to do it with you?” and find that a male client will respond to this challenge by completing whatever sets I’ve asked without further ado.
I work in a gym and wear tight Spandex pants all day. I can hardly complain about light sexual banter when I expect people to pay me for advice on how to manipulate their bodies to a particular aesthetic. The personal training office is just off the free weight section which myself and my female clients jokingly refer to as “the pit.” Every gym has a pit, the place where the men tend to work out, where the equipment facilitates heavy lifting and where many women are reluctant to go. I won’t take a female client into the pit until she is ready to do pull-ups or push-ups or until I have a notion that she is really focused enough on herself to benefit from the environment.
Somehow, at this gym, I have only once been exposed to the level of crude, denigrating banter Rosin cites in her article, and the man who directed it to me also happened to be a North Haven police officer. After I’d pleaded illness due to anxiety attacks stemming from my roommate incident and complained in an essay circulated among my friends in Occupy about my past issues with decongestants as well as my father’s small time exploits as a pot dealer, this member of the gym comes into my office and makes a lot of amped up, cheesy and disgusting comments about my ass and about our similarly “high metabolisms” without disclosing that he is a cop. Nevertheless, I suspect he is fishing for information about my personal habits. Also, many trainers make a side income in supplying performance enhancing drugs. I do not do this.
I just look at him as if to say, Do you have a specific question about training or did you just want to rattle on about your day? And he goes back to the work out floor.
(As if half of special services isn’t on supplements, and no one there has ever had a bad fucking day due to roid rage.)
Anyway, my point is that I seldom expect this kind of thing from the men in the gym. Of course, it is a safe, public place, but once again, apparently, this is an inverted class privilege that does not extend to Yale or to corporate offices.
Tell me why it is that I held my own as a police reporter but would never survive at an Ivy League school where fraternity men chant outside a freshman dorm room: “No means yes! Yes means anal!”?
I got something for that:
“The first no means no. The second no means Krav Maga.”
When I was reporting, one of the problems I encountered was the disjuncture between the language of the police and the language of the newsroom. When I complained that my editors were giving me mixed messages or that I had an ethical dilemma, a public information officer would often say things like, “If you’re not getting much guidance from your leadership, maybe you should take your time to contemplate your predicament.”
In the newsroom, the archaic language of “character” and “honor” was often greeted with snickers and read as sentimental palaver, but it is precisely this kind of language that addresses the humanistic values that the field of economics does not. It is also the core of what the women in Flanagan’s book opine about missing, the “chivalry” of it, but which Rosin says is a dead paperweight of history, an albatross to women on their way to the unhappiness of “having it all.” Or trying to.