Talbot's Awkward Commentary on the Sexual Revolution

I understand the urge of a pundit to turn every little observation into a grand, sweeping thing that casts light on our contentious issues and historical trends. After all, if you turn to newspapers and magazines for your reading, that is what you see, over and over. It has to have an effect on your expectations. The truth, however, is that if you try such things in your own writing, they can often turn out to be…well, awkward.

Such is the case with Margaret Talbot’s commentary in The New Yorker, “Girls Will Be Girls“. Talbot takes the HBO series Girls, which hasn’t aired an episode yet, and uses that and the GOP war on women as an opportunity to opine about the downsides of the sexual revolution. These start on the small end with things like “awkward” sex, particularly the sort of sex fed by pornography.

That would be solipsistic, niche sex that takes its expectations from porn, in which the man involved seems to feel weirdly and arrogantly entitled to the satisfaction of his particular fantasies—the guy Hannah is sleeping with has one about an eleven-year-old heroin addict with a Cabbage Patch-doll lunchbox—and to the coöperation of a partner who really isn’t that into them. “Guys my age watch so much pornography,” Dunham told the Times. “When I first started kissing boys, I remember noticing things, certain behaviors, where I thought, ‘There’s no way you learned that anywhere but on YouPorn.com.’ ”

Talbot uses this as an example of how, “to those disinclined to see [sexual equality] as a good thing, “Girls” offers some validation.” There’s just one little problem with her idea. It assumes that this sort of fetish is the result of the sexual revolution. However, porn, fetishes, and entitlement all far predate the loosening of restrictions on sex in the U.S. toward the end of the last century.

If anything, the sexual revolution holds the answers to problems like this. The foregrounding of female sexual desire has changed the face of porn. While it hasn’t eliminated porn that is exploitative or aimed at a limited audience of male heterosexuals, it has added other voices, other sexualities, other creators who are dedicated to making porn that isn’t exploitative.

Acknowledging female sexual desire as legitimate has also gone a long way toward dismantling that entitled notion that women only exist for the sexual gratification of men. That’s what allows a scenario like that cited by Talbot to be comedic in this day and age instead of tragic.

A sexual partner comes to you with poor manners and a basic incompatibility? Pat him on the head, wish him better luck somewhere else, and go on looking for a better partner or partners. Laugh a little, perhaps, at how out of line with reality his expectations for you were because, in this day and age, he really ought to know better. Shrug the whole thing off as “awkward” because for you, because of the sexual revolution, it really isn’t any more than that. It’s not as though you found out you two were incompatible after the wedding.

That’s the only “Boo for the sexual revolution” point Talbot manages to draw from the show itself. To cover this awkwardness, she turns away from the ostensible subject of her commentary.

The sexual revolution has mostly been a boon for upper-middle-class women like them, who have been able to use its freedoms to delay marriage and to find mates they can stay with for the duration, while enjoying active sex lives in the meantime. For the poor, the unmooring of marriage from childbearing has been much more damaging. You can’t take class and economic realities out of the discussion about women and sexual freedom. In fact, the more we learn, the more subtly these things seem to be entwined. A working paper released in March by the economists Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine finds that poor teen-agers who live in states where there is greater income inequality are more likely to have babies. It’s not just that they are poor but that they see little chance for advancement if they stay in school, play by the rules, and avoid becoming mothers. Kearney and Levine write, “We speculate that the combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) society contributes to a low perception of possible economic success, and hence leads to choices that favor short-term satisfaction—in this case, the decision to have a baby when young and unmarried.” Teen birth rates have been falling in the United States for two decades, but they are still higher than in any other industrialized country, and perhaps economic inequality offers an insight into why.

If that all leaves you scratching your head over Talbot’s point with regard to the sexual revolution, you’re not alone. I turned to the paper in question (pdf) to sort out what it had to do with the topic. As you can sort of tell from Talbot’s paragraph, the answer is: nothing.

The paper itself is rather interesting. It suggests that in states with high income inequality and its accompanying low economic opportunity, teenage girls of low socioeconomic status are making a rational determination that having a baby does not substantially interfere with their chances for upward mobility. Beyond that, it says that several studies suggest that these teenagers are correct.

It’s a fascinating paper, though I’d be interested in seeing some critical review from people in the field. What it is not is any sort of commentary on “unmooring of marriage from childbearing”, much less a statement that single parenthood is “damaging”. In fact, it explicitly states that a poor, unwed teen’s (likely ambivalent) decision to have a child is unlikely to have any effect on her financial future and that it is the hopelessness of a teen’s future that is likely to predict whether she chooses to have a child.

In other words, the problem isn’t with sexual freedom but with economic servitude. Class and economic realities have not made these teens less free to make sexual choices, just made them less likely to make the same choices Talbot would. Has the sexual revolution solved this problem? No, but it hasn’t solved global warming either.

Take those two snippets out of Talbot’s comment and it has nothing at all to say about the sexual revolution. It’s simply a notice that HBO has a new series out with some comedy reminiscent of Woody Allen. That, unlike the above, is a perfectly solid observation.

Talbot would perhaps be wise to remember that the kind of newspaper and magazine punditry that takes tiny snippets of culture and weaves them into broad historical narratives–while it is ubiquitous–is highly stylized and artificial. It frequently fails to come in contact with historical accuracy or touch human complexity. This isn’t how the average person or even the average writer constructs meaning. It is far from the only way to interact with an audience.

So, while some people may enjoy that sort of thing, emulating it in your own writing may not be wise. It may, in fact, be downright awkward.

Talbot's Awkward Commentary on the Sexual Revolution
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2 thoughts on “Talbot's Awkward Commentary on the Sexual Revolution

  1. 1

    WRT teens, inequality, and pregnancy:

    I’d have to check whether the study allowed for the bias introduced by the connection between inequality, lack of upward mobility, and Red-State deficiencies in sex education and access to contraception.

    Then again, I tend to get bent out of shape by policies that make it less likely for girls and women to delay motherhood and policymakers who then blame the poverty cycle on the “choices” that those women make.

  2. 2

    I like how she outright says that teen pregnancy has been dropping, which really ruins any attempt to say the sexual revolution is somehow responsible for poor teen girls’ babies.

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