Beyond zero-sum relations between the sexes
In the context of technology that progressively removes natural boundaries on what humans can do, many of our once-nutritious ideals are now actively hostile to human flourishing. Freedom becomes a prison, individuality becomes the vector for homogenisation, desire is no longer a source of life but dead, jaded sterility. And nowhere is this more palpable than in the terrain of sexed and embodied human life.
I had three long essays published recently, whose common theme is the need, in the Age of the Machine, to abandon a rights-based, individualistic way of thinking about relations between the sexes. As long as we go on believing that women’s interests are in zero-sum relation to those of men, the only winner will be atomisation, and thus none of us. Instead we need to reimagine life in common. This path comes with some trade-offs, but as these three essays argue, the alternative is monstrous.
In Love In The Marketplace, published in Plough Quarterly, I sketched a cultural history of how we arrived at the now-common term ‘sexual marketplace’. I started writing it following my discovery that this term wasn’t in use prior to 1960 - but that ‘marriage marketplace’ was. This led me to explore how we came to conceive of relationship-formation in market terms, and with it the deep intertwining of economics and love and how the modern age (which is to say the industrial one) negotiated that.
That took me to two foundational texts of this era: Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations. I argued that by splitting moral ‘sympathy’ (addressed in the former) from ‘the market’ (addressed in the latter) the industrial age departed from the medieval in imagining we could be self-interested in our business dealings, and empathic in our personal ones, without the two coming into conflict.
But when it came to marriage this posed new challenges, because the domain of love is also the domain of household-formation and heredity, so can’t be be entirely separated from that of economics. So industrial-era social norms around marriage focused on cultural efforts designed to uphold the split between ‘sympathy’ and the ‘market’, foregrounding love matches even as the pressures grew on 'economically inactive’ bourgeois women to choose a partner on the basis of material wealth.
In the digital age this has begun to break down: just as commerce has burst the bounds of the physical ‘marketplace’ and now takes place in smartphones, on laptops, and via businesses run from anywhere in the world, so this carefully constructed distinction between sentiment and money has also collapsed, leading love and the market to fuse in disturbing ways. Even as it’s become normal to talk about the ‘sexual marketplace’, so sex itself has become increasingly marketised, as online dating transforms people searching for intimacy into product profiles to be browsed, selected and consumed.
In that context, the only remaining site of resistance against the new kinds of objectification that this creates is a less self-centred vision of love than that imagined by Adam Smith: one that engages with others not on the basis of their sameness to us but in embrace of their radical otherness.
For Spectator World I looked at some of the ways young people, who are still (unlike me) at the coalface of relationship-formation, are beginning to make just such a revolutionary call for intimacy to be reclaimed from the machine: a phenomenon I’m calling ‘the sexual counterrevolution’. Here I looked in more detail at how the field of love and sex has developed since the arrival of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s. I argued that contra the hopeful imagination of the hippies and radical feminists, in fact uncoupling sex from babies didn’t bring a utopia of polymorphous pleasure, or of love liberated from patriarchy. Rather, the moment desire was unmoored from reproduction it was promptly reordered to commerce.
The first Playboy club opened in Chicago in 1960, within months of the FDA approving the Pill, and by the end of 1961 was the most popular nightclub in the world. Now porn is a $97 billion global industry, with $10-12 billion coming from the US. Feminism, sex and commerce have increasingly merged, via campaigns to normalise ‘sex work’ and ‘sex positivity’. Colleges run freshman sessions on how to sell your nudes online.
Meanwhile a UK survey showed that something like 71 percent of men under 40 had choked, gagged or spat on a partner during sex, many inspired by porn to do so. Do a similar proportion of women under 40 enjoy being treated like that? I doubt it.
The pushback I’ve had on this argument is that there are always a few conservatives and it will pass. I don’t think so. At present, counterrevolutionaries are an elite phenomenon, but a big backlash is coming. Young women on TikTok and Twitch are speaking out against this kind of violence and describing their experiences of being ‘groomed’ into what was essentially sexual abuse under the banner of ‘kink’. And young men are struggling to escape the commercial trap of pornography. The #nofap anti-masturbation online community has 715,000 members. I doubt they are all religious conservatives.
The internet has sent everything weird: people in their early twenties have less sex than my generation did, are settling down less, having fewer kids. It’s true of course that money plays a part, but my sense from talking to younger people is that they’re struggling under the order of commodified libido and narcissism, whose outlines I sketched in Love in the Marketplace, to find any space in which what Martin Buber called an I/Thou relation can be salvaged from the internet’s neverending hall of hyper-sexualised mirrors.
Taking a step back from the battlefield of love and sex, in Reactionary Feminism, written for First Things, I sketched an outline answer to a question I’ve been wrestling with for some years now: ‘what does it mean to be a feminist when you don’t believe in progress?’. Because it’s often assumed that to be a feminist is, by definition, to be a progressive; but I am, in these terms, an atheist. And not in the defanged modern sense of ‘boring Sam Harris stan’ but something closer to the hostile 17th-century one of ‘moral dropout’.
Christianity did a decent enough job of holding the idea of progress - that we’re advancing to something from something - in tension with the sense of eternity in the eye of God. Medieval imagery such as the mosaic that forms the header to this newsletter showed the world from God’s eye: the ultimate ‘seeing the bigger picture’. Death, judgement, Heaven and Hell offered a sense of beginnings and ends as somehow contemporaneous, that helped stabilise the everyday Christian belief that we’re moving toward something, as part of God’s plan. This sense of towardness has come adrift from the great punctuation markers of eschatology, though, and metastasised as s sense of neverending progress that is both a moral duty and structurally impossible to satisfy: what Adrian Vermeule has called ‘sacramental liberalism’.
It’s this tyranny of progress that has now, in the digital age, turned against women. For none save a shrinking caste of elite liberal women still benefit from neverending progress, toward a freedom that no longer delivers positive gains.
Both liberal and conservative feminisms are both committed to this same vision of freedom, and as such both fail mothers - because to be a mother is to be radically interdependent with another human, in a way that just doesn’t compute in liberal terms. So on the one hand we find the body-dissociative, anti-natalist post-human ‘feminism’ of ‘trans women are women’ and on the other a doctrine that celebrates career success, reviles abortion and yet refuses to support single mothers or campaign for better maternity provision.
I argued that yoking the women’s movement to freedom has been relatively functional throughout the industrial era, but with the arrival of the machine age has turned ever more actively against women. If we’re to fight back against the elevation of Meat Lego Matrix in the name of women’s liberation, I argue, we need to re-ground a defense of women in normative statements that today seem deeply heretical:
Male and female bodies are different; humans can’t change sex; most women want to have children; heterosexuality is the default human condition; outsourcing domestic chores is a movement to reintroduce a servant class; children do better in stable two-parent families; and our hyperfocus on individual freedom is a central factor in the plummeting of birthrates worldwide.
Resisting the weaponisation of freedom by a profoundly anti- or post-human misogyny means accepting that what we need is in fact more and better obligations, and a cooperative rather than zero-sum discussion between the sexes about how we can best live together.
So in summary, then, the Machine Age invites us to treat the world outside us as a reflection of ourselves, and to offer that extended, materially-manifested selfhood up for monetisation. In acceding to this, though, we sacrifice our capacity to relate to others in their otherness - and in doing so struggle to form and sustain the kind of relationships that can create and nurture the next generation. This matters not just for happiness and the ongoing survival of humans as such, but profoundly for women.
If we’re to resist this new economy of endless, commercialised self, we need to transcend the industrial-era vision of men and women as in zero-sum conflict and negotiate a new settlement for life in common. I don’t know what shape that is, and it certainly doesn’t look like returning uncritically to the past. But we have to try.