An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?”, manages to reassert every outdated and dangerous notion of sex that died with the petticoat and the advent of coed colleges.
On its surface, the article addresses the ambivalence of the “liberated generation” towards the sexual attitudes of its children. But this ambivalence is nothing new, and every older generation feels it toward the younger ones about everything, not just sex. What is really on display in this article is a writer anxiety over sex, projected onto all women of her generation.
The source of her conflict, and what I find the most disappointing, is the complete resurgence of a view of sex that perceives it as a transaction or an exchange of value. An asset transfer. She writes, “scads of us don’t know how to teach our own sons and daughters not to give away their bodies so readily.” Give away their bodies? With the exception of pregnancy and STD’s, sex does not actually physically alter the people who engage in it. Nothing is shifted or moved, given or received, that persists afterwards. The idea that one person gave something away–their body, their virginity, whatever–is entirely psychological. Imaginary. These are attitudes and structures imposed entirely from within onto oneself, and it is the root of the author’s anxiety over sex. She has confused her perception of sex with the actual thing in reality.
The source of the attitude that sex is an exchange like any other come primarily from eligion and familly, but also from media and our larger social groups. Our culture is awash in it. Women are objectified not only as sexual objects, which is undeniable, but as partial objects in their relationships with others. Think of all the colloquial expressions you know for sex and how they apply to women: give it up, put out, give away. “A piece of ass.” Object, object, object. Object. And the author perpetuates it.
But it’s also buried subtly within the language. She writes What teenage girl doesn’t want to be attractive, sought-after and popular?
Everyone wants to be attractive. Attractiveness is the quality that draws people to you. Polar bears and peacocks want to be attractive. Attractiveness is a reflection of a natural drive. But “sought-after?” That’s a societal construction. That’s a transactional view of sex. Sex as scarce resource. To be sought-after is to be passive while the active role is taken on by the person doing the seeking (i.e. the guy). This is the view of sex held by many women and men that sees woman as object (and a partial object at that) and man as the subject. To be sought-after is to be the object pursued by other subjects.
Make no mistake–it is this view of sex–in which women are the partial object (the asset) that the subject (men) must pursue, earn, deserve, and ultimately get, that is at the root of “rape culture” that leads to date-rape. The partial object is not merely a part-object, but also the object that creates the desire for itself in the subject. “She wanted it because she dressed like that” means “she is responsible for creating in me the desire for her as sex-object.” It is even more pervasive than that extreme situation. For example, when men believe that a woman they date should put out because they bought her an expensive dinner, they hold in their heads the same idea of sex as transaction that leads mothers to caution their daughters “he won’t buy the cow if you give the milk away for free.”
The author follows this line of thinking when she wants kids “not to give away their bodies so readily.” Furthermore, what does she mean by “readily”? To answer this, you have to turn to her original formulation: “to give away their bodies.” The implicit message here is “to give away their bodies for free.” The opposite of giving it away for free is not keeping it, but rather giving it away for something. Hence “readily.” Because latent within her mind is a belief that there are times when your body is worth giving away. And in her mind, those are times when you get something valuable or worthwhile in return. But if, as she says, both “sons and daughters” are giving away their bodies, she isn’t talking about getting another person’s body in return.
For the author of this article, “not to give away their bodies so readily” means “give away your body in exchange for something valuable.” To someone who deserves it, who has earned it, who has said and done all the right things, met all the formal expectations and requirements of your parents, culture and religion, and has now earned his prize. This is the view of a woman who sees her body as a prize, an asset, that is to be won.
Because that is the primary subtext of this article. Sex as wealth. (This is the Wall Street Journal, after all.) The article is laced with references to wealth: “a cushy East Coast suburb”, AmEx cards, “an all-girls private school in New York”, parties at clubs, and “the mommy-daughter manicure.” The article is dripping with references to money, wealth, and the status it brings. Because in fact that’s what this this article is all about–wealth.
This view of sex as a transaction where the woman’s body is an asset that should only be “given away” for something of value not “readily” obtained is latent, not expressed explicitly or overtly. That’s how she can write without any irony “many of us not only permit our teenage daughters to dress like this–like prostitutes, if we’re being honest with ourselves.” This conflict between the worldview she holds to be true unconsciously and what she sees are the heart of her neurosis. She writes, “It has to do with how conflicted my own generation of women is about our own past, when many of us behaved in ways that we now regret.” But really the conflict is hers. She was never as liberated as she claims. To be liberated is to be free of rules. Or to alter the rules. What she says about her own past suggests she merely broke the rules. She still held those rules in her mind, and she chose to violate them, but she never cast them off, never erased them.
She holds a subconscious view that sex is something valuable, but when she perceived women to display that attitude openly (through dress and makeup that are coded in her mind alone as “dirty” or fast) she declares them prostitutes. Judgment steps in not to enforce the social code on others but to prevent the social code as embedded within her.
The whole article is about wealth. It’s about how young dirty are being frivolous with their money, only the money is sex.
But you know what isn’t in the article? Love. That word does not appear a single time in this article. It’s can’t. Sex as she views it can’t have anything to do with love. If it did, then it would be okay for teenagers to sleep with people they love (or think they love, however fleetingly). But teenagers are going to have sex anyway regardless of what rules she or I or anyone set. So the distinction is really how much guilt you want them to fell afterward.