Monday, October 15, 2007

Sex and the Left

Been thinking about sex lately. There were a load of "Summer of Love" retrospectives over the last few months because of the 40th anniversary and lots of talk about hippie lifestyles. What struck me as interesting was the number of ways that the counter-culture attitudes and ethos have become mainstreamed and still remain as part of the romanticized picture, if not actual the lived lives, of those of us who see ourselves as left of center. Some have been honed over time -- the back to the land ethic transformed into the environmental movement -- others, like the love of improvisational live music, the interest in non-Western religions and ways of thought, the search for alternative ways of living, continue largely unchanged. What struck me as interesting, though, was that one of the central elements has dissipated -- nudity and free love.

The rise of the counter-culture was a reaction to the straight jacket mores of the 50s. Everything that was taboo was to be brought out into the open and explored. Freedom and joy were to reign. And there was nothing that whitebread America was more uptight about than sexuality. As a result, it had to be rescued, liberated. It was a wonderful thing for any and all and we should be free to find partners as we choose. Loosen up. Enjoy yourself. Love the one you're with.

But what is interesting is what has happened since. It seems that among those who are now of the same age group as the counter-culture types, the places where free love still runs rampant aren't those of the neo-hippies. If college campuses are like they were back in my day (man, I feel old typing that), the one night stands were happening much more frequently, or at least much more celebrated and seen as a part of the lifestyle amongst the jock/fraternity/sorority types than among the social justice or hippie crowds. Not to say these others weren't having sex, but that it was happening in a different way. There were a lot of college marriages where you paired off and had a monogamous relationship that lasted, some longer than others, but that sexual relations were largely within a model of the more traditional sort. So how did the free love ethos get transferred and was it a good thing?

The answer may be in the left's embrace of liberation movements, which includes feminism. One of the on-going projects of feminists, back from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, through the second wavers like Catherine MacKinnon, or the third wave sex-positive crowd, has been to consider what makes for good sex, where the "good" refers not only to technical proficiency, but to morally and socially good sex. Feminists have spent a whole lot of time thinking very hard about what makes for good, healthy sex and what makes for the opposite. Under the influence of the work of these thinkers, free love has been seen to be much like free trade -- it doesn't help everyone equally if there is a power imbalance going in. The powerful economies make out much better under free trade agreements when less powerful countries open up their markets and likewise those with more social capital make out better when those with less open up something else. As a result, the young left has not eschewed the joys of a full sexual life the way those objecting to promiscuity from the right have, there is certainly not the abstinence worship you see from conservatives (in word but not in deed). Rather, they have pursued it in other ways that tend to ultimately result in better, more healthy, and apparently more frequent engagement.

In a recent study (hat tip to Jeff at Shakespeare's Sister),

feminism may actually improve the quality of heterosexual relationships, according to Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan, from Rutgers University.
It seems that pro-feminist men and feminist women seem to be enjoying themselves a bit more than their more traditional counterparts and enjoying more stable relationships.
They found that having a feminist partner was linked to healthier heterosexual relationships for women. Men with feminist partners also reported both more stable relationships and greater sexual satisfaction. According to these results, feminism does not predict poor romantic relationships, in fact quite the opposite.
So the key was not free love, but love free of the old gender biases.

That's what I love so much about science. It takes bizarre, counter-intuitive results, that seem impossible and shows them to be true in the real world. I mean, who would have ever thought that women who reject artificial culturally constructed constraints, who have freed themselves from old hang-ups designed to make them loath themselves, and men who consider their female partners to be valuable, autonomous humans deserving of respect and care would have more healthy intimate relationships. Gosh, that's as weird as quantum mechanics.