Saturday, November 4, 2017

Brooks on sexual predation

Image via The Hairpin.

It's world-famous sexopathologist Dr. David F. Brooks, here to give us the skinny on why it is that some men become sexual predators ("Lovers, Prospectors and Predators"), because

I don’t think good men wake up one morning and suddenly start thrusting their tongue down the throats of women they barely know. 
Gosh no, I don't suppose they do. Unfortunately he can't find out what does happen, whether because the research assistant called in sick or because it's just too darn complex and ambiguous, so he'll just have to make something up:

You’ve got to walk through a certain number of doors before you’re capable of that kind of behavior.
That's the high-metaphorical language of a Brooks who is about to tell us something theological but that he didn't quite understand at the time he heard it, so he's trying to reconstruct how it sounded. And his theory is indeed theological, a narrative of the Fall, those doors being analogues to the chutes down which we slide toward perdition (the architecture of Brooks's path to Hell is of course suburban, so it's set on a single ranch level), starting with the state of grace we know as childhood:

Most men are raised with a certain way of thinking about sex. It’s the way contained, implicitly, in every children’s love story, in most every classic novel and in the lived experience of most married parents. It is: Sex is something you do with the person you love.
One of the things I have in common with Brooks is a dad who was a not generally very hip English professor (I'm sure mine was more hip than his, as far as that goes, though clearly less prosperous, since none of us got to go to the University of Chicago, but he definitely had limits), so that idea of being "raised" on famous novels is not that exotic to me, though mine was all about Moby Dick and As I Lay Dying, so the sex part didn't necessarily loom.

Obviously Brooks's classic novels didn't include Tom Jones, Vanity Fair, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, or Middlemarch. Actually he likes to name-check Middlemarch, but appears not to have noticed that the heroine spends most of the book chained to the whims and demands of a dry, pious, grasping and self-important author 25 or so years older than she is, not because she loves him but because she thinks he's important and wants to contribute to his Great Work, because she's a very serious girl who longs to be great, to whatever extent that's possible in her historical moment, and thinks virtue should be more important than happiness. At least until she's been married for a while. Hold that nasty thought you just had.

We’ll call this the room of love. In this room, you get to know someone and a spark is struck. This could be the person you want to spend your life with. So you begin getting to know him or her better, first over a meal, then through activities.
All the while you’re trying to judge if the other person is worthy of your love; returns your love. Jane Austen and George Eliot novels are long exercises of character analysis, as potential lovers weigh each other’s merits and flaws.
He's done this general idea before, of how falling in love is kind of sitting for a mutual fitness examination where the parties measure each other on their personal checklist, and it's always struck me as really revolting, but it strikes me now that if you think of that as an infantile idea, something one could be raised with, it's comprehensible: after all, if you're an obedient child, smart enough and not too perverse and enraged, what's more natural than to see the exam result as the measure of who you are? Why shouldn't you imagine a date as an assessment?

The sex part, though, is taking it too far, as the "room" abruptly turns into a "regime":

In this regime, sex is special. It’s the most intimate form of communication on this road of mutual discovery and union. It’s done in a giving frame of mind. It signals that the other person has won the trust of your heart and you are offering up the most vulnerable part of yourself.
I just don't think this is right, even as a literary construct. It sounds like the hopeful prognosis of a (virginal) Catholic priest. It's not so much wrong as just, "What really?" And as a concept for kids, derived from Pride and Prejudice and even Gone With the Wind, not to mention the "lived experience of most married parents" as the prepubescent child understands it, that's just wacky, as well as extremely unpleasant. Are you sure you're talking about kids? Reader, he is.

I still [in spite of what disconfirming experience?] think most men, when they are children, grow up in that room. But when they hit adolescence a strange thing happens.
Yes, folks, before we reach puberty, we are adjusted to a perfectly adequate and indeed adorable concept of sex; it's only after we become capable of doing it that we start to get confused:

That room basically drops from common culture.
Room dropping from common culture. "Double Shot" at Santa Cruz Beach, via Wikipedia.
Like Dorothy's house out of the tornado, I guess. You're bound to open the door after a plunge like that, and yet where do you find yourself? In another room!

So a lot of men cross the threshold and enter another room, the room of the prospector. In this room sex is a gold nugget, a pleasure, like any other pleasure, except maybe it’s better and the desire for it is stronger. If you’re straight, women are the people who can give you this pleasure. When you go to a college party or a club, you’re on the prowl for women who want to share this pleasure with you. Most pop songs are about this kind of conquest. Girl I want your body.
The crack about pop songs may reflect Brooks's Pandora experience, which he's told us about before: you get the songs you're looking for.

But a small percentage of men are not satisfied with this room and they cross over to the next room, the predator’s room. In this room, the pleasures of sex get mixed up with the pleasures of power.
I quote all this at such length because it just amazes me to see him spinning this argument out of the fleece of his own tangled brain, representing almost the exact opposite of what happens in the real world of men's sexual development, which is that it develops and evolves, from prepubescence in which sex is a palpable presence outside your room, enticing or scary or both but especially deeply confusing, through adolescence and a time for sexual experimentation at the beginning of which the relation between your emotions and what's happening in those parts of your body is violently disjunct and too complicated to bear, and finally resolved adulthood in which we try to integrate the two, largely through that experimentation (and I should add through socialization in family and tribe and community, learning and performing the rituals—Brooks isn't exactly wrong about the importance of traditional cultural institutions, just stupid about them). Ending up, if we're lucky, in a situation in which our sexual and emotional and social needs don't conflict too much with each other and we have a steady partner, and it's never perfect, either—Austen, who always ends her story when the protagonists get engaged, is not as good a guide as Tolstoy.

The "prospectors" and "prowlers", I think, are people who have lingered too long in the room of experimentation and failed to move on, whether through selfishness or just bad luck; predators, from harassers to rapists, should be seen as regressed, to the narcissism of childhood (yes, children are narcissistic, and it's cute, because you know they're growing out of it), with a deficient sense of the psychological autonomy of the other person, and incapacity to deal in a socially acceptable way with the urgencies of their big adult bodies. Brooks's idea that a boy should have all the intellectual equipment he needs to deal with sex by the time he's 11, thanks to the primal scene of Mom and Dad and a reading of Pride and Prejudice, and that any further development is the harmful result of a catastrophic "drop from common culture", leading ultimately to criminal assault—that's insane.

Obligatory bothsiderist remark:

in the public mind the line between unwanted sexual attention and force is growing indistinct.
In the political world, for example, partisans of left and right rationalize their support for Bill Clinton or Donald Trump because they could tell themselves in effect, “Oh, he’s just a horny prospector.” By treating such behavior as “locker-room talk” or laddish behavior, they helped smooth the ground for all the predators to come.
That first sentence ought to mean something positive, like a growing recognition that if it's unwanted it is in a sense violent, but Brooks uses it to complain, I think, that people are forgiving sexual assault because it's "only" unwanted sexual attention, which clearly isn't the case in either of his political examples. When Trump defends himself he means "locker-room talk" to indicate bragging about something he didn't actually do (unfortunately that shows he also doesn't think there would have been anything wrong with it, whether he actually grabs pussy or not); while the Clinton defender might claim (rightly or wrongly, I don't want to be arguing this here) that the only true allegations against him are of attention that wasn't unwanted at all (I'll say our understanding of his personality, the heroic feel-your-pain empathy coexisting with the ferocious appetite and longing for love, goes better with the prolonged-adolescence model than the regressed narcissistic one; even when he's undeniably bad he's entirely different from Trump).

Also note the retroactionary implication that there are a lot more predators around than there used to be, somehow licensed by Clinton's and Trump's misbehavior "smoothing the ground for all the predators to come", as if that were to blame for Harvey Weinstein and Bill O'Reilly and Roger Ailes. What's happening is exactly the opposite in this case as well: Brooks is too committed to his declinist narrative to see it, but women and other victims feel freer to tell their stories of violence that has been going on since the species began, and things are getting better.

I wonder if Brooks is at some level that 11-year-old himself, regressed just to the right point. Can't help thinking about his need to abandon his marriage with somebody too much like his mother, too Jewish and too adult, and hook up with a prim and pious little partner 25 years his junior. Sorry, but irrepressible judgmentalism and throwing stones from glass houses is one of the things 11-year-olds need to mature from.

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