Sunday, July 01, 2007

Interesting Link: (Long) Excerpts With Almost No Commentary

Prof. A White Bear from Is There No Sin In It? on A Physical Life:

"One day this term, I walked out of my classroom to find two of my students, both conservatively dressed, extremely beautiful women, talking about marriage. Their parents were begging them to marry, but they had vowed they would not do so, probably ever, but certainly not until they’d finished all their schooling. They included me in the conversation and I cheered them on. “Good God,” I said, “You’re like 20, right? You need to enjoy your life, be young, make mistakes—”

Girl #1: Mistakes?

Girl #2: This is about not making mistakes. I want to be financially and emotionally independent and successful.

Girl #1: Boys are always trying to get you to spend time with them, have sex with them, keep you from achieving.

Girl #2: Right. My life is about me, not some stupid boy. I can’t be bothered with a sex life. It’s just like what you said about the coterie poets, Prof. AWB. Guys like Marvell are trying to trick you into thinking there’s nothing important in life but sex, and who does that benefit in the end? Not the woman who gets pregnant and has to give up her whole life.

Me: Well, uh, thank God for contraception!

Girl #1: Oh, but the emotional attachments they expect you to make, too! What pigs. I’ve been taking six and seven classes every semester so I can be sure to get my masters degree by the time I’m 22. Who can do that with some boy asking you dopey questions about how you feel?

Me: Well, it is nice to pretend you’re a human being sometimes, with, like, a body, and feelings and stuff. I often feel the compulsion to date just so I have someone in my life who I can just be a body with, and laugh with. I don’t have to want to marry the guy. It’s just nice to remember that I’m a person, not just a brain on a stick.

Girl #2: They’ll trick you, though. They’ll use sex to wind you around their finger and force you to marry them. Then you’re screwed.

Girl #1: It’s terrifying. Parents have no idea what we go through these days.

I’ve had conversations along these lines with young NYC women every semester I’ve taught here. They are obsessed with achievement, taking way too many classes at a time, signing up for internships, playing numerous sports, never going out with friends or flirting. They dress far more conservatively than their parents would ask them to, and tend to be annoyed with the hypocrisy of their parents’ religion and therefore either far more orthodox than their parents or obsessed with an even more fastidious secular ethics. None of them will admit they have bodies. They get sick or injured and they drag themselves around to every class to prove how tough they are. They write long papers on how sexist and dangerous to women erotic poetry is.

I keep trying to see erotic poetry as more complex than that. Yes, it’s sexist and dangerous, but it’s also hot. Can’t we read “To His Mistress Going to Bed” and recognize that, yes, it’s offensively colonialist and misogynistic, but good Christ, it’s arousing? Maybe it’s some kind of MTV-ish “Battle of the Sexes” mentality they have, but the boys in my class always respond to Donne by saying he’s a badass and a pimp, while the girls all say he’s a sexist douchebag. Both my male and female students are so obsessed with the power dynamics of amorous complaint–that it’s about one person getting what he wants at a woman’s expense–that they can’t even read it in the naive sense of its being, like, sexy.

Of course I’m glad that the notion of patriarchal privilege has seeped down to them already, in one way or another. Showing a guy who thinks Donne is a pimp how pimping is destructive to human happiness is a lot easier than showing someone who just thinks Donne is being hot that there is a power dynamic there. But isn’t there something lost when my students, especially my women students, refuse to recognize the existence of the body at all, as if to do so would be to capitulate to morally destructive demands?

I tell them, every semester, that everyone fails at stuff. It’s something you should do so you know that to mess up is not to die. Nothing is worth suicide, and nothing is worth risking your health. I tell them that they are minds, but also bodies, and that their bodies should sometimes win the argument. They don’t believe me.

And I’m quite often on the fence in arguments about pro-sex feminism. On the one hand, I have often heard myself intone with great seriousness, “Anal sex is not a fucking ethos.” You could replace “anal” there with anything and I’d repeat it. Sex acts do not an ethos make. But that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have a body with a libido that wants stuff. When I’m not getting laid, I can be downright unpleasant. I like sex, including a lot of things that some of my feminist sistren might tell us are ALWAYS ALWAYS BAD. But I don’t do anything in bed that makes me feel bad about myself. And just because I like fucking doesn’t mean I worship it or put it ahead of my ethical or intellectual life.

Sex is like eating. I could get by on nothing but cereal and milk, and do, sometimes, for stretches of time, and I make something nice for myself when I can. But ideally I’d go out fairly regularly and have something good prepared for me by other hands. And on rare occasions, it’s really worth it to eat something exotic or extraordinarily well-prepared. I don’t live for food, but to deny that I have a sincere and passionate interest in good food would be disingenuous. This is a dumb analogy, in that it probably doesn’t apply to many people other than myself, but it’s fairly accurate for me. If I have the time and energy, I like to let my body have pleasurable experiences. I can’t just always feed it kibble and put it to bed.

The all-or-nothing achievement factory of childhood seems to allow for no real pleasure. All play is educational, all education is supervised, and every interaction they have from babyhood is about status and narratives of future success. There is no randomness allowed in the system. I’m not going all Iggulden on you, as I don’t think my childhood or my parents’ were any “better” than anyone’s now. But I do fear that my college students, the women especially, have almost no awareness of what it would be like to act out of turn, pursue pleasure, have strong physical feelings, or even recognize strong physical feelings in others. "

Okay, one comment, since I've already blogged enough about my attitude towards sex: I am not one of those girls, although I'm pretty much a workaholic and commited to my career goals. And there was a single-on-purpose period back in law school. But I don't blame the patriarchy for everything. And yes, that Donne poem is sexy.

I'm with A White Bear on this one. Feel things! Have complicated lives! Make mistakes! Live!

Comments of AWB's I liked from the comments thread, the last bit being insightful and in many cases (like mine) with a good deal of truth in it:

"I’m not laughing at them or berating them for taking this stance; it’s one I identify with completely and want to help them see past. Does that make sense?

But I guess I’m confused about why that appears not only among Ivy-League women who need to get into “the right” law school, but also among my students, who are mostly middle-class women trying to get jobs as teachers. The school where I teach has almost 70% women, and even higher percentages of women in the English department. To compete even with other female English students, they have to do this?

What I fear is that they think they are surrounded by treacherous valleys of nothingness, when life is a lot longer and more flexible than all that. This seems like it would be obvious when they have so many classmates who are adult returning students who graduated high school, made the choice to get married and have kids, and then realized they’re living in a world where having a degree would be beneficial.

I tell them how I got C’s, was kind of a loser, and still got into grad schools. They think I’m like a miracle. Have things changed so much since six years ago? Perhaps they have.

My guess is that most of them have immigrant parents who didn’t go to college and are banking on raising perfect kids who will get perfect grades and a perfect job, and they drive them with fear, while still hoping they’ll live traditional lives with husbands and kids. There’s a disconnect there, one that I face with my folks, who think everything I do is do-or-die. But if grad school has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is as disastrous as you think it is, and there are people who mess up and still succeed, and there are others who manage to have a home life and an intellect. It’s hard, but there are a lot of livable lives possible."

Hat tip: Prettier Than Napoleon.


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