January 18, 2018

Why do young women today feel they have less agency than their grandmothers did?

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

Megan McArdle on the weird path young women have taken in recent years that earlier cohorts did not:

I have now had dozens of conversations about #MeToo with women my age or older, all of which are some variant on “What the hey?” It’s not that we’re opposed to #MeToo; we are overjoyed to see slime like Harvey Weinstein flushed out of the woodwork, and the studio system. But we see sharp distinctions between Weinstein and guys who press aggressively — embarrassingly, adulterously — for sex. To women in their 20s, it seems that distinction is invisible, and the social punishments demanded for the latter are scarcely less than those meted out for forcible rape.

There’s something else we notice, something that seems deeply connected to these demands for justice: These women express a feeling of overwhelming powerlessness, even though they are not being threatened, either physically or economically. How has the most empowered generation of women in all of human history come to feel less control over their bodies than their grandmothers did?

Let me propose a possible answer to this, suggested by a very smart social scientist of my acquaintance: They feel this way because we no longer have any moral language for talking about sex except consent. So when men do things that they feel are wrong — such as aggressively pursuing casual sex without caring about the feelings of their female target — we’re left flailing for some way to describe this as non-consensual, even when she agreed to the sex.

Under the old code, of course, we had ample condemnatory terms for men who slept with women carelessly, without much regard for their feelings: cads and rakes, bounders and boors. Those words have now decayed into archaism. Yet it seems to me that these are just the words that young women are reaching for, when instead they label things like mutually drunken encounters and horrible one-night stands as an abuse of power, a violation of consent — which is to say, as a crime, or something close to it. To which a lot of other people incredulously respond: now being a bad lover is a crime?

This isn’t working. And perhaps a little expansion of our moral language will illuminate not just our current dilemma, but the structural reasons behind it. I’m thinking of a fairly recent paper by political scientist Michael Munger, which introduced the concept of euvoluntary exchange. Put simply, though we talk a great deal about voluntary exchange, the fact is that we often think voluntary exchanges are morally wrong. After all, the quid pro quo offered by Weinstein was in some sense voluntary, and yet also, totally unacceptable. Likewise price gouging after natural disasters, blackmail and similar breaches.

We have an intuition, says Professor Munger, that in order for an exchange to be really valid, both parties need to have a minimally acceptable alternative to making the deal. And in the case of sex, I think that often women no longer feel they have those alternatives. So expanding Professor Munger’s analysis to consensual sex — we might call it euconsensual sex — may give us some insight into what’s gone wrong.

My generation of women was not exactly unfamiliar with casual sex, or aggressive come-ons. But we didn’t feel so traumatized by them or so outraged. If we went to a man’s apartment, we might be annoyed that he wouldn’t stop asking, but we weren’t offended, nor did we feel it was impossible for us to refuse, or leave.

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