Pleasure and Politics

January 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here is the bio line of an op-ed in today’s Times:
Jill Filipovic is a lawyer and a former senior political writer for who is writing a book about female pleasure and politics in America.
That’s a book I want to read. It’s a book I’d want to write if I knew enough about the subject. In a few posts (some of my favorites) in this blog, I have argued that American culture and politics regard pleasure with a certain amount of suspicion. Our Protestant ethic has remarkable staying power, and it underlies cultural products as diverse as Judd Apatow comedies (here) and conservative social science (here). Where European policies may be directed towards allowing people more pleasure, America has no national laws for guaranteed paid vacation days or greater job security, or family support generous enough so that parents (mothers especially) have some free time (here). The policy connection is clear. As the most recent Republican presidential nominee put it, “European-style benefits” would  “poison the very spirit of America.”  Or as one of my colleagues inadvertently suggested, he’d feel much better if we justified discussion – a dialogue about ideas – not as a source of pleasure as the French might but as a source of value, i.e., something with a practical payoff (here).

On the American political spectrum, my colleague and Judd Apatow are liberal. But generally in the US, the Protestant-ethic arguments come from the right.  The conservative fluster about pleasure gets more acute when the pleasure is sexual, and especially when the people having that pleasure are women. Male policies to control women’s sexuality arose with agrarian societies, as did other forms of inequality.  For 200,000 years or more, as hunter-gatherers, we humans were egalitarian and sexually unconstrained. Even social scientists who should know better sometimes ignore that long past and treat the more recent past – 15,000 years or so – as the total of human history. (See this post
 on virginity.)

The advent of industrial society seems to be slowly eroding those agrarian ideas. It makes sense then that those who want to conserve these agrarian-era inequalities are our political conservatives. I have long had a hunch that underneath even the most reasoned justifications for their policy preferences, for many of these conservatives, what’s really at work is a deep uneasiness about female sexual pleasure. I’d like to write a book making that argument about politics and pleasure, but as I said, my lack of knowledge and industriousness and maybe my inescapably male perspective and experiences, make me the wrong person to write that book. I hope Filipovic does it for me.

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