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Thursday, March 22, 2012

I'll show you my social capital if you show me yours

Posted By on 03.22.12 at 02:36 PM

Who needs it, anyway?
  • Jen Koulev
  • Who needs it, anyway?
This week Times columnist Ross Douthat inveighs against the sexual excesses of New York magazine in an interview with New York magazine. We last checked in with Douthat when he was talking about the (optional!) causative relationship between sex and babies, framed by political disagreements between “cultural liberals,” who love the former, and “social conservatives,” who dig the latter. He’s onto a similar thing with New York. “We live in an era . . . where the sexual revolution happened,” Douthat says, “where liberals have won across a variety of fronts, and it’s important to see places where some form of corrective would be useful. The attitudes that you get in New York Magazine’s ‘Sex Diaries’ are only going to work for people with large amounts of social capital.” Either the reporter isn’t quoting the rest, or Douthat leaves it at that.

New York’s Sex Diaries, if you’re unfamiliar on account of you live in the inland territories, are what they sound like: anonymous people who transcribe their sex lives, quite performatively, over a period of a few days. A recent entry by a “gay law clerk fantasizing about JFK in the White House pool” has lines like “K. falls asleep. I've had some wine on top of my cocktails, and I'm feeling pretty horny. But he won't wake up to get busy; says he needs to leave early in the morning for work. Grrr.” That’s about as mild as it gets. It’s entertaining, but not overwhelmingly so.

Douthat is confusing the writers with the content. It takes a lot of “social capital,” presumably, to get your diary published in New York—a quick scan of the list of recent contributors reveals the aforementioned gay law clerk, plus a “Williamsburg travel editor,” Pilates teacher, unemployed journalist, LA producer, “gay art-world guy,” and a “kinky blogger.” It also takes some social capital to become a New York Times columnist. Pro tip: going to Harvard helps!

But what Douthat’s objecting to are the diarists’ “attitudes,” which are of a different provenance. New York’s Sex Diaries prominently involve promiscuity, kink, and—significantly—women who indulge in a lot of both.* The thought that that kind of sex is the property of the coastal classes is bizarre. It’s a slightly more artful rearticulation of the conservative idea that’s gotten some play in the Republican primaries, mostly via the Santorum campaign, that certain people having certain types of consensual sex is a drag on the overall culture—folks in the outer provinces don’t have the social cachet to do it any way but missionary, not that they want to. Really they're just happy to serve up “some form of corrective.”

Not that this is a new idea—just that it's still really weird. It does not need to be said that Douthat's is an incredibly patronizing attitude to take toward the sturdy men and women who make up the backbone of middle America. (Kidding! I don't condone the use of that kind of language.) This guy really ought to lighten up. Only total assholes think of other people’s sex lives as some kind of cultural bludgeon.

* Relevant all-too-safe-for-work passage about a college hookup that Douthat shared in his memoir: "Whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered—'You know, I'm on the pill.'" What a turnoff, right? A total misuse of an em dash.

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