Marriage, Singledom, Social Evolution, and that Kate Bolick piece in "The Atlantic"

This was originally published on October 28 over at Clarisse Thorn: Pro-Sex Outreach, Open-Minded Feminism.

Okay, so. Since I am a Feminist Commentator™, many folks have asked my opinion on a piece that recently ran in “The Atlantic” called “All The Single Ladies,” by Kate Bolick. Many of you have probably already seen Bolick’s piece — I’ve got a roundup of a few relevant links and snips at the end of this post. Here are my thoughts about the article, in order:

1) Wow, I dealt with many of these issues and did a better job several weeks ago, when I wrote my piece: “Chemistry. I’m also going to examine a lot of these issues in my upcoming eBook Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews With Hideous Men. (I know, I’ve been plugging the eBook a lot lately. What can I say — I’m a starving artist and I use the platforms available to me.)

2) Well … okay. I’ll try to be more fair. I am coming at this question from the perspective of a 27-year-old woman, who is just starting to think about getting married — and I have considerable experience in liberal sex subcultures. Kate Bolick is coming at this question from the perspective of a 39-year-old woman who has clearly thought a lot about getting married — and who was somewhat influenced by second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem … but is clearly uncomfortable with liberal sex-positive feminist perspectives.

(If Bolick weren’t uncomfortable, then when she tried to get a grip on the modern dating scene she might have talked to lefty feminists, rather than speaking only to the relatively conservative Susan Walsh. As a matter of fact, Susan Walsh has openly insulted and attacked a number of high-profile modern feminists, including women who I greatly respect. Personally, I find Walsh to be somewhat interesting and mostly harmless; during our brief exchanges, I’ve gotten the impression that she feels the same way about me. I have found some of Walsh’s critiques of sex-positive feminism echoed in my own experiences, and I try to take such critiques into account during my ongoing project of building more flexible and universal sex-positive feminist theory. But I 110% disagree with where Walsh takes those critiques — for example, Walsh has been known to assert that we ought to do more slut-shaming. Which is just no. The last thing we need is more slut-shaming.)

3) Given that Kate Bolick is a bit more conservative than I am, and given that she has very different experiences, it’s not surprising that she has taken such a different journey in her thoughts about this topic. What’s more interesting is that she arrives at very similar conclusions. Like many other commentators, I liked where Bolick was going at the end of the article, when she talks about potentially building collective lives with like-minded people, rather than depending on marriage to create our family structures.

Unlike many other commentators — and unlike Bolick, apparently — I already have a great deal of experience with collectives and cooperatives. I don’t usually write about this, because it’s not directly relevant to sex & gender, but I’ve mentioned it before, like for example in my old post “Grassroots Organizing for Feminism, S&M, HIV and Everything Else.” I hate to sound like a true believer, but I really think that cooperatives can be the wave of the future … if we let them.

Building an intentional living community with like-minded people is very difficult. But there are thousands of examples of cooperatives around the world — some dealing with housing, some dealing with other matters. Most of my experience is with housing cooperatives, and I can attest that participating in even a very functional housing cooperative can be infuriating, heartbreaking, and scary by turns. But functional housing cooperatives have also taught me an enormous amount about humanity, relationships, grassroots action, interdependence, efficiency, and sharing. (Awww. I know. It’s so sweet.)

And I fully expect that my experience in building intentional “family” will be great for me as I grow older and my life takes me either into marriage, or not into marriage. Cooperatives are living communities that do not depend on these outmoded ideas of nuclear families. And, by the way? Living in a cooperative does not preclude marriage. Plenty of married couples live in cooperatives together. Some have kids in the cooperatives!

I wish that Bolick had wound up her article by doing some serious research on the cooperative movement. But she didn’t, so I’m going to give you some resources off the top of my head right now. If you want to learn some basics, then definitely check out the website for the non-profit organization North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO).

As it happens, NASCO is about to host its yearly educational Institute, which is a totally awesome opportunity to learn more. I wish I’d thought to post this sooner, because I just realized that today is the last day you can register for NASCO Institute. The conference will happen from November 4-6 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Another great resource is an old article by a gentleman named Jim Jones, who used to work for NASCO. This article is called “Death in the Co-op” and it’s a brilliant exposition of Jim’s thoughts on why co-ops go under — what the potential weaknesses of co-ops are. As far as I know, this paper has basically been passed hand-to-hand for years, but has never been posted openly on the Internet. I view it as required reading for anyone with a serious interest in housing cooperatives, so I’ve put it up on my own site for download.

4) Aaaand back to Kate Bolick’s article. Do I have any other thoughts? Just one:at least it wasn’t another article by Caitlin Flanagan.

* * *

Here’s some other coverage of Bolick’s piece. I sent these links to some non-feminist friends, and one of them characterized them as “haterade”. I don’t think they’re “haterade”, but as I already said, Kate Bolick pretty much blatantly snubbed the liberal feminist sphere, and she cited Susan Walsh, who has blatantly attacked the liberal feminist sphere. So, you know. There’s gonna be some snideness in the coverage.

* A snip from analysis at L’Hote:

I think Bolick is on the cover of “The Atlantic”, and in pictures inside the story, because she is writing about her superior desirability to the men whom she might potentially partner with. And I think that in order to make that possible, she and “The Atlantic” need to show that she’s attractive. And she is [conventionally attractive]. If there were no pictures of her, that would be the question on most people’s minds: what does she look like?

That, in and of itself, tells you a lot. Bolick can convey socially-relevant information about the relative desirability of the men she’s talking about in the article, with words. She can write about education and ambition and drive and money and whatever else, and that says enough to make the point. But Bolick’s desirability can’t be meaningfully conveyed without showing what she looks like. For all the talk of the declining fortunes of men relative to women, and how women are gaining the upper hand in the romantic and sexual marketplace, women’s desirability continues to be largely determined by their physical appearance. I wish Bolick’s accomplishments were enough to convey her desirability, but the cold calculus her editors performed in putting her on the cover says otherwise.

As with Hannah Rosin’s “The End of Men,” this strikes me as an article that superficially details victory for women while the context in which it emerges reminds us of how far we still have to go.

(Please note that I, Clarisse Thorn, am all for deconstructing ideas about what “attractive” means and what “attractive” looks like. One of my recent posts had a bit of a blowup about this, and I can see places in the above snip where the author is assuming that “attractive” = “conventionally attractive”. So I just want to say that, again, I’m all for questioning and deconstructing ideas of “attractiveness”. There’s more discussion about sexiness and performing femininity over on Alas, A Blog, if you’re interested.)

* A snip from Amanda Marcotte’s discussion at Slate:

What’s interesting about these non-stop media musings about how women are getting to be “too good” for men—again, disproven by the research!—is that one specific area where women probably are getting pickier about who they date is getting overlooked. Call it the “feminism gap,” if you will; as women gain more economic power and self-esteem, their willingness to put up with a bunch of crap from men is declining rapidly. We see this in ways big and small, including the fact that women are more likely to sue for divorce than men and some research indicates that the “hook-up culture” that causes so much anguish may have partially developed as a way for women to get laid without going through demeaning and sexist romantic rituals. My favorite statistic regarding this surge of women being able to ask more of men and of life: the rate of women murdering their husbands has declined dramatically in the past 30 years, which is largely a direct result of women leaving men who beat them earlier in the relationship, long before the abuse reaches the point where they feel their only escape is to kill their abuser. I think women are beginning to have higher standards for how they’re treated in a relationship, and while many men have caught up, there are probably more women who won’t tolerate sexist treatment than men who are willing to stop being sexist. Give it a generation, and I bet it evens out significantly. Already the divorce rate is going down, suggesting that a lot more men are embracing the mutual-respect model of marriage than they did a generation ago, when a sea of marriages cracked under the pressure of trying to shove modern people into traditional patriarchal marriage.

* A snip from thoughts at What Would Phoebe Do:

Bolick went from being told (by her mother) not to settle down, to hearing from friends, at 28, that the clock’s a’ticking. In college, she and her female friends “took for granted that we’d spend our 20s finding ourselves, whatever that meant, and save marriage for after we’d finished graduate school and launched our careers, which of course would happen at the magical age of 30. That we would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith.”

That, right there, is the window of opportunity problem. Girls and young women are discouraged (from a feminist perspective) from even having boyfriends, then all of a sudden, at some juncture determined by one’s (allegedly still feminist) set, one is determined on the cusp of too-old, and then, if no engagement is announced within two minutes of that juncture, a too-old can be declared. If you’re 16-21 (say), it’s, don’t make your mother’s/grandmother’s mistakes! If you’re 21-25, maybe think about finding a husband, but you’re also too young, so maybe not? 25-30, where’s that husband? 30 and up? Missed that boat.

Meanwhile, of course people meet at 15, at 45 … and things work out. The window of opportunity merely governs expectations. Right, right, no one intelligent cares what others think, but this isn’t even on such an explicit/conscious level. Women really do go, and quickly, from feeling “too young” to feeling “too old.”

And of course, if you wrote about Bolick’s piece, then feel free to link yourself in the comments.

Clarisse Thorn is a feminist, sex-positive educator who has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences, including New York’s Museum of Sex, San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture, and universities across the USA. She created and curated the original Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum; she has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable BDSM institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. Clarisse recently returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. Her writing has appeared across the internet in places like The Guardian, AlterNet, and Time Out Chicago. She blogs about feminist sexuality with a focus on S&M at and Feministe, and she tweets @clarissethorn.

Photo credit cimorenegal/Flickr

Related Links: