I had my suspicions about Benjamin Dueholm in this article about how Dan Savage has become the nation’s preeminent sexual ethicist. There was a whiff of prudery from the get-go, but I squelched my concerns because it could very well be that said prudery was just a rhetorical device used to highlight how much the culture had to change for Dan Savage to take the place of Ann Landers. After all, I felt like Dueholm has a fairly accurate read about the principles that guide Savage’s advice: honesty, respecting the individual’s right to bodily autonomy, reciprocity, and generosity. You would think a Lutheran minister like Dueholm would fully endorse such a slate of seemingly non-controversial values, but as we all know, the truth is that a theory of radical (and feminist/queer-friendly) sexual liberation threatens the power of authority, especially religious authority, and that will always trump other concerns.
By the way, because this always comes up, I want to be clear that by defending Dan Savage against a minister beating some strawman, I’m not—I repeat not—saying I agree with every fucking thing Savage has ever said ever. I don’t engage in the concept that anyone is received wisdom, not the Bible and not a sex advice columnist. Savage is wrong a lot. But these principles are generally sound, and I appreciate Savage for popularizing them, particularly with regards to autonomy, which you shall see is easily the most threatening one to authority.
I knew Dueholm was definitely going to fly off the rails when, after he describes these sound ethical principles, drops this bullshit:
Underlying all of Savage’s principles, abbreviations, and maxims is a pragmatism that strives for stable, livable, and reasonably happy relationships in a world where the old constraints that were meant to facilitate these ends are gone.
This is a blatantly false characterization of the old constraints. Time to get feminist, y’all, but I would say that the old constraints were not meant to create livability or happiness so much as to reinstate patriarchal power structures. You can criticize Savage for being wrong or being sexist at times, but generally speaking, he’s trying to create an ethical system that’s anti-patriarchal not to fill a void, but because he believes that the old patriarchy was evil and unethical. He’s openly agreed with the feminist contention that the “old constraints” were more about oppressing gay people and straight women than anything else. In fact, this should be pretty obvious. A system that forces gay people to live in shadows and deliberately pushes women to be a servant class for men is not a system that’s about happiness, at least not for the majority of people. And that’s especially true if you grasp, as Savage often does, that straight men who are more interested in personal fulfillment than dominance are also screwed by a patriarchy. He may not use the word “patriarchy” often, but that’s the basic gist of it. And while I’m skeptical of a lot of the evo psych stuff he’s been indulging lately, it’s undeniable that he does so because he’s arguing that our basic human nature is thwarted by patriarchy, and he supports the claim that the “old restraints” were there more to keep men controlling women than to promote happiness or even stability.
But this is a liberal magazine, so you have to do more than glide past the realities that old sexual ethics were more patriarchal than humanist, and try to use loaded language to get a buy-in from the liberal audience.
As it happens, this vision fits rather well in a society built around consumption. If Savage’s ethical guidelines—disclosure, autonomy, mutual exchange, and minimum standards of performance—seem familiar or intuitive, it’s probably because they also govern expectations in the markets for goods and services. No false advertising, no lemons, nothing omitted from the fine print: in the deregulated marketplace of modern intimacy, Dan Savage has become a kind of Better Business Bureau, laying out the rules by which individuals, as rationally optimizing firms, negotiate their wildly diverse transactions.
And then blah blah blah the market is crass blah blah blah. We’re liberals, right? We don’t like “the market”, right? Treating sex like “the market” is bad, right?
The problem with this is that he’s conflating the rules of ethics that govern a truly fair and free market with objections to capitalist ethos like “greed is good”. In fact, free market ethics are in direct contrast to capitalism, and are used to restrain it. Laws against false advertising, selling lemons, and full disclosure are not, as Dueholm suggests, the “deregulated marketplace”, but the opposite: a regulated marketplace. Those are the regulations to keep people from cheating. He literally had to call up down in order to make the damning of post-patriarchal sexual ethics hold together. The regulations he lays out are there to prevent” “rationally optimizing firms” from cheating the system. Which means his argument makes no sense. The “Dan Savage” system of ethics—which is hardly Savage’s invention, but is instead cobbled together from feminist and queer ideas about overturning the patriarchy put into practice—are the regulations that keep people from rationally optimizing so that they can instead get along as actual human beings. If he was actually a capitalist-of-sex, he would encourage lying and cheating so that people asking his advice can have their cake and eat it, too. But instead he says that good people have to accept that you have to take the needs of others into consideration.
The notion that an old, patriarchal system had more “warmth” is just silly, as any cursory examination of history—especially if you assume women are people whose souls need tending, too—would demonstrate. Even the example Dueholm whips out to shore up this fantasy is silly.
I think of a heartbreaking letter in 2010 that illustrated many of these problems at once. A man who saw a woman every other week for four months heard from her, two months after ending things, that she had gotten pregnant and had a miscarriage. Savage was all but certain that the woman’s story was false. But regardless, he said, “your emotional obligations to her ended when the relationship did, and your financial obligations ended with the miscarriage.” Savage’s advice may have been practical, but it had all the warmth of a legal waiver of liability.
Giving people the tools they need to move on, to be optimistic, to look forward instead of backward isn’t warm? Says who? As someone who has both done it the Dueholm way—dragged out the relationship long after it had really ended, afraid to let go for fear that it makes you “cold”—and the Savage way—ripping off that Band-Aid—I can promise you that the warm person is the person advising the latter. Being pragmatic is often the warmest thing you can be. Encouraging people to sit around asking what-if and worrying about things that are done gets them what exactly? All that’s really gained by obsessing over theoretical children is that patriarchal notions that commitment and marriage are inflicted on people instead of chosen by people are upheld. Which benefits no one, and especially not women. (Though the individual woman feigning a miscarriage might think otherwise, but again, I’d say a woman who is so poisoned by the patriarchy she would lie about a pregnancy to cling to a relationship and validate herself is not being well-served by the “old restraints”. What she needs is to start valuing herself as a person instead of giving men the power to validate her.)
What the new, post-patriarchal sexual ethics being promoted in many quarters—but most prominently by Dan Savage—do at a fundamental level is value individuals over institutions. (This is even where I think Savage isn’t radical enough. Feminists take the principles he espouses and add in enthusiastic consent, which is implied by his ideas of generosity and autonomy, but needs to be spelled out even further.) It assumes that people aren’t cogs that can be plugged into pre-established roles. It assumes that relationships need emotional tending, and that people should take the time to see each other as people, instead of just perform pre-written behaviors and expect that to do the trick. And yes, it assumes that sexual fulfillment is an important part of life, and that history shows people who don’t have it act out. What’s funny to me is that I do think that the new sexual ethics tend to do a better job, in the end, of promoting stability than the patriarchal ones. By now, it should be well-understood that red states have higher divorce rates than blue states, and part of the reason is that the “old restraints” are far more prevalent in red states, which means more people are creating marriages where there’s poor communication and a lack of looking at each other as individuals, and subsequently more cheating and casual cruelty occurs.