When you watch Darth Vader blow up the planet of Alderaan in Star Wars, or telepathically strangle an incompetent flunkie in one of the sequels, it may be brutal, but it’s not really upsetting. That’s what Vader is there for; it’s his job to be a professional villain and spread bloodshed, pain, and misery throughout the galaxy. In a strange way, it’s comforting to see him relish his latest act of torture, murder, or genocide; it reassures you that the world is exactly the way you expect it to be.
The Darth Vaders of gender politics are people like Maggie Gallagher, Glenn Beck, Andrew Schlafly, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, and their various hanger-ons . While I think that the world would be a better place without their hidebound misogyny and homophobia, I understand it. It’s their job to be assholes, and so when Beck spouts off his latest conspiracy theory about how the gays are going to shove their homo thing down his throat, I nod and take it in stride. The world is normal.
It’s when feminists, or anyone else that I think should be on the side of the angels, start weaving reactionary assumptions about gender that I wig out. The world is not as it should be. It’s as though I walked into a theater that’s showing another version of Star Wars, the one that Lucas keeps stored in his basement along with the last existing print of the Star Wars Holiday Special. In this version, Vader is still blowing up planets, but Luke and Leia spend their spare time downing beers with Imperial Stormtroopers and torturing kittens.
I hate watching that movie, and I wish that feminists kept their version of it locked up as securely as Lucas does with the Holiday Special. The most recent version of it can be found in Hugo Schwyzer’s essay at the Good Men Project titled “Is It Natural for Older Guys to Lust After Young Women?“
First, here’s what I agree with Schwyzer on: people who try to excuse men’s bad behavior through pop-cultural distortions of evolutionary theory combine bad gender theory with bad science. A particular pet peeve is when they claim that nature “programs” us for certain behavior, as though the way we behave in complex social situations could be reduced to routines of binary logic. More on this another time. The point is that he and I are in agreement about the Derbyshire article that he quotes.
But the gender theory underlying Schwyzer’s article isn’t much better than Derbyshire’s. While Schwyzer rejects the idea that our libidos are the genetic versions of Windows Vista, his depiction of male sexuality as being predatory and rapacious by default is something that any devotee of evo-psych could love.
The upshot of Schwyzer’s article is that relationships between older men and younger women are the result of poor socialization of men and are harmful to women:
Even if it were “natural,” there’s nothing innocent or harmless or healthy about older men pursuing substantially younger women. The cost is high to everyone involved. While a few young women may be attracted to much older guys (often because they falsely imagine themselves to be “so much more mature” than “other girls” their age), most are… disheartened and disgusted by the endless parade of men 10, 20, or 40 years older who harass and hit on them. These young women aren’t flattered. And even if they seem flattered at the time, it doesn’t mean the attention from older men isn’t doing great harm.
The most insulting—and just plain wrong—part of Schwyzer’s article is that to prove this harm he conflates pedophilia, fantasy, and relationships between consenting adults. The ethics of each is vastly different, and can’t be spoken of in the same breath, at least to reasonable people; Schwyzer, on the other hand, threads together the story of a strange man slowing down in a car to comment on a 12-year-old girl’s breasts, the popularity of “barely legal” porn, and consensual relationships between women who are in their 20s with men who are “10, 20, or 40” years older than them as if the desires and the moral responsibilities in each case were the same. The first case is just disgusting and should be unconditionally condemned; the second is fantasy, and only becomes unethical once it spills over into reality; the third case covers a broad range of situations, but involve adults. To compare an adult publicly leering at an adolescent with relationships between consenting adults, regardless of their ages, is like saying that a rape victim is having sex.
And yes, it’s true: the issues in intergenerational relationships are often complex, for many reasons. But what worries Schwyzer isn’t intergenerational relationships; he brushes aside concerns about “cougars” as media hysteria, and not a word is said about same-sex relationships between partners of different ages. The danger lies specifically in heterosexual relationships where the male partner is older. He can see only one story in those relationships, and an old, very sexist one at that: an army of lecherous old men on the prowl for innocent maidens to manipulate and despoil. It’s been hammered to death in Restoration-era farces and modern bromances, and it holds together only if you think male heterosexuality is insatiable and animalistic and ruthless and women’s sexuality as virtuous and passive.
In other words, Schwyzer’s entire essay is built on a narrative that would make chastity activists glow with the warmth of comradeship. And if this were an essay that had been written by some fundie activist, I don’t think I’d be okay with it, but I would merely roll my eyes and feel exasperated. I expect this kind of thing from them. Schwyzer, as a feminist, should know better than to recycle the same old stereotypes and pass it off as a progressive gender analysis.
For instance, when Schwyzer emphasizes that relationships between older men and younger women are especially dangerous as he does in this article and others, there is a second, unspoken message: the reverse is benign. So far as I can tell, Schwyzer sees no particular danger in relationships between older women and younger men; certainly not enough to write about in multiple articles. To assume that young men aren’t as vulnerable to manipulation or emotional abuse in sexual relationships is to cling very strongly to traditional ideas of gender and sexuality. When scandals break out about female teachers who sleep with male students, people are much more likely to be openly skeptical that the encounter was traumatic for the boy. Nighttime talk-show hosts will openly make leering jokes about how he “scored” or “got lucky.” This is only acceptable because we accept the idea that men—boys even—want sex so badly and so unconditionally that they would fuck mud if it squirmed. Although Schwyzer might not believe that’s inscribed on our genes, his portrait of male sexuality is so bestial and unthinking that he might as well be Derbyshire.