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Imagine A Marriage Between Two People

December 29, 2008

To us, that sounds obvious. But this thought experiment might prove enlightening to Dennis Prager, whose ideas about gender are so essentialist, and whose thinking about sexuality is so backward, that he cannot really be conceiving of marriage as between two equals, each with their own needs and desires.

First, I should thank Dennis. When I wrote Toward A Performance Model of Sex in Yes Means Yes, I cobbled together examples from abstinence proponents and pick-up artists to illustrate the way people thought of sex as a commodity. Jessica Valenti, co-editor of the collection and my friend, said the nicest things on Feministing while quoting me in a line that roughly summarizes my essay:

We live in a culture where sex is not so much an act as a thing: a substance that can be given, bought, sold, or stolen, that has a value and a supply-and-demand curve. In this “commodity model,” sex is like a ticket; women have it and men try to get it.

YMY at p. 30.

When summarizing one’s opponents’ thinking like this, often the battle begins with their denial. I ought to thank Dennis for cutting to the chase. He provides a one-stop shop for illustrating that the Commodity Model is indeed accepted wholesale by some self-appointed spokespeople for traditional values (i.e. patriarchy).

Here’s Dennis:

A husband knows that his wife loves him first and foremost by her willingness to give her body to him. This is rarely the case for women. Few women know their husband loves them because he gives her his body (the idea sounds almost funny).

(Emphasis supplied.) And there it is, right there. Sex as Commodity, in its crudest form. He’s not even saying that a woman gives a service, or gives a gift of intimacy. He’s saying she gives access to pussy. And he admits that it’s a one-way street; that the opposite is a joke to him.

In the essay, I argue that the consequence of the Commodity Model is a “social license to operate” for rapists:

This argument works only if consent is simply acquiescence, even grudging acquiescence. Because they cast sex as commodity, rape apologists can easily make the same caveat emptor arguments about sex that one makes in used-car sales: that a deal is a deal, however reluctantly, grudgingly, or desperately one side accepts it … What naturally arises from the commodity model is a tendency of property transactions: They are often not equally advantageous, and depend on bargaining power. Since some duress and coercion are common, in order for commerce to flourish it is necessary to have rules about when someone is stuck with the bargain they made, even if they regret it or never really liked it in the first place. This is what rape apologists do every time: defend the transaction by holding the unhappy participant responsible … and insisting on the finality of bargains.

YMY at p. 37.

Dennis is absolutely on board with unwanted sex that, by his lights, women are stuck with due to the deal they made:

It is an axiom of contemporary marital life that if a wife is not in the mood, she need not have sex with her husband. Here are some arguments why a woman who loves her husband might want to rethink this axiom.

Note that he did not say “Here are some arguments why a woman, who of course may consent or not consent any time she likes, should in fact offer her husband sex even if she is not particularly interested.” Rather, he said he was arguing that a woman should “rethink the axiom [that if a wife is not in the mood, she need not have sex]“. He’s not arguing for the wisdom of being giving. He’s arguing against the notion of a right to say no within marriage for reasons of disinclination.

Simply put, in Prager’s view, marriage is a deal, and part of the deal is an obligation to have unwanted sex — in Prager’s explicit thinking, to provide access to the body — or, to use Zuzu’s phrase as I do in the essay, access to the “Pussy Oversoul.”

Of course, this kind of thinking requires an abominable view of gender — one that frankly insults men, while assuring us that this state of affairs is immutable, and usually, divinely ordained. Dennis does not disappoint:

2. If this is true, men really are animals.

Correct. Compared to most women’s sexual nature, men’s sexual nature is far closer to that of animals. So what? That is the way he is made. Blame God and nature.

Dennis is a bright guy. He sees some of the holes. Even religious conservatives like Prager no longer deny that women have sex drives, and that implies a far greater agency and engagement than either his advice, or his construction of “giv[ing the] body” allow for. So he writes a raincheck:

There are marriages with the opposite problem — a wife who is frustrated and hurt because her husband is rarely in the mood. But, as important and as destructive as that problem is, it has different causes and different solutions, and is therefore not addressed here. What is addressed is the far more common problem of “He wants, she doesn’t want.”

I don’t believe he will ever write that column. He is not seriously interested in that problem. If he were, he would know that women are people with agency and desire, which is contrary to how he constructs sexuality. If he does write it, the word “different” is the big clue. It will all be the woman’s fault. Somehow. Probably because she got fat, or stands up for herself, which I’m sure in Prager’s simple animalistic model of men makes our pee-pees shrink.

The second big elastic clause is at the end. He clearly sees that he’s telling women with abusive spouses to submit, no matter how miserable it makes them. I think this is his intent, but to dodge responsibility for the cases he can’t defend, he says:

I conclude Part I with this clarification: Everything written here applies under two conditions: 1. The woman is married to a good man. 2. She wants him to be a happy husband.

“Good man” is undefined. Prager intends to deflect all accounts where the facts are bad for him by defining the man as “not a good man.”

Prager’s views are no surprise. Having quoted him, I’ll circle back to where I started: imagine a marriage between two people.

It might help Dennis to imagine a marriage between two men. He knows men are people, who get to decide when and how to be physically intimate with another based on their desires, and not obligation. But he can’t imagine that. First, it gives him the willies. Second, Prager almost certainly sees sex between two men as masturbation using the body of another; self-abuse with an aider and abettor “giving access” to his body for the purpose — which is degrading. And it’s degrading to them when “slutty” women do it. How less so when a wife in holy matrimony does it? They try and try to explain how the dirty becomes clean, and they always fail to make the logic work. I anticipate why Prager wouldn’t be able to think in any sensible way about a marriage between two men in my essay:

So, for example, thinking mired in this model may assume a “who’s the girl” conception that penetrative sex always occures and that femininity should be imputed to the enveloping partner. Separately but not unrelated is the long-standing slur that gay men are inherently and compulsively promiscuous, there being no gatekeeper to restrict the supply of the commodity.

YMY at p. 36.

Let’s try this instead: Dennis, imagine me. I’m married. To a woman. Whom I love. She and I have sex for reasons of intimacy; but she doesn’t “give [me] access” to her body. The body is not an important part for me, and the perfunctory “giving” of it is nothing I value. A partner laying there, not into it and feeling obligated, is for me the antithesis of hot. Not only do I not seek that; I turn down offers of that kind. I’d rather wait a day or two until my spouse’s head is clear and she’s had time to get in touch with her own desire. Prager’s picture of giving access is cringe-inducing. Why would I want that? Who would?

In fact, we do a lot of different stuff that doesn’t fit the “giving access” construct. Sometimes, she straps on a cock and fucks me. Am I then “giving [her] access” to my body? No. That’s a silly way to think of it.* Sex isn’t something we have. It’s something we do. Something we do. Together. Whoever is penetrating or enveloping, whoever is licking, whoever is stroking, we make each other feel good. We make each other get hard and wet and flex muscles and arch backs and come. We feel close when we do this. We. Us. Together.

*If I recall correctly, Prager dismissed anything outside a narrow range of activities as perversion; selfish pleasure-seeking. That’s convenient for his thinking, since it excludes from his sample group anyone with an imagination and excuses him from applying his simplistic model to anything that would challenge the primacy of Tab A in Slot B.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2008 5:18 pm

    Whoohoo! That was excellent. I was introduced to Prager earlier today by AbysstoHope. I was disappointed by Prager’s article, but even more so by his colluders in the comment section. If this is way of thinking is so prevalent, how can society ever change? People define gender and defend patriarchy with pseudo-science and religion. Where is the beginning? When is the end?

  2. December 29, 2008 7:11 pm

    A-fucking-men.

    That sex is an activity, not a gift, was at the forefront of my mind when I read Prager’s article. Thanks for elucidating the point so clearly.

  3. Nadda permalink
    December 29, 2008 7:17 pm

    Sadly, I’ve encountered more men with Prager’s attitude than men who believe women are sexually autonomous human beings who deserve to be treated as such. They naturally assume that sex is a part of the marriage contract, or a tacit agreement inherent in their love relationship, and they don’t seem to mind one bit if their partner is merely obliging them as opposed to fully and enthusiastically engaging in an act of physical intimacy. However, more often than not, it comes in the form of “I want to do (sex act), my partner isn’t interested, so how do I get her to do (sex act)?” They’ve admitted to using emotional blackmail (“I can’t promise that I won’t cheat if I can’t get my needs met.”) and other coercive techniques for getting their It’s a sad commentary on the state of male humanity today. That humanity is conspiciously missing.

  4. Nadda permalink
    December 29, 2008 7:19 pm

    Oops, accidentally hit the submit button!

    They’ve admitted to using emotional blackmail (”I can’t promise that I won’t cheat if I can’t get my needs met.”) and other coercive techniques for getting their partner to acquiesce.

  5. December 29, 2008 8:02 pm

    Excellent piece.

    Interesting, isn’t it, that the same types who view sex as a commodity get very, very upset when the providers of that commodity want something of value in exchange?

  6. December 30, 2008 11:30 am

    Thanks, Zuzu. It is interesting, but it has an internal logic. If sex is a zero-sum exchange (and the essay says this is almost inevitable under a commodity model), then (1) privileged people with a sense of entitlement will feel entitled to win and act all bitter when they don’t; and (2) it’s a negotiation or trade where, if they give up more than they want to in exchange, they lost. To a Girl!

  7. December 30, 2008 1:30 pm

    Well, that, and the fact that they see all pussy as interchangeable. So it should all have the same value, and so when you do all the things that Nice Guys™ think should result in the dispensing of pussy and the pussy is not forthcoming, they get angry rather than consider that the different vendors of access to their commodity place differing values upon that commodity.

    Belief in free markets, IOW, deserts them when it comes to pussy.

  8. December 30, 2008 1:52 pm

    Free markets is often a stalking horse, or flag of convenience. States’ rights always is, but I think there are some core true Friedmanites who really think that free markets always produce the best result. Not many, and almost all in academia.

  9. December 30, 2008 4:40 pm

    And curiously, these free marketeers all seem to accept the freeness of the markets even when there is obvious discrimination, such in hiring. Because you don’t really have a free labor market when certain classes of worker have to be twice as good for the same position as a straight, able-bodied white man. I mean, if the market were really free, we wouldn’t be seeing so many white men entrenched in management positions, we wouldn’t see so much nepotism or it’s-who-you-know favoritism which skews the market.

  10. December 30, 2008 4:52 pm

    I think free-market worshippers have a sort of palpable fear about admitting market failures: inefficiencies and failures are everywhere. They deny all of them because once they start admitting them, where will it end? That their tabletop model does not reflect the real world in many circumstances, and is therefore not very useful.

    I’m reminded of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, which is not really about baseball. It’s really about market failures. Sometimes, whole industries base their decisions more on mythology and conventional wisdom than on real analysis of the facts, which is obviously inefficient. Billy Bean was able to build a really good baseball team on the third-smallest payroll in the major leagues simply by throwing out the untested assumptions and being willing to start from square one thinking about what qualities in a player produce the best dollar-for-dollar contribution to winning ballgames.

    Not that I mean to get lost in econ. The commodity model is inherently problematic and never gets us where we need to go; but even its most outright proponents, as you say, are full of shit. They support the idea, but like most crony-capitalists, only want to adopt it in the simplistic way that helps them, not take it seriously to its own conclusions, which would have more nuanced effects. Who is that woman who offered to auction her virginity? With our culture’s silly fetishization of virginity, that’s a fully logical conclusion of the commodity model. But I haven’t heard any free marketers cheer for her entrepreneurship. They’re only for it when it helps them.

  11. busby permalink
    January 3, 2009 4:54 pm

    I think Dennis is confused. He seems to think men want sex solely for the relief of the physical need to ejaculate, and that a vagina is the most efficient place to do it. I feel sorry for any woman he has ever been with.

    He refuses to acknowledge any of the “feminine” aspects of a pleasant encounter with another: the sensual aspects of skin on skin, the emotional value of being intimate and open and safe, the helpless feeling you have when you need not just anybody, but THAT specific somebody, any of the complex emotional dance/train wreck that can happen when people shed more than just their clothes and aim for more than just another loin-sneeze.

    He seems to have decided that the benefits are overshadowed by the possible exposure. Poor man.

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