Are Women Programmed to Avoid Casual Sex?


In the late seventies and eighties, psychologists did a series of tests to see how receptive undergraduates are to casual sex. They hired people (whom the studies refer to as “requestors”) to stand in the middle of different college campuses, and to walk up to total strangers of the opposite sex. The requestor would say to his or her chosen subject: “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be very attractive.” He or she would then ask one of three questions: “Would you go out with me tonight?” “Would you come over to my apartment tonight?” or “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” The results were striking. About half of the subjects, both men and women, agreed to go on a date. (Nice work, requestors!) Between seventy and seventy-five percent of the men agreed either to go back to the requestor’s apartment, or to have sex with her. (The ones who refused were generally somewhat apologetic, and provided some excuse, like “I have a girlfriend.”) Zero percent of the women in both studies agreed to either of these requests. Zero. In all of the studies combined. That’s a big difference.

According to a widely-held assumption about how men and women are, this makes perfect sense. Here’s a headline from a British newspaper that captures this assumption perfectly: “Sex: Why it makes women fall in love – but just makes men want MORE!” On this view, women have to be careful whom they have sex with because they are much more emotional about it. If a woman has a casual fling with some guy, she’s liable to wake up in the morning really into him, but he’ll just take off, and that will give her the sads. And evolutionary theorists can offer a scientific explanation of why this is the case. According to “sexual strategies theory”, men want to spread their genetic material as widely as possible, while women are trying to find mates who will help them raise their off-spring. Women are thus essentially programmed to be interested in relationships rather than in casual encounters. 

I don’t buy this. I’d like to offer another explanation instead. I suspect a lot of women aren’t afraid the guy will ditch them. Quite the opposite: they worry that he will be hard to get rid of, and even become dangerous if they try. Stalking is a depressing fact of life for women, and one that is virtually unknown to men. Hollywood seems to believe that almost all stalkers are women.  But real life is very different. Close to ten percent of women have been stalked, mostly by someone they were involved with in some capacity (compared to around two percent of men). A much higher number of women have had to deal with unwanted attention and various other forms of creepy behaviour, often from guys they did nothing more than be nice to (or just friend on Facebook), and every woman has heard enough scary stories from friends that it’s always in the back of their minds. It’s no surprise that women tend to be a little wary of getting involved with total strangers.

There is at least some data to support my explanation for women’s lower receptiveness to casual sex. Psychologist Terri Conley has found that when women are put in scenarios where they can be confident that the encounter will be a safe one, they become about as willing as men to have a casual fling. (She thinks another factor is expectation of orgasm. Women suspect that, if they go to bed with a stranger, the guy won’t really do much for them and so they won’t really enjoy it. I’m sure that’s true.) Incidentally, it’s always worth remembering that if someone approaches you on campus and asks you to do something weird, like come home with them or electrocute a total stranger, they may not be crazy – they may just be a psychologist!

UPDATE: I meant to discuss the phenomenon of Tinder, but, well, I forgot. Ann Friedman has a great analysis of the Tinder phenomenon here. I think its success provides further evidence of my thesis. Tinder is a dating app that uses pictures from your Facebook profile, then gives you a feed of photos and allows you to swipe to say who you’re interested in. If they are interested to, you get to make contact. All you get is the photo, and a list of any friends you have in common. But this is enough. By requiring a Facebook profile, it provides some (albeit not perfect) guarantee you’re the person you say you are, and if you do have common friends, gives at least some sort of character reference. And even though it works mostly as a hook up app, women are using it in very high numbers.

Illustration: Esmeralda and Djali from Alfred Barbou, Victor Hugo and His Time (1882), artist unknown. In Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris, Esmeralda is the target of the obsessive affections of Claude Frollo, a powerful arch-deacon.

Forget-Me-Nows for Everyone! The Ethics of Anti-Love Drugs

If you like love, drugs, and/or philosophy, you may have heard of the work by a group of ethicists at Oxford – Brian Earp, Anders Sandberg, and Julian Savulescu (and yes that is an Oxford comma by the way) – on what they call “the neuro-enhancement of human relationships”. If you haven’t, you should read some of it. It’s fascinating. The authors believe that in the near future, drugs will be available that allow us to bond more closely to people we feel we should love, and to easily lose affection for people we are in love with despite our better judgement. They want us to consider whether such drugs are good things. They believe they are.

I gave my initial thoughts on the issue here. More recently, the authors generously asked me to write a response to their article on anti-love drugs for The Journal of Biomedical Ethics. My full response is here. But I want to give readers the essence of it.

Many people start with the intuition that there must be something wrong with drugs that manipulate our emotions. They seem like a kind of mind control. But sometimes such interventions make us more, rather than less, free. The authors ask us to consider the example of a battered woman. She knows she shouldn’t stay with her partner – she may indeed be risking her life to do so. But she does anyway. Clearly, she is not making fully autonomous decisions. If a drug could sever her attachment to her abusive lover, she not only protects her safety, but she gains greater control over her life. It would be cruel to deny the woman such help if it is available.

I don’t deny that there are cases where anti-love drugs (let’s call them ALDs for short) could help people in desperate need – not just battered women, but also those who are suicidal or paralysed by depression after a failed relationship, for instance. I therefore would not want to see such drugs banned outright. But I would urge people to be extremely cautious in using them. First of all, the pain that follows a break-up, as awful as it is, is nevertheless essential to the healing process. It’s not like the pain that comes from cutting your foot or breaking your arm. The pain is what motivates us to examine ourselves and our lives, in order to understand what happened. Without it, we would be much less likely to actually learn and mature. People could find themselves trapped in the same endless, destructive cycles throughout their various relationships. Also, with ALDs readily available, we may become prey to an easy-exit bias in our relationships. Many people, fearing the pain or shunning the hard work required to repair damaged relationships, will use ALDs to escape them quickly, to their own long-term detriment. Think about cases where someone has been unfaithful. The process of healing and forgiveness is a long and difficult one. But often, it’s successful. Inevitably, as ALDs become available, many people will abandon relationships that have the potential for long-term happiness but that require difficult periods of reconciliation and healing. They will be less happy in the long term, and other people, such as their children, may suffer as well.

Finally, I want us to consider the impact of ALDs for our artistic culture. Yeats suffered much of his life from the unrequited pursuit of Maud Gonne – and later, her daughter. If he had had access to an ALD, he would surely have taken it. Modern literature would be poorer as a result. That is just one example of great art produced by heartsickness. There are countless others.

Of course, right now this is all highly speculative, and much of the ethical debate will have to wait till the drugs actually exist, and we know what they can and can’t do. But I think it’s worthwhile getting the discussion started anyway. By thinking about such drugs, we can ask some really deep and interesting questions about autonomy and about the nature of human relationships. And we may find that the science progresses more quickly than we expect. It very often does.

Image: GOB Bluth with a Forget-Me-Now, from the Arrested Development episode “Flight of the Phoenix”

Should We Make Sex Normal?


Professor Debby Herbenick of Indiana University, one of our foremost experts on all things sexual and a tireless proponent of “sex positivity”, has started a campaign to, as she puts it, “make sex normal”. Herbenick told Salon that she hopes to promote discussion and education about sex in order to make sex “almost mundane”, to encourage people to, as she and her colleagues do, “talk about it like it’s no big deal.”

I respect Professor Herbenick a lot, and I think her campaign is an inspired one. We live in a political climate where practically every day some politician makes some astonishingly ignorant statement about sexuality, and schools are, under the guise of “abstinence only education”, perpetuating truly dangerous myths about the subject. We need to make sure that people, especially young people, have access to good, accurate information, and we need to promote tolerant, inclusive attitudes towards everyone regardless of their sexual preferences or orientation.

Reading some of the media coverage of her campaign, however, I worry that people who fall into the “sex positive” camp (let’s call them Positives) don’t really understand the views of the people who oppose them. Many Positives think that the opponents of sex positivity are people who really just don’t like sex, or who hold conservative religious or political views that teach them outdated attitudes. And there are certainly lots of people like this. But there are also people who genuinely believe that sex is wonderful and important precisely because it is a “big deal”, that it is unlike eating nice meals or going on roller coasters or any of the other things we do for pure enjoyment. I call these people Significants. Significants don’t want sex to become mundane. They oppose casual sex, and casual attitudes towards sex, because they think that viewing sex as just a bodily process, on par with eating, degrades one of the most wondrous aspects of human life, one that has to be viewed with a kind of reverence. They see it as intimately and inextricably linked with love, something we should preserve as a special part of committed relationships, and they believe that if we lose that link and that specialness, those relationships will suffer.

Pretend somebody decided that they were worried about the way in which Catholics viewed their churches: as special, divinely-inspired places that provide them with a space to get closer to God. This person starts a campaign to “make churches normal”. She insists that churches are just buildings like any others, made of brick and mortar, and we should just get past all this hocus-pocus about them being some kind of sacred space. Why, she asks, should we treat a church any differently than we would treat a school or a mall? Even an atheist would see, I think, that the members of the church would have reasons for feeling misunderstood.

For Significants, the specialness of sex is something fragile, that we should actively try to preserve and protect. Yes, it CAN very easily be viewed as just another bodily process, in the same way that a church can be viewed as just another building. But for them, that’s precisely the problem. In our society there is already constant pressure to take the significance out of sex. To Significants, Professor Herbenick’s campaign can look like another step in promoting society’s pervasive casualness about all things sexual.

I’m not a Significant. And as I say, I think the objectives of Professor Herbenick’s campaign are laudable ones. Significance does not have to go hand in hand with ignorance, and the significance view of sex should never be an excuse to shut down debate about sexual issues, condone prejudice, or promote misinformation. But I think we need to understand why people are Significants. They are not merely ignorant or hung-up. They genuinely see sex differently than Positives do. And we are not going to change their minds till we understand them.

(This is the first in a series of posts on “Sex and Significance”, which will explore the debate between what I have here called Significants and Positives.)

Image: Nineteenth century newspaper advertisement, source needed.

Against Sexual Solutionism


I have just started reading the fascinating new book by Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here. The book is a critique specifically of internet utopianism – the belief that technology alone is going to create a perfect world – but he interprets it as a symptom of a broader mindset, which he calls solutionism. Solutionism sees the world as a set of puzzles to which there must be a solution, rather than a set of problems we have to wrestle with, debate, and try to resolve in whatever imperfect and temporary way we can.

I read a lot of writing about sex: by advice columnists, psychologists, and self-proclaimed social commentators. And a lot of this writing is very good. But much of it also reveals that we have become a society of sexual solutionists.

Unlike Morozov’s internet solutionists, sexual solutionists don’t use technology to solve the puzzles they face. Instead, they use a few basic axioms, which they are confident are sufficient on their own, if adequately understood, to pretty much solve whatever tricky dilemma you face in your life. So they look impressive, let’s call them The Solutionist Axioms. They go something like this:

Be yourself. Be honest and open with people all the time, especially your partner. (Communication is SO important!) Respect other people, and treat them with respect. And don’t judge yourself or others for anything if what you’re doing doesn’t immediately harm another person.

Find an advice column at random, and find a question dealing with some sexual problem. (Don’t worry, every advice column, even if it isn’t specifically devoted to sex advice, has at least one sex-related question.) And I guarantee you the discussion will be of the following form:

Q: I have this problem and it seems really complicated and I don’t know what to do.
A: Cheer up, it’s not that complicated! [Insert one of the Solutionist Axioms here.]

Sexual solutionists believe that once you strip away all of our hang-ups and misunderstandings, and get past all the people with bad intentions, our sexual problems can be solved pretty easily.

They’re wrong.

I know they’re wrong because people are unhappy. Not everyone is, obviously, but lots of people are, and lots of this unhappiness is directly linked to sex. If the Solutionist Axioms really were the answer, people’s unhappiness must come from the fact that they don’t actually know the Axioms. But everybody knows them! It’s not that they’re wrong. They’re right, as far as they go. But, at least on their own, they are not actually solutions to much of anything.

Sexual solutionism has the effect of making people feel like their problems SHOULD be simple, and that if they are still struggling with them, it must be their fault. It isn’t. I started this blog partly because I wanted people to see how complex many of the problems we face really are, and to show that they can’t really get solved – they can just get pondered, wrestled with, and debated, in more or less interesting and productive ways.

I suspect my anti-solutionism guarantees that I will never get a lucrative job writing an advice column. That’s okay. Philosophy has its own rewards.

Image: An early computer, the WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell), Britain’s oldest computer, at work, circa 1951.

Hey Nica Noelle, Just Call It Feminist Porn Already!


The Good for Her Feminist Porn Awards are this weekend.  The fabulous Nica Noelle, who is nominated for a million of them and whose films you should start watching immediately, has a post on the Huffington Post explaining why she is not actually, as she is often taken to be, a feminist pornographer.  Now in general artists should be free to decide how they should be described and what genre they belong to, and it is not really anyone’s place to tell them their wrong.

But I don’t care. I’m going to tell Ms Noelle she’s wrong. She’s a feminist pornographer whether she likes it or not.

In essence, Ms Noelle’s argument is this: feminism is a term describing a female-centred political movement devoted to certain specific ideals, promoting a certain conception of women’s identity and their position in society. But “feminist porn” doesn’t actually make any kind of political statement, the people who make it may not believe in all of those ideals, and its audience is not predominantly or even primarily women. Therefore the term is a misnomer.

If we take the term literally, that may be true. But should we? The term feminist porn has become an easy shorthand. It may be a little hard to define what it is. Tristan Taormino defines it as porn that’s produced a certain way. But the average viewer doesn’t know anything about how a particular film is made, and anyway a porn film could be degrading in its content and still treat the performers well and have great snacks. I would suggest that for most people, the term means something like “porn that features real sex and doesn’t degrade women”. And if most people who hear the term know what it refers to, more or less, then it is a helpful term of classification, quite apart from what a literal analysis of the words themselves might suggest.

I see it as sort of like “alternative rock”. When I was a kid, that term meant something distinct — music that was too hard, too rough to get played on the radio, and which it was assumed no one besides a few pothead punks like me and my friends would listen to. Now it basically means any music that isn’t churned out by the soulless corporate hit machine. I have satellite radio and there are two hundred channels. The programmers need an easy way of telling me what station to listen to. Bands always complain about being classified — I’ve read a million interviews where some band will complain how much they hate being categorised. But in a world of a zillion albums there needs to be a quick way of saying: “If you like this music, you will probably also like this…” So the music I like gets called “alternative”, even though, in a world of rap, dance, folk, etc, it isn’t really an alternative to anything.

The term feminism is also one I, like a lot of people, attach positive connotations to. Not everyone does – an issue that is too complicated to get into here. (I think most of the things people think they hate about feminists are just things that the anti-feminists have managed to associate feminism with. But never mind.) The point is, the people who don’t like the term are probably going to mostly be the people who will hate feminist pornography. So the term is annoying exactly the right people. And given the term’s mostly-positive connotations, “feminist porn” is sort of like Corinthian leather. There isn’t any actual leather made in Corinth – it’s made in Newark – but Chrysler invented the term to make people want to buy the cars that used it.

In short, it’s a brand. But it’s a good brand, that Ms Noelle would have had to pay a marketing firm a lot of money to create and associate with her work. So my advice (which she didn’t ask for) is: embrace it. And of course good luck at the awards. She will probably clean up.

Image: A still from His Mother’s Lover (2012), a film by Nica Noelle

Legal phrase of the year

Amid all the hype about gay marriage, people may not have noticed McDonald v Moose, which came down March 12, in which the Fourth Circuit ruled that Virginia’s anti-sodomy provision “facially violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Well okay then.

Love Drugs: Can Ecstasy Save Your Marriage?


The group of ethicists working at Oxford – Brian D. Earp, Anders Sandberg and Julian Savulescu – has attracted considerable media attention for its work on “love drugs”, which is to say drugs that can either bond us more closely to our partners, or make us fall out of love with someone we wish we were not in love with. (In this post, I’m going to focus on the former sort.) Their published papers on the subject can be accessed here.

The science is probably not far off. We already have various drugs that will do this in a fairly roughshod way. MDMA makes people, um, extremely affectionate, and there is evidence to suggest that it may help people deal with emotional issues when it is used in a therapeutic context. We would need more trials, and a better long-term safety profile, before we could endorse its use, but its known effects are at least enough to suggest the basic physiological principle, that drugs can promote emotional bonding, is not outlandish. And a fascinating experiment with prairie voles suggests that they can be turned monogamous or non-monogamous merely through the manipulation of oxytocin and vasopressin levels in their brains.

So assuming such drugs can be developed, and we believe them to be as safe as any other prescription drug – are they a good idea?

I think they are. The fact is, people are unhappy and confused in their relationships. Divorce rates are high, infidelity is common, and while almost everyone who is single says they are looking for a long-term relationship, people in those relationships report levels of satisfaction that are in fact quite low. There are lots of reasons for this. Many people just make bad decisions about whom to pair up with, or have standards that are unreasonably high. But there is a case to be made (which Professors Earp and his co-authors make quite eloquently) that we are simply not programmed by biology to be happy in lifetime monogamous relationships. The different stages of our evolution have left us with different love systems in our brain – one that makes us lust after people, one that makes us fall head over heals for them, and one that binds us to them in a lasting way. Sometimes, these systems work together. Very often they don’t.

It is very easy for people who are not having relationship problems to talk about authenticity and the benefits of suffering. Once upon a time people used to talk about the benefits of physical suffering. Now we find this cruel. We have a general commitment as a society to helping people alleviate suffering when we can. The principle should apply in the emotional realm as well. It would be perverse to deny people a potential tool to help them deal with pain simply because we think they should suffer for the sake of authenticity.

One of the first objections always raised to love drugs is that they risk creating a “Brave New World” of medicated zombies programmed for superficial happiness rather than actual experience. But the use of love drugs would be intended for cases where people actually wanted to have a happy, stable relationship, but found themselves unable to do so. True freedom is arguably the power to choose your own ends plus the ability to achieve those ends. If someone sets as her end a stable, monogamous relationship, and the drugs help her achieve that, they would be a tool to promote freedom rather than a threat to it.

As I have said, there is little good data on the use of MDMA in a therapeutic setting. But the data that exists suggest that long-term use might not be necessary. Periodic administration within a controlled therapeutic setting might well produce the kinds of break-throughs that relationship counsellors struggle for years to achieve.

There is arguably an alternative solution to love drugs, one that would make them unnecessary, but which never gets seriously talked about. If the problem is indeed rooted in conflicts between our desire system and our attachment system, we could conceivably deal with these conflicts in a different way, merely by loosening our strictures on sexual fidelity within monogamous relationships. In many cases it is not spending your life with someone that causes the problem, it is the sexual exclusivity that this is supposed to entail. Medication may be a way of avoiding a deeper conversation about modern values, and about whether they make sense in today’s world — one where we can protect ourselves against STDs and unwanted pregnancy, where technology widens the temptations we face, and where increasing lifespans make lifetime sexual fidelity even more daunting. Maybe one day we’ll be prepared to have that conversation, and we can put the drugs away.

Image: Evelyn de Morgan, “The Love Potion” (1903)

PornHarmony: Is It Okay for People to Just Want to F*** Themselves?

The folks over at SexMD have just released a terrific infographic that lists the top ten most common terms used by people when searching for porn, broken down by country. Being a sex-data geek, I eagerly dug into the results, fully expecting to be shocked by people’s sick, twisted predilections and preparing to launch into wild, unfounded speculation about what they reveal about our various national characters. As it happened, I was shocked, but not in the way I expected. Okay, I did learn about some new sex things. (Can someone from the Ukraine explain to me what a gay raincoat is? It’s your top search!) But mostly what I learned is that people are really, really into themselves.

I started my analysis with Brazil because – well, it’s Brazil, and we all want to know what it takes to turn on a Brazilian. And the best way to do it, it turns out, is to be a Brazilian.

As you see, six of the ten top Brazilian search terms make some reference to Brazil. And it turns out that the Brazilians are not unusual. In just about every country for which data was given, national or ethnic self-references — Norwegians searching for Norwegians, Brits for Brits, et cetera – dominated the list. At the bottom of this post, I have compiled an overview of the countries for which data is provided, with the place of national (or in certain cases ethnic) self-references in their top tens. For another dramatic example, let’s take China. Every single item on its list made some reference to an Asian nationality (with Japan actually the most popular). For the Chinese, apparently, nothing turns them on except Asian nationality and ethnicity.

Ghana, Kenya and South Africa are the only countries outside North America where racial or national self-references don’t rank at all (though “ebony” ranks first in Ghana). There are no self-references in the lists for the US and Canada. I can see two possible explanations for this. One is that we really are the sort of multicultural societies most of want us to be. The other is that white North Americans are what you get when you search a porn site for anything, unless you specify otherwise. Self-references are unnecessary. Both explanations may be partly correct, though I suspect the second factor is the more salient.

Okay, so people are into themselves. So what? I have tried to make the case elsewhere that our desires can be morally significant. They reveal attitudes that we may have reason to reflect on, and possibly correct. Whenever I try to make this case, people always react very negatively. They insist that it’s nobody’s business whom we are attracted to, and we cannot control it anyway. I still think it is, and we can. But, suggestive as this porn data is, I am not going to make the case that people are actually racist or evil for being so damn into their own kind. Discriminating in porn searches is not like discriminating for jobs or invading other countries. However, I do think at the very least we may have stumbled upon a teachable moment.

In the interest of promoting greater fellowship among all humankind, I want to make a suggestion: today sometime, let’s all try watching porn featuring people different from ourselves. Search for a Brazilian, or a Kazakh, or a Finn. You might just like what you see.

THE RANKINGS (Numbers refer to place of national or ethnic self-references in the top ten most searched terms)

Argentina: 1-3
Australia: 1
Belgium: 1 (French) and 9 (Dutch)
Cambodia: 2, 3 and 6
Chile: 2, 5
China: 2, 3, and 9
Columbia: 1-4, and 7
Egypt: 1 and 2 (Arab), 4 and 7 (Egypt)
Finland: 5 and 6
France: 1, 3 and 5
Germany: 1, 2 and 5
Greece: 1-3
India: 1, 3, 4, 6 and 9
Indonesia: 1 and 2
Iran: 7
Iraq: 1, 2 and 8 (Arab)
Israel: 2 and 4
Italy: 1, 4 and 8
Japan: 1-5, 8 and 10
Kazakhstan: 1 (Russian — a near-majority of Kazakhs are ethnically Russian), 6 (Kazakh)
Libya: 2 (Arab)
Morocco: 1 and 6 (Arab)
Nigeria: 1
Norway: 1, 2 and 5 (Swedish is 8 )
Pakistan: 2 and 3 (Pakistan), 1 and 4 (India)
Palestine: 2, 5 and 10 (Arab)
Peru: 1, 9
Philippines: 1-4, 7 and 8
Poland: 1-3
Russia: 1, 4, 9 and 10
Spain: 2
Sweden: 1 and 5
Thailand: 1, 3 and 7
Turkey: 1,4 and 9
UK: 1
Ukraine: Ukraine isn’t mentioned, though Russia ranks 2 (many Ukrainians are ethnic Russians)
Vietnam: 1

[This post was amended on March 13 after Daniel Schipper explained to me how to actually use the infographic and thereby get the data for North America.]

Image: John William Waterhouse, “Echo and Narcissus” (1903)

Through the Keyhole: Why It’s Immoral to Expect to Read your Partner’s Texts

The new survey of Singles in America is out.  There are lots of interesting stats. One that jumped out at me was this: 77% of women and 53% of men wouldn’t date someone who insisted on keeping their text messages private.

My analysis, as a professional ethicist, is this: Holy crap.

Behind this statistic is, I think, something like an emerging norm. I’ll call it the Norm of Transparency. It says that in a healthy relationship, your partner should be able to demand complete digital transparency. Someone who keeps texts a secret is up to something, and it’s bad for the relationship. As one blogger put it: “if he’s hiding his phone, there’s a problem!”

If it’s true this is emerging as a more-or-less universal expectation when dating someone – one of the study’s authors commented: “If he won’t let you look through his cellphone, that’s a deal breaker” – how should we feel? Is that sort of complete transparency a desirable ideal in relationships – or, on the contrary, is it actually unethical? The alternative is a belief that we all have a right to a zone of privacy in relationships, and that we are better off if we protect this zone, and don’t expect our partner to give it up.

We can always say: people can lay down the terms of their relationships how they want. If someone wants to read your texts and you don’t want them to, don’t date them. However, relationships are complex negotiations, shaped by social norms. We all put up with things that we might prefer not to, because we genuinely want to be with someone. And most of us are not over-run with wonderful, attractive people who want to be in relationships with us. If over two thirds of the people we meet expect to be able to read our texts, most of us are not going to feel able to say, “Well I’ll just find someone from the remaining tercile who doesn’t.” Further, even if a couple decides to negotiate such things openly, the prevailing norm (total transparency should be part of a healthy relationship) puts one party at a bargaining disadvantage. She is faced with the charge: “I want us to be open and honest with each other. You obviously don’t.” Most importantly, if we as moral reasoners have genuine reasons for believe a particular social norm, however widespread, is unethical, we have a responsibility to try to challenge the norm.

Is the Norm of Transparency unethical? I think it is, for several reasons.

A. It has an unethical motive. Whether people admit it or not, we all know perfectly well what the motive is: to make cheating harder. That is bad for a couple of reasons. First of all, we should want our partners to remain faithful to us out of a genuine desire to do so, rather than a fear of getting caught. Second, it is inherently hypocritical. The argument, inasmuch as it can be formulated as rational, goes like this: “If you trust me, you’ll let me see everything. Why? Because I don’t trust you.”

B. It will lead to a lot of bad decisions. If we think we should have to share our texts, it’s only logical that we should share email and social media messages. And perhaps share passwords. And this is happening. A Pew survey of teenage girls found that forty percent of them share their email and social-network passwords with their boyfriends. (Here is a New York Times write-up on the survey.) My very unscientific survey of some of my students revealed that they ALL do it. If young people fail to see the value in privacy, it’s not hard to imagine the bad outcomes that will inevitably result.

C. Finally, I think the Norm of Transparency is unethical because privacy in a relationship is inherently valuable. First of all, it is necessary for a certain kind of friendship. There is a special bond of friendship that comes from knowing that the things you share with your friend will not be passed on to anyone else. It establishes a kind of trust that is every bit as valuable as the bond of trust we have with our partners. I have some friends who I know share everything with their partners, and would let them read texts or emails. That’s fine, but I have a very different kind of friendship with them than with the people I know will keep my secrets. If everyone I knew subscribed to the Norm of Transparency, a certain kind of friendship would totally disappear from my life. And that would be sad. If it disappeared from society, we would be worse for it.

Second, it is just a mistake to think there is something automatically wrong with keeping secrets from our partner. There are lots of secrets that aren’t bad, they’re just — secret. Maybe you got a bad performance evaluation at work. Or you’re insecure about your weight, or your sexual performance. Or you hate your partner’s best friend. Sure, you may want to talk to your partner about things like that. But you may not. The point is, you shouldn’t have to. There are lots of reasons to have secrets in relationships. You may want your partner to believe that you are respected by your boss, or confidant about your body. You may prefer to tell things like that to a friend. You may want to talk to someone about the relationship itself.

One response would be: if you want to talk about things like that, do it in person. That may not be possible – friends often live away, or are hard to track down. But in any case, why make it more difficult? We can instead say that we should recognise the value of zones of privacy in our relationships, and not pressure people to give them up.

Cover image: Still from Guy Maddin, Keyhole (2011)

Why It’s Time to Stop Writing about Bullshit Social Trends

The blowjob is dead! Horrible as it is to contemplate, people have entirely abandoned fellatio. So Geoff Dyer of Esquire Magazine informs us.

When you do research on sex, you end up reading, in addition to academic studies, a lot of social commentary in popular media and on websites. A lot of this latter is dedicated to identifying new social trends. And the vast majority of this writing is, to put it frankly, complete and utter bullshit. We need good writing about social trends, especially when it comes to sex. Society’s attitudes towards sex have changed a lot in the last half century, and they are continuing to do so. This matters. But getting an accurate read on how this is happening is hard work, and for some reason magazine and newspaper editors hold their “trend” writers to a much lower standard than they do their actual reporters.

Since social trend writers, and their editors, are clearly having trouble figuring out how to do their jobs, I would like to propose a few simple rules that I think will help.

Neil’s Rules for Writing about Social Trends.

1. Have data.

Most social trends articles fall into the category of “stuff the writer heard people talking about when he or she was at a cocktail party somewhere in Manhattan the night before”. Brilliant social scientists often have an uncanny ability to see in the world around them important social facts other people would miss. But, and this is important, people like that get out, look at the world, and talk to people outside their own social group. And they generally don’t live in Manhattan. Oh, and they then go out and get data before they open their mouths.

There is a corollary to this rule, which is: If the data contradicts you, you’re wrong. As it happens this week the CDC released a fascinating new report, “Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States”, with lots of actual data for any social trend author who bothered to read it. And it shows that, at least between 2002 and 2008, there was no dramatic decline in the amount of fellatio being done in the United States. Maybe the last four years have brought a collapse. But I doubt it. I guess we’ll see in the next report. Here’s another example. I read a New York Times article once about how the attitudes of teen-age women were being shaped by Sex in the City. The author admitted that the show’s ratings among teen-age girls were actually very, very low. But all her friends’ daughters were watching it, so – well, so there. Which brings us to…

2. Your friends are not data.

Geoff Dyer, in his blowjob article, writes: “I recently undertook a small survey of some more mature male friends, and the results, while not unanimous, were overwhelming.” Where to even begin? Statisticians have ways of calculating exact margins of error down to a tenth of a percentage point. But they don’t generally do this with surveys of “a few friends”. And the reason is, they don’t have to. Such surveys are totally and completely useless.

Again, this seems to be a particular problem if you live in New York City. Carrie Bradshaw says in one episode that people who don’t live in New York are in some sense kidding. I don’t know if New Yorkers really believe this — I’d need data — but it does seem to be true that social trend writers tend to think that the people they meet at cocktail parties really are representative of society at large. If people in Ohio or Iowa or Idaho (and yes, New Yorkers, those are all different places) don’t resemble the people they meet at cocktail parties, it must be because those heartland people are behind the times.

3. TV shows are not data.

I know this will come as a shock to all the countless trend authors who have been using Lena Dunham’s new HBO series Girls as proof that that there is some crisis among women in their twenties, who are adrift and trapped in emotionally-unsatisfying relationships. For some reason, to social trend writers, who spend a lot of the time they’re not at cocktail parties watching television, tv shows, especially ones on expensive cable channels, really seem to have profound social significance. Otherwise that voice they hear in their head while they’re on the couch watching – “We spent two hundred thousand dollars on your education, and you consider this your job?” – gets very loud indeed. But here’s the problem.

If you are a social trend writer, TV shows are written by people who are a lot like you, except that some of them live in Los Angeles, and sometimes their characters will remind you of your friends. This may make it seem like they are therefore identifying a social trend. But please refer back to Rule 2. “But,” you say, “what if it’s a show that lots of people watch?” Well, lots of people watch EVERYTHING that’s on tv. (Remember when the NBC exec asks George Constanza why anybody would watch a show about nothing, and George says: “Because it’s on TV!”) I guarantee you that whatever the ratings for the premiere of Girls, they will be lower than the finale of The Sopranos. When that aired, did you write an article about how middle aged men today all run crime syndicates and end up possibly getting whacked in a diner? No, you didn’t. And PS, using the word “zeitgeist” in your article doesn’t make your trend more credible. It just annoys your readers.

4. Other writers and bloggers are not data.

I once read a New York Times article on a hot new trend: the dark memoir. There were two pieces of evidence for the trend: an article in the latest New Yorker, and a book by the film critic for the New Yorker. If someone has written something, or blogged about something, or even started a website, like The Mankini Revolution, about something, that still does NOT make it a trend, unless that person also has data. In which case, use their data. You haven’t got any further just by citing them.

All of this bad writing, besides being inherently annoying, has ethical significance. When you don’t have data, your readers end up believing or disbelieving your argument based on whether or not it confirms their own intuitions and prejudices. We have an entire network dedicated to playing to people’s prejudices. It’s called Fox, and its viewers are an abject lesson of where data-free analysis gets you. Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to describe such analysis. We need less truthiness and more truth – especially when it comes to sex. And this means paying attention to data. Even if you are a writer and live in New York City and have lots of interesting friends.

Have you read a data-free social trend piece? Email me! I’m starting a little collection.

(Incidentally, I mean “bullshit” here in its strict philosophical sense, as identified by Harry Frankfurt. Frankfurt says that bullshit is different from lying in that the writer of bullshit may or may not be writing something true. She doesn’t actually care. Her main concern is not purveying truth but, generally, conveying something about herself – her intelligence, wittiness, etc. This describes most social trend writers perfectly.)

Image: U.S. Government photo of a crowd gathered outside the New York Stock Exchange as the market collapses (1929)