The Horror of the Ambiguous Years

Matthew Yglesias excerpts what he considers an interesting point from David Brooks’s latest column (“Why I Read David Brooks,” 10 July 2007″; The New Lone Rangers,” The New York Times, 10 July 2007).

Now young people face a social frontier of their own. They hit puberty around 13 and many don’t get married until they’re past 30. That’s two decades of coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around. This period isn’t a transition anymore. It’s a sprawling life stage, and nobody knows the rules.

It’s an interesting point — and one that I first encountered, in a much more snarkie form in Dan Savage’s book, The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family:

Think about the way many straight people live today. After college, straight men and women move to the big city. Their first orders of business are landing good jobs and finding cool apartments. Then the hunt for sex begins. Most young straights aren’t interested in anything serious, so they avoid dating and look for “friends with benefits,” or they just “hook up,” a.k.a. engage in no-strings-attached sex with anonymous or nearly anonymous partners. Some want to have relationships, but find it hard to make a commitment, so they engage in what’s known as “serial monogamy,” i.e., they have a series of sexually exclusive, short-term relationships. When they’re not having sex, they’re going to gyms, drinking, and dancing. And since they don’t have kids, these young, hip, urban straight people have lots of disposable income to spend on art, travel, clothes, restaurants, booze and other recreational drugs.

And do you know what all of that hooking up, drinking, and partying used to be called? “The Gay Lifestyle.” Substitute “trick” for “hook-up,” and “fuck buddies” for “friends with benefits,” and “unstable relationships” for “serial monogamy,” and straight people all over the United States are living the Gay Lifestyle, circa 1978. The only difference is that social conservatives don’t condemn straights for being hedonists or attempt to legislate against the straight version of the Gay Lifestyle. (pp. 147-148)

It’s strange that Mr. Savage would make this last point since he has been so vociferous about the ambition and breadth of right-wing anti-sex activities and their extension to include straight sexuality as well (e.g. the “Straight Rights Updates” at the end of the following Savage Love columns: “Worry Warts,” 19 May 2005; “Stepdad Seeking,” 10 November 2005; “Ford Puff,” 15 December 2005; “Downers,” 23 March 2006). But it would seem that at least the public face of right-wing anti-heterosexual sex is not demagoguery so much as sentimentality and weepy attempts to talk youngsters out of their errant ways. And this brings me back to David Brooks.

The problem with Mr. Brooks’s social commentary is that he is an interesting, observant, sensitive man who happens to have his intellect polluted by an ideology to which he clings too insistently. He has a way of starting with a very interesting social observation, chasing it about a quarter the way down the path of analysis, but before he can unpack the phenomena in all its complexity, he then ever so gingerly hammers it into the standard right-wing social categories, at which point analysis dies.

I can’t help but gag myself with a spoon every time a read one of these wilting flower articles by David Brooks or Leon Kass or Harvey Mansfield. Will young women be permanently emotionally scarred by their ordeal with an ambiguous social situation? How can they possibly recover from a few “lost years”? Will young women be able to endure the trial of uncertainty about the future? While right-wing social intellectuals put the back of their wrist to their forehead and look to the sky over these burning questions, others might see these situations as vital growth experiences. Would enduring a little disappointment kill a person? Who doesn’t have to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty in numerous aspects of their lives?

But the sexual ideal of these men is to be an emotional rock to a woman who sits at a lower station, folds her legs gently to the side and looks up admiringly at hubby. And they are of the opinion that their sexual ideal should be ours too.