Friday, May 10, 2013

A little light culture: What is normal?

Here is a sentence to ponder:
In women, narcissism manifests itself as a greater libido, and in men, a lesser one.
That sentence makes a claim about what abnormal looks like but, far more importantly, it also tells you how you should behave if you want others to regard you as "normal". It's one of those dogmatic assertions that feels like it must be true. Stated starkly like that, it feels counter-intuitive. The Last Psychiatrist, who made the claim, reinforces that sense by immediately going on to say, "You might think this is backwards, but it isn't." Well, now it feels brave to embrace the claim so you do.

But take a step back notice how utterly conventional and repressive the sexual morality behind the statement is.  It tells women who want a lot of sex that they are narcissists.  TLP has taken an old, old stereotype and dressed it up to make it feel like it's a challenging claim but it actually plays to your deepest prejudices on the matter.

Like most stereotypes, it is rooted in some truth. Does anyone think that the woman obsessed with duty and service has a great sex life? And look how it plays out in advertising. If you want to make a woman look like she is the sort who gets a lot of sex, you paint her as bathing in luxury with a look of pure self-indulgence on her face. And that's not crazy. That's what women on the way to orgasm look like and, much more importantly, if she doesn't get that look on her face, she isn't going to come.

But forget about women for a moment and think about men thinking about women. There is a long history of portraying men who pursue women with a strong interest in sex as selfish men who neglect their duties and responsibilities to the community. Think of Paris and Helen of Troy. That narrative isn't meant to discourage women from being beautiful and sexually desirable like Helen of Troy. Quite the opposite. The point of the narrative is keep your hands off the other man's wife. Think about Dido, the queen of Carthage. What is the behaviour that story was meant to reinforce? That a man's duty and destiny were more important than the attractions of young widows. For better or for worse, our society doesn't really worry about sex-starved women but instead worries about about men pursuing them. (Notice, by the way, how bizarre it is that men are encouraged to seek adventure in foreign lands but not women next door. Well, bizarre until you think how damaging the second option is to the local social order. That tells you that it isn't really a moral issue but a political one.)

Let's look at the flipside for a second. Why does TLP insist the narcissistic man has a low libido?
Well, the problem with his libido isn't how hot she is.   He's a narcissist: the problem is [sic, I think he means "with"] his libido is that it depends on how hot he is.

It's what women used to go through.  He looks in the mirror, sees a gut-- he doesn't feel sexy, he can't imagine she would find him sexy, so the libido falls.
The internal logic in that narrative is airtight. But step outside it for a second and you can see the problem. For that is a credible narrative for the paunchy narcissist but what about the narcissist who is slim, muscular, good looking and well-hung? He is hot so ... so no problem. Right?

And flip it around and imagine the guy who isn't limited by his own lack of hotness. He's short, fat and bald but it doesn't bother him because all that matters to him is his enjoyment of his partner. This guy also sounds untroubled. What he doesn't sound like is the opposite of narcissism.

And what's the point of telling men that narcissists have low libido? It's to shame them into not being narcissists because no man wants to admit he has a low libido.  Yeah, that will work.

Gentleman, put your hands together for the sex-starved wife

TLP's claim came up at the start of a discussion about the a book called The Sex Starved Wife. Someone wrote a book about it, Time did a cover story on it and TLP commented on it. The fascinating thing is that neither Time nor TLP questioned the book. They simply took it for granted that the phenomena was real.

And that is the first question to ask: is there a real issue hiding behind this? I'm sure there are sex-starved wives but that isn't the issue. The book is only interesting if this is a new phenomena. Then you can blame men, or porn, or feminism or our work-obsessed culture. If it has always been the case that some women have wanted more sex than their husbands were able or willing to give them, you can't do that. It isn't enough that this book be a useful guide to the small but steady percentage of women who, in every generation since the flood, have had stronger sex drives than the man they married. No, we need a new (and worrisome!) social trend.

That's why TLP needs to insist that narcissistic men have a lower libido. It's a rare slip on his part, he is usually very perceptive about these things.

Let's go back a few steps and we can see how this works out.
  1. There is no evidence that there is a growing number of sex-starved wives out there. The book is the excuse for thinking this without evidence.
  2. There is lots of evidence that there are sex-starved marriages, particularly couples where the woman works full time. 
  3. But it has to be the man's fault. That is a consistent theme with TLP. When sex goes bad, it's because the man is a narcissist. (Someone in the comments to a post a while ago argued that this is proof that TLP is a woman. I'd argue the opposite. TLP is driven by the sorts of sexual stereotypes typical of men not women.)
Here's another narrative for your consideration. Sex reduced sharply in Joe and Teresa's marriage. She even buys herself a copy of The Sex-starved Wife. She keeps the book hidden in her car because she doesn't want Joe to see it and be hurt. Joe, meanwhile, has a substantial collection of porn, most of which is based around lonely, horny wives whose husbands don't or can't satisfy them. He masturbates five times a day to this stuff. He's even heard of The Sex-starved Wife because it comes up a lot in Internet discussion groups where he and like-minded guys share fantasies about lonely, horny wives whose husbands don't or can't satisfy them.

I just made that up but can you see the problem? Joe and Teresa don't have marital problems because they have a lousy sex life. It would be closer to the truth to say they have a lousy sex life because they have lost any real marital connection but that isn't quite right either. Why isn't it quite right? Because sex is the most important way husbands and wives have to connect.

And here I quote my favourite bit of advice from the Iron Duke, "It seems to me that you've gotten yourself into a dashed difficult situation and now you must work dashed hard to get out of it." Joe needs to spend a whole lot more time and effort pursuing Teresa and Teresa needs to put a whole lot more time and effort into sexually enticing Joe*.

Okay, but what's the point? Well, the point is that normal has disappeared as a consideration. Did you notice that? TLP starts with the unspoken assumption that something abnormal is happening and that is what needs to be explained. But the more we think about the problem in terms of individual couples, the more "normal" disappears. It gets replaced with what they want and what they have to do to get it.

And that should have occurred to TLP because to invoke notions of "normal" is to  invoke shame. If you want to manipulate a narcissist, you use shame to get what you want because narcissists don't feel guilt, they only feel shame. If you think we live in a narcissistic culture (and we do) suggesting that something out of normal is happening with the sex lives of married couples is a great way to get Time to do a cover story on your shoddy self-help book. It isn't, however, a very good way to shake people out of narcissistic behaviour patterns. It will have the exact opposite effect.

* Notice, before you condemn me for sexism, that we don't exactly live in a society where women are under less pressure to be sexually enticing than has been the case in the past. If anything, the exact opposite is the case. What has changed is that it is no longer acceptable to suggest that a woman make this effort for a particular man. That is held to be oppressive. If a woman wants to be beautiful and sexually enticing, she is encouraged to do so "for herself"; she is encouraged to do so in order to feel more confident and better about herself. In fact, she actually does so because she is under tremendous competitive forces and peer pressure from other women. (All of which is narcissistic.)


  1. I don't have to tell you how pervasive political considerations are in the mental health--lets call it as it is--industry. The goal is not only the advancement of an agenda (by pathologizing certain things like the example you illustrate) , but also to maintain a perpetual flow of clients with real or imagined problems. And this is all done in the name of science. I can say this because I work in the field, and I see it first-hand.

  2. TLP is a Catholic couple.

    1. That's a fascinating suggestion. How did you arrive at it?

    2. There was a funeral post in which it is clear one or both is a lapsed Catholic (and which is also one of the few posts that appear to be written by two people), and as for the couple thing, it's something that became more obvious over time as the rum schtick was dropped. Maybe it started out as just the husband, but now they definitely both write posts. The most recent have alternated. Compare and contrast the old SSI posts with the most recent one.

    3. That's fascinating. I can see how it is a reasonable surmise that TLP is in a close relationship with a Catholic based on the Funeral post. Not sure I see the changing style. The German quote at the top of TLP is from Ludwig Wittgenstein and if there is one consistent thing about TLP it is that he writes in a style that is very heavily influenced by Wittgenstein. Notice, for example, that he writes as if responding to the objections of an offstage interlocutor whose objections we can't here. That's a pure Wittgenstein touch.

      Now it is possible that there are two of them and they are both equally influenced by Wittgenstein but ...

  3. The goal isn't to make people well, its to keep them coming back. What you cite above is how they do that.