Friday, December 2

20 is the new 60?

I've been steaming over NRO columnist John Derbyshire's recent (now infamous) comments regarding women's sexual attractiveness peaking at 20, but I haven't much had the time to sit down and hash out a response that hasn't already been offered by quicker, more insightful writers than I.

In full, he wrote:

Jennifer's bristols. Did I buy, or browse, a copy of the November 17 GQ, in order to get a look at Jennifer Aniston's bristols?** No, I didn't. While I have no doubt that Ms. Aniston is a paragon of charm, wit, and intelligence, she is also 36 years old. Even with the strenuous body-hardening exercise routines now compulsory for movie stars, at age 36 the forces of nature have won out over the view-worthiness of the unsupported female bust.

It is, in fact, a sad truth about human life that beyond our salad days, very few of us are interesting to look at in the buff. Added to that sadness is the very unfair truth that a woman's salad days are shorter than a man's — really, in this precise context, only from about 15 to 20. The Nautilus and the treadmill can add a half decade or so, but by 36 the bloom is definitely off the rose. Very few of us, however, can face up to this fact honestly, and I am sure this diary item will generate more angry e-mails of protest than everything else I have written this month.

** Bristols. Cockney rhyming slang. There is a well-known soccer team in England named Bristol City.


Derbyshire has been skewered all over the blogosphere, and rightly so. Tapped, Pandagon, and Feministe have all poked fun at Derbyshire's awkward and laughable confessions.

But Hugo Schwyzer's response in particular is excellent on this issue. It gets at the most important considerations in the matter: the false justification floating around that sexual interest in teens is purely biological and cannot be helped.

From Hugo:

I'm not going to dispute that many men — including those of Derbyshire's age (he's in his forties) — are sexually attracted to adolescent girls. What I will dispute is that that is purely a function of biology. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes little sense. Most of the pornography in the "barely legal" genre seems to emphasize that "their girls" are barely developed. It's not as if these young women have the wide hips that symbolize fertility! Furthermore, as plenty of other commenters have pointed out, our cultural obsession with adolescent girls comes along with a fetishization of hairlessness. More and more young women, inspired by porn, are "going Brazilian" (removing all pubic hair, sometimes permanently). Folks, hairlessness has zero connection to reproductivity; indeed, it symbolized lack of maturity, girlishness, childhood.

The contemporary male fascination with the pubescent and the hairless is not defensible on evolutionary grounds. It's all too obviously, as I've pointed out in my many prior posts about older men and younger women, about power. Men who are threatened by adult women with adult needs, adult desires, and adult voices will invariably direct their sexual energy towards the young, the vulnerable, the "green", the safe. The obsession with the still-developing adolescent (remember, Derbyshire includes fifteen year-olds) is about what Barbara Ehrenreich calls the male "flight from responsibility." What is appealing about the young and the virginal is not firm flesh, it's a fragile and still-unformed sense of self that an older man imagines he can mold. The virginal and the young are "unspoiled", not yet "bitter" from bad experiences with men. Older men also eroticize youth because they long to be the first -- and thus safe from unflattering comparisons to a woman's previous lovers. The obsession with virginity and youth is inextricably linked not only to fear of adult women and the challenges they offer, but also to a profound insecurity.


I would just add that I'm not sure you can argue this is a contemporary fascination, though we may be more aware of it than before. I don't have the kind of omniscient historical grasp I'd like to, but I do know that "Lolita" entered the lexicon several decades ago, and I'm quite aware that there are all sorts of examples throughout history of youth of both sexes being fetishized and sexualized either as a dominant cultural trend (think the Greeks' man-boy "mentorship") or a culture's dark little secret (think NAMBLA).

But Hugo is right when he argues that there's no real biological foundation for these obsessions with youth as sexual object. And most of the time, people who say things like "That's just nature" or "boys will be boys" are just justifying the kind of behavior that higher mammals such as humans should be able to control, if they are in fact driven to it by DNA or instincts or alien signals from a faraway planet. It's the whole "men are dogs, live with it" brand of misandry that pulses through the discourse and is pimped by anti-feminists more than feminists, which is why I will never understand why people call us man-haters.

And how odd for feminists to be put in a position of having to argue a line that sounds very much like But older women can be objectified, too!, although that's not at all what we're trying to argue. Derbyshire is exemplifying what happens when your hatred/fear/distrust of women forces you to fetishize young girls because they aren't as complicated as women. It's still misogyny. It still discounts the worth — albeit sexual worth and viability in this case — of women, because most women will pass that "expiration date" when Derbyshire and those of his ilk will deem women used and useless, grandmotherly and de-sexed. We're reminding everyone that Derbyshire and the idiots who nod like bobbleheads at his sentiments, cozy in their giant, warm blanket of patriarchy, don't get to decide when a woman is sexually viable or not.

10 Comments:

Blogger Aunt B said...

You constantly kick ass.

And good point about Lolita, though I think it bears pointing out that Nabokov didn't intend Humbert to be a hero worthy of emulation, which the Derbyshires of the world seem to have forgotten.

Fri Dec 02, 04:27:00 PM  
Blogger TVonthefritz said...

I wonder what this idiot looks like. He probably has a small penis.

Fri Dec 02, 06:31:00 PM  
Blogger Hugo said...

Thanks for the link, Lindsey -- I need to blogroll you!

Fri Dec 02, 06:59:00 PM  
Blogger theogeo said...

Aunt B -- Aw, thanks. And you're totally right about Lolita and Humbert being a sleaze, which is why Derbyshire's admission is so freaking creepy. Doesn't he realize how icky and wrong it is to think every woman reaches her peak at 20?

Also, it's weird how the Lolita phenomenon's relevance -- or at least the perception of it -- has morphed. Now when you think "Lolita," you automatically think "jailbait" and "barely legal" and all sorts of things that are supposed to be titillating. But they're just weird and creepy. We've lost sight of the fact that Humbert is a pedophile and teenage girls should be off limits to adults.

Joey -- there's a picture on the Feministe link, but I don't care what he looks like or what size his genitals are. He's got a fucked-up notion of female sexuality. Even if he was really handsome, I would still think he was a complete moron.

Hugo -- Thanks so much for the link! I really enjoy your writing and I think your post on this topic is particularly good.

Fri Dec 02, 10:46:00 PM  
Blogger TVonthefritz said...

It's Fritz Lang, damn you!

Sat Dec 03, 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger TVonthefritz said...

Yuck! He looks like a pedophille, which proves your point. Boo-ya, bitches!

Sat Dec 03, 01:27:00 PM  
Blogger theogeo said...

Oh, right. Sorry.

Do I really have to call you that? I don't make you call me Theogeo.

Sat Dec 03, 02:09:00 PM  
Blogger TVonthefritz said...

No, you don't. I would like it if you started calling me Maleeka, though.

Sat Dec 03, 02:36:00 PM  
Blogger TVonthefritz said...

But you ruined the illusion, Lindsey Turner.

Sat Dec 03, 02:37:00 PM  
Blogger Sam Chevre said...

I don't know--was he commenting on the jailbait/barely legal/Lolita type of person, or on the standard "female beauty"? If you look at classical paintings, almost all the beautiful women (the Madonna, Athena, Diana) were clearly modeled on young women--fully mature, fully adult, but in the early years of adulthood.

Fri Dec 09, 01:03:00 PM  

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