The untamed yard of my childhood home was the stuff of fiction about a deserted Earth: overgrown grass high enough to tickle the knee, ivy wrapping around the deserted metal of monkey bars, the lone yellow swing hanging from the branch of a decrepit maple hollowed out by raccoons. The shed roof groaned under the weight of dirt and moss and the noxious pink flowers of Herb Robert. “There’s a whole ecosystem up there,” my dad often said.
To our left was the pretty, manicured lawn of our neighbors. Every year they threw a party, showing a kids’ movie on a blow-up screen while we sat on trimmed grass and ate squares of American cheese. I wondered why our own backyard was so messy. There are countless articles online, such as the Wall Street Journal’s, with titles like “What the State of Your Lawn Says About You.” Clearly some people judge your character based on the upkeep of some patch of land outside your house. Knowing that, I was a little embarrassed by our yard. All the same, it never would have occurred to me to call for a redistribution of gardening. Would you?
I’m writing this, of course, because of the recent column, “The Redistribution of Sex,” by the New York Times’ in-house conservative provocateur, Ross Douthat. He wrote his article barely two weeks after the tragic Toronto van attack in which a twenty-five-year-old man drove a rental van onto a crowded sidewalk, slamming into pedestrians and ultimately killing ten. By working off of a presupposition that people have a right to sex, Douthat’s article accepts and validates aspects of the same ideology that motivated the Toronto killer—thus lending them a dangerous credibility. The perpetrator was aligned with the “incel” (involuntary celibate) community, a misogynistic subculture organized around resentment of women who men regard as denying them access to sex. Incel ideology relies on the idea that women are the gatekeepers of all sex and affection and that straight men have the right to it, through coercion if necessary.
It’s wrong, but it’s not all that far off from what we accept as normal in our own lives. A guy complains about giving rides and carrying groceries for a girl and getting “friend-zoned” when he asks her out anyway. A guy visiting a girl from out of town demands to get in her bed. She tells him to sleep on the couch, but he keeps her awake with his relentless complaining until she’s too tired to
say no anymore. And so it goes.
Every day, I am thankful that there is increasing awareness about what consent is—verbal, affirmative, ongoing, enthusiastic—and why we need it. Unfortunately, in the eyes of men who subscribe to the misogynistic belief that their desire for sex with attractive women trumps women’s bodily autonomy, consent is just a weapon with its poisoned barbs pointed at lonely men. The Toronto man is not the only mass killer affiliated with the violent “incel” subculture and ideology; so, too, was the man who killed six and injured fourteen at UC Santa Barbara in 2014. In his manifesto, the UCSB murderer wrote, “Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men but never to me. I’m 22 years old, and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl.” People read this manifesto in different ways. I believe it should make us scared about how we raise young men. People like Ross Douthat implicitly turn a critical eye to the women who reject them.
In the eyes of men who subscribe to the misogynistic belief that their desire for sex with attractive women trumps women’s bodily autonomy, consent is just a weapon with its poisoned barbs pointed at lonely men.
Instead of jumping so quickly to the sex robots in Douthat’s techno-(dys?)topian future, let’s tackle how we talk about sex, men and women, and emotions. First off, Douthat’s article used the language of economics to talk about sex, as if sex were a commodity. But sex, as many on Twitter and Moira Donegan in Cosmopolitan have aptly pointed out, is not a commodity but an activity. There’s a difference between bumping nasties and a bushel of corn. Where does the confusion come from? Douthat argues that our degenerate modern society commodifies sex because of the hyper-sexualization of popular culture and the availability of sex or sex-adjacent services for sale. But the fact that you can pay for an activity doesn’t transform it into a commodity; buying or using a commodity doesn’t require the commodities’ consent, and commodities have to be fungible (assuming they’re the same grade, the bushel of corn from Place A should be equally as valuable as the bushel from Place B. I don’t know why I’m so into bushels of corn lately).
Sex isn’t fungible like that. Much of the “quality” depends on the other person. There’s a difference between sex with someone you know versus sex with someone you just met, even if those people are the same “level” of attractiveness or educational attainment or race or whatever else. Sex is only a commodity to people who don’t care at all about the people they’re having sex with. By that I don’t mean a hand-wringing “oh, they’re not sending roses on Valentine’s Day,” but “they see them as literal objects.” Objects can’t feel pain and fear and contempt, can’t get second thoughts or UTIs, but people can. If you want to have sex with people, regard them as people. That means accepting they have every right to refuse you, and you have every right to feel sad about rejection (I have!) but definitely not to kill them.
I wouldn’t kill a gardener for not wanting to touch my yard. I don’t think I would even go on Reddit and post about it, to be frank. “But gardening isn’t the same as sex, Adora! It’s tied up with people’s feelings of belongings and self-worth!” Yes, not having sex when you want to be having sex feels bad—not just because of the absence of the physical activity, but because of the presence of a social judgment. Douthat is correct on this point, but he thinks medieval concepts of purity are the best solution.
Instead, the antidote to a poisonous culture in which sexual activity is equated with worth is a more expansive vision—and frank discussion—of sexuality. In the article “Unfuckable women don’t go on killing sprees,” Lux Alptraum writes that we should “amplify the romantic loneliness stories of women, non-binary people, and queer men” to take apart the notion that only straight men experience the crushing feeling of constant rejection. I agree. Generally, we also need more stories that separate the amount of sex someone has with other people from conceptions of their value, attractiveness, success, and happiness.
Sex is only a commodity to people who don’t care at all about the people they’re having sex with. By that I don’t mean a hand-wringing “oh, they’re not sending roses on Valentine’s Day,” but “they see them as literal objects.”
Misogynistic men on Reddit may imagine themselves unmanned and deprived because to them, the absence of sex is a loss of a desired self—a self who is successful, confident, and sexual. Someone who can “pull.” Get laid. “Drown in the pussy.” But it’s imperative that young people grow up knowing the absence of sex with another person does not negate one’s gender identity, or identity as a sexual being. You can be sexual all by yourself. One of my favorite TV shows is Comedy Central’s Broad City, which has a fantastic scene of one of the protagonists putting on lipstick, hoop earrings, and a glittery bra as prep for masturbation. It’s subversive because we’re used to seeing this scene in other TV shows or movies, but always as a preparation for someone else’s arrival; the reveal that it’s all for her is electrifying.
Sex-fueled insecurities aren’t the only problem, though. Incels become angry out of the sense of being denied something that is owed to them, and there’s no reason that “something” must always be as tangible an activity as sex. So let’s be clear: women don’t owe men shit. It’s not women’s responsibility to be men’s emotional handlers, to absorb their feelings and desires at personal cost. When my guy friend says, in a room with three other guys and me in it, “I wish I could hug someone right now,” it isn’t my responsibility more than any of the men there to hug him. (I say that because I’ve felt a deep-seated guilt in that kind of situation when I don’t provide more comfort or affection, and I know many girlfriends have too.) I know guys who don’t let their guard down around other men, but the moment they’re talking to women—even women they don’t know very well—they unleash a torrent of the all the things they’ve kept bottled up. "Have you talked about these things with [insert name of your supposed best guy friend] before?" I’d ask. Time and time again, the response: "You can talk about things with girls that you just can’t talk about with guys.”
I’ve accepted this more times than I can count. But isn’t this just a surrender to the status quo? Accepting that men’s emotional and relational capacity is stunted as an unchangeable fact of life isn’t just a disservice to women. It’s an insult to all men. I’m not blaming any individual for being raised in a society that frequently fails to teach men good emotional literacy. But I do exhort parents to encourage the same emotional expression from little boys as from little girls, men to challenge each other to be better, to allow themselves to feel and express a fuller spectrum of emotions around their male friends, and to talk about hard subjects like love and loss and shame—in ways that don’t invoke the threat of violence or the language of entitlement.
This is a challenging process. Douthat thinks this world is too utopian to be realistic. I think it’s a question of education and willpower. We can push for more holistic health education at younger ages that counters unhealthy locker-room understandings of sexual activity as social attainment. We can support feminist writers and showrunners who produce media showing a broader range of healthy expressions of sexuality, including those that don’t involve other people. We can interrogate our own assumptions about what men “deserve” and what women give them, and resist the gendered breakdown of emotional labor by raising boys who know crying is OK. As they grow, we can encourage greater intimacy and honesty in their male homosocial groups.
I have fond memories of my childhood yard, un-landscaped as it was. I remember digging holes in the ground and making pottery with mud, huddling in a ditch with my friends and a blue tarp pulled over our heads in the rain while we pretended to be soldiers hiding out in a trench. The long-lasting joy of a yard, I realized, doesn’t come from the end result, from the feeling of status you may get from neighbors looking at your lush green grass or your impeccable outdoor dining furniture. It comes from folks gardening with you being there because they want to be there and not because they have to. It comes from the time you spend with your hands in the dirt and your feet in the weeds. It comes from doing work that often requires such close proximity—getting eye-level with a branch to prune, feeling a root strain against your palm as you pull—and in that closeness, feeling connected to something larger than yourself.
We know how to think about gardening. What if we thought that way about sex?
top photo by Robert Cheaib/Flickr Creative Commons
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Adora Svitak is a writer and speaker who presents around the world advocating for youth voice in education reform, feminism, and literacy. She has addressed audiences at TED, the UN Economic and Social Council's Youth Forum, and the International Literacy Association, among others. After graduating from UC Berkeley in May, she will be working in San Francisco at a child welfare-focused non-profit organization. Follow her on Twitter @adorasvadorasv and at adorasvitak.com.