New Paw, Who Dis?
Plus: Accounting for Sex Robots!
Hello dear readers! Happy New Year to you! It’s been a minute. Over the fall and now winter months, the hearth here at Strong Paw has grown cold. One of the dangers of writing long-form essays is that they can create a psychic and intellectual weight, where you feel obliged to say something as monumental as whatever you said in the last one, a dynamic that, if left unchecked, will prove unsustainable. I was experiencing this and it was compounded by a failed piece—I wrote most of a 10,000 word piece on something and then decided that prudence required that I not publish it—and then some mounting health challenges. When combined with my return from research leave and a full teaching load, I found it challenging to write for the newsletter.
In any case, I’ve decided that I need to change my approach to be able to continue to write here. I’d still like to write the long-form pieces you’ve enjoyed in the past, but I also want to find a way to make it a space for regular and smaller bits of writing and I’d like to sustain the momentum of readership between the pieces. With that in mind, I’m going to try something new which will, in fact, make Strong Paw more like a conventional newsletter and somewhat less like the unfolding book of essays it’s been in the past. My goal is to have shorter regular sections and to try to publish it on a more regular schedule. For now, my goal is to publish it once every two weeks. I’ll still sometimes write the long-form standalone pieces you’ve come to love, but I’m going to try to limit each issue of the regular newsletter to only one extended polemical piece. With that in mind, I present…
Accounting for Sex Robots
This semester my undergraduate seminar read Amia Srinivisan’s The Right to Sex, a book that has been widely and favorably reviewed, including by Judith Butler. Srinivisan, who also writes regularly for the London Review of Books, is a shooting star of public feminist thought, and her book deserves the praise. The titular essay, “The Right to Sex,” is a searching exploration of the politics of desire and well worth your time, and its brief engagement with an infamous Ross Douthat column, “Redistribution of Sex,” reminded me of a kind of public intellectual disposition towards sex I like to call the Sex Accountant. (To clarify, it’s Strong Paw favorite Douthat, not Srinivisan, who is the Sex Accountant.)
The Sex Accountant is someone who is intellectually aware of the centrality of sexual politics to the current moment, and therefore feels compelled to write about sex. But the Sex Accountant also has a powerful and deeply rooted aversion to sex, as both a topic of conversation and, perhaps, as an embodied experience worth thinking about. The specific contours of this aversion are tricky. Publicly, the Sex Accountant may hold that sex is sacred, and therefore that it must be protected from the vulgar poking and prodding of public scrutiny. Sex as an experience, he might maintain, must be allowed to remain a private, hidden intimacy. Perhaps, the Sex Accountant also feels shame and guilt about the topic, a host of negative affects that force him to catch the experience of sex on the tip of his tongue just as it would escape into the world.
Regardless, I’m not here to put the Sex Accountant on the couch. I’m more interested in the intellectual conundrum this produces and the modes of thought summoned to resolve it. For what happens when you must write about the thing to which you are most averse? You write around the object, tracing its contours and defining it through negation. And when it is a non-space and an absence, it also becomes a fungible abstraction and a unit of measurement. If we can think sex without any sensory or phenomenological particularity, we can also make it a number and slot it into calculations. Sex Accountants love to talk about aggregated metrics and demographics! The throbbing, meaty, sticky, stinky collision of bodies becomes just another variable in an algebra problem. It’s not that I object to talking about birth-rates and so on; it’s that Sex Accountants have a tendency to switch in the grey and distant terminology of demography when what they’re talking about is trying to get people to bump uglies, uglies that may range from awful to ethereal. Sex may be a component of reproduction and the number of children born is certainly a thing you can count, but you’d be a right fool to understand the experience of sex—what makes it good or bad—through calculation. It’s as if one of those odd hypothetical characters in Anscombe’s Intention stepped off the page. “Why do you intend to have sex with that woman?” “For England!” Just so.
One can see this on display in Douthat’s column, which is part of what Srinivisan is responding to in “The Right to Sex.” Srinivisan had her own compelling responses to it in the book, but the thing I find most striking about it, like the Robin Hanson comment Douthat expands on in the column, is that it perfectly encapsulates the Sex Accountant approach. Hanson and Douthat pondered the phenomenon of incels, men who claim to have been relegated to involuntary celibacy because they are the losers in a market of sexual affections deregulated by the sexual revolution. When everyone is free to choose who they want to fuck, these incels claim, sexually attractive men horde women, leaving options for lower status men few and far between. Following this line of thought, Douthat suggests that incels can be viewed as victims of sexual inequality and that a consistent vision of liberal sexual politics should plausibly consider programs of sexual redistribution to address it, programs that could include state-subsidized access to sex workers or even sex robots. My reading of the essay (somewhat different from Srinivisan’s) is that Douthat is actually engaging in a bit of Swiftian “modest proposal” satire. He doesn’t really think universal sex robot access is good or right. He is (too subtly) making what he thinks is a reductio ad absurdum of liberal sex politics, and the feminist sexual revolution it champions, with the implication that the wiser solution would not be a demand-side subsidy for low-status men, but a supply-side re-regulation of sex: a renewed emphasis on lifelong companionate marriage would, according to this theory, also renew incels’s chances of finding mates by reducing the number of women high-status men could horde. (For the time being, set aside that the fact that this “supply of sex” is functionally a supply of women, confirming Catharine MacKinnon’s observation that, under patriarchy, women are viewed essentially as sex itself.)
There are many problems here, but I want to focus on the category error of thinking that an act of sex—a particular experience with incommensurable qualities—can be easily treated as if it were an interchangeable quantifiable unit, a problem that haunts both Douthat’s modest and immodest proposals. In his modest proposal for sex redistribution, the incels draw as much value and satisfaction from sex with a robot as with the object of their desire. But how many robotic handjobs equals one act of human fellatio? Is anal divisible by two? Do these questions compel? Many (or even most) incels already have access to sex workers and they identify as incels in spite of that, heaping scorn on sex workers, encouraging violence against them, and the sneering at idea of patronizing them. Why? Because like the desire to which it is frequently yoked, the act of sex is not a fungible abstraction and treating it as such only leads to absurd results. Incels don’t desire sex as a general and non-specific proposition (who does?); they desire sex with a particular object under particular circumstances, and it is an object that, by their own definition, loathes them as low-status losers. Put one way, they do believe they can obtain sex, but they regard the women they think they could have sex with—unattractive and low-status they complain—as beneath them. But put another way, what they want is sex with an unobtainable woman. And here’s the rub: you cannot have sex with an unobtainable woman for, if you did, she would cease to be an unobtainable woman. For obvious reasons, this is why some incels may also gravitate towards fantasies of violent and assaultive sex, redefining their object not as “a woman with whom sex is impossible” to merely “a woman who does not want sex with me,” a woman whose wants can be disregarded and subjugated through force. Such an object is obtainable only in a space—whether virtual, fantastic, or real—in which the incel has fully rejected the basic ethical premises of liberal sexual culture: only sex which is freely chosen by all involved may be permitted.
Given that particularity, sex robots just aren’t going to cut it—indeed, that’s why they already aren’t cutting it. For we clearly already have sex robots, if, by sex robots, we mean mechanical artifacts into which a man might insert his penis and receive some stimulation. Is the claim that, for the incel, the problem is that blow up dolls lack the verisimilitude required for their satisfaction? That there is threshold that so-called “sex robot technology” must surpass, beyond which an incel will find the robot satisfactory? And, yet, it is precisely here, with passable sex robots distinguished from unsatisfactory dolls, that Douthat would have to allow exactly the qualification his analysis heretofore had rejected through the ruse of quantification: one copulation does not equal one copulation; object, context, sensation, experience—they matter.
But what of the other option Douthat implies but does not explicate, the supply-side fix through renewed emphasis on lifelong companionate marriage? A favorite line of critics of feminism, Douthat among them, is that sexual liberation, such as it is, has delivered a quantitative decrease in sex, a so-called “sex recession.” On this, the surveys are clear. People in the United States have less sex today than they did thirty years ago. Young people have less than previous generations did when they were young. And younger, lower income men, in particular, have seen the most marked decrease in sex. To the Sex Accountants this is a grievous problem, since it would suggest that supply is lagging, unable to meet demand, and this is the basic explanation of the incel phenomenon. Sexual liberation promised abundant, flourishing sex lives freed from the confines of dowdy puritanism, sexual repression, and drab marital beds, unused but for sleeping; but instead of endless orgies the sexual revolution delivered less sex, and young men, more than anyone else, suffer from the consequent sexual deprivation. But is this causal story so? Or is it merely just-so?
I do not have a great deal of interest in trying to resolve the underlying empirical question precisely because the analytic misstep is in thinking that a quantity of sex necessarily tells us very much about its quality. This is, after all, a facile evasion of the longstanding feminist criticism of the sex usually on offer in lifelong companionate marriages. Namely, feminists noted that such marriages frequently allowed men to compel sex from their wives that their wives might not have otherwise wanted nor, if left to their own devices, initiated. Methods of compulsion spanned low-level irritating sex-pesting, extractive romantic moral economies, ideological indoctrination, physical coercion, and even the legal sanctioning of so-called “marital rape.” Women needn’t have experienced the most extreme and violent versions of these methods for the knowledge of their existence to discipline some women into sexual compliance and subordination. From the perspective of that feminist critique, the question of sex’s quantity misses the point of the intervention, which was to free women from an extractive sexual economy in which their interests and perspectives were disregarded and subordinated. (I cite above a number of older texts on the issue not because feminists have failed to add anything to these texts in the intervening decades—they have, and abundantly—but to emphasize what the critique looked like during the actual period the Sex Accountants would return us to.)
What is consistent in how the Sex Accountants write about the problem is the continuity of disregard and subordination of women’s interests and perspectives. That’s to say, you needn’t buy the feminist critique above in its entirety to recognize that focusing on sex quantity is a rather elaborate way of refusing to respond to the actual criticism about quality. The question of whether women in the United States are more sexually satisfied in 2022 than they were in, say, 1972 strikes me as an interesting empirical question worth pursuing, albeit one that is tremendously difficult to rigorously assess for various methodological and conceptual reasons. But it is striking to me that the Sex Accountants have so very little to say about it. The Sex Accountant position, such as the one offered by both Douthat and Hanson above, always begins from the vantage point of the man denied sex—his wants, his needs, his unmet desires, his sexual entitlements—and it forgets that the sex that is desired is relational and experienced by more than one party: men currently denied sex who stand to benefit from the re-regulation of the sexual marketplace will still have sex with a particular someone, and that someone may not be so thrilled with the prospect, which is precisely why, status ante, the sex ain’t happening. Forging marital bonds anew, then, may produce more satisfactory orgasms for men by expanding the supply of available women. But why this would make for a remotely compelling argument to women in general, or, for that matter, to any men who actually cares about the interests and perspectives of those women, is hard to understand. If addressed to a public composed not just of aggrieved sexless men, the very phrase “redistribution of sex” become essentially unintelligible in G. E. M. Anscombe’s sense: “[His words] would be unintelligible, not because one did not know what they meant, but because one could not make out what the man meant by saying them here.”
News from the Bear Cave
Although things have been quiet here since the summer, I managed to get a few things in print. Since we last corresponded, regular co-conspirator Jan and I placed several pieces:
A review of Mark Bittman’s Animal, Vegetable, Junk that appeared in Dissent, where it was the 14th most read article of the year. (Not bad for a long review!) Here’s the nut graf:
Bittman’s diagnosis [of the food system] is incisive in many of its particulars. Few mainstream authors are as resolutely determined to hold capitalism to account for its many crimes against food and farming, and this means that Animal, Vegetable, Junk will introduce politically vital concepts and analysis to a large popular audience. That deserves praise. But as insightful as it is about the past and present, it fails to deliver a compelling vision for the future. When he flies the banner of “real” and “natural” food and family farms, by now clichés of American food writing, Bittman distracts from the most important lesson we draw from his book: that food and farming are the very substance of political action and, therefore, have been remade again and again throughout human history. The upshot of that realization is that we need not be confined by cramped and nostalgic agrarian definitions of what real food and farming are. We are free to reinvent them both, and we invariably will.
The Guardian reprinted the piece we did for Logic on cellular agriculture, re-posted on Strong Paw here, as a “Guardian Long Read” and then turned it into an audio article. Listening to people read things I’ve written makes me extremely uncomfortable, but you should feel free to listen to the entire half hour if that’s your sort of thing.
We wrote a piece for The New Republic criticizing so-called “regenerative ranching” that was named one of TNR’s 10 best articles. Here’s a giblet:
Actually making animal agriculture less ecologically disruptive would mean taking animals’ ecological value as a bedrock principle against and over their value as commodities. That means treating commodity production, not land, as “marginal”: Commodities could be extracted only if doing so didn’t disturb the ecological, social, and cultural value of the landscape. In other words, in most such systems, animals would more than likely play a minor support role for primarily plant agriculture. And that, in turn, would almost certainly mean far fewer grazers entering the commercial food system, and at a much higher price point. Point Reyes, for example, might feature free-ranging elk managed by an Indigenous best practice–driven conservation agency, not dairy cattle grazed by private ranches. This kind of truly eco-friendly meat production would produce even less meat than the current grab bag of practices loosely labeled “regenerative.”
As the elk of Point Reyes might attest, grass-fed beef and dairy are not ecologically benign. Nor are they a solution to climate change. Nor yet, in offering a more expensive alternative to industrial agriculture to those who can afford it, do they offer a clear path for reducing meat consumption society-wide. If anything, regenerative ranching lends itself either to niche locavore indulgence or large-scale corporate greenwashing, but it offers little promise for sustainable food system transformation.
Achieving more sustainable agriculture means we need to produce and eat less meat. To get there, we’ll need individuals to change their habits, but we’ll also need policy aimed specifically at reducing meat consumption through taxation, nudges toward animal-free diets, or, potentially, support for the proliferation of plant- or cell-based meat analogs. Ranchers tend to deny this, not because it is ecologically unfounded but because they are financially invested in ranching rather than regeneration.
And we ended the year by taking again to The New Republic, this time to “Abolish the [United States] Department of Agriculture” (and replace it with a Department of Food):
The USDA was designed for a United States in which a majority of people made their livelihoods, directly or indirectly, from agriculture. That country is long gone. It is replaced by one where very few people—and very few, very large corporations—control food production and distribution to the detriment of American consumers, taxpayers, and workers. If we are to have any hope of fixing what ails the American food system, we need a drastic approach: We need to abolish the USDA. In its place, we need an institution that will prioritize the public interest, including the interests of laborers and eaters, as well as public health and the environment. We need a Department of Food.
Meanwhile, I did plenty of writing on my own, though, because of the weird cycles of academic publishing, very little of it went into print this fall. The one exception to that is a shorter piece I wrote for Commonplace: a journal of early American life commemorating the 30-year anniversary of the publication of Bill Cronon’s magisterial Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. I focused on reading the book as a historian of sexuality and thinking about how it might inspire what I term a “queer environmental history”:
[T]he redaction of animal reproduction in Nature’s Metropolis—its organization and regimentation—is the process by which animal sex is re-natured and narratively ascribed to a self-sufficient heterosexual nature. Farmers need only skim the fat from an innate animal heterosexuality, and the material and ideological organization of that process falls from the purview of historical analysis. The capitalist transformation of the American West described in Nature’s Metropolis was propelled by an intensive deployment of these technologies to produce and multiply new forms of life at ever greater rates, and we must see this relationship between capital and non-human reproduction as key to the functioning of industrial capitalism in the period. Such an approach would be indebted to Nature’s Metropolis, but it would also seek to write a history Cronon that did not, a history as profound for our knowledge of sexuality as for our knowledge of the environment: that is, a queer environmental history.
Publication aside, the most significant thing I pulled off recently was this 32kg kettlebell bottoms-up get-down to get-up:
Lest you forget: my paw, it is strong.
(My kettlebell fanaticism was elaborated in an early issue here.)
Things I’ve Been Reading
Bohumil Hrabal’s All My Cats — An enormously weird and haunting memoir (or is it autofiction?) by the late Czech writer, Bohumil Hrabal. Although it canvasses some general details of his life during his reign as one of Czechoslovakia’s most acclaimed authors, it is mostly about his thorny relationship to the community of cats that lives in his country home. He loves them dearly and likes to rub them against his face. But they reproduce prolifically, and soon he finds himself swimming in cat piss with an angry wife who constantly presses him: “What are we going to do with all of these cats?” A good question, Bohumil! A series of brutal cat murder ensues, followed by an exploration of Hrabal’s intense feelings of shame, guilty, and horror.
G. E. M. Anscombe’s Intention — A classic of ordinary language philosophy about what we’re talking about when we talk about intention. Anscombe takes Aristotle (and sometimes Wittgenstein) to the woodshed… AND I AM HERE FOR IT! There will be a future post here at Strong Paw applying Anscombe’s thoughts on intention to the problem of compulsive cat murder. Is that statement a “statement of intention” or a “prediction”? You will need to read Anscombe to learn what is at stake in the distinction. Although initially off-putting in its density and to those unaccustomed to the writing style of analytic philosophy, Anscombe is an unusually droll wit, and I found it an enormously rewarding and stimulating read.
Steph Grant’s Disgust — This short memoir by the novelist and American University professor is a masterpiece of economy, so sharply written it is, at times, almost lacerating. It is also poetic, haunting, erudite, grief-stricken, and side-splittingly funny. Written as a flowing series of vignettes and echoing fragments, it is gripping, propulsive read. What is disgust and what are we to do with it? What does it do with us? Grant follows these questions through three generations—her mother, herself, and her daughter—across a number of registers: gustatory, embodied, sexual, and political disgusts all make appearances. Through all of these, Grant grapples with an intimate ambivalence: a refusal to disavow her disgust—as if she could—and a refusal to be beholden to it.
This track is the best track on the best thing I bought in vinyl in the past year. Turn your speakers up!
What’s to Come in The Strong Paw of Reason
In the next issue of The Strong Paw of Reason, I’ll be articulating some of my first principles of food politics in a polemic I’m calling I Don’t Hate Farmers. We’ll also have the first installment of a regular recurring feature, Foundations in Feminist Theory. I’m teaching the a grad course with that title for our Feminist Studies graduate certificate this semester, and I thought it would be fun to explore what we’re reading and why. Until then, have a great new year, stay safe, and thank you for reading!
Well worth the wait. Thanks!