Top Ten in 2011

Since 2005, I’ve shared my Top Ten Posts of the year each December. (Here’s 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2006.)

But I rarely post original content on this blog anymore, as so much of my work now (fortunately) appears elsewhere. So in no particular order, here are my ten favorite pieces I wrote this year. (And just FYI, here’s the one post I regret having written.)

Real Women Have… Bodies
Let’s Talk to Girls about Beauty, Too
The Cautery of Hate: on Breakups, Psychoanalysis, and the Healing Power of Rage
Men, Princess Culture, and the Sexualization of Young Girls
Spring is No Excuse for Sexual Harassment
The Male Body: Repulsive or Beautiful?
The Opposite of “Man” is “Boy,” Not “Woman”
Short Skirts Magically Turn Women into Bitches
What’s the Difference Between Privacy and Secrecy?
Some laughter with the lovemaking, please: on porn, performance, and deadly seriousness

Some laughter with the lovemaking, please: on porn, performance, and deadly seriousness

In the past two weeks, I’ve heard from three friends of mine all struggling with the same issue. Each is a woman in a monogamous relationship with a guy who uses internet pornography. None of these women are reflexively anti-porn. But each has noticed how her partner’s porn use impacts their sex life. Cassie wrote:

There are SO many more things I’ve noticed that he does during sex that are straight out of a porn. He’s asked me about threesomes before, saying he “thought it was just a normal thing that everyone does.” Hello?! Only in the porn world does everyone have a threesome everyday! In trying to explain why I was opposed to it, I asked him how he’d feel if I asked him if we could bring another man into our sex. He said I was being mean and that it was gross. =) He’s also asked me if he can pull my hair. I let him, because I knew he liked it, but it’s so . . . porn-like. Also, he thinks body hair is gross. Even on him. I personally think that body hair is normal and it should be kept nice and trimmed, but I am a woman and he is a man. We are not little kids that are supposed to have hairless genitals. I know this is a HUGE trend right now, but I just hate it and I think it’s directly linked to porn.

Part of the problem in discussing porn is that most people reflexively fall into one of two camps. Either all porn is unhealthy, invariably addictive, and exploitative of women or its harmless, healthy, and almost invariably liberating. There’s an almost deliberate refusal to make distinctions. My anti-porn friends often cannot envision a “healthy place” for visual masturbation aids; my pro-porn friends are often too dismissive of the damage that compulsive porn use can (but will not inevitably) bring.

The reality is that different kinds of porn exist, and that the conditions under which porn is produced differ. These distinctions matter. And of course, another key distinction is that not everyone will “use” porn in the same way. As with beer or chocolate, what one person can delight in without harm can become an obsession for another. Whether or not “sex addiction” exists in the same biochemical fashion that alcoholism does is beside the point — the evidence is clear that some people do use porn compulsively in a way that damages their relationships.

Both sides need to recognize two truths about how porn impacts people’s lives. One, some people genuinely find healthy pleasure in porn. Their experiences are real and valid. Two, some people develop an unhealthy relationship with porn that can wreak havoc in their sexual and romantic lives. If all of us concede these realities, we’d be a lot better off.

Cassie’s concern was echoed in Amanda Marcotte’s excellent piece at Good Men Project yesterday: What Women Don’t Tell You. Amanda is hardly in the “sex-negative” camp. But she offers this timely admonition:

Most sex in porn is about what’s good for the camera, not what’s good for the participants in it, especially the women. In fact, many things that look good in porn can keep us from having fun in real-life sex. For instance, in porn the only parts of their bodies the actors often touch are their genitals, so that the camera can get a full view of the action. But in real life, sex is more of a whole-body experience, and the genital-only thing can feel cold and masturbatory.

Of course, we know that men know this, and most would deny that they’re doing stuff because it looked good in a porn and not because it felt good in the moment. So we’d rather not bring it up when you do stuff that looks better in porn than it feels in life. We don’t want to argue over whether or not that’s what you’re doing. But when you do something you picked up in a porn that doesn’t add to the real-life pleasure, we take notice and we’re often hoping you get it out of your system so we can move on to activities that are actually fun.

Bold emphasis mine. . Continue reading

An Easter note from the sandwich son

We made a whirlwind trip up to Northern California yesterday to spend Easter with my family. Heloise, Eira, and I caught the first morning flight from LAX up to San Jose, and took the last return flight last night. In between, we spent a few happy hours on my family’s ranch on the slopes of Mission Peak.

Growing up in a secular family, we had a quartet of major holidays and a series of minor celebrations. (Among the minor celebrations, I grew up eating cherry cakes and pies on Washington’s birthday, and making nosegays to leave anonymously on neighbors’ doorsteps on May 1). The Big Four: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July. Just as Christmas always had more to do with the tree than with either the solstice or the birth of Christ, Easter has always been about fine baskets and egg hunts rather than the resurrection.

When I saw on the calendar that this year’s Easter was to be the latest since 1943 (and the second-latest day upon which it can ever fall), I felt confident we’d have lovely weather at the Ranch for my daughter’s first proper egg hunt. Last year rain fell on the Ranch and my daughter crawled around on a floor and grabbed a handful of very obvious plastic orbs. But Heloise is 27 months old now, talkative and active and agile. (The last she doesn’t get from her father.) We had been telling her about “Easter at the Ranch” all week, and she was eager. But the weather was cool and damp, and so her private hunt, accompanied by flashbulbs and many ooohs and aaahs from parents, grandmother, and cousins, took place on a porch rather than on our all-too-soaked lawns.

In the afternoon, before it was time to return to the airport and after Heloise had fallen asleep for her nap, my cousins and I played three quick croquet matches. Croquet on the Ranch bears only a passing resemblance to its genteel origins. It’s been played on the place since World War One, if not before, and I grew up watching my uncles, aunts and cousins swear and bluster their way around the course. Gopher holes make natural obstacles, and ranch rules forbid the clearing of even the largest bits of natural debris that might find their way on to the grass. I hadn’t played in a couple of years, and it was great fun. The thwack! of the mallet striking the ball, the ceaseless roisterous patter from the competitors and the sound of ice clicking against glass in the drinks all held — these were the sounds of my childhood and yesterday, they were once again the sounds of my now. It was a very fine thing.

Less than a month shy of my 44th birthday, I belong firmly to the “sandwich generation” of the American middle-aged. For those of us in that bracket, our parents are aging, increasingly frail, and dying while our own children are still very young. (While in many parts of America and the world, to be first-time parents at our ages would be unusually old, it’s not unusual in my family and in our circles. We have many friends of both sexes who’ve who’ve had their first kid on the high side of 40 and who will be eligible for Social Security before their youngest is out of high school.) Many of us in the sandwich generation can already feel our own mortality; we’re not as young and energetic as we were a decade or two ago. On the other hand, we’ve got access to both material and emotional resources we didn’t have before; it wasn’t until my late thirties that I found a very deep reservoir of patience that I had no idea previously existed.

I watched my septuagenerian mother, aunts, and cousins closely yesterday. I watched my daughter with an even more tender eye. To be in the middle generation is to know the anxiety that comes not as a single spy but in matched pairs of worry. We know that the day our parents and other older loved ones will die draws ever closer, just as we know (or pray) that a child grows steadily less dependent. We are preparing ourselves to be left, I realized yesterday, accepting that those who raised us and those whom we raise must separate from us sooner or later. It can be a frightening thought, but there is comfort in it as well.

Even secular families sometimes think about death on Easter. I thought about death and resurrection yesterday as we drove away in our rented Hyundai Tucson, waving out the window to relatives and to the place I love best on this earth. I looked from my white-haired mother, her hand raised in farewell, to my daughter, babbling happily in her car seat, to my yawning wife, anticipating a short nap. A line from Jeffers came into my head: deep love endures to the end and far past the end.

That’s right, I said under my breath, that’s right. Happy Easter.

Standing with the Sluts

This past Sunday, the world’s first “Slut Walk” took place on the chilly streets of Toronto, Canada. The official site is here. The march was organized in response to the infuriating remarks of a police constable, who told a safety workshop at a Canadian university that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” (The officer has apologized, but it’s evident that his trogolodytic view of sex and responsibility remains widely held.)

I’ve written many times in support of women’s right to wear what they want in public without fear of harassment or harm. This includes both revealing and concealing clothing; I’ve written in favor of the right to go topless in public and in opposition to bans on headscarves and burqas.

There are so many things that trouble me about the obsession with regulating women’s bodies. But as a man, I am particularly exasperated at the assumption that lies beneath the insistence on modesty: the myth that men cannot control themselves. As feminists often point out, the real “man-haters” are those who promote modest dress for women out of the belief that men lack self-control. There is nothing more contemptuous than the suggestion that those of us with penises and Y chromosomes are prisoners of our biology, liable to rape or commit infidelity at the first sign of cleavage. The myth of male weakness sells us woefully, heartbreakingly short.

I honor SlutWalk for many reasons. But I appreciate one assumption that the organizers made in particular. Though what constitutes “slutty” clothing is obviously open to debate, SlutWalkers believe in men’s capacity to do two things at once: be aroused by what we see while honoring the humanity of the woman whose body attracts our eye. The most pernicious of all lies about men is that because of our make-up, lust and empathy can’t coexist within us. If you want kind and compassionate men who will respect women’s boundaries, the myth suggests, those women will have to conceal the parts of themselves that will turn men bestial and irresponsible.

We present women with a brutal binary: hide your sexuality and be respected; show your sexuality and be slut-shamed, harassed, or worse. But if ever there were a false dichotomy, rooted in ignorance about male identity, male biology, and male potential, this is it. While none of us want to live in a culture where women are compelled to display those parts of themselves they’d like to keep private, none of us should settle for living in a society where women are compelled to conceal those parts of themselves they’d occasionally like to display.

Men rape and harass not because of biological imperative but because of cultural permission. To paraphrase George W. Bush, we treat men with the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Of course, the real price for those low expectations is paid by women, who become responsible for managing and redirecting what we refuse to expect men to manage for themselves.

As a feminist, as a man, and as a father to a daughter, I stand with the “sluts of Toronto” – and with women everywhere who demand the right to be treated with decency regardless of their attire.

Of orgasms, oxytocin, and myths of misery: UPDATED

My friend Monica sent me a link to this MSNBC story: Post-coital blues plague a third of young women. Based on a very small sample of 200 young Australians, researchers at the Queensland Institute of Technology found that 1 in 3 women had felt post-intercourse melancholy at least once, and 1 in 10 experienced it regularly.

It’s easy to point out the obvious problem with the study: the sample is very small, for instance, and the focus on intercourse to the exclusion of other forms of sexual activity is problematic. But the real impact of these studies is in how the mainstream media report them, and the danger here is that a small and relatively inconclusive project can get framed as “sex makes women sad.”

One of the cleverest techniques used by the religious right in recent years has been the deliberate co-opting of feminist language. One of the standard tropes used by many savvy social conservatives is that women have been misled by the language of feminist liberation. By downplaying women’s “natural” drive to bond monogamously with one man, by maligning women’s central role as nurturers, we feminists have (wittingly or no) led countless millions to unhappiness. Conservative theories of natural law and sexual complementarianism are depressing to read, but when one does read them, one learns that women are inclined to profound unhappiness when they pursue pleasure for its own sake rather than relationship. And by emphasizing women’s sexual, economic, and educational liberation — rather than their God-given role as wives and mothers — we have seduced women away from the source of their true fulfillment. From Kay Hymowitz to Phyllis Schlafly to Christina Hoff-Summers, a cottage industry of right-wing pundits has sprung up to drive home the point that pleasure-seeking feminism just makes women miserable.

But they don’t just drive home this message in op-eds and books. They drive it home in abstinence-only education. A student of mine told me that she was taught in a church youth group that masturbation would leave women depressed.

We were told (by a volunteer pastor who had some church-sponsored pamphlets) that when we orgasm, women’s brains release oxytocin, which is the ‘bonding hormone’. It’s meant to bond us with someone who will be with us for life. But if we orgasm by ourselves, our brains will flood us with feelings of loneliness. We were told that women who masturbate usually cry themselves to sleep. Masturbation made boys into sex addicts, my youth pastor said; it made girls clinically depressed.

I’ve asked her for a copy of the pamphlet, and she’s working on it. But I’m asking more out of curiosity than the need for proof. I’ve heard this sort of pseudo-scientific hooey before. And I wish that more young people could laugh it off for the lie it is.

The bit about lonely women masturbating in their beds and crying themselves to sleep has become a pop-culture joke; see this (work-safe) e-card and even this weird Goth video. A good friend of ours, poking fun at the cultural expectations about single women’s unhappiness, told us that she was headed home for the evening one Saturday. “Gonna watch reruns of Glee, pig out on ice cream, pull out the vibrator, and then cry myself to sleep. What single gals do these days, dontcha know?” She wasn’t serious — but she was using humor to jab at the cultural myth we have about the connection between sexuality and female melancholy,a myth reinforced by studies like this new Australian offering.

Both men and women can be sad after sex for any number of reasons. Thinking from my own experience, I’ve been sad after sex because the sex was disappointing; because I knew that I’d soon have to put my clothes on and go home and I didn’t want to leave; because I’d just had sex with someone I wasn’t supposed to and the guilt rushed in after the orgasm; because I was sleeping with someone with whom sex was the only good thing we had; because what had been intended to be make-up sex hadn’t erased the real hurt. I could go on. Lots of sexually experienced people of all genders can identify with that, I’m sure. It’s hardly a uniquely female phenomenon. Continue reading

“If I Were Thinner, I’d Have the Right to Expect More”: on perfectionism and the scarcity model

This topic came up in my Men and Masculinity course yesterday, and an earlier version of this post appeared at Healthy is the New Skinny this morning:

It’s not news that girls are feeling more pressure than ever to be perfect. As I’ve written before in my posts on the Martha Complex, this generation of teen girls is more stressed about, well, everything, than any generation of women before them.* The pressure to do well in school, the pressure to please parents and peers, and the pressure to live up to an impossible ideal of physical perfection is crushing.

Tweens and teens grow up comparing themselves to models and tv stars. Few girls feel as pretty, as sexy, as skinny as the women they see in the media. As a result, many young women conclude that happiness is something that you only get when you get to your goal weight. And even more troublingly, when it comes to relationships, lots of straight girls think that if their own bodies aren’t perfect, they have no right to expect too much from guys.

Working with high school and college-aged young women, I’ve heard the same thing more and more often in recent years. These smart and amazing young women have somehow gotten the idea that in order to be treated with respect and love, they have to be damn near perfect. One student said to me last year, “If I were fifteen pounds thinner, I think my boyfriend would stop looking at other girls.” She didn’t feel like she had the right to ask her guy to stop checking out other women in public. “You have to be gorgeous for a man to want to be with you and only you. I’m not, so I can’t expect that.”

A mentee of mine has a boyfriend who uses porn regularly and plays video games for hours. “Sometimes he’ll just forget to call or text because he’s gaming”, she says. “I’m lucky to get a few minutes alone with him a week when we’re not doing something sexual. But this is the way boys are — unless you’re like freakin’ Megan Fox, you can’t expect a guy’s complete attention.”

Another girl told me that she doesn’t feel like she can have a boyfriend – because she’s not pretty enough. She has a lot of hook-ups instead. “I’m the girl you get with for a blowjob”, she said; “I’m not the hot girl you hold hands with in public.” (For more on the connection between perfectionism and promiscuity, see Kerry Cohen’s forthcoming Dirty Little Secrets, to be published later this year.)

Words like these break my heart, because these bright and beautiful girls are blinded to their own worth. They don’t see that they have the right to demand respect; that they have the right to set good boundaries; that they have the right to pursue a real relationship (if they want one). Believing that only women who meet an unattainable standard of perfection “deserve” to be happy sets girls up to settle for second-best in one area where they should never compromise.

This perfectionism dovetails dangerously with another theme in young women’s lives: the “good guys are hard to find” narrative. This belief that reliable and loving young men are rare reinforces the pursuit of skinny, sexy, beauty: the fewer decent lads out there, the more “choice” those guys have. And even the decent ones, so the culture tells us, will make relationship decisions based on women’s appearance. For some, that means all the more reason to compete — and for others, all the more reason to opt out and “settle” for what they’ve been told is the best they can reasonably hope for.

We need to see how the pressure to be perfect — a pressure that is nearly omnipresent in young women’s lives, even the lives of those who don’t seem to be pursuing an ideal — is rooted in a false scarcity model. There won’t be enough for you, the culture says, unless you try harder. And if in your own eyes, you’re well short of that ideal, then you need to be realistic and settle gratefully for the crumbs.

Young women often tell stories about their girlfriends, whom they often describe as amazing and wonderful. “It’s so sad”, Jessica will say, “Amy doesn’t see what we all see. She’s so pretty and smart, but she keeps dating these losers. She doesn’t know her value.” Of course, half the time, Amy is saying the same thing about Jessica. Teen girls are almost invariably fonts of great wisdom for their peers — but lousy at taking their own advice to heart. The truth is, of course, even the young women who most closely match the rigid beauty standards are bitterly aware of how they “fall short of the mark”, at least in their own minds.

It’s not a stretch to point out that the “scarcity model” combines with perfectionism to let men off the hook time and again. The less girls believe they deserve, the less they’ll ask for — and the less young men need to provide. Until we ask who benefits from this cruel system, we’re not getting close to solving the problem.

*For more, check out the work of Claire Mysko on Supergirls, as well as the solid books by the aforementioned Kerry Cohen, Stephen Hinshaw, Rachel Simmons, and of course, Courtney Martin’s seminal Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters.

Feminist Coming Out Day: a brief report, and a note on the connection between sexual liberation and global justice

Happy Ash Wednesday to one and all.

We had a great turnout last night at our Feminist Coming Out Day Panel here at Pasadena City College. (If you click here and scroll down, you can see me with two of my great student organizers and speakers.) I was one of six speakers talking about feminism on a panel moderated by my wonderful colleague from the speech and rhetoric department, A.C. Panella. My fellow panelists included Myra Duran from Feminist Majority Foundation, Dinah Stephens from Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, Phoebe Brauer from Planned Parenthood Pasadena, Kathy Heintzmann, a teacher at nearby Arcadia High School who developed Women’s Lit courses on that campus, and my wonderful student Ahlam Hope Hariri, a Muslim-American feminist.

Our students worked tirelessly to put on the event, and KPFK radio taped the entire panel discussion for future broadcast. (I’ll have a link when available).

I was reminded, yet again, that we live with feminisms. There is no single code to which we all subscribe, beyond a conviction that sexual equality is worth fighting for and is a cause to which we have dedicated our lives. Oppressions intersect, as we so often say, and the fight for sexual justice is linked to other fights. It is always good to be reminded of that, particularly when you’re a middle-aged white male, tenured and cis-gendered and married and veritably dripping in unearned privilege!

I made one point last night that I always try to make. So much of my writing and teaching focuses on issues of sexuality and self-esteem, around pop culture and body image, eating disorders and perfectionism. Often, the more radically (or globally) inclined suggest that these are middle-class concerns. As one young man asked me recently, “How come you spend so much time talking about body image when we’ve got women suffering and dying in the Congo? Are eating disorders as bad as the rape epidemic going on there?”

Justice, I reminded him, is not a zero-sum game. Critiquing “princess culture” among middle-class American girls doesn’t mean that one has no interest in the plight of less fortunate women in the Congo, Afghanistan, or in undocumented migrant communities right here in Los Angeles. Furthermore, as I said last night, our personal liberation is a prerequisite for being a truly effective agent for change in the lives of others. As I learned in Twelve Step eons ago, “you can’t give away what you haven’t got.” Young women who are struggling with eating disorders often find that the disorder sucks up a tremendous amount of psychic energy. Sexual shame limits our capacity for compassion. If the privileged young women and men of America (and compared to the Congo, even working-class Americans of color are privileged) are beset by anxiety and self-doubt then they’re not going to be able to do as much as they otherwise might do for those who are suffering elsewhere.

So teaching sex-positivity and a responsible, pleasure-centred sex-ed curriculum is vital justice work. Equipping young women to extricate themselves from relentless perfectionism is part of healing the larger world. It’s not bourgeois myopia to focus on sex and the body — rather, focusing on these intensely personal issues is the gateway to building a more peaceful, equitable, light-filled world. Shame leads not only to self-absorption but to a sense of personal powerlessness. Empowering young people in the most intimate aspects of their lives gives them the tools and the energy and the excitement to go out and do the vital work of Tikkun Olam, healing the world.

Personal empowerment and collective liberation are not at odds. Giving young people the first is what inspires them to be effective agents for bringing about the latter.

One Drop

This post is making the rounds and stirring folks up: Why I don’t want to have biracial children.

The “One Drop Rule” previously was used as a method to keep people who had Black heritage down. Once an individual was identified as having Black heritage, it was easy for white people to dismiss and subjugate them. But, today, in many cases, the “one drop rule” is used instead to convince Black people who have a white parent that they, in fact, are closer to “whiteness” and should therefore reject the notion of struggling to dismantle white supremacy.

While some people claim that the term “biracial” allows them to embrace the fullness of their heritage, I think, unfortunately, that white people often use it to keep Black people, who could otherwise be working together to end racism, stratified. It creates a sort of “buffer” zone between white and Black, which is used to convince people that racism/white supremacy is no longer an issue.


As I’ve written before, my daughter is not “bi-racial”. She’s a glorious mix of many things. Her eight great-grandparents hailed from four different continents. Under the old One Drop rule, Heloise would be an “octoroon” (one great-grandfather was from what is now Nigeria.) Because of that history, blackness is a part of her identity. But she is also the great-granddaughter of Holocaust refugees; her great-great-grandmother died in Auschwitz. Is that not something to be claimed as well? She carries within her the blood of indigenous Colombians (probably Muisca); is their suffering not to be part of her story? And yes, she’s got healthy dollops of heritage from history’s more recent “winners”, ranging from dour, business-savvy North German Lutherans to fiery Scots-Irish Presbyterians. I’m the great-great-great-great grandson of a rabbi in a Moravian shtetl, and the great-great-great-grandson of Calvinist slave-owners in East Texas. My wife and I carry the blood of the victims and the perpetrators of slavery and genocide, and we have the gift to know more than many about our family history.

My wife can check a lot of boxes on the census form, and does so. She is proud to be black, and proud too to be the great-granddaughter of hard-working Dalmatian stonemasons. In her closet hang the soccer jerseys of the Nigerian, Croatian, and Colombian national squads. When it comes to her heritage, she fiercely rejects the notion of prioritizing one people and one history. And we are raising Heloise to reject that tribalism as well.

We speak Spanish and English to Heloise, but my mother-in-law easily mixes elegant Castilian with Afro-Colombian expressions that owe more to the Yoruba than to the inhabitants of Iberia. My daughter calls her vulva her “kozumba”, a West African loan word common among black Colombians; that same little one can recite the blessing for Friday night candlelighting. (With her voice, it starts “bah-wook atwah Ah-doe-nigh”.) Her nose is African, her eyes are green, her hair the same light brown as her father’s. She is African, Spanish, indigenous Colombian, English, Scots-Irish, Czech, Croatian, Welsh, German, Flemish and Jewish.

And as we all do, she carries history encoded in her genes. But she is carried by parents who know better than to saddle her with the burdens of that history. We live in Los Angeles, the global capital of self-reinvention, for many reasons: not least to raise a child who can honor her diverse heritage without ever being haunted by the false obligation to elevate one of those ancestries above all others. Heloise may someday feel the call of one aspect of her heritage more strongly than the rest, and that’s fine. She can self-describe as she likes. Until then, she is gloriously, unmistakably, unapologetically multi-racial.

For more, see this post: Kindly Remembrance: of Faith, Ancestors, and Debts to the Past

And: A very long post about Los Angeles, an Eagles song, nationalism, history, self-reinvention and the “club versus country” debate

The Cautery of Hate: on Breakups, Psychoanalysis, and the Healing Power of Rage

I was reminded of this story by an exchange with a friend today.

Dealing with the end of an intense romantic relationship is painful, regardless of the terms on which that relationship took place. Whether an unrequited obsession or a marriage, the adjustment to life without that one other person on whom you were so focused for so long is very difficult. And especially when we’ve had a hard time seeing a lover’s flaws, recovery may call for a period where we zero in on nothing but those shortcomings.

The story:

Many years ago, during one of my intermittent attempts to get sober, I went into analysis. Yeah, old school analysis, four days a week for an hour at a time. My psychiatrist, who had gone through the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Institute, had me on the couch in his Pasadena office for nearly two years. My grandmother footed the bill. But when we made the family decision to put me through the famed Freudian process, it was my mother who told me about a dear friend of hers — another psychiatrist — whose own daughter had gone into analysis (with another doctor, of course, not her mother.) My mother’s friend had told her daughter, “Boopsie, at some point during this process you will realize that you hate me. Don’t worry, the hate won’t last. But it’s a necessary stage in analysis.”

“Don’t be silly, Mom, the day could never come when I’d hate you!”, Boopsie replied.

Six months later, the phone rang. When my mother’s friend answered, she heard her daughter’s voice: “Mom”, Boopsie said, “I just want you to know… it’s that day. I hate you.” Click.

Several weeks later, of course, the phone rang again. “Mom, I just want you to know, I don’t hate you anymore”, Boopsie announced with pride. Her mother laughed with her, and they cried together.

And yeah, I went through the same thing with my own mother.

But it’s not just Freudian analysis with its high price tag that produces this process of progressing from idealization to angry contempt and then on to loving acceptance. It’s also part of a good breakup, as I discovered not long after I began the analytic journey.

As I’ve often written, early on in my teaching career I went through a period where I dated and slept with many of my students. Though all these relationships were consensual, at least in the legal sense, they were also deeply unethical. And while some were one-night stands, some lasted on-and-off for months, and in a couple of cases, over a year. One of the latter relationships was with a young woman named Tanya, whom I slept with on and off from late 1996 to early 1998. I was a complete jerk to Tanya, not only because our relationship had started when I was her professor, but also because she was someone who wanted an exclusive romantic relationship with me, something I had neither the willingness nor the ability to give at that turbulent and self-absorbed point in my life. As far as I was concerned, Tanya and I were “friends with benefits”. And yet my conscience wasn’t so drugged and numbed that it didn’t know damn well I was taking advantage of her feelings for me.

Finally, in early 1998, Tanya told me that it was too painful to continue to sleep with me when I could give her nothing more than sex, affection and conversation. If I couldn’t commit, she told me, she’d need to stop seeing me altogether. She also told me she was starting therapy, and was excited about where that would take her. Since I was, at this point, on dear Dr. Levine’s couch Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, I was all about therapy, and told Tanya I was pleased for her. Continue reading

The Rising Price of Perfectionism: Freshman Girls and Anxiety

The headline in the New York Times this morning: Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen.

UCLA does this survey of hundreds of thousands of 17 and 18 year-olds every summer, and the results come out the following winter. It’s a great indicator of where hearts and minds are moving. (Both liberals and conservatives have been bewildered in recent years by the data that suggest that young people are becoming ever more accepting of homosexuality, and increasingly less accepting of abortion. Adult lefties and righties tend to couple either acceptance or rejection of both, and are both heartened and worried by this apparent inconsistency of the young.) Because I teach college freshmen (or frosh, the preferred gender neutral term), I’m keenly interested in the results of the survey each year.

But based on this year’s data, the headline ought to read: “record level of stress found in college freshwomen.

Every year, women had a less positive view of their emotional health than men, and that gap has widened…

For many young people, serious stress starts before college. The share of students who said on the survey that they had been frequently overwhelmed by all they had to do during their senior year of high school rose to 29 percent from 27 percent last year.

The gender gap on that question was even larger than on emotional health, with 18 percent of the men saying they had been frequently overwhelmed, compared with 39 percent of the women.

There is also a gender gap, studies have shown, in the students who seek out college mental health services, with women making up 60 percent or more of the clients.

“Boys are socialized not to talk about their feelings or express stress, while girls are more likely to say they’re having a tough time,” said Perry C. Francis, coordinator for counseling services at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. “Guys might go out and do something destructive, or stupid, that might include property damage. Girls act out differently.”

Linda Sax, a professor of education at U.C.L.A. and former director of the freshman study who uses the data in research about college gender gaps, said the gap between men and women on emotional well-being was one of the largest in the survey.

“One aspect of it is how women and men spent their leisure time,” she said. “Men tend to find more time for leisure and activities that relieve stress, like exercise and sports, while women tend to take on more responsibilities, like volunteer work and helping out with their family, that don’t relieve stress.”

With what I call the “Martha Complex” very much in the news once more thanks to Amy Chua, it’s important to remember that perfectionism is gendered in our culture. Chua, the infamous Tiger Mother whose rigid parenting style has ignited international debate this month, raised daughters, not sons. And the evidence from the UCLA survey is that even parents who are far less controlling than Chua are ending up with anxious and exhausted daughters. With nearly 4 out of 10 girls (compared to fewer than 2 in 10 boys) reporting being “frequently overwhelmed”, it’s not alarmist to say that we have a major crisis on our hands.

I’ve said it, Courtney Martin’s said it, and a lot of others who write about girls have said it one way or another: we’ve succeeded in expanding opportunities for our daughters, and we’ve also saddled them with an ever-rising number of obligations. In the aftermath of “Reviving Ophelia” and other Nineties era books that focused on a crisis of self-confidence among teen girls, we’ve responded with more attention, eager to help young women become more successful. But that well-intentioned help, filled as it is with constant reminders to our girls of what they can be, is often interpreted as yet another reminder of all the things they should be.

The percentage of young women suffering from anxiety, depression, and the other side effects of perfectionism will only increase until we address the root problem. The root problem is people-pleasing: the sense that happiness and fulfillment come from meeting the expectations of others. We teach our daughters that they can be professional athletes and run for president, but we still teach them that their dollies have feelings and that their Barbies’ plastic heads hurt when bumped. We teach them to get good grades, but too often we teach them that the real reward of good grades is seeing pride and satisfaction in the faces of parents and teachers. We raise our girls to be successful, but to do so while being keenly attentive to the needs of everyone around them. So when they feel stressed, as Linda Sax notes, these young women tend to throw themselves into ever more volunteer work, piling people-pleasing on top of people-pleasing, like alcoholics taking shots of whiskey to cure hangovers. The vicious cycle produces the predictable result we’re seeing on measures like the UCLA Frosh Survey.

This is the same problem that Black Swan explores (and look at that film’s popularity among high school and college-aged women!) This is the same problem of what I call the Paris Paradox, the pressure to be “sexy” but not authentically “sexual.” Our girls are achieving more than ever before. But too many are still performing, still trying to please parents and peers, pastors and professors, coaches and boyfriends. With more places to perform than ever before, the fruit of the campaign for equal opportunity, that means an ever-rising sense of pressure and competition.

Equal opportunity for boys and girls has turned into unequal obligation. And as the new frosh survey shows, the cost of this unequal burden is not just hurting prima ballerinas and the daughters of Tiger Mothers: it’s hurting a huge and rising percentage of young women. This is not the fault of the feminist movement, it’s a sign that the feminist movement is not yet complete. It will not be complete until we lift the burden of relentless people-pleasing off our daughters, until we change how we socialize our girls to act in the world, until we teach them that their own pleasure matters more than winning praise.