Monday, March 7, 2011

How Did Ross Douthat Want My Life To Go?

He writes: "there are different kinds of premarital sex. There’s sex that’s actually pre-marital, in the sense that it involves monogamous couples on a path that might lead to matrimony one day. Then there’s sex that’s casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered." The rest of the column is about how happy he is that less of the last two kinds of sex is going on these days.

My life right now is wonderful. Being a philosophy professor at the National University of Singapore is a great job. They give me plenty of time to do my own creative work, and I have a lot of good students who are fun to teach. (Grading lots of papers can be a chore, but if that's the worst ten percent of your job, you've got a good one.) 30 is a young age for a philosopher, and there's this vast open life ahead of me that I can fill with the best work I'm capable of.

The path here was a winding one. I graduated from high school in Raleigh, went to Harvard, and did my Ph.D at the University of Texas except for one year in the middle developing awesome metaethics skills as a visiting doctoral student at Michigan. Jobs as a philosophy professor are really hard to get, so I sent off 99 job applications to all corners of the globe. I got two offers -- a three-year deal at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, and a tenure-track gig at the National University of Singapore. And that was very fortunate. Maybe if I hadn't gotten those jobs, I would've been able to find some kind of short-term gig in some random part of America and try the job market for another year, but the financial crisis hit next year and academic job openings were being canceled left and right.

I don't think it's reasonable to expect a smart lovely lady to just follow me all across the country and to the far end of the world. For the most part, the women I've been attracted to have had their own awesome plans. Maybe it could've happened at some time in the past when women didn't have any opportunities besides attaching themselves to a man, but just like I don't want to own slaves, I don't want such monstrosities to obtain for my personal benefit. And especially, you don't hope for someone to end up with you because an unjust world crushes their dreams.

I didn't think this way at the time, but looking back, it looks like the path to matrimony and the path to having an awesome job like this one were a "choose only one" kind of deal. I'm really happy with how things turned out! And part of why I can be so happy is because of sex where neither of us expected that we'd get married -- sex that Ross would probably call casual and promiscuous.

It took me until age 23 to lose my virginity. Longtime readers will know that the circumstances were unusually bizarre (see 5). Before that, I used to get depressed a lot. Often if I got to thinking about girls I'd liked and how things had gone badly again and again and again, I'd sink into this stupor where I'd just sit in one place and not be able to move, even to do something that I knew would distract me. On the upside, my abject loneliness led me to write Possible Girls, and creating something beautiful out of your pain does something to redeem it. But the fact that misery can lead to great art isn't much of an argument for misery.

Even a completely screwed up first sexual experience did a lot to make me happier and psychologically healthier. The depression hit much less often, and in the late afternoon I didn't need to dread the dark cold spirit that waited for me on lonely nights. Then at age 25 I had a four-month relationship with an amazing woman -- one in which we agreed in advance that there was no chance of things going long term -- and that cured it for good. (This isn't just a way men feel about sex, by the way -- I think Nice Jewish Girl tears a hole straight through the bulls-eye on that issue. Thanks, people at Unfogged, for the link.)

If you ran simulations of my life starting at the beginning of grad school, there's a couple ways it could've fit Douthat's ideals. Sure, in some really lucky ones I hit the jackpot and end up marrying an awesome woman and we can both get great jobs in the same place! But it's more likely that I find myself a long-term partner and restrict my employment horizons to where I'm in a mediocre job with bad students and no time to work on my own creative projects. And there's probably plenty of outcomes where I'm happily employed but I passed up my chances with the women I described above and the sweet young lady I met in line caucusing for Obama and... well, anyway, I wonder how good I am at fighting off the late-night catatonic depression in that story. I think the bad outcomes where I'm left with nothing but my commitment to only having sex in a monogamous relationship outnumber the great ones. I don't really want to think about those.

But that's not where I am now. Tomorrow I'm having dinner with a very smart young lady I met a few months ago. Her life story is more or less like mine, starting in the States and following her interesting interests around to Southeast Asia. I don't think it's likely that we're going to end up together in the long term, just because we're prepared for our various callings to pull us apart. But I'm really happy that I'll get to be with her for a little while! And when I look at the kind of life where I'd live up to the ideals Ross sets out, it's probably not nearly as good as the one I'm living.


Blue said...

Movingly written, and of course I don't want to agree with Ross Douthat, but as to your title question:

I don't think "having no idea where you'll be living or what particular job until after 30 (aka almost the end of healthy first-child-bearing years) is a FEATURE for our generation, it's a bug." I think a lot of people would like less uncertainty in their life, both geographically and professionally, and a world in which the middle-class have that is a world in which the virtues Douthat calls for are more realistic (and those virtues have never been for pushed on the upper-class anyway, only middle).

Neil Sinhababu said...

Yeah! I'd like a lot less uncertainty too. That would be good. But it's not like old-fashioned sexual values would help us get rid of that uncertainty in the least.

What they do is make uncertainty much more dangerous. If you can build a more certain world, Ross' values might not be so destructive there. But in the world as we've got it, those values will do a lot to keep you from being happy.

CZHA said...

I've chafed forever (well, not really, but for at least 45 years) at the adjectives "premarital" and "extramarital" when they are used with the noun "sex." Sex is simply... sex. It preceded the institution of marriage, and has always existed without needing marriage as a context.

I think that a lot of social dishonesty about sex and about marriage comes from this odd linguistic linking.

Vance Maverick said...

Well said. And yet, don't you think we can already imagine what the Douthats of the world will respond? First, lives as uncertain and mobile as that of a philosopher ought to be rare -- indeed we should change society to slow people down, so that mobility is the exception. Second, once that's achieved, the immobile majority should live according to the ancient prescription. The mobile minority should either suffer for its privilege, by giving up sex altogether; or else, we can permit them (i.e. ourselves) to enjoy sinful pleasures, if they can keep it quiet, because they're the elite and the majority doesn't need to know.

Vance Maverick said...

Ach, I see I missed one of the possible conservative responses: that you're simply wrong to claim that the pleasure and psychological release you describe were due to sex. You could have found the same social and emotional warmth in, let us say, ballroom dancing, or praise singing.

Hello There said...

I have the opposite problem to this. My true goal is life is to have a vegie garden and a pet dog so I'd be quite happy to just go to whatever uni my partner gets a job at and to "restrict my employment horizons to a mediocre job with bad students and no time to work on my own creative projects". Also I love teaching more than research and students are far more fun (funnier?) when they try to tell you that "fish" are an example of Substance Dualism, and other stupid things. But I'm worried that people (especially in academia) will think me a failure of feminism and interpret my actions as me thinking that I don't have any opportunities or desires besides attaching myself to a man who is happy to own slaves/women. Oh the woes of being a woman living in a time of post-feminism. LMAO.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Hello! That fish comment is a winner. And congratulations on being more teaching- than research-oriented it's an admirable trait and one that gets inhibited in grad school. Regarding the feminist stuff, I imagine that people who actually know you will understand what your deal is and be happy for you if you get your veggie garden and dog.

Jeremy said...

Hey Neil, as someone in the same boat (I even almost ended up in Singapore, but missed by a bit - Japan), I sympathize and totally agree. I had several promising relationships end due to going overseas to study abroad or further uncertainty as to where I'd end up.

One the one hand, it's sad that things didn't work out, but on the other hand, my life has been exciting and I've had experiences that never would've happened if I'd stayed in Indiana.

So yeah, keep on keeping on, good luck with the date and perhaps I'll run into you on my next vacation to Singapore.