I'm really on a Dar Williams kick this morning.
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.
Yikes. First off, I wish I were the first (one of Amanda's commenters, Lubbock Troll beats me to it) to point out that Derbyshire misuses the notion of "salad days." While today, folks associate the phrase with youth and vitality, the original line is from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra: "My salad days,/When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,/To say as I said then". Salad, for Shakespeare, meant "unripe", "immature", literally and figuratively "green". It is not a phrase designed to recall a happy youth at the pinnacle of beauty, but a reminder that (thank God), the young and the "green" mature and grow riper and wiser.
Lauren* and Amanda and their commenters skewer Derbyshire from a variety of angles, and almost all of the criticisms are richly deserved. There is much that he says in those two short paragraphs that is objectionable. First off, since it's clear he means "salad days" in the modern sense as referring to the peak of a young woman's attractiveness, it's vital that we acknowledge that he does speak for all too many contemporary men who do fetishize teenage girls. I'm told that the most popular term on internet porn search engines is "teen", and that "schoolgirl" isn't far behind. The popularity of the "Barely Legal" niche of erotica is undeniable -- Larry Flynt sells a very successful porn mag with that title. And of course, as with porn, so with the broader culture that has little problem depicting teenage girls as particularly desirable.
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.
Reading Derbyshire, I wonder how many actual teenage girls he really knows. Between teaching confirmation classes and leading Wednesday night youth groups these past six years, I've spent a heck of a lot of time with a heck of a lot of high school girls. Every week, I'm surrounded by 14, 15, 16, and 17 year-olds. These girls are real people -- not the caricatures of adolescence portrayed on MTV and in the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogues. Most of "my girls" are not poised. They are in varying stages of adolescence, but all are still, in a very real sense, "green". Don't get me wrong: I love these girls with all of my heart, just as I love their brothers. I'm not yet a biological father -- in a very real sense, these are my kids.
As I spend time with these girls, I'm mystified as to how any adult man could respond to them sexually. It's not that I'm repressing some forbidden desire! Nor is it because I am now happily married to a wife to whom I'm powerfully drawn. I worked with teens when I was single, and when I was going through a painful divorce. At no time did I find myself responding sexually -- not even for one half-second -- to a single one of my teens. I've built a legacy of credibility on this blog by sharing a lot about myself, so I think I can say this and be believed. And frankly, I'm confident that the other male youth leaders with whom I've worked are also absolutely "safe" in this regard. When I look at "my girls", I see teens -- not children any longer, but not adults yet. And I cannot eroticize the young, the developing, and the vulnerable. I know these kids far too well for that. In my experience, when you spend quality time with teenagers, listening to them and interacting with them and supporting them and praying for them, it's impossible to respond to them sexually. Honestly, a whole lot of men might benefit from spending MORE time (not less) around teenagers. It might help them separate their powerful and natural desire to protect and nurture from their sexual desires. It's easier to objectify what you don't know and don't love!
So Derbyshire's commentary makes me sad. As an adult man, I disagree with him on a personal level about women, age, and desirability. As a feminist, I'm frustrated by the great number of men who do agree with Derbyshire. I don't see their sexual attraction to teen girls as based on biology, but on fear. Fear of adult women, fear of egalitarian relationships, fear of personal transformation. Only those who are confident enough to challenge us can help us grow; when we men eroticize the young, the tentative, and the innocent we are really eroticizing our own reluctance to transform! And that's heartbreaking. So many people lose in this scenario! Adult ("older") women are seen as "past their expiration date" and suffer from a sense of lost sexual desirability. Teenage girls (who are still "green" in the real sense of "salad days") are sexualized and exploited by older men, forced to become mistrustful of most adult males and forced to deal with their own sexuality far too early. And men? Men miss the opportunity to match their libidos and their hearts. They miss the chance to grow that only relationship with an equal can offer.
All that said, there's one thing about Lauren*s post that upset me. Commenters at both sites draw attention to Derbyshire's looks (Lauren* even posts a picture). Several folks make fun of the fact that, well, John Derbyshire is not a conventionally handsome man. The implication is that his comments about women's looks are particularly inappropriate, presumably because the unattractive have even less right to make sexist and degrading remarks. But the problem lies in the reverse implication: if Derbyshire were strikingly good-looking, would that mitigate the offensiveness of his words? Do handsome older men have a special right to objectify teens that their homelier peers do not? A forty-something man responding sexually to a fifteen year-old (while dismissing the charms of a thirty-six year old woman) is always offensive, whether that man looks like Brad Pitt or John Derbyshire.
Look, I understand the desire to make fun of one's opponents. I understand the temptation to point out the stunning gall of an unattractive older man finding Jennifer Aniston insufficiently desirable because of her age. But really folks, we can do better than that! I've never been a "fight fire with fire" kind of pro-feminist. I'm not above a little snarkiness, but I think that posting the Derbyshire picture sets a dangerous precedent. It reminds me too much of how misogynists often posted pics of Andrea Dworkin and connected her presumed homeliness to her radical feminism. I didn't like that. And I don't like it done to John Derbyshire.
*Apologetic Update: In my first version of this post, I attributed the Feministe post to Jill, not Lauren. Such a confusion is an excellent way to annoy everyone and embarrass oneself, so mea culpas all 'round and noodle lashings for the scribe.
Second Update: In truth, as I read the comments of those defending the use of the photo of Derbyshire, part of me is reactive because, frankly, I worry about the same thing being done to me. Like lots of bloggers, I have plenty of pictures of myself up and about on the blog -- some more flattering than others. Several MRA blogs still use that darned see-saw picture of me. I realize I could avoid this by not having any public photos available on the blog, but I do think pictures help us to "flesh out" the person whose work we're reading. But it hurt when it was done to me. And even more honestly, though this will sound self-serving, it also bothers me when some folks on the professor rating sites have said that my looks factor into my generally laudatory teacher ratings. So for all these reasons, I'm oddly protective of Derbyshire -- on this issue alone...