Friday, December 11, 2009

Womanly Indiscretion and the War Between the Sexes

In a column today Eric Felten bemoans the fact that more and more women are oversharing about their marriages. They are divulging too many personal and private matters about themselves and their husbands, generally to the detriment of their marital bond. Link here.

In his words: "Pity the man whose wife writes a memoir."

What virtue, he asks, attaches to an Elizabeth Weil when she reveals intimate details of her marriage in the New York Times Sunday Magazine? Does she not realize that discretion would improve her marriage far more than the rounds of couples counseling that she and her husband undergo. For my comments about Weil, link here.

In general, Felten's point is well taken. In the specific case of Elizabeth Weil's marriage to Dan Duane, however, we must mention that Weil's husband was also a writer. While he had enough honor to refrain from writing about his marriage, he had, before he met Elizabeth, written some rather scorching accounts of his intimacies with other women.

Perhaps, theirs is the exception that proves the rule, but far too many women have learned the hard way that writing about your intimate relationships almost always damages them.

It does not matter whether you have offered a running critique of your lover's sexual prowess, or lack of same. When you reveal personal details about someone's everyday habits he will feel humiliated.

Intimacy must be built on trust. No one is going to confide in someone who cannot be trusted with a secret, even a secret about a trivial matter. When you are called upon to keep a minor secret your partner is probably trying to figure out whether you can be trusted with something more intimate.

One of the consequences of the rash of womanly indiscretion is that women writers have been asked to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements by boyfriends, and even dates.

Most women will sign these things happily, forgetting that if he asks you to sign the agreement, it means that, at a fundamental level, he does not trust you. And if he does not trust you, your relationship is already in trouble.

I have already commented on the horror that Emily Gould produced when she began blogging about her relationship. Link here. Hers should have been a cautionary tale.

The same applies to attention-junkie Julia Allison who has made a career out of disclosing her life in her blog. When Allison decided, naively, to blog a relationship with a boyfriend, the net result was that the boyfriend left her, and, as payback, hooked up with her best friend's sister.

Can you think of a better argument in favor of discretion?

Apparently, the lesson has not been learned. Writer Julie Powell, of "Julie and Julia" fame, has just published her second book, in which she chronicles, in explicit detail, the extramarital affair she had with someone named D. (Full disclosure: I have not read the book.)

As Felten notes, Powell is sufficiently discreet to hide the identity of her lover, but sufficiently indiscreet to humiliate her husband in front of the world entire.

Like Gould before she learned her lesson, Powell waxes indignant at the notion that anyone would constrain her from telling much more than anyone wanted to know about her liaison. Link here.

Since Powell recommends psychoanalysis, it fair to say that if psychoanalysis helped her to overcome her inhibitions and to make her a moral exhibitionist, it hasn't done her or itself any great favors.

Perhaps Powell's husband is thoroughly accepting of his public humiliation, but I would not bank on it.

In my experience any time a man says that he is happy to have his dates, relationship, or marriage exposed for public view, he is either extremely naive or afraid to contradict the aesthetic of self-expression that the therapy culture has been selling.

Just because he says that it's fine if you write about personal and intimate aspects of his experience, that does not mean that your relationship will not suffer for your indiscretion.

The only real question is: how badly and when.

Anyway, Felten wants to know why so many of these memoirs are written by women. When and why did women abandon even the pretense to modesty and decorum?

Should we blame it on the blogosphere? Perhaps when an aspiring young writer-- many of whom are women-- takes to the blogosphere she discovers that the topic she knows best and feels most strongly about is her personal experience. Couple that with the fact that she will garner a larger audience by being an exhibitionist than she will by being discreet and you have a combustible formula.

Or should we blame in on television shows like "Sex and the City?" Didn't Carrie and her friends make a fetish of oversharing? And didn't their lives and relationships become role models for young women around the nation?

One place we cannot place blame: on men. One might argue that liberated women are more apt these days to live their sexuality with the freedom and insouciance they imagine to have been the province of men. And yet, as Felten makes clear, men do not overshare; they are discreet about the intimate details of their relationships.

After all, men have a slightly possessive and protective side; they do not want to pimp their wives out to the world. At least, most of them do not.

If I had to venture a guess, I would say that womanly indiscretion relates to the fact that women's sexuality has become rather too liberated. Following the dictates encouraging free and open self-expression women have felt pressured to engage in sexual activities they did not really desire.

Often these produce traumatic reactions, thus, an impulse to hide what happened, to pretend that it never happened, to make it go away.

This is, dare I say, healthy. Everyone makes mistakes. No one should want to be identified for his or her errors of judgment.

The therapy culture, however, does not encourage putting a trauma behind you. It encourages people to own the trauma, to talk about it, to weave it into one's personal history.

Admittedly, most of these trauma sexual experiences involve unmarried women, but once the habit of disclosing becomes sufficiently ingrained it seems to cover even the most licit sexual behaviors.

If we want to know why women are so prone to indiscretion these days, I would respond that they are doubling down on a bad idea. The bad idea being, that full and open self-expression is psychologically healthy.

If she thinks that what she is doing is therapeutic, that does not make it therapeutic. Womanly indiscretion, within or without the context of marriage, is a hostile act, even an act of open warfare.

And as the old saying goes, when you play with fire....

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