Monday, December 17, 2012

A Decadent America

Several weeks ago Ross Douthat set off a small media firestorm by writing that America and much of the West had become decadent.

For a nation that prides itself on its work ethic the charge stung.

We associate decadence with the sin of sloth and do not want to  think that we are zoned-out lotus-eating slugs.

For his part Douthat was referring to what the demographers call replacement rates. As fewer and fewer people choose to have children the population is shrinking.

When you as a nation are drowning in debt, population shrinkage is not your friend.

In a decadent nation the meaning of sex is pleasure. Conception is a risk factor that needs to be reduced, if not eliminated.

If procreation is a curse, not a blessing, then you have a right, if not a need, to acquire as much pleasure as you can, regardless. Some would even say that sexual pleasure is the ultimate in mental hygiene.

In our national conversation about sex the primary issues are abortion and birth control. Thus, Douthat seems clearly to have a point.

To prove Douthat’s point, a new documentary called Sexy Baby has just appeared. I have not seen it.

Commenting on it in Slate, Amanda Hess blames the new modern attitude toward sex on the internet. Specifically, she blames it on internet porn.

Here, she describes the content of the documentary:

Sexy Baby, a new documentary film about “sexiness in the cyber age,” investigates a new sexual landscape where “having pubic hair is considered unattractive,” most young people “know someone who has emailed or texted a naked photo of themselves,” and many kids “have accidentally or intentionally had their first introduction to sex be via hardcore online porn.” Directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus follow three women to illustrate the tale: Nichole, a 32-year-old former porn actress looking to conceive; Laura, a 22-year-old kindergarten teacher seeking labiaplasty; and Winnifred, a 12-year-old navigating puberty, one “sexy” Facebook profile photo update at a time.

You will be asking what kind of parent allows her daughter to share a film with a porn star who is trying to conceive and with a kindergarten teacher who wants to have a “designer vagina.”

Most rational parents are horrified to see our culture sexualizing girls at a younger and younger age.  Apparently, twelve-year-old Winnifred’s parents are not among them.

Naturally, Winnifred is a feminist and must believe that her behavior is “liberating.”

Hess explains:

We watch [Winnifred] post endless self-shots to Facebook (she calls it “a beautiful place”), don heels and fishnets for a Lady Gaga concert, tell us that tweens today are expected to appear perpetually “down to fuck.” But we also see her tool around teen sex ed site Scarleteen and critically discuss her generation’s sexual expectations with her divorced New York City parents, who withdraw and reinstate her Facebook privileges depending on her social media behavior. At one point, Winnifred dons a beret and stages a feminist dramatic interpretation of the representation of “hos” in Soulja Boy’s song “Crank That.” “I think adults are intimidated by teenagers,” Winnifred, now 14, said in an interview after the film’s release. “But that's because they don't know how to deal with the new elements of adolescence. Most adults are uncomfortable engaging us in conversation.”

For her part, Hess does not see any problem here. Thus, she fails at the primary adult responsibility: to pass judgment.

She describes the three “women” in these terms:

Each of these women is one decade deeper into our new sexting, status updating, fully-shaved sexual world. And yet, their sexualities don’t appear increasingly warped with each minute they spend online. 

In the first place, a twelve year old is not a woman. It is appalling that her parents allow her to behave as though she were. It is appalling that Hess does not make this minimal distinction.

Second, if Hess believes that porn stars see sex as others do, she herself is warped. The porn business contains more than its share of occupational hazards: among them, the moral hazard that makes it extreme difficulty to have a normal life after one’s days as a porn star are over.

All porn stars know this. Hess seems oblivious.

Hess seems encouraged by the fact that, compared with 1995, fewer young people today are having sex at an early age. She does not seem to know that internet porn can be addictive and can desensitize adolescents to sexual stimuli.

Also, if more and more girls are dressing up to look like hookers and sexting intimate pictures, they are merely undergoing an apprenticeship in decadence.

Remember  that Bill Clinton taught America’s children that oral sex was not really sex.

We should not underestimate how much influence an admired decadent like Bill Clinton has exercised on the American psyche.

Most commentators analyze the problem as Hess does. They blame it on internet porn and capitalist merchants.

Surely, those who sell sexy underwear to eight year olds bear some responsibility for what they put in their stores.

But, allow me to expand the list.

American children are first sexualized in school It’s called early childhood sex education.

Why should elementary school children be taught about sex? When children are taught to speak openly and honestly about all matters sexual from a young age the instruction breaks down their innate sense of decency. They learn that, when it comes to sex, they should express it freely and openly.

Most children are not learning these lessons at home. They report that their parents do not really want to talk about matters sexual.

If they are not learning it at home, then they are probably first learning about it from the authority figures at school.

Also, when children see their friends embarrassed for having sexted pictures of themselves, they want to help ease the pain. They do it by engaging in the same behavior themselves, thus making it appear that it is normal to sext.

If everyone is doing it, it must be ok. There is nothing to be ashamed about.

Pretending to normalize deviancy might narcotize the pain, but it does not ultimately make the experience less painful.

I do not need to tell you that the more the behavior is publicized and generalized and looked on approvingly by movies like Sexy Baby, the more difficult it will be for parents to resist it.

Among those who do are the Tiger Moms. If you ask yourself why their children do so well in school, then perhaps the reason is that their mothers shield them from American decadence.


Kristi said...

Re the sex ed: I homeschool, so have sidestepped quite a bit of this. Although I have been thoroughly chastised by other moms by some of my choices.

For example, several moms took me to task because I used euphemisms for various sex organs with my children. I had not graphically named and explained their sex organs. Why hadn't I taught my 3 year old about vaginas, vulvas, penises, etc. was their demand.

Another time, I refused to agree to my daughter going to Hooters with her Brownie troop. I wasn't chastised, but the troop leader was genuinely puzzled as to why I said thanks, but I don't take my children there, ever. But the food is good, she said.

Another time I was shocked when taking my kids and a couple of other kids to the latest Pixar movie, all 8 and under in age, and one of the girls said she had seen an R rated comedy the week before.

I realized later that part of me wants to preserve my childrens' innocence. I reasoned that they have the whole rest of their lives to be as decadent as we adults and it seemed that my DH and I have tried to give them a little respite from that. A lot of times a parent wanting this for their child is swimming against a pretty strong social current.

JP said...

Yes, the West is decadent.

However, that's kind of to be expected in cultural winter once the creative impulse of the culture is exhausted.

So, it's more like saying "cultural winter" than something bad.

This is how civilizations die.

David Foster said...

On the life cycle of civilizations, I recommend Antoine de St-Exupery's strange unfinished novel Citadelle (published in English under the unfortunate title Wisdom of the Sands) and the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun...the St-Ex book seems clearly to have been influenced by the IK book.

JP said...


"I recommend Antoine de St-Exupery's strange unfinished novel Citadelle (published in English under the unfortunate title Wisdom of the Sands) and the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun...the St-Ex book seems clearly to have been influenced by the IK book."

IK's pretty much the first real metahistorian (the word I use) I've found. I suspect that he's pretty strong with the technicals.

From Wikipedia (on IK):

"Perhaps the most frequently cited observation drawn from Ibn Khaldūn's work is the notion that when a society becomes a great civilization (and, presumably, the dominant culture in its region), its high point is followed by a period of decay. This means that the next cohesive group that conquers the diminished civilization is, by comparison, a group of barbarians. Once the barbarians solidify their control over the conquered society, however, they become attracted to its more refined aspects, such as literacy and arts, and either assimilate into or appropriate such cultural practices. Then, eventually, the former barbarians will be conquered by a new set of barbarians, who will repeat the process. Some contemporary readers of Khaldun have read this as an early business cycle theory, though set in the historical circumstances of the mature Islamic empire."

I like Oswald Spengler for the better overview of the internal structure and development of a High Culture and what amounts to what he noticed as the fractal nature of the High Culture, although he didn't call it that.

I do want to review IK's work at some point since he seems to have a solid grasp on metahistorical concepts. He strikes me more as a Toynbee than a Spengler.

Although IK certainly knew what his life's work was. Kind of like Toynbee, I suppose.

I'm interested in the lasting cultural contributions of High Cultures.

Anonymous said...

Sigh. Had enough "liberation?"

Dennis said...


Did you ever wonder whether there is a cycle to almost everything that we as humans do? It sometimes seems to me that the closer people get to liberation, as presently defined, the closer to slavery we come. I wonder if this is not the reason that all cultures eventual die of their own failures to take responsibility for their actions and to understand what it takes to be liberated and free?

n.n said...


It is the paradox of civilization. A decadent state of living causes a progressive dissociation of risk.

It seems that human behavior can be modeled by physical laws.

Newton's Three Laws of Motion

1. Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.

The object is people. The state of motion is corruption.

Progressive corruption will become conclusive corruption unless acted upon by morality, which in human society is enforced through competing interests (ultimately individuals).

2. F = ma

Corruption will increase directly proportionate to increasing number people or dysfunctional behaviors.

3. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This assumes a balance between corrupt and moral individuals. This assumption is increasingly unwarranted as we normalize behaviors which are either marginally or strictly dysfunctional.

Nature provides insight into our seemingly nebulous human problems.