#52: What is the value of restraint?

Americans are threatened by boundaries.

Millennials and Gen Z folks are increasingly beginning to remind me of Bush and Obama-era right wing pundits. Whether it’s their propensity to claim they’re extremism experts as a way to legitimize their alarmism, or their abuse of slippery slope arguments, to me, they’re as good as Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity were back in the day.

Seriously, swap out “Islam” for “white supremacy” and “Muslims” for “Republicans” and you’ll see what I’m talking about:

This rhetoric is a lot more dangerous, for reasons too obvious to enumerate here. But seriously—Hannity was no more an “extremism expert” than many liberal journalists today.

It’s a slippery slope.

Bombastic rhetoric around extremism isn’t the only place I see similarities, though.

The infamous slippery slope argument, which I remember so clearly from my youth, a time when gay marriage was still being fiercely debated, is another one you see everywhere. The only difference is this time, it’s in disguise.

For Millennials and Gen Z though, it stems from a serious, serious aversion to restraint.

You see the Millennial/Gen Z slippery slope argument everywhere. Bare minimum calls for healthy eating become tantamount to the diet culture of the 90s, where quotes like “nothing tastes as good as thin feels” were bandied about like sincere forms of inspiration. Exercise and some more vegetables to your diet? That’s a slippery slope to shaming fat people off of airplanes.

And, of course, the favorite of the last few weeks, any criticism of sexual permissiveness is immediately read as puritanical. It’s a slippery slope between “sex is intimate” and “save sex for marriage,” after all.

Ironically, the longer this type of black and white thinking persists, the more likely I think it is that we’ll see a generation of sex negative reactionaries. Right now, a hunger for a little bit of sacredness around sex is percolating.

However, if this pushback continues to remain the dominant attitude (which it absolutely is, no matter how conservative your individual city is or how oppressive your particular upbringing was), we will be faced with a wave of sex negativity like we’ve never seen before.

What role should sex play in our lives?

Sex as a need.

I don’t think it’s ridiculous to argue that sex can be a need. One of the biggest problems about how we talk about incels is that we dismiss their desire for sex as entitlement, thereby minimizing their pain. (While that may be true of some of them, I do believe a sort of incel propaganda exists to shut them up.)

Sex is a part of the human experience—it’s okay to want it. It’s okay to be deeply disturbed or discouraged if you’ve been locked out of the marketplaces where people find sex, or relationships. It goes without saying it’s okay to be disturbed by the fact that there is a market for sex at all.

I believe sex’s primary utility should be as an expression of affection between two people who care deeply about one another, and then, secondarily (or concurrently) reproductive. Sex is a powerful tool for bonding, and it usually works best within a more robust relationship than simply “I met you off an app.”

But notice here I say “primary,” and not only.

Other forms of sexual expression.

There is a time and a place for taboo, thrill-seeking, or casual sex. They’re also part of the larger tapestry of human sexual expression, and I think we’d be remiss to demonize them. However, right now I think these three categories of sexual expression have eclipsed sex as an extension of affection. (Both to people who are having sex and in the larger conversation around sex, because as it turns out, most Americans aren’t having any sex at all.)

The other day I argued that “punk only works in context”:

I think this is true of taboo, thrill-seeking, and casual sex. I used to think porn stars were cool, and to be honest, in the 90s, they sort of were. But part of what made them cool was that they were defecting from the mainstream. They were making a sacrifice to be an outlier. This sacrifice also protects them in some sense; it gives them status. It’s not about Punk Proper. It’s what made Howard Stern cool, too. It’s what makes nihilism cool as a teenager.

I hate to say it folks, but a lot of this stuff works best as a reaction.

I don’t think that anyone whose sexual conduct is more open is a bad person, or should be disrespected. But I do think we need to turn the volume down a little bit with how we conceive of and speak about sex. Anything that’s consistently gratuitous loses value, and eventually becomes obscene.

The hard part is finding a comfortable middle ground, something almost nobody seems willing to do.

“I may as well charge” and “Let’s just get this over with.”

Flippantly saying you “may as well charge” for sex, or that you “just wanted to get it over with” when referring to losing your virginity speak volumes about where Americans stand with sex.

One theory I’ve been entertaining is that this is a reaction to the normalization of being discarded. It wasn’t even ten years ago that we were talking about hook-up culture on college campuses and elsewhere:

“Guys view everything as a competition,” he elaborates with his deep, reassuring voice. “Who’s slept with the best, hottest girls?” With these dating apps, he says, “you’re always sort of prowling. You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day—the sample size is so much larger. It’s setting up two or three Tinder dates a week and, chances are, sleeping with all of them, so you could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year.”

Could “I may as well charge”-style retorts be a coping mechanism for being discarded being normalized? I find that there’s an undercurrent of pain around how we talk about sex.

“Sex is meaningless” starts to make a lot of sense when you consider that people are very likely fielding more rejection today than any other population in the history of humanity.

Maybe we weren’t meant to be rejected a hundred times a month; some of us being rejected after sex, others never being chosen at all.

This isn’t the first time I’ve proposed something like this, and I’ll often hear from women that they’re not being discarded and that I’m being paternalistic.

Alright, sure.

Why do we have so much rhetoric around men being trash, if you’re really the one in the driver’s seat here, then? I’m asking this sincerely.

What explanation do we have for all the memes, articles, and television shows that address the modern woman’s plight as a single hot mess, constantly ping ponging between one fuck boy to the next who fucks her without a condom and doesn’t much as text her the next day?

Am I supposed to believe that that’s relatable content and that people are happy? I barely believe that women are actually re-empowering themselves, that they’re actually becoming sexual conquistadors, and not just LARPing to protect their own feelings.

“I may as well charge” makes sense when you view something as an action you must take (or will do anyway for whatever reason), but is uncomfortable and brings you no emotional fulfillment. I understand it’s a joke, but these jokes emerge from kernels of truth.

From my perspective, it seems to me like sex serves any function other than enjoyment:

  • It’s a hobby.

  • It’s social and material proof of your worth—something that’s hard for many people to get easily elsewhere.

  • It’s a way to make money with clear goals and community support, something that’s also hard to find elsewhere.

  • It’s a consistent source of adventure and experience, access into the lives of people you may not have been granted access to otherwise.

  • It’s a proxy for connection—notice how a lot of OnlyFans content creators refer to their subscribers as their “friends”? Does the parasocial connection cut in both directions?

Disturbing people’s coping mechanisms.

If I’m being totally honest here, a lot of the backlash to, again, even bare minimum critiques of sex positivity read like adolescent coping mechanisms.

When I get into tense conversations about this topic, I often feel like the person I’m speaking with feels like they’re fighting back against an overbearing parent.

For the loudest voices in these conversations, that’s often literally true. Many outspoken people in the sex positivity movement come from repressive (and frequently religious) upbringings. This is a great flag that going full-speed ahead with “yes, sex is sacred and should be reserved for marriage, which should happen young!” isn’t the move.

However, I’d be remiss not to add that you can still pick up on their Puritanical upbringings in these conversations. And it’s not just the obvious reaction, either. These are people who don’t believe in redemption themselves.

And even bringing this back to myself: I get a lot of flack for my own past behavior.

Here’s my answer to that: So what? Maybe I have made mistakes. You have too. I’m as much a product of the culture I’m critiquing as anyone else. But why does that mean I shouldn’t recognize behaviors that aren’t serving me, and strive to be better?

I get the impression that to many sex positive people, if they give in, even a little, it’s as good as saying their parents were right all along. Or their church was right all along. Or whoever else. And if their parents were right, that must mean they’re a bad person. I’m not sure that’s the case.

I think a big component of the human project is constantly calibrating and recalibrating how we do things.

Is this a cliché argument? America has a problem with restraint.

My instinct tells me that we should treat sex like we should treat anything pleasurable. Sometimes, the joy will come from thrilling circumstances, or that we’re doing something naughty. But that’s a quick jolt, a sugar rush, and ultimately not sustainable. For joy to be sustainable, it has to be earned.

America has a problem with restraint in general, so it’s not surprising we also have one with sex. It’s a problem that you see across class lines, across racial lines. We cling onto our vapes, our gambling, our soda, our social media, our pornography… What else do we really have? For many people, not culture, not country, not community, not family.

I’m not the first person to say it, and I’m not the last, but it’s a nihilistic way to live.

A theory on how the way we treat sex is impacting social roles.

Are social roles for women eroding?

Maiden/mother/crone as a lifecycle of womanhood partially exists because women do age. You can’t be the nubile maiden your whole life; you need to be comfortable moving into different roles.

While I’m also a believer that you can be seductive and sexually viable at any age, you’re not sexually attractive in quite the same way at 35 as you are at 21. But women in our current society, where commitment is put off and sex is decoupled from attachment and relationship, you end up lingering at the top of the funnel. You never go through the rites of passage that take you from maiden to mother (and again, I’m talking about social roles here, not literal motherhood).

Lingering at the top of the funnel begets all sorts of unusual trends in cosmetics and plastic surgery.

We’ve lost all hope.

The rational argument around all this is something like, “Sex doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, it’s as mundane as going to the bathroom.” In some sense, this is true. But this logic applies to everything.

Any individual party, school day, Christmas dinner, you could argue that none of this matters in a global sense. But it should matter to you. This is what offends people about Aella, I think. She’s very good at articulating this modern nihilism:

Some people are happier with this mindset, but a nontrivial subset of the population isn’t. It’s disorienting. By clinging to nihilism, we’re shaking the foundation, and it depresses people. The reaction appears in articles like this and this.

What people like Simon Sarris are reacting to isn’t really modern living in the strictest sense, he’s not exactly Uncle Ted. It’s this persistence for everything to be meaningless. If nothing is meaningful, we can truly be free. We can do whatever we want.

That these appeals to an older way of life are so attractive to people is the canary in the coal mine.

We’ve been seeing this percolate little-by-little for years. I know I’m a broken record, but I truly believe that this is not an Internet-specific phenomenon.

Why else would Guenon and Evola enjoy such a renaissance? You can pretend like it was an obscure population of people, but my friends, in 2015 I could buy The Crisis of the Modern World in Bastrop county, Texas. That says something.

The nihilism is suffocating; this lack of meaning is a death drive. Being able to do literally anything you want so long as everyone opts in may make you more autonomous, but it doesn’t give you meaning.

People want pleasure today, but they want meaning tomorrow. They want meaning even more than happiness.

What is the value of restraint?

The value of restraint is the value of balance. As it seems like I’m constantly saying: the pendulum swings.

And it will swing back, if we’re not careful.


Writer’s note: Something I wanted to touch on in this piece and didn’t, mostly because it was becoming too long-winded of a post, is the relationship between our lack of boundaries in our interpersonal lives/online expression and sex. Is there one? Restraint can be exercised in more than just the obvious places—drinking, sex, food—it’s also an important part of how we keep our relationships healthy. I'm especially interested in people’s thoughts around this. Leave a comment below if you have any?

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