Sunday, July 26, 2015

On aging and the relative attractiveness of men and women

One does not read Michel Houellebecq for the progressiveness of his politics. As it happens, if one is me, one does not read Michel Houellebecq very often, for any reason at all. But the current issue of The Paris Review included an extract of Submission, and I read it, to see if I might be interested at all in reading the book. (Spoiler: I am not.)

The extract is of a subgenre that has been all too familiar, ever since Henry Miller: Heterosexual man writes from the point-of-view of his penis. Being possessed of a penis, I perhaps do not find this type of writing quite as tiresome as most non-penised readers might. But being bi- or pan-sexual (depending on the light of the moon and how much I am willing to sacrifice ready comprehensibility to straights for the sake of precision), I come at it slantways.

Consider, for example, this sentence: "In short, I benefited from that basic inequality between men, whose erotic potential diminishes very slowly as they age, and women, for whom the collapse comes with shocking brutality from year to year, or even from month to month." This is not an especially original observation. In fact, it is a cliché. I am sure I can find parallel sentences in the works of other straight male literary writers with an erotic edge, whether Kundera or Nabokov or the aforementioned Miller. Most clichés become clichés because they have an element of truth. This one, however, I am confident in saying, is an outright falsehood.

It is not just any kind of falsehood, but specifically, an ideological falsehood, an example of the type of self-interested lie that a man tells himself to justify an unjust state of affairs from which he personally benefits. That a man may find women far too young to be appropriate mates more attractive than women roughly his own age reveals little more than his emotional immaturity. That he may occasionally succeed in acting upon such desires is also unremarkable, particularly in literature, which gives ample room for wish-fulfillment. For this phenomenon to be inflated into a general law of the relative attractiveness of the sexes as they age is absurd, particularly as the straight man, in judging the attractiveness of men, has no sample, only a single data point, narcissistically measured: Himself.

On the contrary, I can affirm, as someone who has long been attracted to women and men in roughly equal measure, that on average, women age far better than men. Nor is it a matter of women, attempting to keep pace with patriarchal norms of beauty, working harder to maintain their attractiveness. Certainly this plays into it, but there are too many counterexamples, not the least of which is my own wife, who has never worn a bit of makeup and whose most rigorous workout regimen is some occasional yoga. It is men who are far more in need of regular intervention to avoid a catastrophic collapse in their desirability, even as, because of a relative lack of social pressure, they are far less likely to practice such interventions.

Of course there are men my age and older whom I find attractive. Without exception, however, they are not straight. It will be interesting to see, as the social experiment of extending legal marriage to same-sex couples takes root, whether gay men in state-sanctioned long-term relationships will allow themselves to "let themselves go" as their heterosexual counterparts long have. That does not appear to have happened yet, but it is too soon to tell.

That a judgment like Houellebecq's is allowed to stand, and persist, and replicate, nearly unchallenged, without impairing his critical reception as a putatively insightful author, shows only that the literary apparatus of publishing, translating, and reviewing remains dominated by people more or less like him, straight men of middle age or greater who affirm its truth not because it is true, but because they would very much like it to be so.

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