By Harvey Blume.
I admire Susan Jacoby.
For reasons that perhaps have less to do with her copious writings than with sexism, she is not, so far as media is concerned, on the A-list of New Atheists but is nevertheless a learned and passionate advocate of secularism and, more than her male peers—Hitchens, Dawkins, et al—a chronicler of its authentic but embattled position in American history, from Thomas Paine on.
I reviewed, praised, and was educated by Jacoby’s recent book—The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought—and wondered only why I was not aware of and tracking her earlier.
I define myself as a secularist. I think it’s rather sophomoric to ask if God exists and so prefer not to use the label “atheist,” which gives the question more import than I think it deserves. I suppose I am a paleo-atheist, having arrived at my position before the neo-atheists made their debut.
In any case, Jacoby published an op-ed in yesterday’s NY Times (“Weiner’s Women,” 7/31/13) that gives me several kinds of pause. Jacoby wants to shift the media spotlight from Weiner and his digital antics to the women who welcomed them. (Let’s recall that Weiner has not been accused of harassment: those to whom he sexted were, so far as we know, willing sextees [sic]).
Of course, one crucial difference between the sexter and the sextees in this case leaps out immediately: the women to whom Weiner displayed himself were not running for mayor of New York City. Their character—cupidity, trustworthiness, addictiveness, and pathology, if any—did not, therefore, become paramount.
Jacoby goes on to ask, why is [Weiner] called a pervert while Sydney Leathers’s statement [Leathers being a noted sextee] that their Internet contact progressed to phone sex twice a week—“a fantasy thing for both of us,” she told one tabloid TV show—is greeted with neutral, if not exactly respectful, attention?
From that point on, Jacoby goes on to sound, uncomfortably, like an advocate for Women Against Pornography. She’s not but cuts it close. At the very least, she’s no fan of new media and the possibilities for sexual fantasy that are born with.
She writes, “What’s truly troubling about the whole business is that it resembles the substitution of texting for extended, face-to-face time with friends.”
There’s something to that, something D. H. Lawrence would approve.
Then she writes, “Virtual sex is to sex as virtual food is to food: you can’t taste, touch or smell it, and you don’t have to do any preparation or work.”
Wrong. You can’t live on the thought of bread. With sex, it’s different. You can actually have virtual sex. Sometimes thoughts of sex, if shared, are sex.
What Jacoby proposes, in effect, is to subtract fantasy from sex: only touch and smell should count. That’s old school, if not a tad priggish. Touch and smell in and of themselves may completely suffice for some, and perhaps did for her. For many of us, though, a sprinkle of fantasy spices the touch and smell up.
This was true well before sexting. New media always abets the power to articulate fantasy and fetish. There is a section in France’s Biblioteque National called L’enfer. Off limits to most visitors, until recently anyway, it housed the kind of pornographic material thought to be a dubious by-product of print.
The fantasy Jacoby seems to harbor is one of a sexual world in which fantasy plays no part.