Guest post: Every cultural artifact subtly trains us

Originally a comment by Anna Y on If she can walk she can marry.

The reasoning behind your outrage at the lack of outrage on the part of some people seems somehow backwards…

The way I see it — grossly oversimplified, yes, but intentionally so, to get at the roots of this difference in opinion — is that one can only be outraged by an adult man courting an adolescent girl if one believes the feminist premise that women are people.

Marriage, in every culture I’m aware of (I’ll admit to lack of expertise, but this is a polemic, not a dissertation on the origin of the concept) is fundamentally an institution to legislate the conditions under which men are allowed to own and make use of female humans as livestock/chattel slaves. Some religions go as far as to set out an extensive framework of mutual rights and obligations, but as men are always granted the ultimate authority in the marriage (and other men are always the arbiters/enforcers), it is men’s rights and their wives obligations that are preferentially enforced by their society. This is really what “Patriarchy” means, regardless of the multitude of figleaves any given culture uses to disguise this fundamental structure of the marriage relationship.

Many Westerners (at least the ones sufficiently aware of history not to reject the idea outright) like to argue that the institution has evolved, and, to some extent it has, but even today, even in developed countries, the institution of marriage is only as evolved as that country’s attitude to women’s status as full and equal human beings. Slavery is a sufficiently unpalatable concept today, that, certainly, in the U.S., even the most fundamentalist of fundamentalists would strenuously protest the claim that a “wife” is just a nice word for livestock/property. However, the inferior status of women is so “baked in” into what our society considers normal or “normal enough” to make allowances for, that it takes a great deal of effort to even spot specific instances.

This is why, to many, many people (yes, including women — since women are people equally capable of absorbing their cultural milieu), a relationship between an adolescent girl and an adult man doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Even many people who consider 14 to be too young to date or marry a man in his 30s only see it as a matter of legality and/or infantilizing the 14-year-old as being too young to be exposed to sexuality (this being incompatible with the concept of childhood purity). These same people are more ok with a 16-year-old dating/marrying that same man (especially in states with a lower age of consent). Almost no one blinks at a 30-something man pursuing 18-19 year old girls in general.

And why should they? Every cultural artifact subtly trains us to accept some degree of men’s ownership or domination of women — it is literally inescapable. Even as Americans have come to see their pets as family members and to increasingly legislate for their humane treatment (and to pass harsh social judgement on people who treat their pets worse than the socially-accepted standard but not sufficiently badly to violate the law), we have come to expect the same sort of “nicety” in ownership of wives and children, but the inherent right to ownership is still softly implied, and the only points of disagreement, really, are local community standards. So yeah, in plenty of communities parents are perfectly fine with, and, indeed, welcoming of, their adolescent daughters being courted by older, established, high-status men. After all, if these daughters are meant to be owned, isn’t it better to hand them over to a stable, mature, kind and wealthy owner who can provide them with a good home, pamper them, and have more alternatives when it comes to extracting domestic labor from them? And just as it is easier to find a home for a puppy or a kitten, who, in addition to being extra adorable, also promise to be more trainable, and, due to their youth, free from the potential baggage of prior trauma (and therefore neurotic triggers needing to be accommodated) inflicted by abusive owners or bad habits fostered by neglectful ones, isn’t it easier to find a good future owner for your daughter while she is younger, firmer/tighter/bouncier, and more naive and unformed, making it easier for her to adjust to her future circumstances at the same time as it gives her new owner more power to mould her to his preferences?

The only reason you’d be outraged by an adult man repeatedly pursuing relationships with adolescent girls (and at least deeply suspicious if this happened on only one occasion) is if you believed that women’s inner lives were exactly as deep, interesting, and valuable as men’s, and that adolescent girls should, therefore, be given the opportunity to mature at their own pace, to both pursue their own educational and professional goals (as ends in themselves, not as a future financial asset to the families they will one day have) AND to explore their own developing sexualities and experiment without pressure (such as from a more socially competent adult seeking to mould them to satisfy his own, already formed desires). If that was the source of your objections, you’d see the age of consent laws as a very imperfect tool to try and protect minors from predation by adults (usually, specifically adult males), rather than a silly PC rule constraining right-thinking red-blooded men from playing ball when grass has very obviously been on the field for years. In fact, if that was the source of your objections, you’d be more willing to make exceptions and take context into consideration, reasoning that an adolescent may well be interested in and pursue an adult, and, again, while any right-thinking adult would rebuff such advances as a matter of course, in some rare sets of circumstances, it would, at least, not be unambiguously wrong for the adult in question to accept them (while everyone still agreeing that it IS unambiguously wrong for an adult to pursue an adolescent).

Much as some people love to insist that compromise is always possible, there’s really no middle ground between these two positions. Sure, you might have a perfectly reasonable conversation with someone where you agree that no one under 18 is old enough to get married, and that when women are educated they are healthier, happier, more satisfied with their lives, form more stable families, etc, and that male violence against women is unacceptable, and so on and so forth, but just because you agree on all of these “right on” socially acceptable virtue signalling “best practices” doesn’t mean you are actually seeing eye-to-eye. It is easy to overlook fundamental disagreements on first principles when everything is going well. It is only when norms are violated (but not always even then) that anyone even begins to question why those are the norms, how they became the norms, and whether everyone arrived at their agreement on what the norms are from the same starting point, and once you start debating those starting points, it really isn’t pretty: there’s no middle ground, you can’t agree to disagree, and there isn’t an agreed-upon arbiter to appeal to to settle the question once and for all.

So, sure, maybe everyone who frequents this blog will be outraged by Roy Moore kissing a 14-year-old when he was in his 30s (I’m not aware of her name or if it’s even been released) and inviting her to fondle him, and maybe everyone here will be equally outraged both by his asking (at 34) a 17-year-old Debbie Gibson to date him AND by her mother’s reaction. But I am far too familiar with just how quickly most Americans, even if they superficially agree that women are people and the equals of men, reveal an alarming lack of follow-through when it comes to their expectations of what being full and equal humans actually entails when it comes to women. Honestly, I often question if ignorance isn’t bliss, and if it isn’t really better (if one is lucky enough, of course) to find a nice owner at 17 (or 18, or even 14) and sail through life without ever being made fully and repeatedly aware that almost everyone you meet will see you as no more than a cow, or, if they are really nice and liberal, perhaps a cat.

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