Sunday, May 4, 2014

One Zero Two: Transactions

There's a particular writer out there in the gender wars who calls himself "Dr. NerdLove", and whose columns always leave me irritated, dejected, and angry. His tagline at his website is "Helping Nerds Get The Girl", but of course his columns do exactly the opposite. They discourage anyone male from approaching a girl, they discourage romance and flirtation and seduction, and they discourage anyone male from having particular sexual interests or needs. "Dr. NerdLove" (who isn't a PhD or an MD, by the way) claims to be "sex-positive", but of course so many of his columns are devoted to telling his readers not to have sex. His vision of a proper relationship is exactly that of some very stodgy 1950s advice columnist--- the only proper affair is one that begins with the clear intent of becoming a "committed", lifelong relationship and proceeds without involving any sort of passionate sexual interest or sexual engagement. He very much dislikes the idea that anyone--- anyone male ---might be interested in a partner in any way that involves physical desire and any kind of social play. His especial ire is reserved for the idea that sex is "transactional" in any way, or that affairs or dates are tainted with being transactions of any sort.

I've never understood the disdain for the idea that sex is "transactional". I suppose some of that must be based on the idea that sex can only be a good thing if it's based on the pure joining of souls and spirits, and some of it is based on a fear that saying something is "transactional" is yielding ground to the patriarchy and to MRA/PUA types who declare that all women are "whores".  I've never seen anything wrong with the idea that sex and romance have a transactional element; I thought those things were built in from the start.

I've always thought that any kind of social life was about transactions and strategies. Yes, I read Marcel Mauss and his followers when I was at university--- about symbolic exchanges and the role of gifting in tribal and archaic societies. But even before that, I knew that there was something called "transactional analysis" that had its moment in the sun back in the early and mid-1960s. I knew that it involved looking at human interactions in terms of games, of strategies and transactions. I hadn't read any of the works, but I knew from book reviews and review articles that it existed, and basically what it was about. And of course I'd read things like Austen and Henry James. I always thought social life--- personal interactions, romances, marriages, friendships ---were about strategies and transactions. I took that for granted.

The idea of sex and romance as transactional seems quite natural to me--- after all, I grew up in a culture that valorizes the market and the idea of exchange.  I can't see it as degrading to either party, and it seems to me that it's an efficient way to move forward in any kind of developing affair. After all, I've always preferred rituals and procedures. They have the advantage of reducing friction, of reducing the need to agonize over decisions and choices. In terms of a particular social structure, if you do A, then B will follow.  X does this, and Y knows that in terms of the structure, one responds with that.

When I was younger, the point of a date--- of an affair ---was to engage with someone attractive and bright and move towards bed: through hanging out to making out. I always expected that the girl across the table or in the passenger seat of the car knew that and was there for the same thing. We'd each go through the symbolic exchanges that underlay a seduction, and, yes, that did involve taking her to dinner or for drinks and paying. I was signaling that I valued her enough to expend resources; she responded by presenting me with her time and attention.  That seemed, and still seems, straightforward enough.  And both parties knew that we were going through ritual moves to reach a goal both of us understood.

We're social animals. We build structures and systems, and we create rituals and procedures to move through them. We deploy strategies to seek social advantage, and we participate in exchanges--- some symbolic, some concrete, often both ---as part of those strategies. I've never seen a problem with that. At the very least, looking at sex and romance as transactional forces both parties to be very clear about what they want and about what they're prepared to give up for that.  It forces us to acknowledge that there's a goal--- a physical goal ---in any affair. The soi-disant "Dr. NerdLove" is very good at chastising and browbeating his readers and anyone seeking his advice, but he's no good at all at admitting what an affair is about or that any relationship occurs within a web of social maneuvers. He doesn't really try to "help the nerd get the girl"--- he really seems to be doing quite the opposite. And he refuses to admit that sex and romance, like pretty much everything else in a social structure, proceeds by strategy and exchange.

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