Impressions garnered during a recent trip to the Holy Land:
Cats everywhere. I mean all over the place.
Pilgrims too. Thousands of them, most traveling in huge buses that crowd the narrow streets of Israeli and Palestinian cities and jam the too-small parking lots at Christian shrines.
The pilgrims are a colorful and multicultural lot. Coming from every corner of the globe, they embody the idea—or is it the myth?—of a Universal Church. My traveling companion estimates that two thirds of the pilgrims are white and the rest people of color. I make the mix at closer to fifty-fifty. They come from everywhere: Europe, both East and West; Russia and the Caucasus; East Asia; Southeast Asia; sub-Saharan Africa; Latin America; and, of course, throughout the Anglosphere. Together they offer a model of diversity that Harvard administrators would envy.
Most are Christian, but by no means all. While we stand in line at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—a two-hour wait!—the group following us consists of Muslims from India. Jesus is their prophet too.
For the great majority, the motive for traveling to the Holy Land is clearly spiritual. There is praying and singing aplenty, the Africans outshining all others when praising the Lord.
What does this impressive outpouring of religiosity signify politically? Next to nothing, it would seem. If pilgrims in like numbers descended on Jerusalem to promote gender equality or gay rights, the Times, the Post, and the news networks would be all over the story, with pundits vying with one another to explain the momentous implications. Yet people clinging to millennia-old religious convictions rate no more than passing attention from editors and executives who decide what qualifies as news and what doesn’t. God is so yesterday.
The crowds are generally cheerful and well behaved. Only when they close in on some shrine do they take leave of their senses. What ensues are not expressions of religious ecstasy, but outbursts of blasphemy via iPhone. Proximity to the sacred induces an apparent compulsion to preserve the moment for posterity, preferably by snapping a selfie or recording a panoramic video. In the holiest spaces in all of Christendom, flashing smartphones create an atmosphere akin to the strobe lights in a vintage disco. It is, to put it mildly, unseemly—like lighting up a stogie inside the Lincoln Memorial or shooting spitballs at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
I take consolation in noting that my fellow Americans are not the only offenders. In their disrespect for the sacred, all nationalities, sects, and denominations are as one. Here is unimpeachable evidence that even the nominally devout have succumbed to the global pandemic of electronic narcissism. What chance does the Trinity stand when opposed by the likes of Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg?
I struggle to maintain a prayerful attitude. It is easier to do so on the Mount of the Beatitudes, where we celebrate an early morning outdoor mass in relative quiet, than in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, which is basically a mob scene. Following a visit to the Dead Sea, I give up. Just as I wade into its salty waters, I hear thunder and the sky opens up. But instead of the Lord issuing me marching orders, it’s merely a torrential downpour. I take the hint: there will be no revelation on this visit.
The pilgrimage necessarily intersects with the troubled history of this ancient land. With rare exceptions, the churches we visit rest on the ruins of other houses of worship, demolished centuries earlier by invaders intent on making a clear statement about who was now in charge. War and religion and more war have shaped the Holy Land. Give the Israelis this much credit: since they took over, edifices erected by Christians and Muslims of an earlier era have survived.
Yet as we crisscross the country, we encounter reminders of the divisions that persist: checkpoints (which tour buses glide past without pause) and hideous concrete dividing walls splashed with graffiti denouncing Israel and calling for the liberation of Palestine.
On previous visits to Israel, albeit none within the past decade, I was always conscious of a guns-at-the-ready security presence. This time it’s different. The atmosphere seems more relaxed. Of course, our travels take us nowhere near the flashpoint of Gaza. (During our visit, IDF commandos conduct a botched raid into the Strip.)
Still, one gets the sense that the power differential between Jews and Palestinians is now so great as to make further resistance to the Zionist project all but futile. The mood conveyed by our tour guide and a pair of drivers—each a middle-aged Arab Israeli with a family—is one of resigned accommodation. The urgency of the graffiti notwithstanding, Palestinian liberation may well have to wait for the Second Coming.
I encounter occasional references to “peace,” but they strike me as half-hearted. In Israel today, peace signifies not reconciliation, but a willingness to accept a soft form of apartheid. No, it’s not South Africa in the bad old days. But it’s not equality and won’t be.
I encounter no one who considers the so-called two-state solution even a remote possibility. The Netanyahu government enjoys the upper hand and exploits its advantages accordingly. The colonization of the West Bank continues apace. Peace? One might as well look to Donald Trump to devote his remaining time in office to closing the divisions in American society.
The results of ethnic hierarchy are particularly visible in and around Jerusalem. Especially in Jewish neighborhoods, new buildings are springing up everywhere. In Tel Aviv, the same story applies, without the bother of Jerusalem’s weekly bow to religious observance. One cabbie’s comment: Tel Aviv has become Las Vegas without the casinos. He obviously approves.
Yet visit where Arabs live (or are confined) and you confront a different story. Jericho offers a case in point: depressingly poor with dozens of half-built, now abandoned cinderblock buildings, shuttered storefronts, trash-strewn streets, and kids everywhere. Cats too. Signs announce rehabilitation projects funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Substantive results are indiscernible, even if the signs are in tiptop condition. Your tax dollars at work.
When we interrupt our travels to take a break, I approach a group of young Israeli soldiers, themselves waiting for a bus. Anyone speak English, I ask? Sure, answers one good-looking kid. His accent is familiar.
Where are you from?
He turns out to be an Ohio State grad, serving a tour as a “lone soldier”—a Jew but not an Israeli—in the IDF. There are thousands of them.
I have never been comfortable with this phenomenon. If a young American hankers to defend a country, it strikes me that he ought to defend his own rather than someone else’s. But this Buckeye from Connecticut is obviously a fine upstanding fellow so I don’t press him to explain.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, offers an answer of sorts to why a young Jew from abroad might volunteer to serve in the IDF. We visit on the morning of our departure date. Although our pilgrimage is now finished, we have a few spare hours before heading home.
The story that the museum tells is harrowing, of course—monstrous depravity, widespread indifference, and sheer evil leading to the betrayal, abandonment, and murder of European Jewry. The lesson seems clear: at the end of the day, to ensure their survival, Jews are unwise to rely on anyone but themselves. Perhaps that explains why a Connecticut Yankee opts to serve in the IDF instead of the armed forces of his very own United States of America. But I still don’t like it.
When we finish touring the exhibit, we walk back into the sunshine and take a taxi to Ben Gurion Airport. Our pilgrimage to this land, burdened with more than its fair share of religious and secular history, has left us with much to reflect upon.
Near the entrance of Yad Vashem, a quote by Kurt Tucholsky, a German Jewish journalist from the Weimar period, caught my eye: “A country is not just what it does—it is also what it puts up with, what it tolerates.” Of course, the word tolerates implies agency—having a choice in the matter. Take the long view and you have to wonder whether in the Holy Land actual choice exists. Perhaps inhabitants across the centuries have merely played out their assigned roles in a vast drama not of their own design. If so, we know Who to blame.
Comcast on Wednesday fired Andrew Kovalic, a 10-year employee who earlier this week became the target of a viral petition alleging that he is a member of a militant right wing group.
The petition that called for Kovalic’s termination, which had garnered 373 signatures by Wednesday morning, was created and sponsored by the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Media Mobilizing Project, which often scrutinizes media and telecommunications companies like Comcast.
The petition directly addressed Comcast CEO Brian Roberts:
“Employing Andrew Kovalic, a member of the hate group the Proud Boys, is an embarrassment and an insult to the communities of Philadelphia and the country. […] Comcast should terminate his employment immediately, and state clearly and publicly that it will not tolerate racist and fascist speech, organizing and actions from its employees.”
In a statement to Philadelphia magazine, Comcast said, “There’s no place for disrespectful, offensive behavior in our culture. The individual is no longer employed by Comcast.” When asked how Comcast made its determination to fire Kovalic and what specific behavior led to the company’s decision, a spokesperson said they could not comment on the situation beyond the statement.
Calls made to a cell phone number associated with Kovalic, whose since-deleted LinkedIn profile said he had been working for Comcast as a communications technician since 2008, were not immediately returned.
The petition was created after a Twitter thread by user @AntiFashGordon went viral on Monday, November 12th. The thread called attention to a “We the People” rally scheduled to take place in Philadelphia on Saturday.
On Facebook, the right wing rally’s organizers state that the purpose of the event is to “Show Philly what patriotism really is.” Those encouraged to attend are “patriots, militia, constitution loving Americans” and those who are “pro good cop, pro ICE, pro law and order, pro life, pro American value, pro gun and anti illegal immigration.” Organizers also wrote, “Any violence, racism, or display of hate by any group or individual is extremely prohibited.”
Despite the rally’s stated purpose, the event is being linked to groups like the Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed a hate group. This is where Kovalic comes in.
The now-former Comcast employee, the petition alleges, is a member of the Harrisburg Proud Boys chapter. The petition also alleges that Kovalic will work as a member of security at Saturday’s right wing rally — which, the petition argues, is sufficient grounds for firing him.
The Media Mobilizing Project petition also calls attention to a photo of Kovalic in his Comcast uniform, holding up the “OK” hand gesture that’s simultaneously a trolling tactic of the alt-right and considered a symbol of white power. The hand gesture is supposed to indicate the letters ‘O’ and ‘W’ to signal that ‘It’s Okay to be White.’ Seemingly innocuous, but adopted by militant right wingers and other conservatives as a code word for White Nationalism and resistance to Leftist internationalists. More on that here.
The Proud Boys Harrisburg chapter responded to Philadelphia magazine’s request for comment with the following emailed statement:
“We like beer. We still like beer. Have a Dick pic. Sincerely, The Greatest Fucking Fraternity in the History of Mankind.”
A Media Mobilizing Project representative told Philadelphia magazine that “Comcast has done the right thing by not continuing to employ a person planning a rally focused on hate for Black, Brown, immigrant, Jewish and many other communities.”
They added, “But if Comcast truly wants to erase the hate, it has to make a stronger statement in support of communities under threat in these precarious times, and note that it will never tolerate racist, fascist, anti-Semitic and white supremacist words, actions, and organizing by its employees.” Archive
In the spring of 2007, the Socialist Equality Party/Inter-national Committee (SEP/IC) was rocked by a public scandal when Scott Solomon, an embittered former adherent, revealed that David North is not only the leading figure of the SEP and IC, but is also CEO of Grand River Printing & Imaging (GRPI), a multi-million dollar business in Michigan. The SEP leadership would apparently prefer to keep its successful commercial venture secret, but it cannot deny the facts. (From 2013 0 GRP is a G7 certified web offset commercial printer with a focus on managing complex print projects. The company offers heatset six-color web presses as well as database management, pre-press, bindery and direct-mail services. GRP is twice the recipient of the RAVE award for customer satisfaction presented by the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL). It has won recognition as a “Best Workplace” three times in contests sponsored by Crain’s Detroit Business and IRI Consulting. Its most recent award was given by Hartford Insurance for marking 1,000 days without a workday lost to accident.)
The GRPI evolved from the in-house printshop that used to produce the Bulletin, the newspaper of the Workers League (WL—the SEP’s predecessor). When the WL/SEP suspended publication of the Bulletin in favor of producing an online daily on its World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), the party print shop was apparently quietly transformed into a full-blown business.
At about the same time, the SEP/IC leadership discarded the traditional Marxist view of trade unions as defensive organizations of the working class and declared that they had become simple agencies of the capitalists. North wrote a lengthy essay on this theme entitled “Globalization and the Unions,” in which he announced the “objective transformation of the AFL-CIO into an instrument of the corporations and the capitalist state.” We polemicized against this in 1917 No. 29 (see “SEP: Defeatist and Confusionist: The Class Nature of the Unions”).
The Northites recently seized upon the squalid deal signed by the United Auto Workers (UAW) in October 2007 with General Motors, which permits the company to offload responsibility for itsretirees’ health-care coverage with a contribution of cash and a $4.4 billion convertible note (based on the value of GM common stock) to a Voluntary Employee Benefit Association (VEBA). The deal benefited the bossesby massively reducing their liabilities, while giving the UAW bureaucracy, which gets to manage the fund, a major new source of revenue and influence. The only ones to lose out will be retired autoworkers, whose benefits will be reduced when VEBA’s investment portfolio underperforms.
In a 12 October 2007 statement, the SEP wrote:
“The so-called ‘voluntary employees beneficiary association,’ or VEBA, will turn the union into a profit-making enterprise and make the union bureaucracy full-fledged shareholders in the exploitation of the workers. The UAW bureaucracy will get its hands on a massive cash hoard, including shares in GM, which will ensure its income even as it administers ever deeper cuts in the benefits of retired union members.” —“The middle-class ‘left’ and the UAW-GM contract”
Seemingly oblivious to the parallel between the UAW bureaucracy’s relationship to VEBA and the SEP’s to the GRPI, the Northites declared: “The open transformation of the UAW into a business is not a sudden or unexpected development.” But the auto union has not been transformed into a capitalist enterprise; the UAW remains part of the workers’ movement, despite the grotesque, and growing, corruption of its leadership. Leon Trotsky described the tendency of the labor bureaucracy in the imperialist countries to be transformed from mere agents of the bourgeoisie into “stakeholders” in the ventures of the ruling class:
“The intensification of class contradictions within each country, the intensification of antagonisms between one country and another, produce a situation in which imperialist capitalism can tolerate (i.e., up to a certain time) a reformist bureaucracy only if the latter serves directly as a petty but active stockholder of its imperialist enterprises, of its plans and programs within the country as well as on the world arena.” —“Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” 1940
Yet Trotsky concluded:
“in spite of the progressive degeneration of trade unions and their growing together with the imperialist state, the work within the trade unions not only does not lose any of its importance but remains as before and becomes in a certain sense even more important work than ever for every revolutionary party. The matter at issue is essentially the struggle for influence over the working class.”
When the IC first announced that it was writing off the unions, our German comrades projected that North & Co. might one day “find themselves in a political bloc with the capitalists in their attack on the institutions of the workers’ movement” (1917 No. 20). The SEP’s October 2007 statement does exactly that, declaring: “The Socialist Equality Party would advise workers, should the UAW come to their plant, to vote to keep it out.”
No doubt GRPI management would give similar advice to any employees thinking about unionizing. Socialists, by contrast, believe that workers should be organized. In a case of vice paying homage to virtue, the SEP’s 12 January 2006 statement for the U.S. mid-term elections advocated “a guaranteed right of workers to join a union and control the union democratically; the outlawing of union-busting tactics and wage-cutting.” This was coupled with a peculiar demand for “government support for small and medium-sized businesses.” Even the reformist left has not historically been in the habit of demanding public funding for private capitalists, but then few of them ever owned “medium-sized businesses.”
Sri Lankan Exceptionalism in the IC
The SEP/IC’s October 2007 statement on the UAW makes it very clear that its anti-union stance is not only applicable in North America:
“Two facts demonstrate that the transformation of the UAW is not simply the product of the subjective characteristics of corrupt leaders or misguided policies, but rather the expression of fundamental objective processes rooted in the nature of trade union organizations and the impact of major changes in the structure of world capitalism. The first is the protracted period, now extending over decades, in which the unions have worked openly to suppress the class struggle and impose cuts in workers’ wages and benefits, along with massive layoffs.”
“The second fact is the international scale of the degeneration and transformation of the unions. This is not an American, but rather a world phenomenon, embracing the unions in the advanced capitalist centers of North America, Europe and Asia, as well as those in so-called ‘less developed’ countries. From the American UAW and AFL-CIO, to the British Trades Union Congress, to the German Federation of Unions, to the Australian Council of Trade Unions, to the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the unions have adopted a corporatist policy of labor-management ‘partnership’ and worked to drive down labor costs at the expense of the jobs, wages and working conditions of their members.
“The driving force behind this universal process is the globalization of capitalist production, which has eclipsed the former primacy of national markets, including the labor market, and enabled transnational corporations to scour the earth for ever-cheaper sources of labor power. This has rendered the unions, wedded by dint of their historical origins and class-collaborationist tendencies to the national market and the national state, obsolete and impotent.”
It seems, however, that Sri Lanka is an exception to this “world phenomenon.” It is perhaps not a coincidence that this is the one country in which a leading member of an IC section is also a union president. Unlike North’s role as the boss of a capitalist enterprise, the IC seems proud of their Sri Lankan comrade’s activities. The WSWS report on a 13 November 2007 SEP public meeting in Colombo to denounce the ongoing war against Tamil separatists mentioned that one of the main speakers was “K.B. Mavikumbura, an SEP central committee member and president of the Central Bank Employees Union (CBEU).” The article extensively quoted Mavikumbura’s account of his recent union activities:
“We presented a resolution in the CBEU calling on workers to unite on socialist policies to end the war. We pointed out that the campaign for the withdrawal of the military from the north-east, which is under de facto military rule, is a necessary condition to unite workers….
“Recently I attended a trade union meeting to organise a picket in support of teachers. The government had said it could not increase the salaries of teachers as it had to pay for the war. It took out an order in the Supreme Court to intimidate teachers. I explained that workers should take up a political fight against the government. The central question is to oppose the war, but the trade unions leaders rejected that. Instead they said workers should form an alliance with the opposition United National Party (UNP), which is notorious for attacking workers’ rights. Workers need to build an independent political movement based on a socialist perspective.” —“SEP holds public meeting in Colombo to oppose the war in Sri Lanka”
Anyone in the political orbit of the Northites might wonder how Mavikumbura’s activities can be squared with the view that unions are simply agencies of the bosses.
‘Transformation Into a Business’
Does the IC position on the unions simply reflect a loss of confidence in the capacity of the working class to oust the bureaucrats and gain control of its own mass organizations? Or is it a reflection of the social pressures of running a successful business? As Marx observed, being tends to determine consciousness, and for North & Co., the increasing revenues of the GRPI could certainly provide a material basis for the growth of personal/political corruption within the SEP/IC leadership.
Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner, former close associates of North who continue to identify politically with the SEP/IC, hint at this in the conclusion of a lengthy document dated 16 December 2007 which recalls how Gerry Healy (the former head of the IC) accepted large sums of money from various Middle Eastern regimes to act as their left publicist:
“This too was one of the key lessons of the WRP [Workers Revolutionary Party] split—that the ‘unanimity’ of Healy’s leadership group masked all kinds of opportunist relationships based on personal and financial arrangements. We have no doubt that the silence of the rest of the IC leadership is also based, at least in part, on opportunist considerations of a financial and personal nature.” —“Marxism Without Its Head or Its Heart”
The IC’s revisionism did not commence with the transformation of the WL printing plant into a business, nor as Steiner and Brenner argue, when North et al abandoned the struggle against “pragmatism.” Gerry Healy’s political-bandit operation (including its American satellite run initially by Tim Wolhforth and later by North) was very distant programmatically from Trotskyism long before they began promoting Colonel Qaddaffi and other Middle Eastern despots.
Leftist organizations that obtain substantial funding from sources outside their field of political activity will inevitably tend to become depoliticized and subject to alien class forces. Trotsky made this point in an 8 October 1923 letter addressing some of the early symptoms of the growing bureaucratization of the Soviet Communist Party:
“There is without question an inner connection between the separate and self-contained character of the secretarial organization—more and more independent of the party—and the tendency toward setting up a budget as independent as possible of the success or failure of the party’s collective work of construction.” —The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25)
North et al said essentially the same thing in their major 1986 statement renouncing Healy:
“Moreover, elements among the journalists, actors and actresses who passed from Fleet Street and the West End into the Political Committee of the WRP, without any apprenticeship in the class struggle, provided a physical link to material resources such as the Party had never known. Apart from the day-to-day struggle of the Party membership inside the working class, huge amounts of money were raised. The central leadership thus acquired an independence from the rank and file that destroyed the foundations of democratic centralism.”
“Healy’s high-flying diplomacy and his sudden access to vast material resources, based largely on his opportunist utilization of Vanessa Redgrave as the WRP’s calling card in the Middle East, had a corrosive effect on the Party’s political line and its relation to the working class. Whatever its original intention, it became part of a process through which the WRP became the political captive of alien class force. At the very moment when it was most in need of a course correction, the ‘success’ of its work in the Middle East, which from the beginning lacked a basic proletarian reference point, made it less and less dependent upon the penetration of the working class in Britain and internationally.” —“How the Revolutionary Workers Party Betrayed Trotskyism”
The commercial success of the GRPI today gives the SEP leadership far more independence from their ranks than is usually the case in bureaucratized leftist groups where disposable income tends to be closely tied to the size of the dues base. The SEP’s web-centered political activity requires a cadre of talented writers and editors, but the fact that the group conducts very little real public activity means that there are few opportunities for new recruits to develop outside of attending the occasional in-house event. Over time, we would expect the cash flow generated by the GRPI to have much the same effect on the SEP/IC’s upper strata as VEBA will on the occupants of Solidarity House.
The following commentary on the SEP/IC and GRPI originally appeared on the IBT website in May 2007.
In recent weeks reports have surfaced that David North, leader of the ostensibly Trotskyist Socialist Equality Party and its International Committee, also (as David Green) acts as CEO of Grand River Printing & Imaging (GRPI—www.grpinc.com/grandriver-history.html), one of Michigan’s larger printing companies, which reported $25 million in business transactions last year. Like other readers of the SEP’s online daily, we have been waiting to see what the World Socialist Web Site has to say about the flap over the GRPI. It seems that, for the time being at least, North et al have decided that discretion is the better part of valor, and are maintaining radio silence.
Most of the comments printed below were written by our comrade Samuel T., who was recruited to the Workers League (predecessor of the SEP) during Fred Mazelis’ 1989 campaign for mayor of New York City. Sam left the WL in 1991 when it refused to call for the defeat of U.S. imperialism in the first Gulf War (see Trotskyist Bulletin No. 8).
On the weekend of 31 March/1 April  Sam and a couple of other IBT supporters went to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend an SEP anti-war conference that was advertised as open to “all WSWS readers.” When our comrades arrived, however, they found that supporters of organizations other than the SEP were not really welcome, and the SEP leadership seemed a bit put out by our criticisms of their claim that trade unions are no longer working-class organizations (see 1917 No. 29).
Gerry Healy, the founder-leader of the British Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) who headed the IC until the mid-1980s, had a well-deserved reputation as a cynical political thug with a penchant for pseudo-dialectical gibberish and crisis mongering. In the late 1960s, along with Ernest Mandel and the Pabloist “United Secretariat” (USec), the IC hailed various Middle East bonapartists as manifestations of a trans-class “Arab Revolution.” The IC also shared the Pabloists’ enthusiasm for Mao Zedong’s “Red Guard” faction during the massive intra-bureaucratic wrangle known as the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Today, in a symmetrical deviation, North’s SEP denies that China was ever any sort of workers’ state.
By the 1980s, the political prostitutes of the IC were acting as paid publicists for Libya’s Muammar el Qaddafi and other Arab despots. The most despicable act of these political gangsters was providing intelligence to Saddam Hussein’s reactionary Baathist regime on émigré members of the Iraqi Communist Party. When the WRP/IC imploded in 1985-86, former members came forward and told of being sent to take photographs of leftist exiles at demonstrations, which the WRP leadership then passed on to the Iraqi embassy.
After Healy’s fall, the current IC leadership, headed by David North, sought to adjust the group’s image to something more closely approximating the “anti-Pabloite Trotskyist” tradition it falsely claims to represent. In their disingenuous account of their belated break with Healy, entitled “How the WRP Betrayed Trotskyism,” the WL leadership downplayed their record of years of slavish obedience to Healy’s every pronouncement. The insistence by North et al that they bear no political responsibility for the IC’s crimes, and that everything was Healy’s fault, recalls Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 attempt to whitewash the crimes of the Soviet bureaucracy by blaming everything on Stalin. People who go back and examine issues of the Bulletin will see for themselves that the Workers League’s uncritical adulation of Qaddafi and the rest of the IC’s bonapartist bankrollers was every bit as enthusiastic as the WRP’s. They will also see that the SEP/IC, like the USec and almost every other pseudo-Trotskyist tendency, consistently supported counterrevolution in the former Soviet bloc, from Lech Walesa’s Polish Solidarnosc in 1981 to Boris Yeltsin’s pro-imperialist rabble in Moscow a decade later. With the passage of time, and an influx of politically raw new members, the SEP/IC leadership has tried to distance itself from its inglorious history. The tone of the WSWS today is far less hysterical than the Bulletin used to be, but the program it puts forward is no more revolutionary.
Some have suggested that the SEP leaders’ role in the GRPI may be connected to their repudiation of the Trotskyist analysis of the trade unions. We don’t claim to know for certain. But it was clear in Ann Arbor that there is a great deal of confusion in the ranks of the SEP on their position regarding the unions. Many newer members seem uneasy with the line, while the older cadres adamantly defend it, even if there is little consistency in the arguments they use, and none of them are able to explain how the AFL-CIO today is qualitatively different than it was in the 1960s and 70s. One senior SEP member ventured that perhaps the destruction of the USSR had somehow transformed U.S. unions into simple tools of the bourgeoisie, commenting: “Well, the collapse of the USSR has changed everything, so why wouldn’t it also change the unions?”
* * *
These comments are from internal discussion in the IBT.
Lenin drew a connection between the 4 August 1914 betrayal of the Social Democrats and the privileged social position of the labor aristocrats who constituted their social base. Trotsky made similar observations regarding the Stalinist bureaucracy, and also traced the Shachtmanites’ [a right-wing split from the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP)] abandonment of defense of the USSR in 1940 to their petty-bourgeois social composition. In 1953, James P. Cannon argued that the Cochranites’ [a subsequent right-wing faction in the SWP] liquidationist politics reflected the conservatizing effects of relative economic stability on older workers. In 1983, we pointed out that the SL’s [Spartacist League] dive on saving the Marines in Lebanon, and its offer the next year to provide defense guards for the Democratic Party, were related to the desire of [SL leader James] Robertson to cultivate a “respectable” image with elements of the ruling class.
It can be a dangerous thing for a small group with Potemkin village inclinations, which the Northites have always had throughout their history, to accumulate assets out of proportion to their actual social weight. It would be surprising if running a major commercial enterprise did not affect the political consciousness of the SEP leadership—as Marx remarked, “being determines consciousness.”
I was struck by the following passage from the SEP’s 2006 election program:
“To establish the economic foundation for the reorganization of economic life in the interests of the broad mass of the working people, we advocate the transformation of all privately owned industrial, manufacturing and information technology corporations valued at $10 billion or more—companies that, taken together, control the decisive share of the US economy—into publicly owned enterprises, with full compensation for small shareholders and the terms of compensation for large shareholders to be publicly negotiated.”
“Property rights must be subordinated to social rights. This does not mean the nationalization of everything, or the abolition of small or medium-sized businesses, which are themselves victimized by giant corporations and banks. Establishing a planned economy will give such businesses ready access to credit and more stable market conditions, so long as they provide decent wages and working conditions.” —“For a socialist alternative in the 2006 U.S. elections,” 12 January 2006 (emphasis added)
How many printing companies in the U.S. are worth more than $10 billion? I notice that Rupert Murdoch is offering $5 billion for Dow Jones (which includes the Wall Street Journal). Would the SEP consider that a “medium-sized business”?
When I was a member, WLers were exhausted by mindless public activity (8-hour shopping mall sales, etc.). I think perhaps the turn away from mass agitation toward a more realistic propaganda perspective where members are not run into the ground accounts for why SEPers now project a more controlled, rational image in public (a high-pressure environment is not good for anyone’s sanity)….
In the old WL there was no escaping getting chewed out at an internal meeting (unless you were in the leadership) for not selling enough papers, doing enough work, contacting enough workers or giving the party enough money—there was no pledge schedule, rather comrades announced how much they were giving that month at a local meeting and then were pressured to give more.
The sense I got from what I was told when I was in, was that the org financed itself almost completely through contributions from members (who were bled dry and encouraged to collect money on the streets, go door to door, borrow from relatives, etc.). The other source was lit sales (which is one reason we’d get screamed at regularly for not selling enough).
I remember as a member asking about Cuba and its class character. When not attacked for raising the question to begin with (on the grounds that it reflected a potential desire to accommodate to Castroism), I was offered a wide range of explanations by different senior comrades. Some gave me a version of the ‘phantom capitalist’ theory (a Lambertiste position, that, as I found out later, was never adopted by the Healyites) [Pierre Lambert, leader of the French Organisation Communiste Internationaliste participated with Healy in the IC until they parted ways in 1971]. Other WLers told me that despite what I had read in books and newspapers, there was indeed significant private ownership in Cuba. They were all improvising, because the IC/WL/SEP to my knowledge always avoided any attempt to seriously explain their position in writing. Members who ask too many questions about touchy subjects like Cuba soon learn not to, as it is taken as displaying an appetite to abandon the working class. I suspect that a similar approach is being used today with those deemed too inquisitive about the GPRI.
On the myspace [website] discussion of the issue, one neophyte supporter of the SEP summed up the explanation he had been given as follows:
the GRPI does not fund the SEP;
the GRPI provides employment for a number of comrades;
no one is getting rich through their involvement with the GRPI;
the GRPI is a successful company and has won awards for being a quality employer.
If I were a member, I would be wondering what the purpose of the GRPI is, if it neither serves the needs of the SEP, nor makes anyone rich. I’d also be curious about which SEP comrades get jobs there and how they get selected. I suppose it’s nice to win awards, but most people would rather work in places where they have union protection instead of having to rely on management goodwill. (I think it is safe to assume that, since “unions have essentially completed their degeneration” they do not represent GRPI’s workforce.)
When the SEP liquidated its printed publications in favor of online publishing, they claimed that doing so was merely recognizing the reality that, in the new age of internet communication, printed matter was becoming obsolete as a way to reach people. It is clear that the SEP has continued to invest tremendous resources to produce its online daily. The WSWS, which is generally pretty well written and covers a wide range of topics from a leftist perspective, possibly has the largest readership of any English-language ostensibly Marxist publication. It gives the SEP a cyberspace presence that far exceeds its weight in the real world.
The existence of the GRPI, and the time and energy that North et al obviously pour into it, makes me wonder if the real motivation for curtailing the production of printed propaganda was to permit the company to reach its full potential. When I was a member we had to buy large numbers of the weekly Bulletin on consignment—each member probably sold around 100 papers a week. The group also printed a monthly Young Socialist, a monthly Spanish publication for immigrants, a monthly or bi-monthly French-language publication sold in Quebec and to Haitian immigrants in New York (amongst whom we had a significant readership), a monthly Canadian newspaper, tons of leaflets, a quarterly theoretical journal, and, most months, a pamphlet or a book. The discovery that paper printing was obsolete (although not for commercial purposes apparently) might also have been a result of a decision that meeting sales quotas by going door-to-door, hanging out at supermarkets, strike chasing and all the other things we used to do, was not an efficient use of members’ political time. It is notable that the change to online from paper publishing, and the transformation of the old party printing plant into a full-blown business enterprise seems to roughly coincide with the change of position on the unions. This may well be a classic case of “program generating theory.”
Marxists have generally seen revisionism as an expression of alien class pressures within the workers’ movement. Small propaganda organizations, with little organic connection to the labor movement, experience that pressure in more indirect ways than mass workers’ parties. In a small leftist group the personal qualities and political appetites of leading members are at least as important in determining the line and the character of its internal regime as the blind social forces that shape mass consciousness.
Marx and Engels wrote a fair number of polemics against the development of personality cults within small socialist organizations, whereas Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, who operated in an atmosphere where socialist ideas were part of the mainstream of the labor movement, tended to dismiss the significance of such behavior.
Ignoring historical context and employing a caricature of the Leninist/Trotskyist analysis of trade-union, social-democratic and Stalinist bureaucracies, the IC has long denounced all other left groups as “petty bourgeois” (while their own social composition is no different) and simultaneously demanded that critics of their highly bureaucratic organization demonstrate upon what materially privileged stratum the IC leadership is based. The recent publicity surrounding the GRPI may lead the IC leadership to be a bit more careful about baiting other groups as “petty bourgeois” for a while.
A small and rigidly hierarchical ostensibly socialist organization, without significant connections to the labor movement or any other mass social movement, that has a largely literary political existence, with little public activity beyond occasionally running candidates in bourgeois elections, is likely to develop some peculiar political deviations. If the leaders of such an organization are also subjected to the social pressures of running a multi-million dollar business, it is hardly surprising that they may come to exhibit indifference to the actual struggles and needs of the working class, or at least find it difficult to connect the limited immediate struggles of the class to the necessity for socialist revolution (i.e., to find the sort of “bridge” that Trotsky outlined in the Transitional Program).
Trotsky saw it as essential for revolutionaries to struggle for the Marxist program within the existing mass organizations of the proletariat, i.e., the unions. The SEP leadership, by contrast, tends to advance a sort of abstract “Sunday Socialism” in which the key operational proposal is often the call to “build the SEP.”
For decades the IC has tended to cater to the backward consciousness of the more privileged sections of the working class and to show little interest in questions of special oppression. Those who insist on the importance of Marxists addressing such questions are attacked for “hating the working class” or being motivated by black-nationalist, bourgeois-feminist or other alien class ideologies. Tim Wohlforth, while still leader of the Workers League, spelled this out with his infamous comment that “The working class hates hippies, faggots and women’s libbers, and so do we!” While far less crude today, the WSWS coverage of the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, for example, was profoundly flawed by the tendency to ignore the blatant racism that characterized capitalist officialdom’s response to the crisis.
The cadres who produce the WSWS can certainly not be faulted for their work ethic—it is an impressive achievement for such a small group to have sustained such a venture for so long. But the value of such a project, from a revolutionary point of view, depends on the political program it advances. The profound revisionism of the SEP on the social revolutions that produced the Cuban and Chinese deformed workers’ states, its support to capitalist restorationists in the Soviet bloc, its defeatist and reactionary position on the trade unions, its historic tendency toward indifference to issues of special oppression and its abandonment of the Bolshevik position of “revolutionary defeatism” in imperialist wars, negates any value the WSWS might have as an instrument for socialist propaganda.
The share of Americans who say sex between unmarried adults is “not wrong at all” is at an all-time high. New cases of HIV are at an all-time low. Most women can—at last—get birth control for free, and the morning-after pill without a prescription.
If hookups are your thing, Grindr and Tinder offer the prospect of casual sex within the hour. The phrase If something exists, there is porn of it used to be a clever internet meme; now it’s a truism. BDSM plays at the local multiplex—but why bother going? Sex is portrayed, often graphically and sometimes gorgeously, on prime-time cable. Sexting is, statistically speaking, normal.
Polyamory is a household word. Shame-laden terms like perversion have given way to cheerful-sounding ones like kink. Anal sex has gone from final taboo to “fifth base”—Teen Vogue (yes, Teen Vogue) even ran a guide to it. With the exception of perhaps incest and bestiality—and of course nonconsensual sex more generally—our culture has never been more tolerant of sex in just about every permutation.
But despite all this, American teenagers and young adults are having less sex.
Meanwhile, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has plummeted to a third of its modern high. When this decline started, in the 1990s, it was widely and rightly embraced. But now some observers are beginning to wonder whether an unambiguously good thing might have roots in less salubrious developments. Signs are gathering that the delay in teen sex may have been the first indication of a broader withdrawal from physical intimacy that extends well into adulthood.
Over the past few years, Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has published research exploring how and why Americans’ sex lives may be ebbing. In a series of journal articles and in her latest book, iGen, she notes that today’s young adults are on track to have fewer sex partners than members of the two preceding generations. People now in their early 20s are two and a half times as likely to be abstinent as Gen Xers were at that age; 15 percent report having had no sex since they reached adulthood.
Gen Xers and Baby Boomers may also be having less sex today than previous generations did at the same age. From the late 1990s to 2014, Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex. Twenge recently took a look at the latest General Social Survey data, from 2016, and told me that in the two years following her study, sexual frequency fell even further.
Some social scientists take issue with aspects of Twenge’s analysis; others say that her data source, although highly regarded, is not ideally suited to sex research. And yet none of the many experts I interviewed for this piece seriously challenged the idea that the average young adult circa 2018 is having less sex than his or her counterparts of decades past. Nor did anyone doubt that this reality is out of step with public perception—most of us still think that other people are having a lot more sex than they actually are.
When I called the anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies love and sex and co-directs Match.com’s annual Singles in America survey of more than 5,000 unpartnered Americans, I could almost feel her nodding over the phone. “The data is that people are having less sex,” she said, with a hint of mischief. “I’m a Baby Boomer, and apparently in my day we were having a lot more sex than they are today!” She went on to explain that the survey has been probing the intimate details of people’s lives for eight years now. “Every year the whole Match company is rather staggered at how little sex Americans are having—including the Millennials.”
Fisher, like many other experts, attributes the sex decline to a decline in couplehood among young people. For a quarter century, fewer people have been marrying, and those who do have been marrying later. At first, many observers figured that the decline in marriage was explained by an increase in unmarried cohabitation—yet the share of people living together hasn’t risen enough to offset the decline in marriage: About 60 percent of adults under age 35 now live without a spouse or a partner. One in three adults in this age range live with their parents, making that the most common living arrangement for the cohort. People who live with a romantic partner tend to have sex more than those who don’t—and living with your parents is obviously bad for your sex life. But this doesn’t explain why young people are partnering up less to begin with.
Over the course of many conversations with sex researchers, psychologists, economists, sociologists, therapists, sex educators, and young adults, I heard many other theories about what I have come to think of as the sex recession. I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.
Some experts I spoke with offered more hopeful explanations for the decline in sex. For example, rates of childhood sexual abuse have decreased in recent decades, and abuse can lead to both precocious and promiscuous sexual behavior. And some people today may feel less pressured into sex they don’t want to have, thanks to changing gender mores and growing awareness of diverse sexual orientations, including asexuality. Maybe more people are prioritizing school or work over love and sex, at least for a time, or maybe they’re simply being extra deliberate in choosing a life partner—and if so, good for them.
Many—or all—of these things may be true. In a famous 2007 study, people supplied researchers with 237 distinct reasons for having sex, ranging from mystical (“I wanted to feel closer to God”) to lame (“I wanted to change the topic of conversation”). The number of reasons not to have sex must be at least as high. Still, a handful of suspects came up again and again in my interviews and in the research I reviewed—and each has profound implications for our happiness.
1. Sex for One
The retreat from sex is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Most countries don’t track their citizens’ sex lives closely, but those that try (all of them wealthy) are reporting their own sex delays and declines. One of the most respected sex studies in the world, Britain’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, reported in 2001 that people ages 16 to 44 were having sex more than six times a month on average. By 2012, the rate had dropped to fewer than five times. Over roughly the same period, Australians in relationships went from having sex about 1.8 times a week to 1.4 times. Finland’s “Finsex” study found declines in intercourse frequency, along with rising rates of masturbation.
In the Netherlands, the median age at which people first have intercourse rose from 17.1 in 2012 to 18.6 in 2017, and other types of physical contact also got pushed back, even kissing. This news was greeted not with universal relief, as in the United States, but with some concern. The Dutch pride themselves on having some of the world’s highest rates of adolescent and young-adult well-being. If people skip a crucial phase of development, one educator warned—a stage that includes not only flirting and kissing but dealing with heartbreak and disappointment—might they be unprepared for the challenges of adult life?
Meanwhile, Sweden, which hadn’t done a national sex study in 20 years, recently launched one, alarmed by polling suggesting that Swedes, too, were having less sex. The country, which has one of the highest birth rates in Europe, is apparently disinclined to risk its fecundity. “If the social conditions for a good sex life—for example through stress or other unhealthy factors—have deteriorated,” the Swedish health minister at the time wrote in an op-ed explaining the rationale for the study, it is “a political problem.”
This brings us to fertility-challenged Japan, which is in the midst of a demographic crisis and has become something of a case study in the dangers of sexlessness. In 2005, a third of Japanese single people ages 18 to 34 were virgins; by 2015, 43 percent of people in this age group were, and the share who said they did not intend to get married had risen too. (Not that marriage was any guarantee of sexual frequency: A related survey found that 47 percent of married people hadn’t had sex in at least a month.)
For nearly a decade, stories in the Western press have tied Japan’s sexual funk to a rising generation of soushoku danshi—literally, “grass-eating boys.” These “herbivore men,” as they are known in English, are said to be ambivalent about pursuing either women or conventional success. The new taxonomy of Japanese sexlessness also includes terms for groups such as hikikomori (“shut-ins”), parasaito shinguru (“parasite singles,” people who live with their parents beyond their 20s), and otaku (“obsessive fans,” especially of anime and manga)—all of whom are said to contribute to sekkusu shinai shokogun (“celibacy syndrome”).
Early on, most Western accounts of all this had a heavy subtext of “Isn’t Japan wacky?” This tone has slowly given way to a realization that the country’s experience might be less a curiosity than a cautionary tale. Dismal employment prospects played an initial role in driving many men to solitary pursuits—but the culture has since moved to accommodate and even encourage those pursuits. Roland Kelts, a Japanese American writer and longtime Tokyo resident, has described “a generation that found the imperfect or just unexpected demands of real-world relationships with women less enticing than the lure of the virtual libido.”
Let’s consider this lure for a moment. Japan is among the world’s top producers and consumers of porn, and the originator of whole new porn genres, such as bukkake (don’t ask). It is also a global leader in the design of high-end sex dolls. What may be more telling, though, is the extent to which Japan is inventing modes of genital stimulation that no longer bother to evoke old-fashioned sex, by which I mean sex involving more than one person. A recent article in The Economist, titled “Japan’s Sex Industry Is Becoming Less Sexual,” described onakura shops, where men pay to masturbate while female employees watch, and explained that because many younger people see the very idea of intercourse as mendokusai—tiresome—“services that make masturbation more enjoyable are booming.”
In their 2015 book, Modern Romance, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg and the comedian Aziz Ansari (who earlier this year became infamous for a hookup gone awry) describe Ansari’s visit to Japan seeking insights into the future of sex. He concluded that much of what he’d read about herbivore men missed the mark. Herbivores, he found, were “interested in sexual pleasure”—just not “through traditional routes.” Among Japan’s more popular recent innovations, he notes, is “a single-use silicone egg that men fill with lubricant and masturbate inside.” One night in Tokyo, Ansari picks one up at a convenience store, heads back to his hotel, and—sorry for the visual—gives it a go. He finds it cold and awkward, but understands its purpose. “It was a way,” he writes, “to avoid putting yourself out there and having an actual experience with another person.”
From 1992 to 2014, the share of American men who reported masturbating in a given week doubled, to 54 percent, and the share of women more than tripled, to 26 percent. Easy access to porn is part of the story, of course; in 2014, 43 percent of men said they’d watched porn in the past week. The vibrator figures in, too—a major study 10 years ago found that just over half of adult women had used one, and by all indications it has only grown in popularity. (Makes, models, and features have definitely proliferated. If you don’t know your Fun Factory Bi Stronic Fusion pulsator from your Power Toyfriend, you can find them on Amazon, which has these and some 10,000 other options.)
This shift is particularly striking when you consider that Western civilization has had a major hang-up about masturbation going back at least as far as Onan. As Robert T. Michael and his co-authors recount in Sex in America, J. H. Kellogg, the cereal maker, urged American parents of the late 19th century to take extreme measures to keep their children from indulging, including circumcision without anesthetic and application of carbolic acid to the clitoris. Thanks in part to his message, masturbation remained taboo well into the 20th century. By the 1990s, when Michael’s book came out, references to masturbation were still greeted with “nervous titters or with shock and disgust,” despite the fact that the behavior was commonplace.
Today, masturbation is even more common, and fears about its effects—now paired with concerns about digital porn’s ubiquity—are being raised anew by a strange assortment of people, including the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the director of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, who is enjoying an unlikely second act as an antiporn activist. In his book Man, Interrupted, Zimbardo warns that “procrasturbation”—his unfortunate portmanteau for procrastination via masturbation—may be leading young men to fail academically, socially, and sexually. Gary Wilson, an Oregon man who runs a website called Your Brain on Porn, makes a similar claim. In a popular tedx talk, which features animal copulation as well as many (human) brain scans, Wilson argues that masturbating to internet porn is addictive, causes structural changes in the brain, and is producing an epidemic of erectile dysfunction.
These messages are echoed and amplified by a Salt Lake City–based nonprofit called Fight the New Drug—the “drug” being porn—which has delivered hundreds of presentations to schools and other organizations around the country, including, this spring, the Kansas City Royals. The website NoFap, an offshoot of a popular Reddit message board founded by a now-retired Google contractor, provides community members (“fapstronauts”) a program to quit “fapping”—masturbating. Further outside the mainstream, the far-right Proud Boys group has a “no wanks” policy, which prohibits masturbating more than once a month. The group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, who also co-founded Vice Media, has said that pornography and masturbation are making Millennials “not even want to pursue relationships.”
The truth appears more complicated. There is scant evidence of an epidemic of erectile dysfunction among young men. And no researcher I spoke with had seen compelling evidence that porn is addictive. As the authors of a recent review of porn research note in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, “The notion of problematic pornography use remains contentious in both academic and popular literature,” while “the mental health community at large is divided as to the addictive versus non-addictive nature of Internet pornography.”
This isn’t to say there’s no correlation between porn use and desire for real-life sex. Ian Kerner, a well-known New York sex therapist and the author of several popular books about sex, told me that while he doesn’t see porn use as unhealthy (he recommends certain types of porn to some patients), he works with a lot of men who, inspired by porn, “are still masturbating like they’re 17,” to the detriment of their sex life. “It’s taking the edge off their desire,” he said. Kerner believes this is why more and more of the women coming to his office in recent years report that they want sex more than their partners do.
In reporting this story, I spoke and corresponded with dozens of 20- and early-30-somethings in hopes of better understanding the sex recession. I can’t know that they were representative, though I did seek out people with a range of experiences. I talked with some who had never had a romantic or sexual relationship, and others who were wildly in love or had busy sex lives or both. Sex may be declining, but most people are still having it—even during an economic recession, most people are employed.
The recession metaphor is imperfect, of course. Most people need jobs; that’s not the case with relationships and sex. I talked with plenty of people who were single and celibate by choice. Even so, I was amazed by how many 20-somethings were deeply unhappy with the sex-and-dating landscape; over and over, people asked me whether things had always been this hard. Despite the diversity of their stories, certain themes emerged.
One recurring theme, predictably enough, was porn. Less expected, perhaps, was the extent to which many people saw their porn life and their sex life as entirely separate things. The wall between the two was not absolute; for one thing, many straight women told me that learning about sex from porn seemed to have given some men dismaying sexual habits. (We’ll get to that later.) But by and large, the two things—partnered sex and solitary porn viewing—existed on separate planes. “My porn taste and partner taste are quite different,” one man in his early 30s told me, explaining that he watches porn about once a week and doesn’t think it has much effect on his sex life. “I watch it knowing it is fiction,” a 22-year-old woman said, adding that she didn’t “internalize” it.
I thought of these comments when Pornhub, the top pornography website, released its list of 2017’s most popular searches. In first place, for the third year running, was lesbian (a category beloved by men and women alike). The new runner-up, however, was hentai—anime, manga, and other animated porn. Porn has never been like real sex, of course, but hentai is not even of this world; unreality is the source of its appeal. In a New York–magazine cover story on porn preferences, Maureen O’Connor described the ways hentai transmogrifies body parts (“eyes bigger than feet, breasts the size of heads, penises thicker than waists”) and eroticizes the supernatural (“sexy human shapes” combine with “candy-colored fur and animal horns, ears, and tails”). In other words, the leading search category for porn involves sex that half the population doesn’t have the equipment to engage in, and the runner-up isn’t carnal so much as hallucinatory.
Many of the younger people I talked with see porn as just one more digital activity—a way of relieving stress, a diversion. It is related to their sex life (or lack thereof) in much the same way social media and binge-watching TV are. As one 24-year-old man emailed me:
The internet has made it so easy to gratify basic social and sexual needs that there’s far less incentive to go out into the “meatworld” and chase those things. This isn’t to say that the internet can give you more satisfaction than sex or relationships, because it doesn’t … [But it can] supply you with just enough satisfaction to placate those imperatives … I think it’s healthy to ask yourself: “If I didn’t have any of this, would I be going out more? Would I be having sex more?” For a lot of people my age, I think the answer is probably yes.
Even people in relationships told me that their digital life seemed to be vying with their sex life. “We’d probably have a lot more sex,” one woman noted, “if we didn’t get home and turn on the TV and start scrolling through our phones.” This seems to defy logic; our hunger for sex is supposed to be primal. Who would pick messing around online over actual messing around?
Teenagers, for one. An intriguing study published last year in the Journal of Population Economics examined the introduction of broadband internet access at the county-by-county level, and found that its arrival explained 7 to 13 percent of the teen-birth-rate decline from 1999 to 2007.
Maybe adolescents are not the hormone-crazed maniacs we sometimes make them out to be. Maybe the human sex drive is more fragile than we thought, and more easily stalled.
2. Hookup Culture and Helicopter Parents
I started high school in 1992, around the time the teen pregnancy and birth rates hit their highest levels in decades, and the median age at which teenagers began having sex was approaching its modern low of 16.9. Women born in 1978, the year I was born, have a dubious honor: We were younger when we started having sex than any group since.
But as the ’90s continued, the teen pregnancy rate began to decline. This development was welcomed—even if experts couldn’t agree on why it was happening. Birth-control advocates naturally pointed to birth control. And yes, teenagers were getting better about using contraceptives, but not sufficiently better to single-handedly explain the change. Christian pro-abstinence groups and backers of abstinence-only education, which received a big funding boost from the 1996 welfare-reform act, also tried to take credit. Yet the teen pregnancy rate was falling even in places that hadn’t adopted abstinence-only curricula, and research has since shown that virginity pledges and abstinence-only education don’t actually beget abstinence.
Still, the trend continued: Each wave of teenagers had sex a little later, and the pregnancy rate kept inching down. You wouldn’t have known either of these things, though, from all the hyperventilating about hookup culture that started in the late ’90s. The New York Times, for example, announced in 1997 that on college campuses, casual sex “seems to be near an all-time high.” It didn’t offer much data to support this, but it did introduce the paper’s readers to the term hooking up, which it defined as “anything from 20 minutes of strenuous kissing to spending the night together fully clothed to sexual intercourse.”
Pretty much ever since, people have been overestimating how much casual sex high-school and college students are having (even, surveys show, students themselves). In the past several years, however, a number of studies and books on hookup culture have begun to correct the record. One of the most thoughtful of these is American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, by Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College. The book draws on detailed journals kept by students at two liberal-arts colleges from 2010 to 2015, as well as on Wade’s conversations with students at 24 other colleges and universities.
Wade sorts the students she followed into three groups. Roughly one-third were what she calls “abstainers”—they opted out of hookup culture entirely. A little more than a third were “dabblers”—they hooked up sometimes, but ambivalently. Less than a quarter were “enthusiasts,” who delighted in hooking up. The remainder were in long-term relationships.
This portrait is compatible with a 2014 study finding that Millennial college students weren’t having more sex or sexual partners than their Gen X predecessors. It also tracks with data from the Online College Social Life Survey, a survey of more than 20,000 college students that was conducted from 2005 to 2011, which found the median number of hookups over a four-year college career to be five—a third of which involved only kissing and touching. The majority of students surveyed said they wished they had more opportunities to find a long-term boyfriend or girlfriend.
When I spoke with Wade recently, she told me that she found the sex decline among teens and 20-somethings completely unsurprising—young people, she said, have always been most likely to have sex in the context of a relationship. “Go back to the point in history where premarital sex became more of a thing, and the conditions that led to it,” she said, referring to how post–World War II anxiety about a man shortage led teen girls in the late 1940s and ’50s to pursue more serious romantic relationships than had been customary before the war. “Young women, at that point, innovate ‘going steady,’ ” Wade said, adding that parents were not entirely happy about the shift away from prewar courtship, which had favored casual, nonexclusive dating. “If you [go out with someone for] one night you might get up to a little bit of necking and petting, but what happens when you spend months with them? It turns out 1957 has the highest rate of teen births in American history.”
In more recent decades, by contrast, teen romantic relationships appear to have grown less common. In 1995, the large longitudinal study known as “Add Health” found that 66 percent of 17-year-old men and 74 percent of 17-year-old women had experienced “a special romantic relationship” in the past 18 months. In 2014, when the Pew Research Center asked 17-year-olds whether they had “ever dated, hooked up with or otherwise had a romantic relationship with another person”—seemingly a broader category than the earlier one—only 46 percent said yes.
So what thwarted teen romance? Adolescence has changed so much in the past 25 years that it’s hard to know where to start. As Jean Twenge wrote in The Atlantic last year, the percentage of teens who report going on dates has decreased alongside the percentage who report other activities associated with entering adulthood, like drinking alcohol, working for pay, going out without one’s parents, and getting a driver’s license.
These shifts coincide with another major change: parents’ increased anxiety about their children’s educational and economic prospects. Among the affluent and educated, especially, this anxiety has led to big changes in what’s expected of teens. “It’s hard to work in sex when the baseball team practices at 6:30, school starts at 8:15, drama club meets at 4:15, the soup kitchen starts serving at 6, and, oh yeah, your screenplay needs completion,” said a man who was a couple of years out of college, thinking back on his high-school years. He added: “There’s immense pressure” from parents and other authority figures “to focus on the self, at the expense of relationships”—pressure, quite a few 20-somethings told me, that extends right on through college.
Malcolm Harris strikes a similar note in his book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Addressing the desexing of the American teenager, he writes:
A decline in unsupervised free time probably contributes a lot. At a basic level, sex at its best is unstructured play with friends, a category of experience that … time diaries … tell us has been decreasing for American adolescents. It takes idle hands to get past first base, and today’s kids have a lot to do.
Marriage 101, one of the most popular undergraduate classes at Northwestern University, was launched in 2001 by William M. Pinsof, a founding father of couples therapy, and Arthur Nielsen, a psychiatry professor. What if you could teach about love, sex, and marriage before people chose a partner, Pinsof and Nielsen wondered—before they developed bad habits? The class was meant to be a sort of preemptive strike against unhappy marriages. Under Alexandra Solomon, the psychology professor who took over the course six years ago, it has become, secondarily, a strike against what she sees as the romantic and sexual stunting of a generation. She assigns students to ask someone else out on a date, for example, something many have never done.
This hasn’t hurt the class’s appeal; during registration, it fills within minutes. (It may or may not have helped that a course with overlapping appeal, Human Sexuality, was discontinued some years back after its professor presided over a demonstration of something called a fucksaw.) Each week during office hours, students wait in line to talk with Solomon, who is also a practicing therapist at the university’s Family Institute, not only about the class but about their love woes and everything they don’t know about healthy and pleasurable sex—which, in many cases, is a lot.
Over the course of numerous conversations, Solomon has come to various conclusions about hookup culture, or what might more accurately be described as lack-of-relationship culture. For one thing, she believes it is both a cause and an effect of social stunting. Or, as one of her students put it to her: “We hook up because we have no social skills. We have no social skills because we hook up.” For another, insofar as her students find themselves choosing between casual sex and no sex, they are doing so because an obvious third option—relationship sex—strikes many of them as not only unattainable but potentially irresponsible. Most Marriage 101 students have had at least one romantic relationship over the course of their college career; the class naturally attracts relationship-oriented students, she points out. Nonetheless, she believes that many students have absorbed the idea that love is secondary to academic and professional success—or, at any rate, is best delayed until those other things have been secured. “Over and over,” she has written, “my undergraduates tell me they try hard not to fall in love during college, imagining that would mess up their plans.”
One Friday afternoon in March, I sat in on a discussion Solomon was hosting for a group of predominantly female graduate students in the Family Institute’s counseling programs, on the challenges of love and sex circa 2018. Over rosé and brownies, students shared thoughts on topics ranging from Aziz Ansari’s notorious date (which had recently been detailed on the website Babe) to the ambiguities of current relationship terminology. “People will be like, ‘We’re dating, we’re exclusive, but we’re not boyfriend and girlfriend.’ What does that mean?” one young woman asked, exasperated. A classmate nodded emphatically. “What does that mean? We’re in a monogamous relationship, but …” She trailed off. Solomon jumped in with a sort of relationship litmus test: “If I get the flu, are you bringing me soup?” Around the conference table, heads shook; not many people were getting (or giving) soup.
The conversation proceeded to why soup-bringing relationships weren’t more common. “You’re supposed to have so much before you can get into a relationship,” one woman offered. Another said that when she was in high school, her parents, who are both professionals with advanced degrees, had discouraged relationships on the grounds that they might diminish her focus. Even today, in graduate school, she was finding the attitude hard to shake. “Now I need to finish school, I need to get a practice going, I need to do this and this, and then I’ll think about love. But by 30, you’re like, What is love? What’s it like to be in love?”
In early May, I returned to Northwestern to sit in on a Marriage 101 discussion section. I had picked that particular week because the designated topic, “Sex in Intimate Relationships,” seemed relevant. As it happened, though, there wasn’t much talk of sex; the session was mostly consumed by a rapturous conversation about the students’ experiences with something called the “mentor couple” assignment, which had involved interviewing a couple in the community and chronicling their relationship.
“To see a relationship where two people are utterly content and committed,” one woman said, with real conviction, “it’s kind of an aha moment for me.” Another student spoke disbelievingly of her couple’s pre-smartphone courtship. “I couldn’t necessarily relate to it,” she said. “They met, they got each other’s email addresses, they emailed one another, they went on a first date, they knew that they were going to be together. They never had a ‘define the relationship’ moment, because both were on the same page. I was just like, Damn, is that what it’s supposed to be like?” About two-thirds of the way through the allotted discussion time, one of the teaching assistants finally interrupted. “Should we transition?” she asked, tentatively. “I wanted to transition to talk about sex. Which is the topic of this week.”
3. The Tinder Mirage
Simon, a 32-year-old grad student who describes himself as short and balding (“If I wasn’t funny,” he says, “I’d be doomed”), didn’t lack for sex in college. (The names of people who talked with me about their personal lives have been changed.) “I’m outgoing and like to talk, but I am at heart a significant nerd,” he told me when we spoke recently. “I was so happy that college had nerdy women. That was a delight.” Shortly before graduation, he started a relationship that lasted for seven years. When he and his girlfriend broke up, in 2014, he felt like he’d stepped out of a time machine.
Before the relationship, Tinder didn’t exist; nor did iPhones. Simon wasn’t particularly eager to get into another serious relationship right away, but he wanted to have sex. “My first instinct was go to bars,” he said. But each time he went to one, he struck out. He couldn’t escape the sense that hitting on someone in person had, in a short period of time, gone from normal behavior to borderline creepy. His friends set up a Tinder account for him; later, he signed up for Bumble, Match, OkCupid, and Coffee Meets Bagel.
He had better luck with Tinder than the other apps, but it was hardly efficient. He figures he swiped right—indicating that he was interested—up to 30 times for every woman who also swiped right on him, thereby triggering a match. But matching was only the beginning; then it was time to start messaging. “I was up to over 10 messages sent for a single message received,” he said. In other words: Nine out of 10 women who matched with Simon after swiping right on him didn’t go on to exchange messages with him. This means that for every 300 women he swiped right on, he had a conversation with just one.
At least among people who don’t use dating apps, the perception exists that they facilitate casual sex with unprecedented efficiency. In reality, unless you are exceptionally good-looking, the thing online dating may be best at is sucking up large amounts of time. As of 2014, when Tinder last released such data, the average user logged in 11 times a day. Men spent 7.2 minutes per session and women spent 8.5 minutes, for a total of about an hour and a half a day. Yet they didn’t get much in return. Today, the company says it logs 1.6 billion swipes a day, and just 26 million matches. And, if Simon’s experience is any indication, the overwhelming majority of matches don’t lead to so much as a two-way text exchange, much less a date, much less sex.
When I talked with Simon, he was seven months into a relationship with a new girlfriend, whom he’d met through another online-dating service. He liked her, and was happy to be on hiatus from Tinder. “It’s like howling into the void for most guys,” he explained, “and like searching for a diamond in a sea of dick pics for most girls.”
So why do people continue to use dating apps? Why not boycott them all? Simon said meeting someone offline seemed like less and less of an option. His parents had met in a chorus a few years after college, but he couldn’t see himself pulling off something similar. “I play volleyball,” he added. “I had somebody on the volleyball team two years ago who I thought was cute, and we’d been playing together for a while.” Simon wanted to ask her out, but ultimately concluded that this would be “incredibly awkward,” even “boorish.”
At first, I wondered whether Simon was being overly genteel, or a little paranoid. But the more people I talked with, the more I came to believe that he was simply describing an emerging cultural reality. “No one approaches anyone in public anymore,” said a teacher in Northern Virginia. “The dating landscape has changed. People are less likely to ask you out in real life now, or even talk to begin with,” said a 28-year-old woman in Los Angeles who volunteered that she had been single for three years.
This shift seems to be accelerating amid the national reckoning with sexual assault and harassment, and a concomitant shifting of boundaries. According to a November 2017 Economist/YouGov poll, 17 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 now believe that a man inviting a woman out for a drink “always” or “usually” constitutes sexual harassment. (Among older groups, much smaller percentages believe this.)
Laurie Mintz, who teaches a popular undergraduate class on the psychology of sexuality at the University of Florida, told me that the #MeToo movement has made her students much more aware of issues surrounding consent. She has heard from many young men who are productively reexamining their past actions and working diligently to learn from the experiences of friends and partners. But others have described less healthy reactions, like avoiding romantic overtures for fear that they might be unwelcome. In my own conversations, men and women alike spoke of a new tentativeness and hesitancy. One woman who described herself as a passionate feminist said she felt empathy for the pressure that heterosexual dating puts on men. “I think I owe it to them, in this current cultural moment particularly, to try to treat them like they’re human beings taking a risk talking to a stranger,” she wrote me. “There are a lot of lonely, confused people out there, who have no idea what to do or how to date.”
I mentioned to several of the people I interviewed for this piece that I’d met my husband in an elevator, in 2001. (We worked on different floors of the same institution, and over the months that followed struck up many more conversations—in the elevator, in the break room, on the walk to the subway.) I was fascinated by the extent to which this prompted other women to sigh and say that they’d just love to meet someone that way. And yet quite a few of them suggested that if a random guy started talking to them in an elevator, they would be weirded out. “Creeper! Get away from me,” one woman imagined thinking. “Anytime we’re in silence, we look at our phones,” explained her friend, nodding. Another woman fantasized to me about what it would be like to have a man hit on her in a bookstore. (She’d be holding a copy of her favorite book. “What’s that book?” he’d say.) But then she seemed to snap out of her reverie, and changed the subject to Sex and the City reruns and how hopelessly dated they seem. “Miranda meets Steve at a bar,” she said, in a tone suggesting that the scenario might as well be out of a Jane Austen novel, for all the relevance it had to her life.
Video: The Sex Drought
How could various dating apps be so inefficient at their ostensible purpose—hooking people up—and still be so popular? For one thing, lots of people appear to be using them as a diversion, with limited expectations of meeting up in person. As Iris, who’s 33, told me bitterly, “They’ve gamified interaction. The majority of men on Tinder just swipe right on everybody. They say yes, yes, yes to every woman.”
Stories from other app users bear out the idea of apps as diversions rather than matchmakers. “Getting right-swiped is a good ego boost even if I have no intention of meeting someone,” one man told me. A 28-year-old woman said that she persisted in using dating apps even though she had been abstinent for three years, a fact she attributed to depression and low libido: “I don’t have much inclination to date someone.”
“After a while it just feels exactly the same as getting good at a bubble-popping game. I’m happy to be good at it, but what am I really achieving?” said an app user who described herself as abstinent by choice. Another woman wrote that she was “too lazy” to meet people, adding: “I usually download dating apps on a Tuesday when I’m bored, watching TV … I don’t try very hard.” Yet another woman said that she used an app, but only “after two glasses of white wine—then I promptly delete it after two hours of fruitless swiping.”
Many critiques of online dating, including a 2013 article by Dan Slater in The Atlantic, adapted from his book A Million First Dates, have focused on the idea that too many options can lead to “choice overload,” which in turn leads to dissatisfaction. Online daters, he argued, might be tempted to keep going back for experiences with new people; commitment and marriage might suffer. Michael Rosenfeld, a sociologist who runs a longitudinal study out of Stanford called “How Couples Meet and Stay Together,” questions this hypothesis; his research finds that couples who meet online tend to marry more quickly than other couples, a fact that hardly suggests indecision.
Maybe choice overload applies a little differently than Slater imagined. Maybe the problem is not the people who date and date some more—they might even get married, if Rosenfeld is right—but those who are so daunted that they don’t make it off the couch. This idea came up many times in my conversations with people who described sex and dating lives that had gone into a deep freeze. Some used the term paradox of choice; others referred to option paralysis (a term popularized by Black Mirror); still others invoked fobo (“fear of a better option”).
And yet online dating continues to attract users, in part because many people consider apps less stressful than the alternatives. Lisa Wade suspects that graduates of high-school or college hookup culture may welcome the fact that online dating takes some of the ambiguity out of pairing up (We’ve each opted in; I’m at least a little bit interested in you). The first time my husband and I met up outside work, neither of us was sure whether it was a date. When you find someone via an app, there’s less uncertainty.
As a 27-year-old woman in Philadelphia put it: “I have insecurities that make fun bar flirtation very stressful. I don’t like the Is he into me? moment. I use dating apps because I want it to be clear that this is a date and we are sexually interested in one another. If it doesn’t work out, fine, but there’s never a Is he asking me to hang as a friend or as a date? feeling.” Other people said they liked the fact that on an app, their first exchanges with a prospective date could play out via text rather than in a face-to-face or phone conversation, which had more potential to be awkward.
Anna, who graduated from college three years ago, told me that in school, she struggled to “read” people. Dating apps have been a helpful crutch. “There’s just no ambiguity,” she explained. “This person is interested in me to some extent.” The problem is that the more Anna uses apps, the less she can imagine getting along without them. “I never really learned how to meet people in real life,” she said. She then proceeded to tell me about a guy she knew slightly from college, whom she’d recently bumped into a few times. She found him attractive and wanted to register her interest, but wasn’t sure how to do that outside the context of a college party. Then she remembered that she’d seen his profile on Tinder. “Maybe next time I sign in,” she said, musing aloud, “I’ll just swipe right so I don’t have to do this awkward thing and get rejected.”
Apart from helping people avoid the potential embarrassments (if also, maybe, the exhilaration) of old-fashioned flirting, apps are quite useful to those who are in what economists call “thin markets”—markets with a relatively low number of participants. Sexual minorities, for example, tend to use online dating services at much higher rates than do straight people. (Michael Rosenfeld—whose survey deliberately oversampled gays and lesbians in an effort to compensate for the dearth of research on their dating experiences—finds that “unpartnered gay men and unpartnered lesbians seem to have substantially more active dating lives than do heterosexuals,” a fact he attributes partly to their successful use of apps. This disparity raises the possibility that the sex recession may be a mostly heterosexual phenomenon.)
In all dating markets, apps appear to be most helpful to the highly photogenic. As Emma, a 26-year-old virgin who sporadically tries her luck with online dating, glumly told me, “Dating apps make it easy for hot people—who already have the easiest time.” Christian Rudder, a co-founder of OkCupid (one of the less appearance-centric dating services, in that it encourages detailed written profiles), reported in 2009 that the male users who were rated most physically attractive by female users got 11 times as many messages as the lowest-rated men did; medium-rated men received about four times as many messages. The disparity was starker for women: About two-thirds of messages went to the one-third of women who were rated most physically attractive. A more recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan and the Santa Fe Institute found that online daters of both genders tend to pursue prospective mates who are on average 25 percent more desirable than they are—presumably not a winning strategy.
So where does this leave us? Many online daters spend large amounts of time pursuing people who are out of their league. Few of their messages are returned, and even fewer lead to in-person contact. At best, the experience is apt to be bewildering (Why are all these people swiping right on me, then failing to follow through?). But it can also be undermining, even painful. Emma is, by her own description, fat. She is not ashamed of her appearance, and purposefully includes several full-body photos in her dating profiles. Nevertheless, men persist in swiping right on her profile only to taunt her—when I spoke with her, one guy had recently ended a text exchange by sending her a gif of an overweight woman on a treadmill.
An even bigger problem may be the extent to which romantic pursuit is now being cordoned off into a predictable, prearranged online venue, the very existence of which makes it harder for anyone, even those not using the apps, to extend an overture in person without seeming inappropriate. What a miserable impasse.
4. Bad Sex (Painfully Bad)
One especially springlike morning in May, as Debby Herbenick and I walked her baby through a park in Bloomington, Indiana, she shared a bit of advice she sometimes offers students at Indiana University, where she is a leading sex researcher. “If you’re with somebody for the first time,” she said evenly, “don’t choke them, don’t ejaculate on their face, don’t try to have anal sex with them. These are all things that are just unlikely to go over well.”
I’d sought out Herbenick in part because I was intrigued by an article she’d written for TheWashington Post proposing that the sex decline might have a silver lining. Herbenick had asked whether we might be seeing, among other things, a retreat from coercive or otherwise unwanted sex. Just a few decades ago, after all, marital rape was still legal in many states. As she pushed her daughter’s stroller, she elaborated on the idea that some of the sex recession’s causes could be a healthy reaction to bad sex—a subset of people “not having sex that they don’t want to have anymore. People feeling more empowered to say ‘No thanks.’ ”
Bloomington is the unofficial capital of American sex research, a status that dates back to the 1940s, when the Indiana University biologist Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering sex surveys inaugurated the field. It retains its standing thanks partly to the productivity of its scientists, and partly to the paucity of sex research at other institutions. In 2009, Herbenick and her colleagues launched the ongoing National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, which is only the second nationally representative survey to examine Americans’ sex lives in detail—and the first to try to chart them over time. (The previous national survey, out of the University of Chicago, was conducted just once, in 1992. Most other sex research, including Kinsey’s, has used what are known as convenience samples, which don’t represent the population at large. The long-running General Social Survey, which much of Jean Twenge’s research is based upon, is nationally representative, but poses only a few questions about sex.)
I asked Herbenick whether the NSSHB’s findings gave her any hunches about what might have changed since the 1990s. She mentioned the new popularity of sex toys, and a surge in heterosexual anal sex. Back in 1992, the big University of Chicago survey reported that 20 percent of women in their late 20s had tried anal sex; in 2012, the NSSHB found a rate twice that. She also told me about new data suggesting that, compared with previous generations, young people today are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors prevalent in porn, like the ones she warns her students against springing on a partner. All of this might be scaring some people off, she thought, and contributing to the sex decline.
“If you are a young woman,” she added, glancing down at her daughter, “and you’re having sex and somebody tries to choke you, I just don’t know if you’d want to go back for more right away.”
Some of Herbenick’s most sobering research concerns the prevalence of painful sex. In 2012, 30 percent of women said they’d experienced pain the last time they’d had vaginal intercourse; during anal intercourse, 72 percent had. Whether or not these rates represent an increase (we have no basis for comparison), they are troublingly high. Moreover, most women don’t tell their partners about their pain. J. Dennis Fortenberry, the chief of adolescent medicine at Indiana University’s medical school and a co-leader of the NSSHB, believes that many girls and women have internalized the idea that physical discomfort goes with being female.
A particularly vivid illustration of this comes from Lucia O’Sullivan, a University of New Brunswick psychology professor who has published research documenting high rates of sexual dysfunction among adolescents and young adults. That work grew out of a lunch several years ago with a physician from the university’s student-health center, who told O’Sullivan that she was deeply concerned by all the vulvar fissures she and her colleagues were seeing in their student patients. These women weren’t reporting rape, but the condition of their genitals showed that they were enduring intercourse that was, literally, undesired. “They were having sex they didn’t want, weren’t aroused by,” O’Sullivan says. The physician told her that the standard of care was to hand the women K‑Y Jelly and send them on their way.
Painful sex is not new, but there’s reason to think that porn may be contributing to some particularly unpleasant early sexual experiences. Studies show that, in the absence of high-quality sex education, teen boys look to porn for help understanding sex—anal sex and other acts women can find painful are ubiquitous in mainstream porn. (This isn’t to say that anal sex has to be painful, but rather that the version most women are experiencing is.) In a series of in-depth interviews, Cicely Marston of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that teenage boys experimenting with anal sex—perhaps influenced by what they’ve seen in porn—may find that sudden, unlubricated penetration is more difficult than it looks, and more agonizing for the recipient. Some of her subjects appear to have pressured their partner; others seem to have resorted to what another researcher described to me, clinically, as “nonconsensual substitution of anal for vaginal sex.”
In my interviews with young women, I heard too many iterations to count of “he did something I didn’t like that I later learned is a staple in porn,” choking being one widely cited example. Outside of porn, some people do enjoy what’s known as erotic asphyxiation—they say restricting oxygen to the brain can make for more intense orgasms—but it is dangerous and ranks high on the list of things you shouldn’t do to someone unless asked to. Tess, a 31-year-old woman in San Francisco, mentioned that her past few sexual experiences had been with slightly younger men. “I’ve noticed that they tend to go for choking without prior discussion,” she said. Anna, the woman who described how dating apps could avert awkwardness, told me she’d been choked so many times that at first, she figured it was normal. “A lot of people don’t realize you have to ask,” she said.
As Marina Adshade, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies the economics of sex and love, said to me, “Men have bad sex and good sex. But when sex is bad for women, it’s really, really bad. If women are avoiding sex, are they trying to avoid the really bad sex?”
Sex takes time to learn under the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances. Modeling your behavior after what you’ve seen on-screen can lead to what’s known as “spectatoring”—that is, worrying about how you look and sound while you’re having sex, a behavior the sex researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson long ago posited was bad for sexual functioning. Some young women told me they felt pressured to emulate porn actresses—and to achieve orgasm from penetration alone, which most women can’t do. “It took me a while to be comfortable with the fact that I don’t have to be as vocal during sex as the girls seem to be in porn,” a 24-year-old woman in Boston said. A 31-year-old in Phoenix explained that in her experience, porn has made men “expect that they can make any woman orgasm by just pounding away.”
Learning sex in the context of one-off hookups isn’t helping either. Research suggests that, for most people, casual sex tends to be less physically pleasurable than sex with a regular partner. Paula England, a sociologist at NYU who has studied hookup culture extensively, attributes this partly to the importance of “partner-specific sexual skills”—that is, knowing what your partner likes. For women, especially, this varies greatly. One study found that while hooking up with a new partner, only 31 percent of men and 11 percent of women reached orgasm. (By contrast, when people were asked about their most recent sexual encounter in the context of a relationship, 84 percent of men and 67 percent of women said they’d had an orgasm.) Other studies have returned similar results. Of course, many people enjoy encounters that don’t involve orgasms—a third of hookups don’t include acts that could reasonably be expected to lead to one—but the difference between the two contexts is striking. If young people are delaying serious relationships until later in adulthood, more and more of them may be left without any knowledge of what good sex really feels like.
As I was reporting this piece, quite a few people told me that they were taking a break from sex and dating. This tracks with research by Lucia O’Sullivan, who finds that even after young adults’ sex lives start up, they are often paused for long periods of time. Some people told me of sexual and romantic dormancy triggered by assault or depression; others talked about the decision to abstain as if they were taking a sabbatical from an unfulfilling job.
Late one afternoon in February, I met up with Iris, the woman who remarked to me that Tinder had been “gamified,” at the Lemon Collective, a design studio and workshop space in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The collective hosts DIY and design classes as well as courses geared toward the wellness of Millennial women; Valentine’s Day had been celebrated with a wildly oversubscribed real-estate workshop called “House Before Spouse.” (“We don’t need partners to be financially savvy and create personal wealth,” the event’s description said. “Wine and cheese will be served, obviously.”)
As we chatted (over, obviously, wine), Iris despaired at the quality of her recent sexual interactions. “I had such bad sex yesterday, my God, it was so bad,” she said wearily. “He basically got it in and—” She banged a fist against her palm at a furious tempo. It was the first time she’d slept with this man, whom she had met on Tinder, and she wondered aloud whether she could coach him. She was doubtful, though; he was in his 30s—old enough, she thought, to know better.
Iris observed that her female friends, who were mostly single, were finding more and more value in their friendships. “I’m 33, I’ve been dating forever, and, you know, women are better,” she said. “They’re just better.” She hastened to add that men weren’t bad; in fact, she hated how anti-male the conversations around her had grown. Still, she and various platonic female friends—most of whom identified as straight—were starting to play roles in one another’s lives that they might not be playing if they had fulfilling romantic or sexual relationships. For instance, they’d started trading lesbian-porn recommendations, and were getting to know one another’s preferences pretty well. Several women also had a text chain going in which they exchanged nude photos of themselves. “It’s nothing but positivity,” she said, describing the complimentary texts they’d send one another in reply to a photo (“Damn, girl, your tits!”). She wasn’t ready to swear off men entirely. But, she said, “I want good sex.” Or at least, she added, “pretty good sex.”
“Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift,” Jonah Disend, the founder of the branding consultancy Redscout, told Bloomberg last year. He said that designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” The article concluded that however “digitally nonchalant” Millennials might seem—an allusion, maybe, to sexting—“they’re prudish in person.” Fitness facilities across the country are said to be renovating locker rooms in response to the demands of younger clients. “Old-timers, guys that are 60-plus, have no problem with a gang shower,” one gym designer told The New York Times, adding that Millennials require privacy.
Some observers have suggested that a new discomfort with nudity might stem from the fact that, by the mid-1990s, most high schools had stopped requiring students to shower after gym class. Which makes sense—the less time you spend naked, the less comfortable you are being naked. But people may also be newly worried about what they look like naked. A large and growing body of research reports that for both men and women, social-media use is correlated with body dissatisfaction. And a major Dutch study found that among men, frequency of pornography viewing was associated with concern about penis size. I heard much the same from quite a few men (“too hairy, not fit enough, not big enough in terms of penis size,” went one morose litany). According to research by Debby Herbenick, how people feel about their genitals predicts sexual functioning—and somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of people, perhaps influenced by porn or plastic-surgery marketing, feel negatively. The business of labiaplasty has become so lucrative, she told me in an email, “that you will actually see billboards (yes, billboards!) in some cities advertising it.”
As one might imagine, feeling comfortable in your body is good for your sex life. A review of 57 studies examining the relationship between women’s body image and sexual behavior suggests that positive body image is linked to having better sex. Conversely, not feeling comfortable in your own skin complicates sex. If you don’t want your partner to see you getting out of the shower, how is oral sex going to work?
Maybe, for some people, it isn’t. The 2017 iteration of Match.com’s Singles in America survey (co-led by Helen Fisher and the Kinsey Institute’s Justin Garcia) found that single Millennials were 66 percent less likely than members of older generations to enjoy receiving oral sex. Which doesn’t bode particularly well for female pleasure: Among partnered sex acts, cunnilingus is one of the surest ways for women to have orgasms.
Ian Kerner, the New York sex therapist, told me that he works with a lot of men who would like to perform oral sex but are rebuffed by their partner. “I know the stereotype is often that men are the ones who don’t want to perform it, but I find the reverse,” he said. “A lot of women will say when I’m talking to them privately, ‘I just can’t believe that a guy wants to be down there, likes to do that. It’s the ugliest part of my body.’ ” When I asked 20-somethings about oral sex, a pretty sizable minority of women sounded a similar note. “Receiving makes me nervous. It feels more intimate than penetration,” wrote one woman. “I become so self-conscious and find it difficult to enjoy,” wrote another.
Over the past 20 years, the way sex researchers think about desire and arousal has broadened from an initially narrow focus on stimulus to one that sees inhibition as equally, if not more, important. (The term inhibition, for these purposes, means anything that interferes with or prevents arousal, ranging from poor self-image to distractedness.) In her book Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski, who trained at the Kinsey Institute, compares the brain’s excitement system to the gas pedal in a car, and its inhibition system to the brakes. The first turns you on; the second turns you off. For many people, research suggests, the brakes are more sensitive than the accelerator.
That turn-offs matter more than turn-ons may sound commonsensical, but in fact, this insight is at odds with most popular views of sexual problems. When people talk about addressing a lack of desire, they tend to focus on fuel, or stimulation—erotica, Viagra, the K‑Y Jelly they were handing out at the New Brunswick student-health center. These things are helpful to many people in many cases, but they won’t make you want to have sex if your brakes are fully engaged.
In my interviews, inhibition seemed a constant companion to many people who’d been abstinent for a long time. Most of them described abstinence not as something they had embraced (due to religious belief, say) so much as something they’d found themselves backed into as a result of trauma, anxiety, or depression. Dispiritingly but unsurprisingly, sexual assault was invoked by many of the women who said they’d opted out of sex. The other two factors come as no great shock either: Rates of anxiety and depression have been rising among Americans for decades now, and by some accounts have risen quite sharply of late among people in their teens and 20s. Anxiety suppresses desire for most people. And, in a particularly unfortunate catch‑22, both depression and the antidepressants used to treat it can also reduce desire.
“I have a therapist and this is one of the main things we’re working on,” a 28-year-old woman I’ll call April wrote to me, by way of explaining that, owing to intense anxiety, she’d never slept with anyone or been in a relationship. “I’ve had a few kisses & gone to second base (as the kids say) and it really has never been good for me.” When we later spoke by phone, she told me that in adolescence, she’d been shy, overweight, and “very, very afraid of boys.” April isn’t asexual (she gives thanks for her Magic Bullet vibrator). She’s just terrified of intimacy. From time to time she goes on dates with men she meets through her job in the book industry or on an app, but when things get physical, she panics. “I jumped out of someone’s car once to avoid him kissing me,” she said miserably. As we were ending the conversation, she mentioned to me a story by the British writer Helen Oyeyemi, which describes an author of romance novels who is secretly a virgin. “She doesn’t have anyone, and she’s just stuck. It’s kind of a fairy tale—she lives in the garret of a large, old house, writing these romantic stories over and over, but nothing ever happens for her. I think about her all the time.”
In exchanges like these, I was struck by what a paralyzing and vicious cycle unhappiness and abstinence can be. The data show that having sex makes people happier (up to a point, at least; for those in relationships, more than once a week doesn’t seem to bring an additional happiness bump). Yet unhappiness inhibits desire, in the process denying people who are starved of joy one of its potential sources. Are rising rates of unhappiness contributing to the sex recession? Almost certainly. But mightn’t a decline in sex and intimacy also be leading to unhappiness?
Moreover, what research we have on sexually inactive adults suggests that, for those who desire a sex life, there may be such a thing as waiting too long. Among people who are sexually inexperienced at age 18, about 80 percent will become sexually active by the time they are 25. But those who haven’t gained sexual experience by their mid-20s are much less likely to ever do so. The authors of a 2009 study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine speculated that “if a man or woman has not had intercourse by age 25, there is a reasonable chance [he or she] will remain a virgin at least until age 45.” Research by Stanford’s Michael Rosenfeld confirms that, in adulthood, true singledom is a far more stable category than most of us have imagined. Over the course of a year, he reports, only 50 percent of heterosexual single women in their 20s go on any dates—and older women are even less likely to do so.
Other sources of sexual inhibition speak distinctly to the way we live today. For example, sleep deprivation strongly suppresses desire—and sleep quality is imperiled by now-common practices like checking one’s phone overnight. (For women, getting an extra hour of sleep predicts a 14 percent greater likelihood of having sex the next day.) In her new book, Better Sex Through Mindfulness, Lori Brotto, an obstetrics-and-gynecology professor at the University of British Columbia, reviews lab research showing that background distraction of the sort we’re all swimming in now likewise dampens arousal, in both men and women.
How can such little things—a bad night’s sleep, low-grade distraction—defeat something as fundamental as sex? One answer, which I heard from a few quarters, is that our sexual appetites are meant to be easily extinguished. The human race needs sex, but individual humans don’t.
Among the contradictions of our time is this: We live in unprecedented physical safety, and yet something about modern life, very recent modern life, has triggered in many of us autonomic responses associated with danger—anxiety, constant scanning of our surroundings, fitful sleep. Under these circumstances, survival trumps desire. As Emily Nagoski likes to point out, nobody ever died of sexlessness: “We can starve to death, die of dehydration, even die of sleep deprivation. But nobody ever died of not being able to get laid.”
When Toys “R” Us announced this spring—after saying it had been struggling because of falling birth rates—that it would be shutting down, some observers mordantly remarked that it could be added to the list of things that Millennials had destroyed.
Societal changes have a way of inspiring generational pessimism. Other writers, examining the same data I’ve looked at, have produced fretful articles about the future; critics have accused them of stoking panic. And yet there are real causes for concern. One can quibble—if one cares to—about exactly why a particular toy retailer failed. But there’s no escaping that the American birth rate has been falling for a decade.
At first, the drop was attributed to the Great Recession, and then to the possibility that Millennial women were delaying motherhood rather than forgoing it. But a more fundamental change may be under way. In 2017, the U.S. birth rate hit a record low for a second year running. Birth rates are declining among women in their 30s—the age at which everyone supposed more Millennials would start families. As a result, some 500,000 fewer American babies were born in 2017 than in 2007, even though more women were of prime childbearing age. Over the same period, the number of children the average American woman is expected to have fell from 2.1 (the so-called replacement rate, or fertility level required to sustain population levels without immigration) to 1.76. If this trend does not reverse, the long-term demographic and fiscal implications will be significant.
A more immediate concern involves the political consequences of loneliness and alienation. Take for example the online hate and real-life violence waged by the so-called incels—men who claim to be “involuntarily celibate.” Their grievances, which are illegitimate and vile, offer a timely reminder that isolated young people are vulnerable to extremism of every sort. See also the populist discontent roiling Europe, driven in part by adults who have so far failed to achieve the milestones of adulthood: In Italy, half of 25-to-34-year-olds now live with their parents.
When I began working on this story, I expected that these big-picture issues might figure prominently within it. I was pretty sure I’d hear lots of worry about economic insecurity and other contributors to a generally precarious future. I also imagined, more hopefully, a fairly lengthy inquiry into the benefits of loosening social conventions, and of less couple-centric pathways to a happy life. But these expectations have mostly fallen to the side, and my concerns have become more basic.
Humans’ sexual behavior is one of the things that distinguish us from other species: Unlike most apes, and indeed most animals, humans have sex at times and in configurations that make conception not just unlikely but impossible (during pregnancy, menopause, and other infertile periods; with same-sex partners; using body parts that have never issued babies and never will). As a species, we are “bizarre in our nearly continuous practice of sex,” writes the UCLA professor Jared Diamond, who has studied the evolution of human sexuality. “Along with posture and brain size, sexuality completes the trinity of the decisive aspects in which the ancestors of humans and great apes diverged.” True, nobody ever died of not getting laid, but getting laid has proved adaptive over millions of years: We do it because it is fun, because it bonds us to one another, because it makes us happy.
A fulfilling sex life is not necessary for a good life, of course, but lots of research confirms that it contributes to one. Having sex is associated not only with happiness, but with a slew of other health benefits. The relationship between sex and wellness, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes both ways: The better off you are, the better off your sex life is, and vice versa. Unfortunately, the converse is true as well. Not having a partner—sexual or romantic—can be both a cause and an effect of discontent. Moreover, as American social institutions have withered, having a life partner has become a stronger predictor than ever of well-being.
Like economic recessions, the sex recession will probably play out in ways that are uneven and unfair. Those who have many things going for them already—looks, money, psychological resilience, strong social networks—continue to be well positioned to find love and have good sex and, if they so desire, become parents. But intimacy may grow more elusive to those who are on less steady footing.
When, over the course of my reporting, people in their 20s shared with me their hopes and fears and inhibitions, I sometimes felt pangs of recognition. Just as often, though, I was taken aback by what seemed like heartbreaking changes in the way many people were relating—or not relating—to one another. I am not so very much older than the people I talked with for this story, and yet I frequently had the sense of being from a different time.
Sex seems more fraught now. This problem has no single source; the world has changed in so many ways, so quickly. In time, maybe, we will rethink some things: The abysmal state of sex education, which was once a joke but is now, in the age of porn, a disgrace. The dysfunctional relationships so many of us have with our phones and social media, to the detriment of our relationships with humans. Efforts to “protect” teenagers from most everything, including romance, leaving them ill-equipped for both the miseries and the joys of adulthood.
In October, as I was finishing this article, I spoke once more with April, the woman who took comfort in the short story about the romance novelist who was secretly a virgin. She told me that, since we’d last talked, she’d met a man on Tinder whom she really liked. They’d gone on several dates over the summer, and fooled around quite a bit. As terrified as she had been about getting physically and emotionally intimate with another person, she found, to her surprise, that she loved it: “I never thought I would feel that comfortable with someone. It was so much better than I thought it was going to be.”
As things progressed, April figured that, in the name of real intimacy, she should explain to the man that she hadn’t yet had sex. The revelation didn’t go over well. “I told him I was a virgin. And he broke up with me. Beforehand, I figured that was the worst thing that could happen. And then it happened. The worst thing happened.” She paused, and when she spoke again her voice was steadier and more assured. “But I’m still here.”
Caravan heads north after crossing into Mexico on October 20. (Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP)
OCTOBER 28 – As the U.S. midterm elections entered the home stretch, xenophobic president Donald Trump hit on a new tactic for his standard campaign of fear and falsification: whip up hysteria about an imminent invasion by a caravan of immigrants from Honduras. He is reportedly preparing a declaration of national emergency (!), while the Pentagon is readying active duty units of the military (not the National Guard) to patrol the southern border with Mexico. This would keep the fear factor active right up to election day (November 6), plus give him the opportunity to change U.S. policies on refugee status by executive order, in contravention of U.S. laws and international treaties. The imperialist chief ordered the governments of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to stop the caravan, or else. He also ratcheted up his immigrant-bashing rhetoric, declaring that there were “bad hombres” and a “big percentage” of “criminals” among the marchers, as well as “Middle Easterners” and “terrorists.” But it hasn’t stopped the 7,000 migrants from steadily marching north, and now another caravan is forming.
Let us be clear: the migrants who have decided to risk all to undertake the onerous trek of almost 3,000 miles (4,700 kilometers) from San Pedro Sula to Tijuana are fleeing from deadly violence and extreme poverty made in U.S.A. The economy of Honduras has been devastated by “free trade” agreements while the gangs terrorizing its cities got their start in Los Angeles. The right-wing Honduran government which acts as Republican Trump’s toady is the result of a 2009 coup engineered by the Democratic Obama administration. The League for the Fourth International and its sections in the U.S. and Mexico, the Internationalist Group and Grupo Internacionalista, have called to welcome the caravan, demanding asylum for refugees and full citizenship rights for all immigrants! And, as always, we seek to carry out actions in furtherance of our call. The Grupo Internacionalista sent an activist-correspondent to accompany the caravan on its arrival in Mexico, while the Oaxaca local of the GI held a solidarity demonstration together with Section 22 of the CNTE (National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers).
In addition to being used by the racist in the White House as an election campaign ploy, which the Democrats are assiduously trying to duck, the Central American caravan of the dispossessed is a human drama illustrating the brutal realities of decaying capitalism. It is also a political battle of the first order against the U.S. imperialists, who would use armed force to bar the victims of their depredations, just as their European counterparts let African immigrants drown in the Mediterranean Sea. In this, as in every class battle, there are no neutrals. Either the migrants are allowed to enter, or not. We say: Let them in!
When the caravan arrived at the Mexican border at Ciudad Hidalgo, it was met on the bridge over the Suchiate River by a wall of 200 federal police, dispatched by President Enrique Peña Nieto in compliance with the orders of his imperialist overlord. Under a sign proclaiming “Welcome to Mexico,” the police fired tear gas into the crowd which was led by women and children. The next day, as hundreds waded into the river to cross, youths in the caravan tore down the chain link fence and the entire procession headed on to the next city on its path, Tapachula, Chiapas. Contrary to the claims of Trump and his puppet, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández Àlvarado, marchers insisted that no one instigated them to leave Honduras. “We just couldn’t take it anymore,” a 24-year-old youth told our comrade who met them in Tapachula. With a daughter, mother and sisters to support, he was the only one in his family with a job, until he was laid off.1
As the migrants left Tapachula on the way to the next town, Huixtla, they chanted “Los migrantes no somos criminals, somos trabajadores internacionales” (we migrants are not criminals, we are international workers), echoing the slogan that was painted on the wall opposite Tijuana that was built by Bill Clinton. But more than a political act or a long-planned migration, the caravan is an exodus. In fact, many marchers carried their bibles, the informal organizers periodically calmed people by having everyone pray, and several compared their odyssey to the biblical tale of Moses leaving Egypt. For some this includes the illusion they may touch Donald Trump’s heart and open the door to a better life. But most know that they have a hard road ahead. One woman had a little stall in Honduras to sell things but couldn’t pay the “war tax” demanded by the gangs. She left with her husband, daughters and sisters as they had no future there. A young man carrying the multicolor gay rights flag joined the caravan the day after being threatened with death by a gang of homophobes. This exodus is driven by desperation.
To get an idea of how extreme the situation is in Honduras, the national income is US$2,300 per person, compared to almost $10,000 in Mexico. Only Haiti’s figure is lower in Latin America. According to United Nations figures, 19% of the population in Honduras earns less than US$1.90 a day (the international measure of extreme poverty), a percentage which is six times higher than in Mexico and El Salvador (both 3%). As for inequality, even the CIA World Factbook recognizes that Honduras “suffers from extraordinarily unequal distribution of income.” Thus the poorest 40% of the Honduran population received only 10% of all household income, far less than Mexico and Nicaragua (16%). But it’s not just that Honduras is poor and has a rapacious ruling class, leaving those at the bottom with little or nothing. It is important to understand the political origins of the social and economic crisis devastating Honduras, which lead straight to Washington and Wall Street.
During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan used Honduras as the base for the U.S.’ counterrevolutionary war on Nicaragua, building up a murderous Honduran military. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton began deporting hundreds of members of gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street Gang to Central America. Then when Mexican president Felipe Calderón launched a “war on drugs” in 2006 on orders from George W. Bush, many traffickers shifted their operations to Honduras. The murder rate more than doubled from 2006 to 2012, becoming the highest in the world, and San Pedro Sula, the industrial center, is the most violent city on the planet. The gangs are notoriously tied to the police and military, which are bankrolled by the U.S. Meanwhile, the world capitalist crisis from 2008 on devasted employment in the textile/garment industry. Following the 2009 coup that ousted Liberal landowner Mel Zelaya as president, public services were privatized, subsidies were slashed and tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs. That coup got the green light from Hillary Clinton’s State Department.
So it is militarism and catastrophic economic/social conditions made in the U.S.A. that have led thousands of poor people and entire families with babies and young children to trudge several thousand miles, braving the elements (walking in 95° heat, punctuated by torrential rain), the thieves who prey on migrants, and the corrupt and violent police, in order to arrive at the U.S. border where they will be met by the guns of the United States army. The answer is not “foreign aid” that bolsters the profits of U.S. corporations, or building some factory sweatshops paying starvation wages that only deepen the poverty, it is to break the stranglehold of U.S. imperialism on Latin America, which both conservative and liberal U.S. politicians (like Obama’s former Secretary of State John Kerry) arrogantly refer to as “our backyard.” And that can only be accomplished through socialist revolution, including in Central America.
Honduras is effectively a Yankee neo-colony (it was the archetypal “banana republic,” run by the United Fruit Company), where everything gets decided by Washington. Semi-colonial Mexico is also under the imperialist boot, whether it is governed by bourgeois populists like Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his MORENA (National Regeneration Movement) party or a hardliner like Peña Nieto of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which ran the country for seven decades with greater or lesser degrees of subservience to U.S. imperialism (mostly greater). This is particularly true of immigration policy. So while the U.S. deported some 294,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras from 2015 to September 2018, during the same period Mexico deported 436,000 who had come from this “northern triangle” of Central America. For its services as a buffer and border police for the United States, Mexico has received billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury (El Universal, 21 October). And now federal police have resumed arresting hundreds at the southern border.
Poster for October 24 rally in Oaxaca, Oax., Mexico in defense of Central American immigrants. (Photo: El Internacionalista)
The Grupo Internacionalista in Mexico has from its inception denounced anti-immigrant repression, calling for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. So immediately after the brutal October 19 attack on the caravan by federal police, the GI joined with class-conscious educators of the militant Section 22 of the CNTE to organize a solidarity action in Oaxaca, calling for “Workers Actions in Defense of the Central American Migrants.” On October 21, the state assembly of the Oaxaca teachers passed a motion saying, in part: “Section 22 of the Education Workers declares its support for the caravan of Central American migrants, and therefore will mobilize the workers in its ranks to accompany and support this caravan as it passes through states where the CNTE has a presence, while calling on the rest of the workers movement to join in defending the passage of this caravan.” The defense actions include calling on health workers to organize medical brigades to provide aid. The motion ended: “We reject all racism and xenophobia whipped up by the Mexican bourgeoisie, lackey of U.S. imperialism. Let them in! Neither illegals nor criminals, the migrants are international workers!”
Currently Peña Nieto is promising asylum and jobs to the caravan members if they register with Mexican immigration authorities. Caravan organizers have refused. López Obrador (universally known as AMLO) has also offered them jobs helping to build a transportation corridor across the Yucatan peninsula. Not coincidentally, this would keep the Hondurans in southern Mexico, far from the U.S. border. At the October 24 protest, a speaker of the Grupo Internacionalista emphasized that repression against immigrants will not stop under AMLO, whom many leftists and teachers are supporting. “AMLO has said over and over that he won’t clash with Trump over the question of immigrants.” She stressed that the fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants must be part of a revolutionary struggle, noting that this elementary democratic right was implemented by the French Revolution of 1789, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The GI spokeswoman concluded with a call to “break with all the capitalist parties and build a workers party on a revolutionary and internationalist program.”
As the Central American caravan approaches the U.S. border, Trump is escalating his anti-immigrant offensive while the Democrats keep a sepulchral silence and try to change the subject. All bourgeois parties are enemies of immigrant workers, whom the capitalists brutally superexploit. In defending our immigrant sisters and brothers, the key is to bring to bear the power of the workers movement, not just in words but in deeds. We are one international class. We have the power to stop racists like Trump and the modern-day slave catchers of the immigration police. But to use that power, we must forge a leadership based on the program of international socialist revolution of Lenin and Trotsky. ■
There are four original manuscripts containing poetry in Old English—the now-defunct language of the medieval Anglo-Saxons—that have survived to the present day. No more, no less. They are: the Vercelli Book, which contains six poems, including the hallucinatory “Dream of the Rood”; the Junius Manuscript, which comprises four long religious poems; the Exeter Book, crammed with riddles and elegies; and the Beowulf Manuscript, whose name says it all. There is no way of knowing how many more poetic codices (the special term for these books) might have existed once upon a time, but have since been destroyed.
Until last week, I had seen two of these manuscripts in person and turned the pages of one. But then I visited “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,” a new show of artifacts at the British Library in London. It’s a vast exhibition, covering the art, literature, and history of the people whose kingdoms spread across Britain between the sixth and the eleventh centuries. The impetus for the show came from the library’s 2012 acquisition of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the “earliest intact European book,” in the words of the show’s catalog.
Seeing the earliest European book alone would be the event of a lifetime, for a certain kind of museum-goer. But for this viewer, the main attraction lay in a quiet little vitrine: all four Old English poetic codices, side by side. They don’t look that impressive to the casual eye. The exhibition room is dark and cold, to keep the books safe from damage. The manuscripts are brown, small, almost self-effacing. There’s no outward sign of how important they are, how unprecedented their meeting.
So why are these four books so special? It has to do, I think, with the concept of the original—a concept we have almost entirely lost touch with. The Beowulf Manuscript is not just composed of words that serve as the basis for every translation of the epic poem. It’s foremost an object, the only one of its kind. It is not merely a representation of a story; it is the story. In this respect, the manuscript resembles the Crown Jewels more than any document written in today’s world, any word that moves through the crazy fractal of the internet. The manuscripts confront us with a former version of our literary selves; identities that we barely recognize, and which estrange us from ourselves.
Each of the poetic codices has a specific history engraved into the text’s physical form. The very space they occupy on earth is meaningful. The Vercelli Book is named for Vercelli, a town in Northern Italy whose cathedral library holds the manuscript. Nobody knows for sure how the book got there, although the prevailing theory is that a pilgrim left it behind or gave it away on his travels. Who? Why? When? Unknown.
The BeowulfManuscript’s permanent home is the British Library. Unlike Vercelli, we know exactly why it’s there. The manuscript’s pages have been remounted onto new ones, because the book was singed around the edges in a library fire in 1731. The fire consumed much of the collection of Robert Cotton—his unburned books were later all given to the British Museum, forming its foundational collection—but Beowulf only suffered a little. (The original Cotton collection was kept, with a horrible kind of accuracy, in a building called Ashburnham House.)
If we compare the Vercelli Book to the Beowulf Manuscript, we see different kinds of mysteries. The Vercelli Book is in fabulous condition, its English lines neatly written and sitting, inexplicably, in a region of Italy famous for its rice. The Beowulf Manuscript is a half-burned thing whose survival is a miracle. Its provenance is unknown: It was probably written down in the tenth or eleventh centuries, but it’s impossible to tell when it was actually composed.
Where did the fire come from? Where did the poetry come from? We do not know the identity of the authors of any Old English poems, any more than we know where the first spark flew. Why are these the manuscripts that have survived, and what wandering spirit has guarded them down the centuries? The mysteries start to pile up into a mountain, intimidating in its inaccessibility.
Our current relationship to the written word could not be more different. We remain in the age of mechanical reproduction, the name famously given by the theorist Walter Benjamin to the way that works are replicated via photography, the printing press, and film. In his 1936 essay on the subject, Benjamin wrote, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
Our concept of authenticity is derived from the “presence of the original,” he writes, such as “proof that a given manuscript of the Middle Ages stems from an archive of the fifteenth century.” Without such proof, an original becomes a forgery. But when we reproduce a work (via a photocopy or an ebook, say), we create not a forgery but something new. We can “put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself”—the manuscript can leave the cathedral and enter our own homes.
Benjamin argued that this process of reproduction inevitably diminishes the artwork’s presence. He calls that quality an aura: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” That withering kills our connection to tradition, to the ineffable magic of the original, and—in short—to the entire history of how humans once related to art.
In 2018, we are in a much more elaborate and abstracted phase of Benjamin’s reproduction theory. We are accustomed to reading without reference to any physical object specific to the act of reading. We might have a romantic association with libraries, or prefer to turn real pages rather than electronic ones, but those are tastes borne of nostalgia. They have no real meaning for our experience of literature’s power.
This is why the reunion of the Old English poetic codices is so overwhelming. We have no mental equipment—or, at best, a very rusty apparatus—to process the existence of a physical original. Even our encounters with paintings in a museum are ultimately filtered through mass media and the devices with which we read the written word. It is difficult even to summon in our minds the circumstances of Benjamin’s 1936 essay; the technology has simply moved too quickly.
If we are that disconnected from 1936, but the Old English poetic codices predate Benjamin by an entire millennium, then it is no wonder that being confronted by these manuscripts leads to a feeling of numbed, startled astonishment. I’ve spent years dreaming of these books, but when all five of us finally met I couldn’t do anything but cry. I thought I knew them, through digital replicas. These books should have been a mirror, some kind of catalyst to self-recognition. But when I looked at them I saw nothing. I only saw the yawning void of everything in human history that I cannot understand, everything that has been taken from our culture by the incredible acceleration of technology over the course of my lifetime.
There are too many miracles to count inside the British Library’s exhibition. You can see the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Christian Bible in Latin. It’s enormous, weighing over 75 pounds. Here you will see the Domesday Book, the earliest public record in existence. Here is the River Erne horn, an eighth-century trumpet found in the waters of its name in the 1950s. Here is gold from the sixth century.
But as I walked out of this dazzling exhibition, I also realized the miracle that is the survival of Old English itself. If all we share with the Anglo-Saxon literature is language, then that is a remarkable consolation. The words are difficult to understand, but—miracle of miracles—we can translate them all.
Historians might care more about the singeing of the Beowulf Manuscript, the unknown pilgrim who walked through Italy. For the student of literature, however, Beowulf’s existence on the internet is as startling as the single book sitting by its sisters in a London library. If the book burned today, then the poem would still survive. The new permanence that reproduction gives us is the hope contained in Benjamin’s dirge. But it might be worth putting a replica in a bunker, just in case.
German singer Hannes Wader sings ‘Auf, auf zum Kampf, zum Kampf’ (‘Up, up, let’s fight’). It’s a classic song of the German left, with an early version coming to prominence during the Franco-Prussian War (1870- 71).
In 1919, poet Bertolt Brecht wrote a new version in reaction to the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. This is the version sung by Wader, and an English translation of the lyrics is below:
“Up, up let´s fight! Up, up let´s fight, let´s fight! We are born to fight!
Up, up let´s fight, let´s fight! We are ready to fight!
We have sworn to Karl Liebknecht, that we give Rosa Luxemburg a helping hand.
We have sworn to Karl Liebknecht, that we give Rosa Luxemburg a helping hand.
There stands a man, a man, as strong as an Oak!
He has surely, surely, survived many Storms!
Maybe tomorrow he will be a corpse, like so many other Freedom fighters before.
Maybe tomorrow he will be a corpse, like so many other Freedom fighters before.
We don´t fear, don´t fear, the thunder of the cannons!
We don´t fear, don´t fear, the green uniformed Police!
Karl Liebknecht we have lost, Rosa Luxemburg fell by the hand of a murder!
Karl Liebknecht we have lost, Rosa Luxemburg fell by the hand of a murder!
Up, up let´s fight, let´s fight! We are born to fight!
Up, up let´s fight, let´s fight!We are ready to fight!
We have sworn to Karl Liebknecht, that we give Rosa Luxemburg a helping hand.
We have sworn to Karl Liebknecht, that we give Rosa Luxemburg a helping hand.”
Auf, auf zum Kampf, zum Kampf!
Zum Kampf sind wir geboren!
Auf, auf zum Kampf, zum Kampf!
Zum Kampf sind wir bereit!
Dem Karl Liebknecht, dem haben wir’s geschworen!
Der Rosa Luxemburg reichen wir die Hand!
Wir fürchten nicht, ja nicht! Den Donner der Kanonen! Wir fürchten nicht, ja nicht! Die grüne Polizei! Den Karl Liebknecht, den haben wir verloren! Die Rosa Luxemburg fiel durch Mörderhand!
Es steht ein Mann, ein Mann! So fest wie eine Eiche! Er hat gewiß, gewiß! Schon manchen Sturm erlebt! Vielleicht ist er schon morgen eine Leiche! Wie es so vielen Freiheitskämpfern geht!
Auf, auf zum Kampf, zum Kampf! Zum Kampf sind wir geboren! Auf, auf zum Kampf, zum Kampf! Zum Kampf sind wir bereit! Dem Karl Liebknecht, dem haben wir’s geschworen! Der Rosa Luxemburg reichen wir die Hand!