January 2, 2007

More on adolescents gone wild

Via Half-Sigma. There's an opinion letter in the NYT that expresses the writer's shock that middle school girls in a talent show had performed so sluttily (not his words, but that's what he meant), though it's not that shocking. He also voices concern that such performances make girls into "one-dimensional" sex objects, which is not true. This is somewhat of a continuation of the previous news article about high school principals cracking down on sultry moves at school dances.

Starting first with the worry about turning girls solely into sex objects, he says that the involved parents "allow the culture of boy-toy sexuality to bore unchecked into their little ones' ears and eyeballs, displacing their nimble and growing brains and impoverishing the sense of wider possibilities in life." This despite his admission earlier in the paragraph that these parents "dote on and hover over their children, micromanaging their appointments and shielding them in helmets, kneepads and thick layers of S.U.V. steel." Suburban super-parents are more likely than any other group to encourage their daughters to play sports and to bully them into doing all of their homework so they can go to college and get set in a comfortable career. So he's being disingenuous when he says, "it's a cramped vision of girlhood that enshrines sexual allure as the best or only form of power and esteem." This is a non-starter.

And as for his shock that middle schoolers could dance so provocatively, coupled with his wish that the innocent period of their lives didn't come to an abrupt end in secondary school, recall from my previous post on this topic that, whatever the increase in exhibitionism, this doesn't translate into increased sexual activity. Thus the time at which innocence ends has stayed pretty constant over the last generation or so, not to speak of most generations during our species' existence. We've recently stopped living in societies where young adolescent males would have learned how to kill one another in battle, or perhaps join their parents in the drudgery of farm maintenance, so it's easy to slip into thinking that human nature is designed to remain innocent far beyond age 12. Like all facets of mature existence, we grow into these traits gradually -- a boy apprentices in fashioning spearheads and practices "killing" trees before actually becoming a member of a war party. Similarly, 12 year-old girls practice dolling themselves up so that they've got the basics down when it comes time to find a boyfriend in a few years. Therefore, one can't really be that shocked to see middle schoolers performing provocative dances. Now, this is separate from the matter of whether we should allow it or not -- just because human nature is designed to enter a transition from naivete at around age 12 doesn't imply that we should or should not allow this to happen.

Also, it needs emphasizing that the writer's rosy retrospection, like most cognitive biases, gets in the way of clear thinking. He laments that the talent show "was an official function at a public school, a milieu that in another time or universe might have seen children singing folk ballads, say, or reciting the Gettysburg Address." Admittedly, I didn't grow up in one of these alternate universes, so I don't know if they exist or not, but if they do, again they are surely very recent in the history of homo sapiens and would represent a temporary deviation from the norm. If this were true, then his lament would be that our fleeting experiment in suppressing adolescent sexuality had ended, and we had returned to the crude way that things were before.

I realize that I harp on this point a lot in my posts, but "recent fall from perfection" stories only lead us down ill-conceived utopian paths -- if only we tinkered with this or that facet of society, we'd regain perfection! That assumes that our nature is pretty much perfect, and so "wants" to be in a state of perfection; once we reached that level, we would come to equilibrium. The reality is not entirely the opposite, but opposite enough that it matters for the decisions we make about how to structure society. If we led enjoyable existences for so long and have only recently wandered in the wrong direction, then it will be easy to carom back onto our original course. If, on the contrary, our steering wheel is rigged to deviate from a particular path, then it will require much more ingenuity and vigilance to go where we want to go. That's why priests struggle to resist worldly vices, why teachers and parents must badger most teenagers into doing all of their homework, and why we've established the rule of law.

Then the writer describes the present trend as "society's march toward eroticized adolescence." Ah c'mon, what other period of our lives will end up "eroticized?" Surely not pre-puberty, nor old age. But even by age 35 or 40, you're pretty much done with the stormy, passionate portion of your life. No more falling uncontrollably, obsessively in love. No more sexual abandon; instead, you get the sex lives of married people that are the perennial favorites of stand-up comics. Sexual passion becomes so vanishing that those few who care to attempt resuscitating their expired patient do so by means of sex toys, KY warming personal lubricants, dress-up / role-playing, and so forth. You'll never see any of these catching on among adolescents because irrational passion comes naturally at that age.

Nature's intended timeline of sexual behavior goes something like this: 12-14, becoming comfortable and adjusted to hormonal changes; 15-19, explore the opposite sex; 20-24, pick best mate encountered so far as parent of your children; 25-death, raise children & grandchildren. Obviously, individuals in the 15-24 range will "eroticize" their lives whether anyone else wants them to or not, in the sense that they'll fall madly in love with members of the opposite sex, try to join them in a relationship, and become physically intimate to some undetermined degree. Someone may argue that teenage behavior shouldn't start any earlier, such as at age 12, but that's a quibble. It would only be a real objection if the person thought that the erotic, passionate period of one's life began at age 25 and lasted well into middle age.

That's why, however shocking a group of hip-gyrating 12 year-olds is, it's even more odd to see a group of 35-40 year-old women wearing push-up bras and jeans that trace the curves of their bodies. And hence the term "MILF" -- it has its own special term because it's unusual to encounter a woman past a certain age who still possesses youthful sexuality, passion, and first-rate looks. I'm not saying women should start dressing frumpily at 35; I'm simply noting that, given human life history, it's odd that women whose reproductive potential is pretty much spent are trying to attract sexual attention as if they were still 23. On that note (also via Half-Sigma), there is a recent NYT article on the increase of female porno stars who are over age 40. Granted, this is not on the same scale as middle school provocativeness, but it does reflect the wider, increasing acceptance of middle-age sexuality (e.g., Dr. Ruth talking to married couples about anal sex on The Tonight Show). Conditioning our expectation on the entire evolutionary history of our species -- hell, even just the last 200 years -- we would surely find middle-age hypersexuality more shocking than exhibitionism among middle schoolers.

The writer argues that "There is no reason adulthood should be a low plateau we all clamber onto around age 10;" recall, though, that the average age of middle schoolers is 12-13. He's also mistaking adolescence for adulthood, and must be trying to recapture his youth by suggesting (with "we all") that adolescents are adults, as if his current existence were as full of sturm und drang as that of a teenager or college student. The middle school dancers he saw weren't interested in bemoaning the bland romantic life that attends marriage, in working a dead-end job 50 hours a week, or in resolving a scheduling conflict between their appointments at the podiatrist's and chiropractor's offices. Rather, they wanted to join the ranks of adolescents: the older kids at their middle school, high schoolers, and college kids. Exhibitionism, social drama, lack of most responsibilities -- that's what they sought, not adulthood.

So, the writer's simply mistaken to fret over the girls' future as multi-faceted beings just because they strutted their stuff in a talent show, and his shock is an overstatement. Girls performing provocative dances at age 12 instead of 15 may be slightly odd from a biological view, but the truly bizarre social pattern is females whose age suggests they would be rearing children but who are instead remaining unattached, dressing in form-fitting jeans and thongs, and dithering away their precious few remaining days of sex appeal, as if they were eternal teenagers. That one would "eroticize" life after 35 is what's really shocking -- especially considering all the sordid little devices like toys and lubricants that are now required -- since humans tend to be in child-rearing mode at this age.

This is a variation on a point Steven Pinker made in his answer to the 2007 Edge Question. On the causes of the decline of violence over historical time: "What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question -- 'Why is there war?' instead of 'Why is there peace?' " Ignorance of evolutionary and recorded history leads us to ask stupid questions. Similarly, it's not puzzling to observe that adolescence, including the preparatory years of 12-14, is "eroticized" while life past 35 is not. What does appear enigmatic is not only that adolescent sexuality is discouraged, but that at the same time middle-aged people so sexualize their lives that ads for boner pills on daytime public TV are as unremarkable as those for toothpaste. And remember, the issue here isn't what should or shouldn't be allowed, but what should shock a rational Martian scientist.


  1. why is there war? we must be programmed for it. It feels good. World of Warcraft and warfighting games are wildly popular.
    and.....there are only two evolutionary purposes for dance--worship and courtship. i think worship became pure art, like classical ballet...but the courtship form is still evolving. ;)

  2. As to the sex lives of the aged, the rate of female infertility at 35 is something like 11%. From an evolutionary standpoint, why would it be advantageous to give up at that point? Wouldn't a more successful strategy as the good eggs (start to) run out be to lustily fuck every man in sight, concerned more about not having any more kids than of marginal degrees of fitness among one's mate? The doldrums of marriage are more about sex with a single partner getting boring after a number of years than about declining interest in reproduction with age. I'm guessing you haven't had much experience with 35 year old women? :-) The increased use of sex toys with age also strikes me as motivated by access to sex toys, decreasing inhibitions, etc. increasing with age rather than a "what use have I, so youthful, for this vibrator?" attitude.

  3. A slut sleeps with everyone.
    A bitch sleeps with everyone but me.

    Alex, thinking back to when I was ~12-16, I was far more readily aroused then than now(I'm 28) so it seems reasonable that older people need sex toys because sex is less exciting, whether due to familiarity or biology.

    As a teenager, I would have looked at sex toys as detractors from sexual activity.

  4. Matoko -- dance skill for courtship probably plays a minor role in the contemporary US. Now it's not necessary for guys to know how to dance -- it's mostly about height & status / wealth, like a watered-down version of gorilla life, wherein females choose which male's serial monogamist harem to belong to. And these days females aren't using dance to signal good genes by their skill, but rather easy sexual access by their sluttiness.

    Again, they're not *actually* having sex earlier (so, "teasing" may be increasing). They just need to *appear* sluttier since guys pay attn to this when relationships are short-term. And if everyone else is acting slutty, then you'll go unnoticed if you don't as well, assuming you're trying to get attn from the average guy. There may be an open niche for girls who don't appear slutty, but it must be small.

    Anon is right -- you're less inhibited when you're an adolescent. I can't believe that anyone could forget this, but apparently lots of adults do. Another special case of this pattern is crime rates: hotheaded male adolescents are much more likely to commit crimes than 40-somethings.

  5. nonono
    dance is courtship skillz for XX only. ;)
    and gay guy dancers.

  6. dance is courtship skillz for XX only.

    Not where females choose based on "good genes" related to dance skills, rather than "good genes" related to sheer size, power, status, etc., or rather than long-term paternal investment.

    This is more prevalent in pathogen-wracked areas -- I'd like to see a guy try to court a girl in Brazil w/o being able to dance. We saw some of this in the US, though, during the disco era in the '70s and the breakdancing hip-hop sub-culture that followed it in the '80s.

  7. KY warming personal lubricants

    Way to ruin it. They didn't have that stuff when I was young, at least not next to the condoms at the drugstore. I thought it was a great new development, not something specifically for aged, shriveled 35-year-olds with waning sex drives. I didn't even start trying to get pregnant until 35, for crying out loud.

    I figured the sex toy thing was because there's more porn available, and they use that stuff a lot in porn, so guys want to try it IRL. Under-25 people are probably less likely to have the credit cards needed to order stuff online and the privacy to receive a package through the mail without the risk of other people seeing it.


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