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The UnQueered World: Take a Walk on the Mild Side

My favorite Baltimorean iconoclast, filmmaker John Waters, had a wonderful line during a local NPR interview a few years ago. The topic had turned to same-sex marriage campaigns and Waters reacted, “I thought the whole point of being gay was that you didn’t have to get married, have kids, or join the army.”

It used to be that queer culture was, well, queerer than it is today. It wasn’t defined by the desire to join and uphold the ancient institution of marriage, romantic narratives of true love, and lifelong monogamy.  Don’t get me wrong. Please. I am 100%, without equivocation or exception, unconditionally, entirely, in support of marriage equality and same-sex marriage rights.

My theme isn’t legal and civil rights. It’s about culture. As someone who was not part of it, but who was a sympathetic fellow traveler while growing up, queer culture always had a place that I valued. It provided an alternative to mainstream relationship culture, what we used to call in graduate school the “heterosexist” norms.

The queer culture’s view of intimacy and relationships provided some alternative beacon, even if only in the collective imagination, to the “first comes loves, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage” catechism of the mildly-derisively named straight world.  This idea of intimacy didn’t end up with mediocre bands and Jordan almonds at wedding receptions and a registry for housewares and wedding gifts at Crate and Barrel. 

Obviously, the estrangement of intimacy from marriage was for some people not a subversive preference at all. It was a deprivation forced upon them because they had—and still have, in most states—no marriage rights at all.

These people wanted to be married, and had lifelong, committed partners, but the state wouldn’t allow it. For far too many, this prohibition is still in place.

There were others, however—and there still are, but they’re no longer the most culturally prevalent voice—who simply did not want marriage or the lifestyle that goes with it. Or, maybe they thought that the traditional, legal institution and recognition of marriage was not how they wanted to define their commitment or relationship.

Incidentally, these marriage-agnostic and marriage-resistant figures used to cut a broader, more festive swath in heterosexual culture, too. We had the “confirmed bachelors” and the gay divorcees, who embraced their freewheeling single status gleefully rather than enduring it with the panicked dread that you read about in advice books, or with that dreary, morose, even excruciating treatment that you encounter on HBO series such as “Girls.” Being a bachelor had some panache.  Being the single girl had some pizzazz.

It was nice to have that idea out there—a community, somewhere, that wove into the larger cultural tapestry a tangible alternative to the equation of romance, intimacy, marriage, monogamy and procreation. Its value wasn’t only for those who preferred that life, but for those whose imaginations were expanded simply by its visibility and existence.

Unqueering is occurring in other ways. We’ve got bourgeois 40-something wives sitting around in book clubs reading about s/m and a confused girl getting her ass whipped in Fifty Shades of Grey.

By the way, that book is god-awful written. It illustrates once again the massive disconnect in publishing between what we recognize as writing and commercial success.

It’s as if the Marquis de Sade was working the Borscht Belt comedy circuit in the Catskills (“he was taking me, in more ways than one!” Ba Dump bump! ), or Gomer Pyle meets the Inquisition (“Holy Cow!” It’s bondage!).

I don’t think it’s a book so much as a pornographic and masturbatory aid for readers, primarily women, who might not enjoy s/m visual porn, but who can enjoy reading about it, and spice up their libidos. In other words, this book is more something you use than something you read. And that’s totally fine. But why someone would read it chastely like a real book on the train, or in the company of non-lovers, baffles me. That’s just the unqueered times we live in, I guess.

It reminds me of what Joseph Kennedy said right before the stock market crash of 1929: When your shoe-shine man starts sharing stock tips, then it’s time to sell (which he did). Likewise, when your grandmother is reading about bondage and s/m in her book club over pasta salads, as people I suppose drone on about fetishes and exotic practices that cease to be exotic practices when they are mainstreamed and de-kinkified like this, then you have to admit that the culture has lost some of its shock appeal.

Next, of course, will come Fifty Dissertations on Fifty Shades of Gray. Mark my words. The first dozen dissertations are probably already lurching and lumbering their way through committees.

And, if you think Fifty Shades is just too sizzling in its sex scenes to be made boring, then read one of those dissertations, and it’ll put a fork in your libido. There is no piece of pop culture—not even Fifty Shades—that a dissertation can’t desiccate for you.

The point is, bondage and whatnot used to be kind of edgy, and “out there,” with a taste of the wild to it. Today, you have to wonder how much farther out there you need to go to be out there, seeing as how erstwhile subversive cultures have been colonized, developed and subdivided. Everyone is now “just like regular people” or aspiring to be; that is, just like middle-class, middle-aged, settled married people, with children and mortgages.  Oh dear.  As someone who is in that culture, I have to ask: Why?

What subculture is going to take up the mantle of being the proud queer place that resists the idea that all intimacies are about true love, romance, marriage, lifelong commitment, and monogamy? 

To be sure, there are plenty who are drifting aimlessly and without any particular intention or replacement away from the institution of marriage. But I mean a group with a more deliberately, intentionally, and philosophically queer stance. To some extent, single mothers by choice are doing it.  And, ironically, some of the outwardly conventional marriages that I talk about in my book have, indeed, taken up that mantle, because they are committed to each other in marriage, but openly non-monogamous. Maybe a new, queer subculture will become visible out of the more conventional culture of marriage.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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