Moira Weigel’s book Labor of Love explores how capitalism created dating and continues to shape its practice. My Nation advice column “Asking for a Friend” is similarly preoccupied with the political economy of our personal lives. So we had to get together for a chat about love, sex, and capital.
Liza Featherstone: So yesterday my Spotify Weekly turned up this amazing rap song from the ’80s called “Funky Dividends.” Do you know this song?
Moira Weigel: I do not.
LF: It’s about how, once upon a time, you would take your girl for a walk in the park and charm her that way, and now, in the greedy, money-grubbing ’80s, you have to buy her stuff, and it’s all about how much money you’re making and it’s all about capitalism.
MW: And it’s called “Funky Dividends”? Amazing.
LF: It is. So I was walking down the street and listening to it, thinking: “This is Moira’s book!” This idea that dating used to be something more pure, romantic, and from the heart, and now it’s all marketized, right? So what are we missing when we get caught up in such nostalgic narratives?
MW: I really wanted to write about this precisely because I was fascinated by that trope of “Things used to be so great and now they’re terrible,” whether about gender, love, sex, or romance. I was first thinking about these things in 2013, and within a space of six months there was a book called The End of Men, another called The End of Sex, and a big New York Times article called “The End of Courtship.” Part of what initially interested me in this topic was: What cultural work are these narratives about the crisis or degradation of romance doing? And one of the first things that I discovered when I read Beth Bailey’s book From the Front Porch to the Back Seat, which is from the ’80s—it’s a history of dating—I learned that around the time of what I call the “invention of dating,” around 1900, the first working-class women who went out and made dates would be arrested as prostitutes. So anyway, the invention of dating is also the invention of the death of dating.
This crisis has everything to do with two things. One is the physical mobility of women, working-class women, who have to leave the home to work, moving around more freely in public space. They’re seriously disadvantaged by their wages and such, yet they still have more freedom than they’ve had before. Dating is this form of courtship that has market dynamics. I think there is a very literal and direct reason for that, which is that money changes hands. It’s the first form of courtship where it’s not someone coming to your home with a priest or a rabbi or your mom. It’s two people going out, and usually someone buys something for another person, and so there is, for the first time, this explicit… since this is The Nation, I can put it in a wonky, Marxist way?
LF: Yes. Please do.
MW: It’s the enclosure of courtship by capitalism. In older courtship systems, marriage was understood to be a legal and financial transaction system, but courtship supposedly took place in the space of home that’s protected from the market and not governed by market dynamics. There’s all this rhetoric of the sacredness of the home and the feminine; it’s not part of the market, not transactional. Dating in this direct way applies market dynamics to courtship, and that’s why, throughout the century that it’s existed, we constantly see these kinds of narratives not only of decline, but specific anxiety about its transactional nature. Dating as an institution does have this prostitution complex or anxiety, and that’s why the difference between a sex-for-money transaction and a date is always a blurry line, and difficult to police or inwardly interpret.
LF: I love that you talk about that in your book. It’s incredibly hard to democratize that in heterosexuality, right? I mean, we try saying, “We’re modern people—sometimes I’ll pay, sometimes you’ll pay,” but it’s not so simple.
MW: Yeah, and the vulgar-materialist part of me says, “We still live in the time of systemic wage inequality. Those power imbalances are still real.” Then we also have this extremely strong set of cultural scripts that say this is how it’s supposed to be. If it’s not played out, that means this male partner isn’t valuing you. There are all these implications that have grown up around the institution.
LF: And if you buy the champagne, it doesn’t make him pretty the same way that if he buys the champagne, it makes you feel pretty. And the reasons for that do have to do with the fact that you make 70 cents on the dollar and…
MW: And his notion of masculinity probably is in some sense constructed in some relation to that fact.
LF: Absolutely. That it makes him feel important to buy the champagne in this way that has to do with what we expect: We expect men to have money. These are things that cannot simply be undone by people deciding on an individual level to do things in a nice egalitarian manner.
MW: But at the same time, to go back to “Funky Dividends,” I think it’s funny because, on the one hand, men have been socialized to define their masculinity in relation to money, as you’re saying. But there’s also this tradition of resentment, too.
LF: That they’re being somehow exploited.
MW: Yes. I mean, it’s funny: I studied in Taiwan for a while, and I remember I had some textbook of articles on contemporary issues in Taiwan, and one was some man complaining about this: “Women do all the shopping, we’re the real slaves, what are these feminists talking about, they have it so good.” I thought, “Women do all the shopping because they do all the housework.” But it was funny—it was so similar to the America conversations about this that I realized it was capitalism, not just culture in some dematerialized way, that produces these feelings.
LF: Yeah. While there’s always a lot of anxiety about women being exploited for sex in dating, there’s also always a dynamic of men feeling exploited for money.
MW: Yeah. Do you think men ever feel emotionally exploited, because there’s this fiction that women trade sex for affection and men trade affection for sex? I guess they do. That’s what men mean when they say, “She’s crazy” or “She’s hysterical” or “She needs so much.”
LF: When men say, “She’s high-maintenance,” I think that’s what they mean—that she’s extracting a lot of emotional labor in exchange for access to her body.
MW: Right. Because there is an expectation that the man shouldn’t have to do that shit.
LF: Yeah. The emotional labor is like reproductive labor: It’s supposed to be her job. As Tony Soprano says when one of the younger guys in the mob is loading up the car with all this baby equipment: “I never did any of that crap.” The masculine ideal for emotional labor is the same: If that’s being extracted from you, it’s too much.
So, getting back to this narrative, the narrative of “Funky Dividends” and your book: While we accept the marketization of so many other aspects of our lives—especially our work life—it’s interesting that we maintain a resistance, or at least a nostalgia or sadness, over the idea that our romantic lives are marketized. And there’s always this narrative that only just now has it become this way. Can you speak to that a bit?
MW: Probably because we think about our parents or grandparents, there is this tendency to romanticize the recent past. So now when people talk about traditional dating, they seem to have the ’50s in mind, because they’ll say, “A boy used to call a girl.” There were no telephones earlier than that—cave people didn’t have telephones. So that nostalgia has something to do with possibly the family structures in which people learn about love or love’s disappointments. I also think that we do still romanticize love and sex as this space outside capital.
LF: That’s interesting.
MW: It’s funny because, when you were speaking, I was thinking: “What are the other realms that people are really uncomfortable about marketizing? Sex work, gestational surrogacy, sperm donation…”
LF: Or motherhood itself? Although we do outsource the caring work of motherhood in so many different ways, we feel very uneasy about it.
MW: And all the hysteria about day-care centers in the ’80s. All this…
LF: Satanic abuse. I mean, we really have taken that anxiety to lurid, lurid points. Well, in all the realms you just described that we don’t feel good about marketizing, a woman’s emotional labor is critical.
MW: Right, right.
LF: So maybe it’s that we just really think that female emotional labor should be free.
MW: It’s funny: Nature, under capitalism, is what you’re allowed to take for free. People are uncomfortable about the explicit enclosure of female labor by capital because it’s supposed to just be given, or the terms are not supposed to be spelled out. Once you denaturalize it by making those market dynamics explicit, it becomes possible for women to refuse. We don’t want to let women distance themselves from motherhood or caring or all the other stuff they are supposed to do for free.
* * *
LF: The idea of the free market in dating keeps recurring in your book. The parallels between the language hippies used about “free love” and Milton Friedman’s way of describing how markets should be are very interesting. Can you talk a little bit about the kind of opportunities and troubles this idea has wrought?
MW: Free-market free love is simultaneously a utopian idea and a dystopian idea. The idea of total sexual freedom is an ideal, but then it’s also a Michel Houellebecq nightmare. Now online dating and apps have made that normal. Everyone is “on the market” or “off the market”; friends with “benefits,” “investing” time—these are all economic metaphors. The early ’60s and ’70s were a transitional moment in terms of normalizing the idea of applying that logic or language to romance. One of the people I talk about in the book is the Beat poet Eric Lipton, who wrote Erotic Revolution arguing for no more romantic laws—everyone can invest their sexual energy however they want. There is this very explicit parallel between how some of the sexual revolutionaries are talking about sexual energy and how neoliberals talk about water. I think people today sort of joking-not-jokingly apply economic language to their love lives all the time—the “cost benefits” of that, “optimizing” this.
LF: Yeah, and it’s a symptom of how neoliberal logic has become an even more intimate and self-conscious part of our lives. Few people now talk about the ’60s and free love as something they would like to go back to. Yet as you point out, this notion of a free market in dating and those metaphors have persisted.
MW: One problem with that rhetoric was that it was a version of market freedom that did not account for all sorts of stuff that women do. So I talk about these women who were part of the Diggers or other radical groups talking about having to do all the cooking and washing. There’s that essay of Joan Didion’s, I think it’s in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She quotes this dude Max on how he sleeps with whoever he wants and he’s gotten over all the old hang-ups, and his girlfriend is there making dinner while he’s talking. I think part of why that sexual revolution often appears dystopian is because it was a very partial revolution. The freedom to break rules didn’t account for all these other things that had to be done.
Now apps and dating sites have also reinforced this idea that you should be able to find anything you want—that if you are Jewish, you can use JDate; if you’re a farmer, you can use FarmersOnly.com… no matter what your niche is, there is something for it. With the right delivery mechanism, supply and demand will ensure that your particular needs are met.
LF: And it’s chilling, because one of the things that characterizes us in the labor market is disposability. And the dating-app world can create a similar kind of discomfort. On the other hand, there is so much about these apps that opens up your world.
MW: When I gave a book talk at Facebook, of all places, there was a young woman in her 20s who was Latina, and she said, “I’m bisexual and I’m dating women now, but especially given my family and my community, I never would have been brave enough to do that if it involved going out to lesbian bars, being visible, if people saw me going out.” I often feel pressed to remind folks that in the past, you couldn’t fall in love with someone not your race, you could get date-raped without recourse… and that dating apps have had very good effects. But the proliferation of too much choice making people miserable, making people treat other people as disposable, the phenomenon of “ghosting”—those things are real and make people unhappy.
LF: You reflect really well, especially at the end of your book, on this idea of scarcity. This is, to me, one of the worst ways in which our market-based emotional life affects us. And you point to some ways that we could think differently about that. Can you talk a little bit about scarcity?
MW: It’s a very hard thing, because on the one hand, as good polyamorists of the 1990s were already saying and other folks have already said, this idea that sex and affection are scarce resources is not necessarily true. It’s an idea highly produced by gendered notions of who gives sex for what. There’s so much self-monitoring and self-hatred, especially provoked by advice aimed at straight women, but actually at straight men too. It has something to do with the construction of heterosexual relationships in which The Rules and The Game are actually the same book. It’s supposed to be fun for the men, but dudes are actually having a nervous breakdown. Right after I turned in my book manuscript, the author of The Game had a nervous breakdown and went to sex-addicts rehab. So I was like, “See! It doesn’t make you happy either.”
* * *
LF: Have people been showing up to your book events a lot asking for advice?
MW: Less than I feared, but yes, people do show up and want advice. It seems as if it’s really about listening to what the person is already saying about what they desire. What has interested me is that women, especially straight women, are constantly being fed ideas about what we should desire—because that’s a very good way to sell women things, and to also enforce certain patterns of gendered labor. I think the trivialization of the subject of dating also serves to do that.
So often, what I hear when people ask for advice is precisely the divergence between what they feel they should desire and what they sort of unconsciously know they desire. So when someone says, “I have this fuck buddy, but is that going to mess up my feelings? Am I going to be able to find a relationship?” Well, it sounds like you already have some feelings about it. I was on a radio show recently where someone called in, I think she was in her 40s or 50s, and she was divorced, and she said, “I’m just tired—I don’t want to date. Friends are all saying, ‘You have to put yourself back out there,’ and I just don’t want to.” And I was like, “Is there a question?”
LF: She wanted to be told it was OK.
MW: I said, “That’s completely OK. There are many forms of love—it doesn’t have to come from heterosexual dating.” And I think so often, the subtext of the questions I’ve received is: “I feel this way. Is that OK?”
What’s challenging is that my book, even though I try to get into individual stories, is making a structural argument, and it can be very difficult to reconcile those two things. I was just reading an article Sarah Leonard wrote about Lean In, and she says, you know, “I sort of despise”—she says it more politely—”I despise this book on political grounds, but the truth is, it has some good tips for my white-collar workplace.” It’s this eternal tradeoff: how does one get by versus how would one ideally like the world to be, and what advice do you give for the meantime? Playing the system versus changing a system.
LF: You’re absolutely right. So many questions are about that. This is the central problem of my advice column. Almost every question that I get—at least the ones that are interesting enough to answer—is: “To what extent is this my problem, and to what extent is this a structural political problem? Is this a problem that I can solve in my own life, or is the only answer to take political action? Or should I do both?” Almost every question that I answer is really that.
MW: And I love that about your column, and I think it’s so smart, because self-help directed at women often totally brackets the political or systemic: “Well, the world is garbage, here’s what you can do.” But it’s not an either/or. Thinking of Nicole Aschoff’s Prophets of Capital, there’s this dynamic where the effect of that advice is that people feel worse. Contrary to what a book like Lean In teaches us, recognizing the systemic nature of certain problems is not disempowering and sad-making.
MW: I mean, I remember the first time I realized that every single female friend of mine had been sexually harassed at work. I’m generalizing, but…
LF: Almost everyone has.
MW: I had always thought that was this thing I uniquely messed up: “What’s wrong with me that I can’t navigate these systems?” It was comforting to realize that it’s not just about me. What I love about your column is that you acknowledge the systemic understanding as a source of happiness, in a way. Joyful rage.
LF: Yes! I like to think it’s in the tradition of feminist consciousness-raising groups in the ’70s where they were talking about the problems in their own lives, but those discussions led them to think about larger structural problems and figure out what kind of action they could take. But almost certainly also, they thought through what they individually could do about the laundry or the husband or whatever. Those things are both really important to do.
MW: And I think it’s so helpful. I think that women are just taught to be so hard on themselves, and there is something tremendously helpful about having a framework that allows you to be more forgiving of yourself—and especially with dating. These market metaphors we’ve been talking about make everyone feel that if you can’t sell yourself, it’s on you. It makes people worse at dating. So, in this sort of structural thinking, I do think there’s what Sheryl Sandberg might call a “deliverable.”
* * *
LF: You make the argument that we’ve been sold on this idea that there’s just one kind of love: monogamous heterosexual love that makes a baby.
MW: Yeah. Kant has this goofy German definition of marriage where it’s a mutual contract for the reciprocal use of someone’s genitals. That exclusive-genital sexuality is great if it’s with the right person, but we focus on how much it sucks not to have that; we rarely talk about how often it also sucks. Like, marriages are often unhappy—the No. 1 source of harm to a woman is her intimate partner.
LF: And to the degree that someone could be writing to you, “Is it OK that I have a fuck buddy, and is that going to prevent me from having a ‘relationship’?”
MW: As if it’s a zero-sum game.
LF: Really, what so many people are seeking is a friend to have sex with, but we’re so convinced that it has to come in this particular package and after this bitter Darwinian struggle.
MW: The ways in which female friendship and friend relationships are devalued, I think that that’s really pernicious too. This book grew very directly out of this collaboration with my best female friend in grad school. I talk about that. Yet people read the book and say, “She goes on and on about her husband.” But I talk about my friend three times as long as I talk about him.
LF: I noticed you talked more about your friend.
MW: That feels so symptomatic of what these people think they’re critiquing. Even among folks who think about heterosexual relations in a sophisticated or non-normative way, there is a tendency to devalue friendship as a mode of love. And sexual love is its own thing and perhaps can’t be substituted for, but I think friendship is a very important mode of intimacy.
It’s funny, too, because we’re seeing broader social acceptance for more kinds of life arrangements in some respects. There is some mainstreaming of non-monogamy; OKCupid has added an “open relationship” option to their options.
LF: I keep thinking that’s happening. You might be right.
MW: But I think it can’t actually happen without social revolution. The family is a property relation for which there’s been no substitute in certain ways. At the same time, 48 percent of high-school students say they’re neither fully gay nor straight. And people in high school now are much more gender-fluid than they were when I was in high school. On the one hand, that feels tremendously hopeful to me—an expansion of possibility. And seeing more open relationships feels, in a similar way, like progress. On the other hand, this gets back to the paradox of sexual revolution and the sexual free market. The open relationship is the perfect form for contemporary precarious capitalism… you’re mobile.
LF: Indeed. Then again, I do think that the greater acceptance of open relationships does help to challenge the idea of love scarcity. Also—and now I sound like somebody from a Diggers commune—there is something to be said for rethinking other people’s bodies as property.
MW: Oh, definitely. That’s what’s appealing about it. What starts to feel dystopian about it is in relation to real estate and children, to the extent that we don’t live in a society that has other ways to provide what marriage has provided. Some of the people I know who have open or flexible relationships, that has happened because they have to live really far apart for jobs. The ideal worker for our era is someone with no permanent attachments, permanently mobile. The dystopian and utopian forms coexist. The nuclear family was predicated on the Industrial Revolution; maybe we’re entering this new phase, and the mobile sexual agent is the ideal worker.
LF: It’s scary when we have to remake ourselves emotionally to accommodate capitalism in yet another way. I certainly get why that’s troubling.
MW: But at the same time, I totally, profoundly agree with you that it’s wonderful to have these alternatives proliferate and gain recognition. It’s funny: Yesterday, I had breakfast with a good friend who’s gay, and he was complaining about couples who post all these couple-y photos on social media and Facebook and get so much affirmation, so many likes—but they all have really open relationships. He found it annoying that all these men in open relationships are posing as the most traditional kind of straight partner and getting so much affirmation for it and not owning the fact that that is not their life. So we see those complexities with gay marriage and a lot of things within thinking about non-normative sexualities, too.
LF: Oh man, we could talk all day about that.
MW: We’ll have to find another reason to talk.