June 15th, 2007

musings on group behavior

One of the observations in _The Wisdom of Crowds_ is that groups composed of people who all agree tend to become more extreme in their opinions and actions. Kind of a duh thing, but bear with me.

I'm currently reading _English Sexualities, 1700-1800_ and finished the chapter on the molly subculture that arose in London. There is (or at least was -- dunno the current state of it) some debate about whether this was a fully fledged gay culture, or if it is a proto gay culture. Apparently Michel Foucault was so attached to his theory about medicine and its normalizing/prescriptive effects on society that he didn't think a fully fledged gay culture could exist until homosexuality was medicalized and it hadn't been yet therefore, etc. What a stinkily ridiculous theory that is. Medicine is an enforcement mechanism. The ideas tend to come from elsewhere. Whatever.

In any event, none of the explanations proposed for the rise of molly subculture (some of which further attempt to explain why it manifested the way it did) makes much sense to me. Hitchcock muses that, hey, Masons started up around the same time with a lot of the same characteristics. Maybe you don't _need_ a special explanation. Which brings me back to _The Wisdom of Crowds_.

If people are scattered about the countryside, engaging in non-penetrative (so non-reproductive) sexual activities, either as heterosexual couples, small groups or other, it's probably fairly easy to perceive human sexual behavior as being a continuum (with some of those behaviors Sin, but nevertheless potentially very fun and desirable). If there are a bunch of guys jacking off as a group post-swim, for example, the guy who really likes other guys (more or exclusively) in the crowd isn't likely to stand out.

Fast forward a decade or a century and move these people to a city. There are a lot more people to hang out with and at least some chance to find other people more like yourself. Apply a small amount of persecution so they huddle together (but not so much that they don't perceive it safe to meet) and you should precipitate private clubs and special communication. More importantly, you'll probably precipitate categories out of what might otherwise have remained a continuum. And therein lies the birth of identity.

Maybe. It's a theory.

demographic transition

Hitchcock talks about the demographic transition of the 17th century. Apparently, around mid-century there was a change and there's some question about why it happened. England had had a very late age of marriage (27/28 for men and women), a very low rate of bastards and a very low rate of pregnancy at time of marriage. Over the next century, the age of marriage dropped (to 22-25), the bastardy rate went up substantially as did the rate of pregnancy at time of marriage and the overall fertility rate. No one has a great explanation for this (in that, there's generational delay for most of the good explanations).

Please, please, please, don't hate me for what I'm about to say.

There's decent evidence that penetrative sex was pretty rare outside of marriage prior to that shift. And there's better evidence that penetrative sex got a boost from a variety of people/sources after that shift. And there was also a shift in perceptions/beliefs/expectations about which gender was responsible for saying no/which gender was more highly sexed. That is: _men_ were expected to not stick their dick in anything, and women were believed to be more sexually aggressive than men prior to this shift and afterwards, things switched (women were supposed to say no, and men were more sexually aggressive).

Here's an idea (NOT Hitchcock's). We _know_ from what happened later on, that people get ideas about how to have sex from representations of other people having sex (porn). We _know_ that pornography was becoming more widely available during this time period. Maybe that had an influence?

The condom was "invented" (by Fallopio. Ha!) to try to slow/halt the spread of syphillis in the 1500s. After it had been around for a while, people noticed it worked as birth control also, especially if you doped one up with spermicide. By the time period in question, a variety of barrier/spermicidal methods of birth control were available in London, where earlier, about your only choice was herbal abortifacients (and anyone who has gotten pregnant and miscarried knows this isn't necessarily something you want to do a lot of voluntarily, even during the first few weeks).

Could the demographic shift have been a result of a combination of available depictions of penetrative sex (hey, it's in a book, it must be right and we should give it a try) plus the apparently effective birth control forms newly available (people suck at assessing rare events, so if you used a condom and it usually worked, you might tell all your friends before it failed)? That is, a perverse effect of new forms of birth control/"more" information available about sex?

That's why I said don't hate me. I _know_ that's what the rightwingers are saying now. And I hate their policy proposal (no information, no birth control -- because you cannot turn the clock back. Sex Ed is not the problematic source of info).

It does make me wonder, tho. If you really wanted everyone to be having a whole lot more fun and staying safe, returning to the yesteryear of lots of "outercourse" and no intercourse is clearly a great idea (supplemented by lots of prophylactic and birth control options), and one that some progressives try to promote, at least part of the time. And looking at what tends to happen whenever new, effective birth control is introduced (hey, we can skip foreplay and go straight to jamming it right in there now with the Pill because we don't need to worry about the condom breaking! Woohoo!) makes me wonder if this happened during the outercourse-condom transition. Especially since that's the exact same transition that decided the female orgasm was not necessary for conception.

Southwestern Company rep

Well, this one's a new one on me. I _was_ a JW. I've received visits from Mormons. I went to a Cutco recruitment thing once (ha! We didn't get along. Duh.). But this is the first I've ever heard of Southwestern Company.

Jeff, from Missouri, was personable. I refused to open the screen door on account of being contagious (I have a really nasty head cold. Not making that up. I'm still in PJs and did not volunteer at the library today and did not go for a walk today. For real.), and cut his presentation short once it was clear he was selling "early learning" something and that it was books. Come on. I need more early learning books like I need another dozen holes in my head.

Altho if the holes were well placed, they might help with the drainage. Never mind.

He wanted to know just how contagious I was, because he was hoping for a refill on a water bottle. I was happy to oblige (I know what it's like going door-to-door and I do try to be friendly, without misleading people into thinking that I might ever buy whatever it is they are offering) and washed my hands first. He really wanted to show me a definition in one of the kids' books, so I agreed to that. That, in fact, gave me enough to know that it was the Southwestern Company when I went googling around to figure out what had just happened. He also wanted to know who in the neighborhood did not have kids so he could skip those houses, which I was perfectly happy to oblige with (altho after, I wondered if I'd done a stupid, but no, these guys seem legit).

A USA today article about this company and others:


The book I was shown was unbelievably lame (not that I looked at much). Which is basically what I would expect for a product sold in this context.

Poor Jeff. I hope he's not relying on this line of work to pay for anything important. And I really hope that most of my neighbors have the sense to say no. Next step: is he supposed to have a license for this? And if, so, does he have one?

Addendum: he _is_ supposed to have a license for this. Hmmm...

In case it is not obvious, I'm no fan of the door-to-door sales critter.

Further addendum: after about 45 seconds of dithering (apparently I feel strongly about this), I found the non-emergency number for Brookline Police and called them. He does indeed have the license (and I think she's getting calls, because when I said there was someone going door-to-door selling some kids stuff, she finished my sentence for me with books). All is square and I will now leave this topic alone. Unless someone else wants to commiserate.