The phrase “personal essay at Slate” has been steadily accumulating an aura of menace for several years now, but nobody was really prepared for what we witnessed on Friday. For my part, I was comfortably reclined at home keeping the Good Friday tradition of counting down the hours until midnight when I could go to town on a pepperoni pizza. Should I have been meditating on the crucifixion and death of Jesus instead of scrolling through Twitter? Probably, but feel confident that what I and so many others encountered online that day produced in us an intellectual and spiritual agony not entirely unlike being nailed to a cross for the sins of humanity.
The instigator of our suffering was an essay published under the “Human Interest” banner at Slate titled “What Happened When I Decided to Teach my Son to Masturbate.” Okay, sure, the title looked bad, but the algorithmic siren song of clickbait has entrapped us all at this point, so maybe it would turn out to be okay. And the piece starts off just fine: a nice liberal man had terrible sex ed as a kid, is conscious of how it messed him up, and doesn’t want his son to go through the same things he did. But what follows is an increasingly unhinged account of someone’s intense interest in the sex life of their child. It includes a phone call to a guy known only as “uncle” who tells the kid how to masturbate as well as the dad’s suggestion that his son might enjoy it more if he fantasized about tomatoes. Lots of detailed advice, all of it very well-meaning, and not a moment of questioning whether anybody needs this much advice about something human beings have been figuring out how to do on their own since before they were fully removed from apes.
There are at least a dozen things wrong with an essay like that, the most salient of which is that publishing it while the American right is going all in on stoking a new moral panic that brands queer people as “groomers” and pedophiles is the kind of editorial incompetence that should only be possible in an Armando Iannucci series. But it’s not terribly unusual for Slate where, despite having the superb Bryan Lowder editing their queer culture section, the site’s overall line seems to be that the collective id of liberal heterosexuality needs a release valve lest our fragile interpersonal bonds collapse, and Slate is determined to be that valve. I admit that I’m a pessimist in this regard: watching from the sidelines as heterosexuality drives our friends and family through various modes of collective psychosis has long been the heart of gay experience, and I’ve resigned myself to being unable to carry on a civilized conversation without the imperative of straight self-expression intruding like a foghorn.
And it really is an imperative, because people absolutely know that some things ought not to be expressed and do it anyway in Slate. Take one writer submitting to “Care and Feeding,” who is extremely concerned about how much sugar their friend’s kid eats and knows they can’t express this to their friend, so she’s going to tell the internet about it instead because somebody has to hear about how much better they would be as a parent. Another writer is so convinced that her best friend should be her son’s guardian in the event of her death that she feels her only options are to pester that friend until she gives in or leave it as a surprise in the will, and that any hesitancy on the friend’s part is just due to being ugly and single. Both writers are absolutely convinced that they’re doing somebody else a favor, and even the child on whose behalf they act seems to disappear in the face of their own self-congratulation.
And sure, an advice column is an easy target. People write into them all the time wanting some kind of public resolution. Maybe they need a second opinion, and the fact that a columnist is willing to put it in writing gives it some extra weight. But there’s an unmistakable exhibitionist impulse at work too, especially in the writers above: they desperately want to show other good, liberal Slate readers how awesome they are or would be at parenting, and an advice letter lets them fish for accolades in a way that won’t immediately alienate their friends and family. A certain amount of this is inevitable in running an advice column; whether it needs to be published is up for debate.
What certainly doesn’t need to be published is self-congratulation at length, but Slate can never resist this for long. Progressive fathers and their angst seem to be particular favorites, as with an essay whose title claims “I Think I Know Why Men Don’t Talk About Parental Leave.” There aren’t enough essays, you see, about the troubles fathers go through in supporting their partners after a birth — presumably the two published a month prior in the same section of the same website weren’t filling the gap. Mind you, this author is abandoning the safety of silent allyship but he’s not saying he’s had it worse than his wife! He’s working so hard to support her and it’s real work but let’s never forget that it’s much worse for her. It’s a standout example of what Phil Christman has called “shiteating allyism,” which often manifests as incessant rhetorical gestures at how much worse someone else has it. I get that sensitive straight guys who understand their privilege and feel sorry about it have been a cultural fetish object for several years at this point, but generally public flagellation is the sort of thing best confined to parties where everybody’s consented to see it. Even if this somehow needs to be said, there are better and more private places to say it.
And this brings us back to the first essay, which elevates psychological exhibitionism to a perverse kind of art. The personal essay is also a kind of literary flirtation with public indecency: one bares one’s soul or one’s deeds, and perhaps there’s a philosophical payoff, but was the point if it all the payoff or what led up to it? What’s clear enough from that essay is that the oppressive parenting that nice middle-class liberals imagine themselves fighting hasn’t gone away at all. The hyper-regulation of childhood sexuality, the obsession with correct pedagogy, and the investment of a child’s entire future in correct sexual formation are all every bit as present in this writer’s essay as they were in his Catholic schooling. What if your kid isn’t just a funnel for other people’s approval but an independent person who’s entitled to some privacy about his life? What if there’s actually nobody judging you, at least not until the publication of this essay? What if 8,000 years of reconstructible human civilization suggest that our sexual development can take many forms and is very unlikely to be permanently screwed up by a few mistakes? Brief contemplation of these questions or a dozen others might have prevented the publication of an essay that’s essentially about playing Baby Mozart CDs to your kid’s dick.
I’m not sure what exactly it was that needed to be expressed, though more astute critics than I might have some guesses. But the decision to write and the editorial decision to publish all seem to confirm that expression was the major priority and that concerns like an adolescent’s privacy or the reception of a piece like this, in a culture determined to vilify LGBT people, had to take a back seat to a straight man’s determination to talk out all his parenting and all his sexual anxieties in a public forum. My own crankish theory is that straight America learned the wrong lessons from the gay rights movement. Talking openly about sex and sexual psychology is very different for a sexual minority living, as it were, in occupied territory: it’s liberatory to say who and what you are when you spent your life thinking there was nobody like you. Gays and gayness needed a voice. Straightness needs one rather less.
Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theater, and the Michigan Wolverines.