In response to:
Love for Sale from the January 13, 2022 issue
To the Editors:
Responding to a critique as condescending as the one penned by Anahid Nersessian about my book The End of Love is a challenging spiritual exercise. Hence I begin with an attempt to understand how someone who teaches in the department of English literature at UCLA could have so vastly misread this book. The most plausible explanation I can find is that the critic is not only untrained in sociology, but unaware she does not have the basic tools of the discipline within which the book was written. Sometimes these disciplinary encounters offer delightful surprises; and sometimes, as is the case here, they only offer the spectacle of someone’s most entrenched intellectual routines. This obligates me to state some basics.
The purpose of this book is to understand why there is a malaise in heterosexual relationships and to explain this in sociological rather than psychological terms. Doing research always entails hard choices: studying unhappy people means having to forgo the study of happy people. It does not mean we do not know happy people exist; only that, like doctors, we find it more urgent and perhaps more interesting to understand unhappiness. Moreover, rigorous methodology demands its object to be focused by not introducing too many variables, such as race or sexual orientation.
But Nersessian will have none of it. She is on a mission to track the unstudied groups. Queer or homosexual sexuality should have been my topic. I am equally and bizarrely indicted for not having included Black people. The book was written in Israel, a country in which there are very few Black people, except for Jews of Ethiopian origins whose lives are so traditional that they are outside the compass of my study (in the same way that other religious Jews were outside of it). I want to hope that living outside the US and choosing for oneself one’s own object of interest remain legitimate. Reading Nersessian, I was no longer sure.
She thus misses a key point: turning heterosexuality into a puzzle enables me precisely not to make it the default condition of sexuality. With this self-declared purpose, I focused on women. Here again Nersessian finds plenty to lament about. Why did I choose women? Because studying men would have muddied the analysis and because women have expressed most vocally discomfort, unease, and perplexity if not downright rage about their sexual and romantic relationships.
Trying to skirt the familiar views that “men are all pigs” and women hapless victims, I precisely try to establish a structural analysis of the sets of forces that have changed the terms of the heterosexual encounter and argue that uncertainty has significantly transformed the formation and the maintenance of intimate bonds. Uncertainty is a key concept in economics and sociology: it implies the difficulty of predicting a course of action and figuring out the rules of an interaction. When and how did the shift to uncertainty in intimate relationships occur and what are the cultural, technological, political, and economic forces that shaped it are the two key questions of this book.
Such uncertainty is also (but not only) an outcome of sexual freedom. To an existentialist, this should not come as a grand scoop or groundbreaking news. In existentialist philosophy, freedom entails a fundamental uncertainty and even anxiety. The book does not leave this claim in the sky of philosophical abstractions: it documents the minute ways in which these women struggle with the emotional uncertainty entailed by detached and autonomous sex.
Nersessian finds it distasteful that these women do not speak like Sappho. Come on, she says, aren’t people more diverse and more interesting than this? Cherry-picking her examples from past and highly literate people (and thereby assuming the unchanging nature of sexual desire and love), Nersessian scolds us into celebrating, à la Marie Antoinette, our sexual brioches. Such dismissal of the phenomenon of sexual and emotional misery is uncomfortably reminiscent of the dismissal of economic misery by those who have had the privilege to know social life through its pleasurable luxuries.
To rebut my analysis, she finds no better example of the delight of casual sex than in the encounter of Godwin and Wollstonecraft. Oblivious to any sense of cultural analysis and historical difference, Nersessian uses the passionate affair between the two to deride my discussion of the ways in which modern casual sex introduces uncertainty in romantic affairs. Wollstonecraft met Godwin after two suicide attempts when Gilbert Imlay callously abandoned her; Godwin and Wollstonecraft had a long and slow courtship; Godwin had read Wollstonecraft and admired her; they ultimately married. The difference between this and anonymous sex is lost on Nersessian.
I neither deny that many are happy in love, nor that sex can be pleasurable. The world does not need me to report the trivialities Nersessian finds necessary to repeat. The point is to understand why a significant group of women experience heterosexuality as a form of emotional misery. Nancy Chodorow, Carol Gilligan, Catharine MacKinnon, and Shulamith Firestone have long been preoccupied with just this question. My modest contribution to their work has been to understand how the combined effects of patriarchy, sexual freedom, technology, and the consumer market create a new experience of indeterminateness that has turned heterosexuality into a field rife with struggles.
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Anahid Nersessian replies:
Although Eva Illouz is a sociologist, The End of Love is not a work of sociology in the traditional sense. It contains neither quantitative analysis nor a robust ethnography; if it did, I would not be in a strong position to evaluate it on its own terms. As it happens, however, a great deal of the evidence for Illouz’s claims comes from novels, films, TV shows, and stories that people have shared anonymously on the Internet. As a literary critic, I am fairly comfortable on this terrain.
In her letter, Illouz notes that her book was “written in Israel, a country in which there are very few Black people.” However, in The End of Love, she says she has based her analysis on “interviews with ninety-two people in France, England, Germany, Israel, and the United States from the age of nineteen to the age of seventy-two.” If all of these interview subjects were white, that is an interesting and important fact about her sample population, since France, England, Germany, and the United States are quite diverse places.
Finally, I did not indict Illouz “for not having included Black people” in the study. I noted that she did not appear to have interviewed any people of color. Needless to say, not all people of color are Black—not in the US, and not in the Middle East. The suggestion that they are speaks for itself.