« The Weeds

The Great Expiration


Dylan Matthews and Dara Lind are joined by Washington Post columnist Christine Emba (@ChristineEmba) to discuss the end of Covid-era welfare programs. We just hit two years of the pandemic, and some of those social safety programs, most notably the child tax credit, have expired. These policies dramatically improved the lives of millions of Americans; did we waste an opportunity to make these policies permanent? And later, a conversation about the politics of sex and consent as discussed in Christine’s new book, Rethinking Sex.


Christine’s book, Rethinking Sex

A guide to all the Covid-era social safety net expansions

Li Zhou on the child tax credit’s expiration

3.4 million more children were in poverty in February than December

Up to 16 million Americans could lose Medicaid after the public health emergency lifts

The effect of bonus unemployment insurance expiring last year

Sam Adler-Bell’s profile of David Leonhardt

Ed Yong on reopening and the lack of a safety net

The enormous learning loss caused by the pandemic

White Paper: “Consent, Legitimation, and Dysphoria” by Robin West

BDSM-interested parents have lost child custody just for their kink

Oklahoma’s new abortion ban


Dylan Matthews (@dylanmatt), senior correspondent, Vox

Dara Lind (@dlind), Weeds co-host, Vox


Sofi LaLonde, producer and engineer

Libby Nelson, editorial adviser

Amber Hall, deputy editorial director of talk podcasts

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
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That chronologically suspect? - Okay. - Okay. - Maybe we should actually bring this into the discussion as well. - Good news, we're recording. - Hello and welcome to another episode of The Weeds. I'm your host, Dylan Matthews. I am joined today by regular cohost, Dara Lind. - Hello, I am regular cohost. - And Washington Post columnist, Christine Embo. Hello, I am an irregular co-host. Christine is also, in addition to being an irregular co-host of The Weeds, the author of Rethinking Sex, a Provocation, which is available now wherever books are sold. We're going to be talking a bit about her book in our white paper segment, which is on related topics. For the next half hour or so though, our thoughts are on the topic.
On sex will remain relatively un-rethought and we are instead going to rethink what's happening with the American safety net. As my want, I'm going to try to lay out a little bit of background first, and then we'll dive into it. So in a series of laws, most notably the 2020 CARES Act and the 2021 American Rescue Plan, the United States reacted to the COVID pandemic by dramatically expanding its social safety net. Three rounds of stimulus checks, totaling $3,200 per person went out. Unemployment insurance was boosted across the board by $600 a week, then $300 a week, meaning for a lot of newly out of work people, the UI was paying more than their old job did. Food stamps, Medicaid, Obamacare subsidies were all boosted, and a monthly child tax credit available to the poorest families was implemented for the very first time.
In American history. Right now though, and this is why we're doing this episode, we're going through a kind of great expiration. So after temporarily expiring in 2020, the bonus UI payments went away for good in June 2021 in red states and a few months later everywhere else. The child tax credit, in spite of dramatic valiant efforts by Democrats who are not named Joe Manchin to extend it, appears to be dead due to Democrats named Joe Manchin. And the food stamp and Medicaid boosts are very contingent. They are tied to the COVID public health emergency, and that's currently set to expire on April 15th, though it's been extended many times and could be extended again. So the child credit change has been especially striking, as by some measures it's resulted in a very sudden and massive surge in child credit.
Called poverty. There was an estimate from the Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy that estimated that 3.4 million more children were in poverty in February than were in December. And that's basically just because of the child tax credit expiring. So Christine, since we have you here, you've written a bit about some issues related to You wrote a great piece on falling fertility and how that relates to lack of support for families. What do you make of that policy's death? -Well, I mean, first, we should -- Just shout out Joe Manchin again and again and again here for plunging nearly four million more kids back into poverty after this program expired.
- Yeah, I mean, honestly, it's tragic. I think that these policies, both the child tax credit, extended Medicare, unemployment, all of these, provided almost for the first time, a fundamental welfare state, a positive welfare state in the United States that made it possible for families to survive in a crisis and even thrive. In fact, there was predicted to be a baby bust when COVID started. And that actually happened in the first few months of COVID. But then when these policies went into effect, birth rates and fertility actually rebounded close to levels of before the pandemic showing that this sort of assistance really helps families and makes them think that they can survive and even grow. And of course, now that's gone.
Yeah, I mean people who were listening to the weeds back in 2020 will recall I think a couple of occasions where we you know had to step back and recalibrate our and y'all's expectations about what COVID was doing to the economy because While say two years ago like at this point in the year The assumption was that we were going to be plunged very rapidly into a great recession or greater style economic downturn, that there was going to be this very quick but very complete, you know, wiping out of a bunch of people's sense of economic security. And because Congress actually... Stepped in through successive, you know, very large emergency funding bills. By the end of 2020, we were pointing out that not only had they provided a substantial cushion for many of the people who had lost their jobs during the recession, during the COVID recession, but that like, it had actually gone further than that and made some people whole who had been
struggling even before the pandemic appeared. And what we're talking about now is, you know, two years. Into the pandemic and certainly with both the economic problems caused by the kind of-- more poorly understood pre-vaccination level of public health emergency, plus the economic effects of Total shutdowns, both being substantially mitigated when we no longer have total shutdowns and also have like at least some understanding of what the virus is and what environments are and aren't high risk, but taking us back to a time without something that didn't just help the 2020. But also went some way to helping people who had been suffering before. And, you know, I think that the child tax credit is particularly illustrative here, not just because the cause of its demise is so obvious. Like you may recall that Joe Manchin last year was reported to have said privately that that it wouldn't be
Good to renew the CTC because families were using it to buy drugs, but also because its impact is so clear. Dylan's not going to give himself props. For this so I will, like the Dylan's Matthews of the world had been writing for years about how expanding the child tax credit was the easiest way to live. Out of poverty and that that was a particularly, you know, big and low-hanging piece of fruit and to... See that actually borne out in the economic numbers after the expansion through-- 2021 and now borne out in the numbers in early 2022 is a really rare illustration of just how much a single government program can do. - Right, I mean, there's also evidence that shows that Joe Biden is a -Pension again was totally wrong when he suspected that, you know, parents would spend it on drugs, as if parents don't have --
an understanding of what their families need. At least one analysis, multiple analyses, but one that I'm looking at right now is the US Census Bureau data by the... A center on budget and policy priorities found that 91% of low-income families use their monthly benefits on basic needs. So they used it to buy food. They used it to buy clothing and school supplies, to pay their utility bills and cover their rent. Like these were the things that families were struggling to do before, like pure survival mechanisms, allowing their kids to go to school and eat food. And I think that was huge. I think it became clear that the U.S. government could actually help families do that in a material way and that frankly it wouldn't be that hard. Unfortunately we've decided that we don't want to do that anymore.
Yeah, I think one of the surprising things about all this to me is that, is how much like government capacity it suggested the US has. And it's not unlimited. Like if Matt Brunig, the grumpy uncle of child welfare policy, were here, he would point out that the checks were sent out from the IRS. You had to have either filed for taxes or done sort of a non-filer return thing to get them that in civilized countries in Scandinavia, they just send you money from the Social Security Agency. And that's all true. But I think I had like a much more pessimistic view of what the federal government. Could do even when it comes to just handing out money to people. And it turns out they could rise to the occasion pretty quickly. And they were able to use existing programs that were kind of stingy, like Medicaid, and expand them pretty rapidly. The core of Medicaid is this thing called FMAP that is just a formula saying how much of the money comes from the federal government.
And how much comes from the states. And it turns out, we learned during the pandemic, that just adjusting FMAP quickly is possible, and that when you do it, states enroll more people in Medicaid. And it was this very interesting experiment in testing out all these levers that had been built up over the years. And finding that you could in fact pull on them and the federal government would not break when you did it. - That's a really good point. Going through the IRS is interesting because it is essentially what if we treated social for the working class and the way we treated social services for the middle class like Weed's listeners are not going to be unfamiliar with the concept of the submerged state and the idea that there is a middle-class welfare state That it's primarily promulgated through the tax code and that because it's promulgated through the tax code It's very easy for the middle-class families at benefits to pretend that they don't get
Any benefits from the state at all. So it's interesting to see that well-established and fairly frictionless state capacity be extended to a population that we-- more conventionally think of as welfare recipients, but the FMAP example proves that it's not just that we have this well-trained, robust welfare state making capacity at the IRS, which-- Obviously like has big downsides when you're, you know, doing this weird bank shot of we're not going to tell people but we're helping them anyway. You know, if the FMAP example shows that we also have the ability to use the existing standard welfare providing agencies, those really are a little... Bit more robust than I think we often assume the post-1996 federal welfare state capacity to be.
- I mean, it's interesting also not just that we proved that these mechanisms can work, but that in some ways the government was forced to stretch and expand them. You know, for all the complaints about how inefficient the IRS non-filer portal was, and it was pretty bad. Still, I think, you know, eight million families, close to eight million families ended up using it. So it was actually accessible, and you know, with some work that was able to. To change to make it easier to use. I think the government also was forced to innovate in terms of internet accessibility, more languages, making websites mobile accessible, using sort of voice and other technologies because just so many more people needed it at the time.
Time and usually I think we don't invest in that unfortunately we kind of wait until the most desperate moment when everything is falling apart and then like you know innovate just slightly so that doesn't fully collapse but this was sort of a forced push forward and it worked for a lot of families yeah it's been interesting talking to people so one The one good person thing I do in my life is that in spring, I like to do volunteer tax prep for people in DC. Dylan you donated a kitten That was years ago, I don't know Any more body parts to donate. I lost a finger in a freak moped accident and it didn't even go to anybody. But anyway, I... One interesting thing that I've noticed doing it this year is there's all these new questions you have to ask people because of everything that happened in 2020 and 2021.
About the child tax credit in a way that you didn't have to before because we weren't sending out monthly payments. You have to ask people about when they got their stimulus checks. I've noticed dramatically more complaints about the stimulus checks than about the child tax credit, which has been really interesting to me. Like, people notice when they get -- the child credit. And like often people will either have not noticed that the $1,400 last year went into their bank account. And so we like go through their bank account and I point it out and we don't put it on the tax return or. They just didn't get it. And then they have to go through this really annoying IRS process because the IRS thinks they got it and they have to ask for it. This is just anecdotal. So like take with a big pound of salt, but I've never. I didn't notice anything like that about the child credit. And like my working theory on that is it premiered a little bit later. And so the IRS had at that point had experience with three rounds of stimulus payments, had been able to build up some capacity of doing that. And because it was monthly and not just a one-time drop, people were less likely to forget.
I'm here in March asking people to remember what happened in March of last year to their bank account. And like I don't remember every deposit in my bank account from a year ago. Whereas the child credit was like very visible and very like persistent in their financial lives. A lot of things were happening last March. That is also true. The world was pretty busy. I also think that one of the things that if you talk to and read interviews with people who receive the child tax credit, one of the great things about it actually was its relationship. Usually the child tax credit appears, you know, once a year, but this move Expanded it to around $300 payments monthly, and that gave parents and families some stability in their incomes, especially when, you know, unemployment It was higher, jobs were in and out because of various waves. You could count on a certain amount of money, which meant that you could actually plan in advance. And of course, tons of research and our
- Common sense shows that when there is some stability in your income and your financial situation, you're able to think long term to things like, you know. Enrolling your children in school to banking away money for future expenses to paying for daycare in advance, etc. And that I think provided a lot of psychological help, like not just, you know, monetary help, but actually psychological help and stability for families across the United States, something that is missing most of the time. Are extremely shredded social security or welfare safety net. Yeah, I mean, I'd also point out that if you are moralistically concerned with the purposes to which this money is being spent, common sense and evidence both also dictate that if you're just getting it as a single windfall payment that you cannot predict the size of that is coming as one lump sum, you are more likely to spend it on things you had previously deemed unnecessary than if you are projecting it as a f-
A few hundred dollars a month to add to your monthly budget. But what I'm curious about is because we're not just talking about the like, you know, the expansion. Of the state, but also it's like contraction now during the Great Expiration. You know, I have a few questions about what this means for our understanding of kind of the politics But even just kind of talking about the mechanisms that we've been discussing, like, do we think that the government has retained... Going to be able to retain any muscle memory of what it is to have this expanded capacity that these innovations that you're talking about, Christine are going to persist even Delivered at a smaller scale or is this just you know a Camelot thing of like wow for a couple of years there we had a federal government that knew how to do things? I mean I've been thinking about A little bit in context of some of the debates about reopening, we've seen there was a good Sam Adler Bell profile of David Leonhart, who's
Sort of taken on the role of the great re-opener. And Sam interviews a lot of epidemiologists and public health people who are very-- at it at Leonhart and Ed Yong had a piece that was, did not name Leonhart, but was a very sort of, we're reopening too fast. This is, this is all going awry. And kind of an interesting theme in all of those was there were like medical public health disagreement, like first order empirical disagreements, like how important is masking? Does masking have like negative psychosocial effects on kids that I like don't feel qualified to answer? It seems like the negatives on kids are kind of exaggerated. I don't know. I lean sort of mask sympathetic. But the other thing is just like the field of public health came up through a recognition of dramatic health disparities on the basis of income.
Race, nationality. And so people in it have a fairly baked-in set of left-of-center views on economic justice, which I don't think is necessary. Different academic disciplines have different worldviews, and that's fine. But there's sort of an elegiac quality to these pieces. Is where people are saying, you know, this was our moment. Like, we could have built a great welfare state here, the way that Britain built its welfare state out of the Blitz, or the first American welfare state was built out of the Great Depression, and we kind of lost it. We built this all up, and it went away just as quickly. And like not to psychoanalyze too much, but there did seem to be a bit of a feeling of like if we reopen too fast that's like us admitting we lost this moment. development. That's really sad, but I also don't know, I don't know if we expected too much of this emergency, that the reasons the US is not a European welfare state.
Are sundry and rooted in centuries of history. And I don't know if even a catastrophe this bad would have been enough to break us out of it. I don't want to say that I'm hopeful. I mean, I'd like to say that I'm hopeful, but I wouldn't go that far. But I am noticing that the left has gotten excited, obviously, about the potential for better welfare policies like the ones that we... Experience over the past two years. And we've also seen segments of the right getting on board. You know, Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, even Josh Hawley. - Josh Hawley was calling for cash payments, it's wild. - Right, right, they are now, you know, in some ways at least trying to promote plans that support families, including direct cash payments, including, you know, other sort of less useful arrangements.
Especially with the rising awareness of falling fertility rates which seems to concern conservatives much more than it does Anyone else. There is a new understanding, I think, of the need to support families and also whether for sort of libertarian... Leaning reasons or you know trusting parents with their children to know their family's needs. To support policies that allow families to make decisions themselves. And those do include generally just giving people money. That energy continues, that could be a good thing. We'll just have to wait for Joe Manchin to return. - Right, I mean, so this is my question about the politics of it, because I can understand the argument you're making, Christine, about like a new bipartisan consensus, The reason that the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit have been such key levers of federal interest.
Poverty policy was this 90s consensus where like everyone agreed tax cuts were good and if you could do a progressive tax cut so much the better for like kind of the Democratic mainstream of the time. And I can understand like, okay, yes, we don't. There's a different understanding of how the tax burden should be shared. But there's also a good Greater communitarian interest in pro-family policy. But the piece that has-- missing or at least that I haven't yet seen is something that was talked about About ad nauseam during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, which obviously continued long after the enactment of said act. That was made then was welfare state policies are more politically controversial when they are theoretical and when they are being rolled out than they are once they actually exist because once they exist you have created a con- Constituency that benefits from it, that understands that they benefit from it, and that will push for its preservation. And like, we did see that with the ACA. And I think that that kind of started getting
priced into all of this temporary stuff in 2020 where there was, you know, I think Congress Understands that some things that they say are temporary will never actually be temporary because you'll just add them to the laundry. List of things you renew whenever you pass another appropriations bill. And I think that, you know, Manchin pretty... Clearly single-handedly killed the CTC, but that doesn't really explain all of the other stuff that has been allowed to sunset. In an era where a lot of political analysts kind of understood sunsetting as being a thing that would never actually happen for some of this stuff. And I wonder, I don't know if it's that there isn't I keep thinking about the 99ers, which was a group of long-term unemployed folks back who really self-mobilized and pushed for expansions to long-term unemployment insurance, you know,
Understood themselves to be like a particular group of people who would benefit from this policy and I don't know if it is that there isn't something like that or that. You know, it just doesn't matter as much that people feel that they're losing something or that that's just not as politically salient. As a lot of other things and so anyone who is advocating for it is getting lost in the shuffle but it does seem to upend our understanding of how durable a welfare state can be in the political sense. Yeah, I was thinking about this a bit, that I think expiration policy. And sort of like sunsetting politics works really well on kind of on either elite issues or things where the benefits are so widely shared that you can't allow it to just go away entirely. So old People like me might remember in 2010 and then in 2012, we had these things that were sort of called physical cliffs, where the Bush tax cuts in—
their entirety were going to expire. And then in 2012, there was also going to be all these spending cuts. And those were effective guns to the head of Congress, because Bush cut taxes most on rich people, but also for everybody. The bottom tax bracket was 15% when he went into office. He added a 10% bracket. Once you start messing with the first-- Bracket you're cutting everybody's taxes and like Obama did not want to preside over a massive tax increase in the middle of a recession on everybody but Similarly, things that are not really on the public radar but matter a lot to certain interest groups like Medicare reimbursements. For years we had this thing called the doctor. Fix where in '97, Clinton passed a law that would cut reimbursements to doctors. And the public didn't care about this. Doctors really cared about this. And so they would mobilize every single year to get these repealed and so they never ever took effect and the child credit
Kind of operating on the latter track. There wasn't really like a popular grassroots movement for this. I'm gonna get emails from people who try. To build one, be like, no, there was. But it was not Black Lives Matter, it was not even like the Sunrise Movement, it was not ADAPT doing sort of disability politics in people's offices. There was not, I think like an honest accounting of why it happened is really elite driven, that this was something that economists, sociologists. Social welfare experts who study the issue really, really wanted, that made its way to policymakers. First, Rosa DeLauro, who literally represents Yale and talks about to these people all the time, and then people like Michael Bennett. And that sort of sufficed to push it into legislation for a year. But you didn't really have an organized consistency around it, and that's fine as long as you don't have an organized or popular backlash to it. But you did. And you had people like--
Rubio and Lee, who've been calling for their own plan to expand the child credit for years, like turning against this really hard because it turns out like giving money to people without work requirements remains incredibly controversial. And I don't know that the coalition was really prepared for that. That, that it was playing, I frankly was playing an elite inside game and I like viewed my role as like advocating for this thing that I thought could become law. On the power of elite consensus. And I think we were really wrong about that. Have to detect back, I guess a couple minutes into our conversation, think about the sort of reopening consensus, right? I mean, a lot of these programs were supportive for families to stay at home with their kids or provide for their families with you know not necessarily two full-time wage earners but one or one and a half and at Point in the pandemic, as we all know, there was a great movement to
not let people be at home anymore. Get them back to work, get everybody back out in public. And so I think-- That was also an inspiration for trying to sunset some of these policies, simply to force the economy back open. Hell or high water or starving children, as it turns out. - No, it was funny. When I was going through all the programs that expired, I'd forgotten that before even the CARES Act and something called the Families First During COVID Act in February 2020, we passed a paid lease. Provision, but it was only if you got COVID. There was no other forms of illness or sickness. Was limited in what employers applied to because most employers had some kind of paid leave provision. And then that expired at the end of 2020 and never came back. And when you read these sort of reopening analyses, that's always the first policy they mentioned. Sense like tons of people were getting sick it makes sense to pass sick leave at a time when lots of people are getting sick and we kind of did but we
really didn't, and we certainly didn't for last year and this year when people are still dying. If you had a model of the US government where it has a kind of reaction function, where there's a big problem all of a sudden, and people react rationally to try to fix the problem, that model did not explain. And our policies on sick leave very well. - Yeah, I mean, I'd even argue that people are-- Getting sick all the time, especially children, frankly, who are walking vectors of disease. - There's illness before 2020, I have heard. - Yeah, and in fact, sometimes people need to stay home and get well so that they can go back to their jobs and not infect other people, and this is not just a COVID problem, but, you know, maybe that's just-- speculation on my part who can say man hearing this is making me reconsider like I I have had a really strong like aversion maybe even revulsion
To the amount of discourse that gets hung up on the concept of returning to normal, because the critics of it are so often like, Well, why are we saying normal? Shouldn't we imagine something better? In lieu of, like, and actually making that the-- extent of the intervention rather than actually articulating what the better world might look like and for Matter, not for nothing, the extent to which they believe that the 2020 to 2021 world actually reflected something better. Than what existed pre 2020, which is implicit in a lot of this but doesn't often get teased out. And like hearing this it actually It does seem like there would be a version of that that is what if we treated COVID not as like something that categorically. Different from getting sick and needing to stay home and needing not to send your kids to school where they could infect others? Or what if we treated losing Your job in March 2020 because you were working at a hotel is like not that different from losing your job because you were part of a massive wave of layoffs because
company was getting stripped for parts to get repackaged as part of some, you know, hedge fund move. Make a certain amount of sense. I just kind of wish that this is the level at which things were happening rather than this very symbolic, well if we say that we want to go back to normal then such... That's the materially different fact rather than the expiration of these existing policies that helped Carry people through what we expected to be a difficult time and that you know From a certain perspective could persist if we assumed that people will be suffering from difficult times whether or not there's a pandemic in the air. Well, I mean, that's also kind of an implication of sort of a broader American philosophy. And that's why this is, I think, difficult for a lot of people to say. I mean, the American sort of understanding right now is this bootstraps thing, right, where you work hard and you survive based on how hard you work. And if something happens to you, if you get sick or if you lose your job, it's probably
Then you should have done better. We don't need to help you. Or as COVID was kind of a radical sort of re-imagining of that because it was happening to everyone and it was clearly not one person's fault, Like there was a frailty to human life that was unexpected and harmed people and supported. Rising ways and so it was our job to take care of each other. Is whether we can understand that there are frailties to human life that are no one's fault. And we should help take care of each other, even when the obvious cause is not a pandemic. Take a really big shift in sort of American thinking. And I don't know if we are ready to talk about that or if even policymakers are plugging that sort of big meta question into their proposals when they talk about it.
Yeah, I mean, America is famously a very individualist society. And I mean, it's interesting in that, like, that's often used as an explanation for why we don't do more government intervention into things. And I have some, like, kind of technical caveats about that. We do more regulation and intervention than Europe. We have much stricter drug regulations. But in terms of supporting people, I think it holds up. And it definitely-- In the debate over reopening, there's very much an undercurrent of, like, what can I be asked to do on behalf of other people? And I sometimes get frustrated with the reopening debate because it's so many individual things, right? Like, I deeply—
Sympathize with the Leonhard's on the specific issue of whether we ever go back to Zoom school. Like, it seems clear at this point that Zoom school has denied a year or two of actual education to people in the U.S. and much more to people in poor countries. The Center for Global Development has done some great studies on learning loss in Africa and just like a total lost generation of people without reading and math skills because countries were forced to shut down schools. Like, I am willing to do a lot of things to avoid ever going to remote schooling ever again. But like, am I desperate to go back to never wearing masks on the bus? Really? It's a little annoying, but who cares? And that issue, like masking specifically in a non-educational context, seems very like, do you have an individualist or collectivist mindset of common morality?
Do we want to take this opportunity to pivot to another anti-individualist critique of the status quo of American life? I think we might. So we're going to take a quick break after that. Standing Dar essegue. But when we come back, we're going to talk about a white paper on the ethic of consent and sexual morality and the perils of individualism in that sphere. So stay with us. Cooped up inside and wish you were outside. So you go outside only to miss the comfort of being inside? Well, Burrow is here to help you have it both ways. So you can enjoy the comfort and style of inside your home, outside, with the outdoor collection from Burrow. Burrow says they're known for timeless design, thoughtful construction, and little details that make life in your life. Space easier and that extends to the outdoor collection. With Burrow you can get seating that allows for easy assembly and disassembly so you can move.
Or store them away as needed. No tools necessary. Burrow's outdoor furniture is made for all seasons and built to withstand the elements. Featuring rust-proof stainless steel hardware and quick-dry stain-resistant foam cushions. That they ship straight to your door for free. Seems like you can have it both ways. Listeners of the weeds can get 15% off their first burrow order at burrow.com/weeds. That's burrow. B-U-R-R-O-W.com/weeds for 15% off. burrow.com/weeds. Okay, we're back. Our white paper this week is by Robin West, who's an eminent feminist legal scholar at Georgetown Law, and it's called Consent, Legitimation, and Dysphoria. Christine, you picked this paper.
And it relates to a lot of the themes in your book, Rethinking Sex, and I think you talk about it a bit in your book. So could you walk us through the paper and what you got out of it and why it became sort of important to your project? Sure, well I'll tell you a little bit about rethinking sex first. So at the post I write about ideas in society, and I was writing a lot about the #MeToo moment and movement when that happened, and it made it clear that that there were some sexual problems that were, we realized what the problem was, and consent was a big. Part of that. Like Harvey Weinstein should not lock his underlings into hotel rooms. That is bad. That's right. But assaults. Yeah. But it also opened up a lot of of gray areas where, you know, consent might have been present, but it wasn't enough to keep sex from being somehow bad. So we had stories like the Aziz Ansari babe.net thing. We had stories like Cat Person where women especially would consider
to sex ostensibly and yet that didn't make it good. Often still, you know, depressing, sad, even traumatic in some cases. Didn't seem to have a way to talk about that very well. That discussion wasn't happening. In rethinking sex, a provocation. - Available wherever books are sold. - Available wherever books are sold. One of the key themes here-- that consent is a floor, it's like a baseline that we need to have for sex, but it can't be a ceiling because... Because it's a really low bar. We have to have a higher standard for what we want from each other because consent just doesn't cover enough. And one of the... Things that really influenced my thinking in writing the book was this white paper by Robin West it came out in 2020. So it's actually pretty recent and it actually brings up a number of me too questions, but basically
Basically, she outlines how, and I'll just read from the paper and hopefully this is helpful, it's now a truism that many of the legal obligations of individuals in Western systems derive not from statu- Like you are married and that's your status or you're a slave and that's your status but consent you know sort of contract law, we contract into our rights and responsibilities. We agree to things. And our valorization of consent in that way has a kind of legitimating function, because we consent to something. Because we choose it, it's not only seen as valid, it's also seen as good. Like, consent makes whatever choice you've made, not Just legal, but also kind of great for you. But there are downsides to this. And she talks about a number of them that I found really interesting.
Is that because you consent to something, anything that happens after consent is given is sort of beyond critique. So, the consent function means that you don't really have to ask questions about why the consent was given, you know, the background of the decision choice. Whether what you've consented to is good for an individual or you know good for society at large and when it comes to sex especially, she talks about how consent just makes these questions really difficult to discuss and in some cases can contribute to what she calls hedonic. Dysphoria. So when somebody, you know, consents to sex, say, they assume because of this Legitimating function that the sex should be good and society also tells us that you know, we're sex positive
Is great, the more sex you have the better. But then when they have an experience that they've consented to that is really bad and conflicts with their sort of mental understanding of what consent is supposed to do. It creates a sort of split self where you don't really trust your experiences and that is really Psychologically harmful. You no longer trust yourself to understand pain or You no longer think of yourself as sort of an agential being who can really make choices. You back-- Into your own feelings and your own agency. Because in these cases, you can either choose to question society. The understanding of consent, the broad understanding of sex that you had in the past, which is kind of a big ask for a lot of people, or you can just doubt yourself. And that is what most people do.
And in this paper, West argues that this is a major potential harm from consent that is not talked about enough and is often overlooked. The concept of eudonic dysphoria is just extremely important, I think, for understanding the relationship between the body and the social. World, right? Because she's talking about the, as Christine was kind of laying out, like, how would it feel? to be told for years and years that we're now in a modern world where we can finally admit that everyone likes sex, where in fact we can look back at evolutionary deep history If you're a person of a certain level of sophistication, you can reduce everything in social life to the desire for sex. And then, for all of those... To be sent to you before you lose your virginity and then to lose your virginity or even, you know, In your virginity to have asexual experience that doesn't live up to this and that in fact makes you feel retrospectively uncomfortable.
That's not something we have a vocabulary for. You know, that the repressive like. Buy back and think of England stereotype that like women don't enjoy sex like had a great not least of which was like falsehood, but the idea that everyone enjoys sex and that if you consent to it. Then it's because you enjoy it. And if you consent to it, then you must enjoy it, does create this gap that is going to have problems, not just for how you perceive your own body and how connected you feel to your own body. Also to whether you see yourself as someone to be exploited or not. Whether that is something that you see as demeaning or whether that's just kind of like, well, this is what's expected of me. I am not going to expect to get any pleasure out of this.
I think embodiment is a really strong strain that runs through this, is the work that she's doing in connecting this to pregnancy and parenting. And the idea that because of this ethic of consent paired with the rote. Griswold world where because there are avenues to legally terminate a pregnancy, if you carry a pregnancy to term, it's assumed... To be consensual, that that then substitutes for any obligation from any other party from The other biological parent to the state and all of the intermediate social spheres in between to help you take care of that child. And there's a really provocative comment in there from-- law partner who was resisting giving expanded parental leave to junior associates saying, you know, at this point, how do we get this? - Having a child is just as much of a personal, voluntary decision as taking a trip around the world, and it should be treated the same way by your workplace. And like, that is, that's a--
thing to say, but it's also a fairly accurate description of the ways in which child-- Rearing are actually considered in terms of being supported by others. But it doesn't seem like that's It's actually a norm that we have in ethical social life, right? People who don't have kids and who clearly have the resources to have children are often In a weird place socially, but they're the ones who are actually following the economic logic to its logical conclusion, right? And I'm wondering what you what each of you think about that? One thing that comes out of this and that I think is a point you make in your book is that we hold consent as a floor, but we also have other conceptions of the good. Like I think a lot of our policies on pregnancy and children come out of a conviction that creating another generation of people is a good thing. And that conviction can lead to oppressive policies, but I think it's also rooted in some. Something real. And so we offer parental leave and should offer more.
Or parental leave and support for preschool and childcare and stuff, both because that's a major instrument of gaps in genders and because-- Children are good and and encouraging them and helping them is good and that strikes me as a little bit orthogonally to the question of whether one can consent to children, that you can consent to not have children, and you can sort of have these choices in society that can be made on a consensual basis, but still provide supports and things that reflect some notion of the good and some notion of other things you want to promote. But maybe I'm flying a bit afield of your argument. Well, I mean, that's the thing. I would argue that actually we don't necessarily have this vision of the good for everyone that includes, you know, the ethical good or moral good of having children, etc.
And that, I mean, as we were just talking about in the prior segments, uh, where we discussed how, you know, once there's not a crisis, we feel that like people should be on their own and support themselves and we don't have any responsibility to. Support them. I think this is a major flaw in our common understanding of, you know, what the world should look like. And what responsibilities we owe to each other. So I'm going to read another line from this piece where Robin West talks a little bit more about legitimation costs.
She says, Our reliance on consent rather than law as a marker of what's legal and what's not, particularly in market-based liberal political structures, has a side effect of legitimating that to which consent has been given as good as well as legal, thereby cordoning off from criticism as well as political change three things, the value of the transaction itself, the fairness of the social world that motivated it, and the overall goodness or utility of the post-consent world it brings into being. And I find it really interesting that she... Continues to talk about the overall goodness, the value, the fairness. I think that one of the things that is often missing in our conversations, both political and political, And otherwise is this question of what is good? What does ethicality look like? What is the moral thing?
do. And when we focus only on the question of consent, did someone agree to do this, whether it's getting pregnant, whether it's having sex with like a frat boy who's pressuring you, that's a question of contracts. That is a legal question in sort of the most basic sense. That's like an agreements question, a yes or no. It doesn't push us to ask these larger questions. About what is good for us, what is good for our partner, what should society be looking for, what should we be aiming for. And I think it's when you-- start asking those questions that you begin to ask much larger questions about. Okay, children or pregnancy, like what does the good look like there? What is, what is the base requirement for that? What is that really for? Sex with another person? Like what should that look like? What are we aiming for there? And it's by asking these questions. About the good that you can actually, you know, bring yourself and society to a higher standard.
So by removing that conversation from the public sphere, we're really losing a lot. I would say that it's yes, we're kind of losing the opportunity cost. Of elevating it, but we're also risking the erosion of things that we hadn't really anticipated were baked into this. The system. I mean, a lot of reading through this West article reminds me of the kind of Red Families/Blue Families critique that was prevalent, you know, about-- Years ago as far as sexual ethics and family formation that like while you know have been the people pushing for a legal regime that doesn't stigmatize divorce or childbearing out of wedlock or any of that. They in practice are Often the people who are still getting married and having children within wedlock and leading fairly. Bourgeois moral moral lives, whereas the people who are arguably suffering from the demise of the nuclear family are people who weren't actually pushing
That regime to begin with. And that's not as much of a paradox as it seems at first glance when you Think about the fact that a lot of people who agree with market liberalism or legal liberalism don't see... And legal life is coterminous, right? Like, they want a minimalist legal system that is then filled in with more robust understandings of like, okay, and my choice-- community, we're going to hold ourselves to higher standards of this. There are some things that like I will deem wrong that I'm not going to push to be made illegal. But what that means is that In a pluralist society, much less a large society, the people for whom those norms do persist as kind of just knee-jerk behavioral stuff. No one is actually going-- to sit down a childless adult nearing the end of their childbearing years if they are like you know physically capable of Childbearing and say to them, look, it is actually immoral that people not consider
child during the fertile years to be like a central point of their lives. But there is a certain amount of unarticulated, you know, expectation there, unarticulated stigma. Everyone who's been in a serious relationship has dealt with the one you're getting married, everyone who's gotten married and hasn't had kids has dealt with the one you're going to have kids, and like the longer... This persistence is just kind of a mental gesture, the harder it is to understand that Eroded away in other segments of society and other communities that also don't have the economic supports. It would really allow them to have flourishing families. - That's a great point. And I mean, this is one of the things that she says that consent can coordinate. From criticism, the fairness of the social world that motivated it. And so, you know, when we think about who is making these decisions, who can decide to get married, who decides to have kids, the red state versus blue state divide. Like, a lot of it is, frankly, about power.
Which in the United States is sort of equivalent with money and financial resources. Suggesting that like, well, you know, people who decide to have kids, they just decided and the people who don't just. Decide to or people who decide to get married, they just consented into this agreement and the other people just didn't. That doesn't give us, you know, really space or cause to ask exactly those questions. Like, why are some people doing this and why are some people not? Is there something that's making it harder or not allowable for certain classes to make these decisions? Whether it's you know care or commitment or anything else and what should we do about that? She says it makes it oxymoronic it kind of masks all these other questions because you can just say, well, it's a choice. It's just a personal choice. I'm not going to ask any more questions. — I want to be the person here making a kind of a libertarian stand.
At least on law, if not on individual morality. Like, I think the sort of libertarianism is not super coherent as a fly. Of what individuals should do within the realm of choices that are legally allowed. But I really like your framing. Of consent as a floor, and I think it's good to remember in these discussions that legally, that floor often isn't Matt. That we're having this conversation as Mississippi's abortion law is making it to the Supreme Court. Oklahoma is either said to pass or just passed. Passed a law like outright banning all abortions, not even doing the six-week fake leaf. Even when it comes to things like BDSM, which comes up a lot in your book, the first time I ever heard of BDSM because I was a— Strange and off-putting child was in reading a Time magazine article about it in like 2003, 2004, and it was about a family that lost their kids to CPS because they practiced consensual state of masochism, and CPS thought this was a perversion and kids
I absolutely under I read that exact same article because I distinctly remember the idea that like Time magazine made a big point of saying people in this community don't I think S&M is the proper term. They prefer BDSM. - Oh yeah, yeah. No, that was an eye-opening article. But I think that was a moment where I'm like, you know, I don't know how I feel about this. I'm a 13 year old boy But, and secondly, like, I certainly don't want to live in a world where, to use an example that you use in your book, like people feel pressure that they have to be into choking and sex and can't speak up about not liking that. In a world where people's kids get taken away because they have non-normative sexualities.
Sometimes in reading the Robin West article, she's kind of assuming a baseline liberalism where everyone's like, well of course that shouldn't happen. Like of course you shouldn't go to jail for having an abortion, of course. - Right, that really comes up in her discussion of sex work where she talks about liberals not seeing the potential harms of sex work and kind of blows past the fact that it's not actually legal. Overwhelmingly that like, the conversation being had here is not about the poor working conditions of legal sex workers, but about the criminalization of sex work. - Right, and yeah, so just, I wanted to put. Pin in and say that the floor doesn't always exist and that establishing it is also very important. One of the points that I try and make in Rethinking Sex, and readers will have to tell me how well it comes across, To be aware that, you know, the policing of desire and policing of sex tends to fall on the--
most marginalized, you know, communities and the liberalization that happened after the sexual revolution and within the feminist movements was really good Of people and we do not actually want to go backwards like rethinking sex is not meant to be a reactionary text in any way. That said, I do think that we, you know, what I talk about in the book and what we're talking about here is being able to talk about it. To have a discussion, a corrigible discussion about, you know, what the good looks like, what our standards should be, what societal norms we should think about. And again, you know, if consent sort of blocks all of that out into a gray area where it's never discussed again, that also leaves a lot of potential harm undiscussed and we need to open up the Conversation and be aware of those things too.
Station a crack today, but we're gonna have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining the panel, Christine, and Rethinking Sex is available in bookstores everywhere. Christine's one of my favorite writers and thinkers, you should check it out. Thank you to Dara. For joining the panel as usual. Our producer is Sophie Lalonde. Libby Nelson is our editorial advisor. Amber Hall is the deputy editorial director for Talk Podcasts. And I'm your host, Dylan Matthews. We will be back in your feeds next Tuesday April, which is tax month. We're gonna be bringing you a bunch of hot tax policy episodes, so get excited. See you then.
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Transcript generated on 2024-05-30.