The Conversation

Readers respond to our December 2018 cover story and more.

The Sex Recession

In December, Kate Julian asked why young people are having so little sex.

Julian devotes extensive space in her article to the ways in which [apps like Tinder] fail to bring people together, even for casual intimacy … But then she notes in a parenthetical that the impact has been very different in the gay and lesbian community. There, the apps have been much more successful, and active dating is much more common. “This disparity raises the possibility that the sex recession may be a mostly heterosexual phenomenon,” she says.
That’s a very important aside … It suggests … that men and women increasingly just do not know how to relate to each other in intimate situations. The feminists may well be right that it’s straight men who have more adapting to do, but if the evidence is to be believed both straight men and straight women are suffering from the situation they’re in and both have a powerful incentive to find a way out.

American women’s cultural and political power has grown exponentially over the last 30 years, and it’s likely that people are having less sex for the same reason they’re delaying marriage and children: It’s what women want …
I’m not sure that the current sexual “decline”—which is actually quite slight—is something to worry about. In fact, a lot of the concern seems to be part of a broader backlash against women’s rising autonomy.

#Tweet of the Month

Julian is extending the economic sense of a recession, a period of temporary economic decline marked by a reduction in trade and industry … Let’s hope, then, we don’t see a Sex Depression.

Julian writes, “If people skip a crucial phase of development, one educator warned—a stage that includes not only flirting and kissing but dealing with heartbreak and disappointment—might they be unprepared for the challenges of adult life?” I read that and thought, Okay, so basically everyone’s a gay kid now. It used to be just the gay kids who made it to young adulthood without ever having dated or flirted or fucked or gotten broken up with. We watched our straight peers and siblings—with the encouragement of parents, educators, and the culture—date, go steady, hook up, lose their virginities … and learn to deal with heartbreak and disappointment. And for the most part, we gay kids didn’t get to do any of that. And still don’t, in places or in families where it’s not safe for young gay kids to be out. That’s why high-school-like drama tends to characterize the dating lives of a lot of young gays and lesbians. Because as young adults, we have to make all the same mistakes and learn all the same lessons that straight kids did back in high school and middle school.
Dan Savage
Transcript from Savage Lovecast

The bird-and-bee cover illustration for the December issue is charming, but I found it perplexing that the magazine chose to use a European robin (Erithacus rubecula) to represent the Platonic form of a bird rather than a North American species, considering the story that follows is primarily about U.S. trends. Why not the American robin (Turdus migratorius), a familiar bird whose understated beauty becomes apparent upon closer inspection? If you’re looking for a colorful, compact species like the European robin, why not the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), the state bird of Missouri and New York, or the American goldfinch (Spinus tristis), honored by Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington? The subtle orange splash found on the European robin’s breast has an approximate match in females of the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), named after a city not far from The Atlantic’s headquarters.

Conor Gearin
Quincy, Mass.

The Democrats’ White-People Problem

Donald Trump likes to pit elite and non-elite white people against each other. In December, Joan C. Williams explored why white liberals play into his trap.

I appreciated this article, especially as I’ve learned that having conversations with working-class whites about economic issues often reveals that we share a lot of similar progressive views. But I’d also urge that this doesn’t need to be zero-sum. Concentrating on economic issues does not mean turning your back on issues of gender, race, environmentalism, etc. Economic inequality, gender imbalances, structural racism, and environmental devastation are not isolated issues—the same economic system that disenfranchises women and people of color is also pushing our planet to the brink of catastrophe. Democrats should be telling narratives about the inter­relatedness of the issues that face our country and our world.

Andrew L. Guthrie
Portland, Ore.

I am a working-class black person and have always voted for Democratic candidates. However, I have come to conclusions similar to Joan C. Williams’s. The Democrats are far too invested in identity politics as a way to political victory and have abandoned millions of whites who supported them in the past.
Deonne Fulton Cooper
Kingstree, S.C.

Williams contends that “Democrats have banked a lot on the prospect that their voters’ anger can outmatch the anger of the voters who propelled Trump to office.” Implicitly, Williams seems to believe that the Democrats have focused their messaging entirely or primarily on anti-Trump and race-related ideas. This is quantifiably false. In the midterm elections, Democrats and outside Democratic groups spent more than half of all advertising dollars on health-care-related messages alone. Anti-Trump messaging was common, but messages rooted in economic populism dominated across all media markets. Williams specifically mentions “open borders” and taking the bait on immigration. But again, Democrats spent more advertising dollars on education, the budget, and taxes than on immigration. Clearly, Democrats do not “take the bait” on immigration to the degree that Williams thinks they do.

Davis Larkin
Chicago, Ill.

There is one very good reason Democrats cannot concentrate on the economy: Nothing can be done about the economy, so one might as well focus on other things.
Our free-market system, when left to itself, cannot help but produce tremendous economic inequality. Only government intervention can possibly correct this, and the American ethos of individualism anathematizes such regulation as “socialist.” Thus, so long as politicians are beholden to their corporate sponsors, they might continue making vague and vote-getting promises, but they will not do anything to improve the situation.
Besides, polls show that most voters are not particularly interested in the economy, but are more concerned (especially Trump voters) with threats to their status.
Stephen E. Silver
Santa Fe, N.M.

I’m a woman, 35, working-class, nonreligious, and I gladly voted for Obama in 2008. That was the last time I voted for a president, and my own lack of participation bothers me. But I don’t know what to do about it.
If I’d voted in 2016, it would have been for Trump, in large measure to vote against Hillary Clinton. And this article is dead-on accurate about everything I know to be true about the election and the frustration felt by middle America. For me, that frustration is mostly directed at my peers-of-a-different-class who arrogantly mock my very real questions, label me ignorant, and team up to hurl insults in my direction. I seem to trigger an angry response from these people, and I don’t understand why.
Here’s an example: An acquaintance posted a meme to Facebook a few days ago. It read, “While Trump had you focused on the migrant caravan, here’s what you missed at home,” then proceeded to list murders and almost-murders that had happened over a couple of weeks in America. I don’t understand how those things are related, or why anyone would be able to learn about one or the other but not both. I asked what the point of the meme was. Within minutes I was called a racist, idiotic Trump supporter—no joke. Four people belittled me, but zero gave an answer that wasn’t a rewording of the meme itself. Why is it easier to call me racist and dumb than it is to answer the question?
It’s therapeutic to see someone finally “getting it.”
Jodie L. Shokraifard
Greenville, Texas

How Far Will the Left Go?

For the third time in a century, Peter Beinart wrote in December, leftists are driving the Democratic Party’s agenda. Will they succeed in making America more equitable, or overplay their hand?

Peter Beinart’s article draws a parallel between today’s leftist energy and that of the progressive movements of the 1930s and ’60s. Beinart points out that the ambitious agendas of these movements were possible to achieve only with coordinated pressure applied by activists on the far left, including the occasional threat of disorder. He cautions that the newly energized left should be careful to convince the American people of its cause lest it face an electoral backlash like the ones faced by previous movements.
Perhaps caution is the wrong lesson to learn from history here. Many of the crowning achievements of the New Deal (such as Social Security) are still integral to society today. Similarly, the Voting Rights Act (albeit with some gutting by conservative Supreme Courts) and the Civil Rights Act endure. Even more recently, the Affordable Care Act has become part of the fabric of modern American society, and something that Republicans have had trouble finding the political will to dismantle (despite having controlled all three branches of government).
Truly useful progressive legislation can endure momentary electoral backlash by right-wing reactionaries; the newly energized left should focus on a new Voting Rights Act for the 21st century, radical reform of the criminal-justice system, federal jobs guarantees (or better yet, a universal basic income), and access to health care for all American citizens.
Ilya Nepomnyashchiy
Mountain View, Calif.

The Secrets in Your Inbox

Employee emails contain valuable insights into company morale, Frank Partnoy wrote in September. Text analytics has other applications, too, he showed: According to recent research, a company’s stock price can decline significantly in the months after the company subtly changes descriptions of certain risks—which algorithms may spot more easily than people do.

I am compelled to respond to Frank Partnoy’s article, purportedly on the use of automated textual analysis to uncover corporate malfeasance. Mr. Partnoy cites only two examples: Enron and my company, NetApp. He concludes that a change to one risk factor in NetApp’s 2011 annual report subtly predicted deep trouble ahead: “Embedded in that small edit was an early warning. Six months after the 2011 report appeared, news broke that the Syrian government had purchased NetApp equipment through an Italian reseller and used that equipment to spy on its citizens.”
As our public filings show, we disclosed the Syria allegation explicitly and promptly, and we fully cooperated with the government. What’s more, the Department of Commerce determined that NetApp had not violated U.S. export laws, a fact that was not noted in the article.
The boring, but accurate, truth is that I made the risk-factor update shortly after I joined the company as general counsel in late 2010, to be explicit that our business model (like many IT-equipment providers) was largely channel-driven. When I made this small change, we were not aware of any Syria allegations, which first surfaced in November 2011, many months after the six-word edit on which your accusation of foul play is premised.
Matthew Fawcett
General Counsel, NetApp
Sunnyvale, Calif.

Frank Partnoy responds:

I thank Matthew Fawcett for his clarification, which makes NetApp an even more interesting example than was previously known. After I read his explanation, I contacted Lauren Cohen, the Harvard Business School professor who originally referenced NetApp as an example of the association between subtle changes in disclosure and later stock-price declines. Cohen told me that his results, published in a paper he co-authored called “Lazy Prices,” have now been replicated by numerous other researchers, stock exchanges, and private analytics firms. As this paper shows, a change in how a firm describes its risk factors tends to be associated with a significant subsequent stock-price drop—in NetApp’s case, the decline was 20 percent. One surprising aspect of text analytics is that it reveals information even the writer of the text might not know.


The most-read magazine stories from 2018 on

1. The Birth of a New American Aristocracy
Matthew Stewart (June)

2. The Sex Recession
Kate Julian (December)

3. The Last Temptation
Michael Gerson (April)

4. The Dangers of Distracted Parenting
Erika Christakis (July/August)

5. American Hustler
Franklin Foer (March)

6. A Warning From Europe
Anne Applebaum (October)

7. What Really Killed the Dinosaurs
Bianca Bosker (September)

8. How the Enlightenment Ends
Henry A. Kissinger (June)

9. Boycott the GOP
Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes (March)

10. The Nancy Pelosi Problem
Peter Beinart (April)