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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Front-Page Voyeurism

Culture, Culture Children & Family, Culture & Society

The feminization of journalism reached a new low this week with the New York Times’ front-page story on a sexual relationship between two teenagers with Asperger’s Syndrome. The article began:

The first night they slept entwined on his futon, Jack Robison, 19, who had since childhood thought of himself as “not like the other humans,” regarded Kirsten Lindsmith with undisguised tenderness.

So far they had only cuddled; Jack, who had dropped out of high school but was acing organic chemistry in continuing education classes, had hopes for something more. Yet when she smiled at him the next morning, her lips seeking his, he turned away.

“I don’t really like kissing,” he said.

Kirsten, 18, a college freshman, drew back. If he knew she was disappointed, he showed no sign.

It gets worse. Next up: the couple’s erotic proclivities, recounted in excruciating detail.

From the beginning, their physical relationship was governed by the peculiar ways their respective brains processed sensory messages. Like many people with autism, each had uncomfortable sensitivities to types of touch or texture, and they came in different combinations.

Jack recoiled when Kirsten tried to give him a back massage, pushing deeply with her palms.

“Pet me,” he said, showing her, his fingers grazing her skin. But Kirsten, who had always hated the feeling of light touch, shrank from his caress.

“Only deep pressure,” she showed him, hugging herself.

He tried to kiss her, but it was hard for her to enjoy it, so obvious was his aversion. To him, kissing felt like what it was, he told her: mashing your face against someone else’s. Neither did he like the sweaty feeling of hand-holding, a sensation that seemed to dominate all others whenever they tried it.

“I’m sorry,” he said helplessly.

They found ways to negotiate sex, none of them perfect. They kept trying.

Inexplicably, the Times fails to give us Jack and Kirsten’s favorite coital positions, or the details of their foreplay; such matters await in another article, no doubt.

Apparently, there was not a single editor left at the Times who cringed at such voyeurism. To the contrary, rather than suggesting that reporter Amy Harmon shop her story at Cosmopolitan or Harlequin Romances, the Times editors billboarded it prominently above the fold. One can almost feel the self-admiration with which Harmon and her editors casually invoke premarital sex among teenagers in a family newspaper, daring anyone to object. Anyone who would object of course is probably eager to send “women”  as in “18-year-old girls”  on a one-way trip into a scullery or a nunnery.

There may be a place for an exhaustive account of the most quotidian aspects of Aspergians’ lives in order to  I can hear the pitch now  “illustrate their challenges and triumphs in achieving personal intimacy.” That place, however, would once have been the Women’s pages. Now, every page of the Times is a Women’s page. Any hierarchy between public and private has been obliterated; what was once considered the “masculine” realms of politics, war, and diplomacy, worthy of front-page treatment, now possesses the same claim on the reader’s attention as the most treacly or gratuitously explicit details of people’s private lives. Such lifestyle and domestic matters show empathy. And simply by not belonging to the formerly male-centric world of public life, they possess inherent value. Likewise, in many college history departments, courses in political history have been crowded out by a focus on previously “silenced” identity groups, usually female and non-white, rather than on individual (mostly male) leaders and thinkers.

The “Aspergians have sex” story is not even a case of the “personal being political”; it has no political import. The couple is not oppressed by racist, classist, sexist, or heterosexist social structures; they merely respond to some emotional and social cues differently than the norm. Undoubtedly Harmon’s piece will be eagerly devoured by other Aspies; who doesn’t like to read about himself or his social group? (The proliferation of websites on every aspect of Aspies’ lives attests to such interest.) But just because a story appeals to the natural inclination towards self-involvement does not mean that it carries public, civic significance.

In an earlier age, an editor might have asked Harmon how she pinned down such details as Jack’s “fingers grazing [Kirsten’s] skin,” or Kirsten “pushing deeply with her palms” to illustrate how she wanted Jack to touch her. Did the couple show Harmon these gestures? Either these two Asperger’s syndroids miraculously manage to overcome their difficulty with intimate communication (to a reporter no less!), or Harmon simply let her imagination run wild  until now, a trait valued in creative writing workshops, but not in reporters.

Indeed, Harmon’s story concludes with a particularly “literary” touch  in media res, simply dumping the same inconclusive, mundane details in the reader’s lap that she has been shoveling there for thousands of words already. Drum roll: The couple has finally gotten a cat, despite Jack’s initial resistance!

Jack bent down and scooped up the kitten, holding her up to the mirror above the sink. Kirsten stroked its black fur in his arms, their hands touching briefly across its back, and in the reflection.

“Are you looking at yourself in the mirror?” Jack asked the kitten. “Are you smart enough to recognize yourself?”

They stood for a moment together, awaiting the reaction.

Like, they’re both kind of like the kitten, and like, kind of seeing their own wary selves in the mirror!

It’s not news that exhibitionism, voyeurism, and narcissism have become signal traits of our culture. Still, the Times has truly outdone itself with this eruption of self-centered, salacious trivia. It is impossible to imagine Adolph Ochs or the generations of Timesmen who came after him deeming such a story worthy of the paper, much less its front page. When Jill Abramson took over the executive editorship this past June, she proclaimed her debt to her fellow “sisters.” The Times’ “sisterhood” is just getting started.

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online