When I first picked up "Sex and the Single Girl," I assumed that since it was published in 1962 and written by Helen Gurley Brown, a woman famous for crafting cover lines about the 500 best ways to give blow jobs, it would be filled with a lot of antiquated and crass crap.
I was wrong.
Or rather I was partially wrong. There's antiquated stuff in there (a "homosexual" isn't "really a man," a woman shouldn't cook a guy a meal until he's taken her out 20 times -- take your pick) and her suggestion that single women should keep married men around as "pets" certainly qualifies as crass. But rather than being singularly focused on how women need to do everything in their power to try to land a man, her main point seemed to be that we should celebrate our singlehood. And I actually think that's a far better message than a lot of what the standard issue feminists today are saying.
I understand that Helen Gurley Brown's focus on sex -- not to mention her tendency to offer up anti bon mots about anorexia ("a touch of" it "may be necessary to maintain an ideal weight") and sexual harassment ("The problem is that we don't have enough men to go around for harassing"), among other topics -- make her an odd choice as a role model. And I understand that saying "celebrate your singleness" isn't an altogether new concept. Indeed, in our Oprah-saturated world, when we're all supposed to be celebrating our lives all the time, we can feel so drowned in that sort of talk that it fails to even resonate anymore. But when these messages are coming from people who don't seem to be honestly celebrating their own lives, how are we supposed to believe them?
To be honest, I'm bored silly by the so-called empowering women out there today, who seem to be either full of crap entirely, far more into self-promotion than they are into women-promotion, or hiding their other issues under the umbrella of feminism. (When I did a story with another writer for a magazine that wanted to shoot us rather scantily clad, the other writer pitched a fit, saying that she was a feminist and dressing sexy for a photo would be exploitative; after she left, everyone agreed that her real issue was with her weight and body in general. But why admit that when you can just lean on good old feminism instead?)
I say, rather than going around talking about how new TV shows glamorize something few actually believe is glamorous or getting hysterical about how not enough women are allowed to write op-eds or parading through the streets topless in order to protest the double standard, we should be talking about the way women are truly exploited today: the fact that we're consistently told that we're "desperate" and "lonely" if we're single. We should be fighting to change the perception that being smart and successful -- achieving all those things that these feminists are continuing to fight for -- actually makes us less appealing as partners.
I think most of what today's "feminists" do is at best a waste of everyone's time and at worst a dangerous distraction from where we really should be focusing. So I say that everyone else can have their Gloria Steinems and Susan Estrichs. I'll take Helen Gurley Brown, a woman who managed to become one of the highest paid copywriters in America without ever feeling like she had to burn a bra or de-sexualize herself for a photo.
But I actually think that things are worse for us in many ways than they were in Helen's time. Back then, girls either did or didn't sleep around and most didn't. But I was raised at the tail end of women's lib and told that I could do whatever I wanted. And yet there's no denying the fact that a lot of sexual encounters I've had have left me feeling ashamed. Sure, there have been obvious shame-inducers -- like the guy who told me that because of the structure of a woman's body, a man needed to feel like he really knew a woman in order to perform oral sex but the reverse wasn't true because "that version of the act just isn't as intimate." But a man doesn't need to say something like that for a woman to reproach herself -- many feel shame whenever they spread their legs outside of a deeply serious relationship.
And what is a deeply serious relationship anymore? These days, when people are acting out on Facebook and meeting a different potential mate every night of the week via OK Cupid -- in these times when there's typically no community or group of friends to vouch for a person, leaving them ever more free to flout basic rules of decency without consequences -- we often don't know a relationship wasn't serious until it's over.
But the worst news of all is that having it all doesn't ensure us any kind of safety or security today. Our husbands can still cheat on us and abandon us for flight attendants. Our having carved our way into alleged equality doesn't spare us from potential humiliation and abandonment. Just ask Huma Abedin, a woman who, when her husband was busted for his crotch shots, was consistently accused of having married for the wrong reasons -- as if his activities were somehow her fault.
We know that men are dumber today -- fewer are going to college and there are more women than men in medical school. But are women, too? And if we're not, what, then, is the word to describe the fact that our so-called advocates go around making a stink about issues that don't matter -- that have been focused on plenty already or are just plain ridiculous -- instead of talking about the ways we're truly being exploited?
Look, I don't have a solution to any of our real problems today, and I'm certainly not planning to create a Tumblr page about it. I just think we should talk about the actual issues, not the fake ones. That way, we may actually find a solution.
Or maybe we should just ask Helen Gurley Brown if she has a tip or two. Who knows? She may even have 500 of them.
Follow Anna David on Twitter: www.twitter.com/annadavid