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What We Learned From Helen Gurley Brown

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What do I mean "we"? We women? We lesbians? We people who love others across many kind of lines? All of the above! And I'll start with acknowledging the obvious: Helen Gurley Brown was a smart, powerful woman who tapped into a deep hunger for love and admiration. She channeled those hunger pangs into a thriving industry, and many women felt empowered by her practical, specific, here's-how-you-get-a-man guidelines -- or at least briefly empowered.

I read Sex and the Single Girl a long time ago. I was enlightened enough to cringe at the "girl" in the title but curious enough to read it anyway. Of course, I blame it on my big sister, who had a copy lying around. But she didn't read it for me; I did that all by myself. Here's what I learned.

There's a big difference between wanting and being wanted. Wanting leads you to think about what you enjoy, what adds to your sense of well-being, what brings you pleasure. Wanting comes from caring for yourself, paying attention inside, and being honest about how you feel.

Striving to be wanted, though, involves turning yourself into an object of another person's desire. This takes a lot of work-scanning, planning, adapting, pretending. No wonder Freud asked, "What do women want?" We don't know, either. We're too busy trying to turn ourselves into objects of desire.

It feels bad not to know what you want, but it feels even worse to be unwanted. In fact, evolutionary biologists point out that being unwanted in cave-people days could be fatal. Imagine being left out in the cold to fend for yourself because no one loves or admires you enough to invite you into the cave. Under those circumstances I'd have done whatever it took to get an invitation. I want to survive.

You've probably heard the saying, "Don't just survive -- thrive!" And that's the problem with Sex and the Single Girl. Yes, one way to survive as a single woman, lesbian or straight, is to pour a lot of energy into making yourself more desirable. But that's no way to thrive as a sexual being. Thriving means feeling good about yourself, enjoying sexual feelings, and knowing you want your partner, not just that he or she wants you. Thriving means knowing how to sustain sexual intimacy in a long-term relationship. It also means tuning in to your own wants and needs, and expressing them to a partner, without judgment or criticism or other forms of devaluation.

We currently have an epidemic of what sex therapists call "low sex" marriages. Many straight couples report having sex less than twice a month, and many more lesbian couples report even less sex. Apparently, sexuality is not thriving for a lot of couples.

Self-objectification, on the other hand, is doing very well. Those voices are always chattering away: How do I look? How's my performance? How am I measuring up? How can I make myself more attractive? How do I compare with those hot women on The L Word?

In the lesbian dating world, there are several versions of self-objectification. For example, discussing how to meet women at bars, a young woman told me, "You've got to show a lot of self-confidence. That's what women like." Feisty, flirty, too cool to be bothered -- you know, the lesbian version of a "Cosmopolitan girl."

I beg to differ. Actually, I think most women (and men, too) really like attention, respect, and basic social skills like listening, talking, and smiling. And yes, it takes courage to focus these on a person of interest. But courage isn't self-confidence. Courage is what you need to help you try something when you don't feel confident.

The problem is that all this external evaluation really interferes with an intimate connection with another person. Intimacy calls for vulnerability, openness, reciprocity. And what are we most vulnerable about? Flaws, imperfections, places where we don't perform well or measure up. That's where we connect with other imperfect beings.

If you see Hope Springs, you may have the same question I did. How could anyone who looks like Maryl Streep ever think she's unattractive to her partner? But she does, just like the rest of us who think we "cause" sexual intimacy to drop off because we're not good enough sex objects. I think Streep's character found her solution by moving from self-objectification to self-care. She started thinking more about her own experiences and fantasies and pleasures, and less about how to entice her partner. And she had the courage to come to her own bottom line about sex and security.

For women who love women, the objectification theme gets twisted in a special way. Believe it or not, there are still people out there who think some women are lesbian because they can't attract men, Like the father whose response when his daughter came out to him was, "Try wearing shorter skirts." He thought she was turning to women because she couldn't score with men. In other words, she was an unsuccessful sex object, choosing women as a pathetic substitute for the real thing. It's too bad he missed the chance to be proud of his daughter for choosing self-care. She had let herself know who she really wanted, and cared for her own mental health enough to be herself.