Let's talk about sex. Everyone else seems to be. They're talking about women and sex and "Girls" and sex and feminism and sex and HBO and sex and the sexual revolution as failure and the sexual revolution as success.
It feels a little weird to be writing this, honestly, being that it's 2012 and all. But with whom and where and how and how often women are doing it remains a hot topic. As it should. Sex, after all, is hot. And our sex lives are as integral to who we are as our professional lives -- and collectively, every bit as much of a barometer as to what's going on with women as salary surveys and graduation rates and polls about who's doing the housework.
Of course, as is generally the case in discussions about women, women and our changing place in the world, and/or women and sex, there lurks just the faintest whiff of judgment. In a piece entitled "The Bleaker Sex" in Sunday's New York Times, Frank Bruni takes to the Opinion pages with his thoughts on Lena Dunham's upcoming HBO series "Girls":
The first time you see Lena Dunham's character having sex in the new HBO series "Girls," her back is to her boyfriend, who seems to regard her as an inconveniently loquacious halfway point between partner and prop, and her concern is whether she's correctly following instructions...
You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-twenties heroines of "Girls" engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What's happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess...
In a recent interview, presented in more detail on my Times blog, she told me that various cultural cues exhort her and her female peers to approach sex in an ostensibly 'empowered' way that she couldn't quite manage. "I heard so many of my friends saying, 'Why can't I have sex and feel nothing?' It was amazing: that this was the new goal."
First, not so fast, Bruni: while salaries may be better and Congress less choked, the numbers are still far from impressive. While clearly we have made progress on those fronts, I challenge anyone to make the case the work's been done, equality achieved. The numbers certainly indicate otherwise, as we've pointed out from time to time.
Now to the sex. While yes, I'll give you that sexual scenes painted in this and other previews of "Girls" (I haven't seen it; the show premieres on April 15) do indeed indicate a bit of a muddle, if not a mess, I don't see that as problematic. On the contrary: I'd argue said muddle makes perfect sense. And I'll raise you one: I think said muddle is an apt metaphor for what women are going through in every realm.
Women today are raised on empowering messages. From the time we're little, we're told girls can do anything boys can do. (As we should be.) We come of age in the relatively safe, comfortable confines of school, believing in this message and in its natural conclusion -- that feminism's work is over, its battles won. So, too, do we believe in the natural conclusion of that other message -- that "girls can do anything boys can do" also means that we should do things the way they do.
And then, buoyed by the beliefs that feminism is old news and that men and women are not only equal but basically the same, we smack up against the realities of the real world: the judgments, the biases, the roles that don't fit, the obstacles to changing them. The inequities. The shoulds. And we think there must be something wrong with us -- that we're alone in the muddle. When the reality is that the world still has not caught up to the messaging we're fed, nor does the messaging necessarily have it right. Women are wandering uncharted territory. And, without a map, everything looks a muddle. We're feeling our way through.
As Hanna Rosin wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal,
The lingering ambivalence about sexuality is linked, I think, to women's lingering ambivalence about the confusing array of identities available to them in modern life.
Exactly (and I'm not just saying that cuz I wrote an entire book about it). The doors have opened, but the trails have yet to be cleared.
And then, of course, there's this (I can only imagine the backlash I'm gonna take for this one, but I'm gonna say it anyway, because I make the point often in the context of work): women and men are different. There's neurobiology and all kinds of research to support this idea -- and yet, it's an idea that's traditionally been seen as dangerous. And it's seen as most dangerous by women: the worry being that to say that men and women are different, we do things differently, we experience things differently, must necessarily mean that one way is better, one's worse. As though to claim a difference would be to set us off on a slippery slope of regression, inevitably sliding right back onto Betty Draper's miserable, unempowered couch. Or as though to recognize a difference is to divide everyone into two overly simplified extremes, opposite ends of a spectrum -- men are dogs and women just want to be monogamous. People are too complex for generalizations (generally speaking). So I guess my real question is this: Why is sex without feeling anything the goal? What exactly are we aspiring to there? Who decided that's what empowerment looks like?
I mean, isn't feeling something kind of the fun of sex?
And back to those messages: isn't it ironic that women today are raised on the message that it is their right (hell, their responsibility) to (enthusiastically!) embrace their sexuality -- and that one's sexuality is indeed one's own for the embracing -- even while this very notion is again (still!) under attack? Not only is our sexual and reproductive freedom -- the freedom to express our sexuality outside the confines of marriage without threat of banishment (let alone death by stoning, a freedom not shared by many women walking the earth) or biology -- staggeringly new, it's tenuous. Something we're raised to take as a given is something that still needs fierce defending. Every step we take, we battle anew.
It's tempting to buy into the idea that the fight is over, as tempting as it is to put a cheery, tidy spin on what came before. In that piece of Rosin's that I mentioned earlier, she refers to the success of the sexual revolution, attributing it to, among others, "sex goddess Erica Jong." Jong penned a response at The Daily Beast, which she kicked off with a quick anecdote and the line, "That was the way we weren't." Here's a bit from her piece:
Of course I was delighted to be called a sex-goddess and bracketed with Dr. Ruth Westheiner, whom I adore, but when Rosin said the '70s were all about the sexual revolution and that the sexual revolution was one of the props of women's current success, I felt a chill run down my spine. 'Dear Hanna-you just don't get it,' I wanted to say. 'If only you'd lived through some of the things I have -- being trashed as the happy hooker of literature, being overlooked for professorships, prizes and front-page reviews because it was assumed I was -- 'tis a pity -- a whore, you might see things differently. And then, if having lived through that, the pundits now said you were rather tame, you might wonder whether women could ever be seen for what we are: sexual and intellectual, sweet and bitter, smart and sexy. But I am grateful to be a sex goddess all the same.'
...As a young and even middle-aged writer, I used to attend pro-choice rallies with GOP women. No more. Will my daughter's generation now believe that feminism, like democracy, has to be fought for over and over again? We cannot be complacent about birth control, abortion, the vote or our daughters' and granddaughters' future. Just when things look rosiest for women, a new Rick Santorum will be waiting in the wings. And his wife recruited to put a new spin on his misogyny. Just when colleges graduate more women than men, and women are beginning to be paid a little more than a pittance, the press and publishers trot out female quislings to announce that the woman "problem" has been solved. Rubbish.
The fight goes on. There's plenty to battle against. So again, that muddle? Seems pretty clear to me.