Sexual liberation is not the same thing as sexual equality. Millions of glossy women's magazine pages, daytime talk shows, "sexperts," feminist treatises, self-help books and Facebook entries to the contrary, women continue to hold different attitudes towards sex than men. And they experience different consequences from sex, especially the casual "no-consequence" kind that was supposed to put us on equal footing with men.
Liz Mundy suggests from her interviews that women, now sexually unleashed by economic independence, are less interested in commitment than men and wish to have sex with as many men as possible (while acknowledging that many women she interviewed complained of not being able to find men worth committing to, a rather different issue).
But this is merely a contemporary spin on the attitudes I grew up with in the post-1970s world, in which the "new female sexual bravado" was just taking hold. As it was famously said at the time, "Women need men like fish need bicycles," and we fell carelessly into bed from then onwards. In the short space of a single generation, sex went from being the culminating act of committed love to being an entry-level precondition for future emotional involvement, if any.
Yes, we put forth our game faces, especially in our late teens and early twenties, when offers were much more plentiful. From a male perspective, it was a win-win: "I get to have sex with you right away? With no romantic courtship nonsense up front? I don't have to learn your last name or even call you the next day? And you have to pretend you feel exactly the same way?" And sure, maybe for the first couple of times, we did.
But very quickly, the right to sleep with as many men as a woman pleased turned out to be a rather hollow freedom -- at least if that woman sought more than a series of groping, bodily encounters and fluid exchanges with men with whom she shared little but compatible sex organs. Anatole France once bitterly remarked: "The law, in its majestic impartiality, forbids both rich and poor to sleep under bridges." Women discovered that they enjoy a similar guarantee of "equality": the right to make love to a man and never see him again; the right to be insulted and demeaned if she refuses a man's advances; the right to catch a sexually transmitted disease that might, as a bonus, leave her infertile; the right to an abortion when things go wrong, or, as it may be, the right to become a single mother.
Indeed, in all the promises made to us about our ability to achieve freedom and independence as women, the promise of sexual emancipation may have been the most illusory. Yes, we can do "anything a man does" (except maybe in terms of bench pressing). And yet, all the sexual bravado a young woman may possess evaporates the first time a man she truly cares for makes it clear that he has no further use for her after his own body has been satisfied. No amount of feminist posturing, no amount of reassurances that she doesn't need a guy like that anyway, can protect her from the pain and humiliation of those awful moments after he's gone, when she's alone -- and feeling not sexually empowered, but discarded.
This "used" feeling among women is one that has not gone away after 30 years of experimentation with casual sex. Despite Mundy's assertions, women are not happier: According to a 2008 UK study published in the science journal, Human Nature:
Overall women's feelings were more negative than men's [towards casual sexual encounters]. Eighty per cent of men had overall positive feelings about the experience compared to 54 per cent of women. Men were more likely than women to secretly want their friends to hear about it and to feel successful because the partner was desirable to others. Men also reported greater sexual satisfaction and contentment following the event, as well as a greater sense of well-being and confidence about themselves.
The predominant negative feeling reported by women was regret at having been "used." Women were also more likely to feel that they had let themselves down and were worried about the potential damage to their reputation if other people found out. Women found the experience less sexually satisfying and, contrary to popular belief, they did not seem to view taking part in casual sex as a prelude to long-term relationships.
What the women seemed to object to was not the briefness of the encounter but the fact that the man did not seem to appreciate her. The women thought this lack of gratitude implied that she did this with anybody," Professor Campbell explained.
I think if we are truly going to feel empowered sexually as women -- and, might I add, put a bit of romance back into the equation -- it will require a recognition of these sexual differences between women and men. And there is no reason to regard these differences as inferior or superior, more powerful or less powerful -- but simply as the differences between men and women that have been with us since the dawn of time; differences that, throughout history, have given us the greatest love stories; differences that have brought down empires and world leaders with their intense passions; differences that have perplexed poets and vexed playwrights; differences that continue to inspire us, haunt us, tantalize us, mesmerize us, intoxicate us. Why would we want to be sexually generic? Or, in the modern parlance, "equal?"