America is obsessed with sex. And not in a good way.
This election year, conservatives have had sex on the brain, primarily as they've waged their audacious assaults on women. From their retooled attacks on birth control (currently delivered under the guise of religious freedom) to their renewed reproaches about the evils of abortion (now featuring forced vaginal ultrasounds!); from Rush Limbaugh's "slut" raid on Sandra Fluke to U.S. Representative Todd Akin's forehead-smacking suggestion that a woman's eggs can exercise choice when a woman herself can't -- it's been a bitch-slappy kind of year.
That we are witnessing another backlash against the women's movement is no surprise. That's been conservative politicians' sport of choice for the past four decades, one that has been routinely marked by efforts to reinstate the sexual imprisonment of the fifties, when wives were beholden not just to their husbands, but also to their own lack of financial freedom to pack up and leave.
But this year, a more nuanced form of backlash has emerged: A paternalistic condemnation of women who freely participate in the "hookup culture," the emerging trend in which young singles engage in consensual sexual encounters out of the confines of a committed relationship.
Caitlin Flanagan warns that the trend is a tragic "cultural insurrection" that girls "reluctantly endure." William Bennett labels it debasing, disheartening and dismal. The Washington Times calls it a "sexual wasteland." The overriding sense is that the hookup culture does not liberate women -- it destroys them.
As a female beneficiary of such a culture, I can safely say it doesn't. It's not just that body-buddies can be fun (although that's certainly part of it), but based on my own experience, this new sexual paradigm has given women the freedom to focus on their own lives and careers rather than simply finding a comfortable relationship.
Many women agree. In her new book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women, Atlantic magazine correspondent Hanna Rosin defends the hookup culture as an "engine of female progress" and "one being harnessed and driven by women themselves." Rosin goes on to argue that the freedom underlying this culture demonstrates, yet again, that what's actually good for women is the same thing that's good for any group trying to attain equal footing in a culture hobbled by inequality: choice.
Historically, controlling individuals' sexuality has been an effective tool in keeping entire groups oppressed: Blacks were prohibited from marrying whites until 1967; anal sex was criminalized in some states until just nine years ago and gay marriage is still not constitutionally protected. This is why my entire body shudders -- and not in the good way -- whenever I hear some blowhard proselytizing about who someone should or shouldn't be having sex with.
Indeed, the sexual liberation of the sixties -- including the choice to delay marriage -- gave birth to a generation of women with newfound individuation, allowing them to become meaningful competitors, and not just players, in the professional world. And yet, almost symbiotically, as women continue to climb the professional ladder and threaten the dominant power structure, their sexual choices are constantly being questioned -- by politicians, by conservative talking heads and, as always, by other women.
In her uncomfortably retro book, Girl Land, Flanagan (whose relentless my-way-or the-highway theories are fast making her the Phyllis Schlafly our generation) rails against the hook-up culture as toxic for women, proclaiming that we are giving sex away for free; and theorizing that ours has become a land in which innocent girls need round-the-clock protection from the lurid longings of men. But isn't this very premise deeply sexist in itself? Doesn't it put forward the unsupported claim that all women want the same thing, and that none of them want just sex?
Nothing could be further from reality. I know women who have betrayed themselves by pretending that sex means nothing to them. I know women who have betrayed themselves by pretending that sex means everything to them. I have sat around a table of professional women, all of whom spoke about engaging in sexual "threesomes" with such off-the-cuff nonchalance that you'd think they were talking about going to yoga class.
The point is this: Despite the best efforts of the religious right, we live in a world of straights, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders -- a place where girls can be boys and boys can be girls and there's really no such thing as "what women want." And so to generalize the hookup culture as somehow strategically flawed for women -- to claim that it plays into the outdated mantra that "you'll never get a man to buy the cow if you give the milk away for free" -- ignores the fact that many women, just like men, enjoy having sex. Period.
What's worse, this misguided mindset also teaches girls that the only thing of importance that they can offer a man is between their legs, and so they'd better be careful about permitting a guy to cross that sexual Rubicon. How foolish is that? As the always spot-on Bill Maher once commented, withholding sex simply for the sake of withholding sex sends the message: "I have nothing else that could possibly interest you, so I have to embargo my vagina."
Surely, I am not advocating that all women have sex without attachment, or proposing that young women everywhere attend orgies (unless they want to). Nor am I condoning the reckless, immature kind of sex that all too often features too much alcohol, too many frat boys and a young woman seeking attention but ending up exploited or abused. That is a tragedy.
But I am saying that girls -- and women -- should be encouraged to feel completely comfortable going after what they want; to be given the freedom to discover their authentic selves; to start doing what feels right and stop doing what feels awful. Because, in the end, equality is all about making our own decisions. I know many gay people who don't ever want to get married, but I don't know a single one who doesn't get enraged at not having the choice.
My mother -- a feminist, a writer, a musicologist, a professor and the only soul mate I've ever had -- has often said to me about marriage, "You need to be free to say no, in order to say yes." Well, I think the converse can be said about having sex: You need to be able to say yes, in order to say no.
I have learned this from experience. Over the years, I have suffered the liabilities of not being true to my own desires, but, instead, adhering to someone else's notion of what is right. I've been unfaithful to myself in my relationships with men -- depending on the type of guy I was dating at the time -- and each time it got me to the exact same place: in a relationship with someone I was completely incompatible with; lonely and yearning for intimacy and twisting myself into a pretzel (not in the good way) to find happiness with someone who would never give it to me.
Now, in a land far, far away from Flanagan's Girl Land, I have learned my own boundaries for sex -- with and without monogamy -- and am much happier for it.
So, no, Bill, I won't be planning any embargoes in the near future. And, yes, Rush, please feel free to call me a slut. I saw how that played out with Sandra Fluke and, frankly, what I really want is to go work for President Obama, too.