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What We Need to Talk About When We Talk About Sex and Feminism

My mother married my father because, she told me in a rare moment of candor, she wanted to have sex with him. She was 25 and tired of pre-sex fumbling and stolen kisses. My father was, of course, far more experienced, having been in the Pacific Theater during World War II; far less discreet about his former life (and life in general) he told his daughters inappropriate tales of the women he had met on shore leave. One I particularly remember had her front teeth filed into points. Well into their marriage, each of them managed to be unfaithful and they finally separated (but not because of infidelity) after twenty years of marriage. Yet, for another dozen years or so they would hook up here and there, travel together, and, of course have sex. In a further revelation, my mother told me that the sex was the best part of her relationship with my father.

I came of age at the tail end but the real beginning of the sexual revolution (1971-1974). At that point, sexual liberation was inextricably tied to the rise of feminism. Having sex like men, i.e., without attachment, was part of our freedom. But too many of us got hurt. We hadn’t yet factored in the biology of mating and how really hard it was to have that much sex without any real commitment. Most of the women I know who grew up during those years had far more sexual encounters than they were ever willing to reveal to their husbands. Those of us who divorced then dived back into the sexual market with the same abandon. I am not sure we were all the wiser. I hear STDS are on the rise in the over 50 group, which doesn’t surprise me. We all were pretty practiced in birth control but we took it into our own hands, with the pill and the diaphragm. This was pre-AIDS. Barrier methods were not our methods of choice then. They are not, apparently, our method now, either.

But those of us who grew up in the trenches of the sexual revolution know that feminism was about far more than women having the kind of meaningless sex with men that men had been having with us for eons. Feminism, which is still being parsed in the media as well as our own homes, still being debated and discussed and accepted and dismissed, was about being able to control (to the extent that anyone can) our work lives, our love lives, our lives as a whole. It was about being able to have a career, being paid equally well for that career, and making our own decisions about marriage and childbirth without having to merely capitulate to what society had set out for us. I, for one, was happy not to have to marry to have sex. I was thrilled to be able to go to college and think about a career without worrying that it might make me unmarriageable. I was ecstatic about the notion that I could make decisions for myself.

All those ideas I passed along to my daughter. But, of course, she had no need to wrestle with those notions as the women in my generation had. She lived in a society where (she thought) feminism was taken for granted. Women her age did not talk about marriage, either as an option or something to reject. They saw it as fact that women could do anything.

But sex still gets in the way. Even for young women who begin sentences with the phrase “I am not a feminist but… ”

Sex, for the women of my daughter’s generation, has too often meant the kind of pleasure that was once reserved for more intimate relationships. The statistics on young girls giving oral sex to boys, without expecting anything in return, sadden me. The still complicit willingness to be submissive to a boy’s desire isn’t what I had hoped would be a benefit of the sexual revolution. Even worse, perhaps, oral sex isn’t thought of as sex at all. Girls can keep their virginity intact while having the kind of sex it took me years to be comfortable with. Although the website feministing (in 2008) cited a survey that dismissed the media hype as just that, anecdotal evidence from talking with my daughter and her friends does imply that oral sex isn’t thought of as the “real” thing, no matter who is doing it to whom. And that boys are more often than not the recipients.

It is apparent the submissiveness of women during the sexual act is still the stuff of a lot of fantasies. And the subject of two recent New York Times editorials. (One by Maureen Dowd.) Why else would E.L. James’ sloppily written trilogy about a submissive college student have taken off as a bestseller and been sold to the movies for $5 million? (sex, even badly written, sells. At least The Story of O was well crafted.). Why else would Girls, a new television show, concentrate on exploring the sort of soulless coupling that has the goal, according to the article, of having sex and feeling nothing? Frank Bruni, the writer of the story about Girls uses the word “post-feminist.”

Well, pardon me Frank, but we are no more a post-feminist society than we are a post-racial one. The goals of feminism have yet to be reached. But if there is still a lot going on in feminism right now, too much of it centers around sex. It’s no wonder, of course: with the draconian birth control laws some Republicans wish to re-instate, the insane attempt to repeal abortion freedom that has captured the airwaves, the overwhelming wish by too many men (yes, it is mostly all men) to slide women backwards is extremely troubling. But those things have to do with much more than sex, even if it seems that sexual supression is the goal.

In 2010 in a Harper’s magazine article that should have received far more notice than it did, feminist icon Susan Faludi wrote extensively about the mother/daughter divide in feminism and how young feminists were tired of being grateful to the older women who had paved the way. Faludi, in what could be called a eulogy to the feminist movement, wrote:

“The nineteenth -century feminist dream of ‘the empire of the mother,’ which gave way first to the hope that ‘sisterhood was powerful’ and then to the hokum of ‘girl power,’ now faces displacement from an even more infantile transgressiveness (‘the brave new world of Gaga girliness’), a cosmetic revolt that has less in common with feminism than with 1920s flapperism. It posits a world where pseudo-rebellions are mounted but never won nor desired to be won, where ‘liberation’ begins and ends with wordplay and pop-culture pastiche and fishnet stockings and where all needs can be met by the bountiful commercial breast, the markeplace’s simulacrum of the mother.”
Televisions shows about women being casually sexual and pornographic novels being optioned for the movies fall in line: they are the big news. That’s unfortunate.

Faludi decries the shedding of feminist history. I lament both that and the divisiveness that still marks the movement (which Ariel Levy wrote so movingly about in The New Yorker in 2009). But more than that, I wonder when it all came down to sex.

I applaud the Slut Walks and the way young women wish to take back their right to dress as they please without being attacked (the law has been far too behind on this notion). I applaud the idea that women can be sexual beings outside of marriage; that they don’t have to be afraid of their own sexuality as my mother was afraid of hers. I even applaud the right to have meaningless sex if one so chooses. All of those things can be ultimatw gains for women, but not if those gains costs her her soul, not if sex becomes the only fight worth marching for.

Just because the Republicans have made women all about sex doesn’t mean we have to accept their view of us. We need birth control and abortion rights; we definitely need to have control over our own bodies (the advent of birth control has made it possible for women to work, to make money, to be successful ) but we also need to remember that what we didn’t fight for was the right to behave as badly as men. While it is no mystery that the popularity of sexual submissiveness goes hand in hand with a rise in power (there is no shortage of important men who are happy to play the sexual submissive), let’s not forget to make sure we keep our power in the first place. Keep it, fight for it, hold on to it. Make sure that power is about more than sex . And let’s not trade our power in the world for a lack of it in the bedroom.

Feminism isn’t just about sexual liberation. It isn’t just about making choices about who to sleep with and when and even why. We need to be mindful of the fact that the sexual act can still do great damage, both physically and psychically. Liberation doesn’t give us the right to do ourselves damage, although I suppose it does give us the privilege. But what liberation should do now and forever is to give us the responsibility to be our best and most honest selves in all ways, in and out of the the bedroom. Frank Bruni is right to worry about depersonalization. If it starts in the bedroom it may well spill over into the rest of life. And that would be neither feminist nor post-feminist. It would be incredibly self-destructive.

This piece appeared in the Huffington Post And The Good Men Project