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Sex — Are We Doing It Right Yet?
Reflections on the Ever-Evolving Sexual Revolution

After devoting many years to the scientific study of women’s heterosexual experiences—through reading, observing, listening, and participating— I have drawn a few conclusions:

  1. Many women like sex when it brings erotic pleasure and they like the guy. This is called “good sex.”
  2. Many women don’t like sex when the guy is a dork, rude, thoughtless, clumsy, coercive, or violent. This is called “bad sex.”
  3. Many women enjoy hookups, short affairs, conference connections, orgies (planned and spontaneous), and adventures with multiples and variations of all kinds. This is called “having fun.”
  4. Many #3 women get tired after a few years (“Oh God, Murray, another orgy?”), whereas others make it a way of life. This is called “being in the lifestyle.”
  5. Many women prefer sex with one doting partner at a time, the “time” lasting from as long as love does, from a week to a lifetime. This is called “a loving relationship.”

In every era, there are people who devote their energies to telling women they’re doing it all wrong. Are you enjoying monogamy with your sweetheart when others all around you are claiming that it is liberating, feminist, and “sex positive” to have many partners? Are you hopelessly straight or gay, or a hopelessly old-fashioned one-partner-at-a-time person, even though you think that for political, personal, or progressive reasons you really ought to be trying the alternatives? Are you enjoying your many affairs when others all around you are claiming that women aren’t designed for infidelity, that you’re merely capitulating to the Playboy standard, that you’re repressing the trauma of all those impersonal adventures, that you’re just a dupe and victim of hardwired male sexual preferences? Like a call-and-response in music or church, whichever view is ascendant will call for its inevitable antithetical response. Sex writers are always pouncing on a new hook, even when today’s new is yesterday’s old.

Today’s hook is this: if it’s good to be sex-positive, how come so many women are having sex-negative experiences? Why so much unwanted sex, harassments, miserable hookups, drunken episodes? Why the eternal difficulties in communication? Why do many women feel obliged to “consent,” when they’d rather go home and play with the dog? A spate of recent books locates the answers in the failure of feminism and the “unfinished” sexual revolution to make women’s sexual lives a thing of beauty and a joy forever. These include Nona Willis Aronowitz’s Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution; Christine Emba’s Rethinking Sex: A Provocation; and Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. To these I’ll add an essay by the self-admitted reformed “slut” Bridget Phetasy, in her substack essay “Beyond Parody,” which, unfortunately, isn’t.

To her credit, Nona Willis Aronowitz does not write an analysis of women’s continuing search for sexual ecstasy, satisfaction, and thoughtful male partners as if no one had done so before. That would have been a challenge, given that her own mother, the brilliant feminist Ellen Willis, tackled these questions a generation earlier, and her daughter interweaves her mother’s writings and experiences, along with those of other feminists of that era, with her own stories. But whereas her mother’s generation (and mine) emphasized that the personal is political, Willis Aronowitz’s mantra is the political is personal. Personal? TMI is an understatement. Indeed, readers may be forgiven for asking,

What bad sex? The book is a litany of the many orgasms she’s had, hours and hours of cunnilingus with this lover and that one, anal oral sideways multiples, the fantastic lovers, the terrible lovers, how she loves dick, experiments with other women, passionate weekends. The “bad sex” of the title is mostly “bad relationships” — hookups with men who were selfish or otherwise unlikeable, or, in the case of the partner she leaves at the outset of her story, relationships that had become sexually boring. Here it all is again, yet another woman trying to find the blissful balance between committed sex and casual sex—open relationships being necessary for anyone who believes that monogamy is death to being a fully sexually liberated person. Calling Dr. Ester Perel and the innumerable marriage counselors who study the shapeshifting patterns of intimacy, passion, and desire over the course of life and love.

As I read this book, I wondered how the same narrative would sound if written by a man:

I left my otherwise loving partner, whom I loved, because I got bored with her and our sex life, and I didn’t like her off-putting smell that ruined our sexual chemistry. I’m happy to report other intimate details about her that annoyed me, but I won’t bother you with her perspective on me. I will tell you about my many lovers so you will understand how desirable I am, including that amazing afternoon in which I received one blow job after another. I confess that certain body shapes and sizes turn me on. Unfortunately, along with the hot women I couldn’t get enough of, at least until I tired of them, I hooked up with some awful women too—demanding, rude, noncommunicative about their desires, egocentric. Wait: one of those impersonal hookups was a very nice person.

When women reveal every nuance of their sexual experiences, why is that considered feminist analysis, and when men do it (not that they could find a publisher nowadays for such unapologetic braggadocio) it’s called narcissistic misogyny?

Bridget Phetasy spends a lot of energy berating herself for her past experiences. “I regret being a slut,” she begins, and what ensues, for this Catholic girl who grew up marinating in religious shame and guilt over sex and her body, is mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Apart from her first love in high school and her first husband, “of the dozens of men I’ve been with (at least the ones I remember), I can only think of a handful I don’t regret.” The rest were meaningless or mediocre partners in drunken encounters who left her “feeling empty and demoralized.” She tried not to care about being ghosted, about the blackouts, about her anxiety when the man didn’t call; but of course she did. To cope, she put on a carapace of the cold male stereotype and told herself she was liberated. “I wanted to be able to have meaningless sex like a guy,” she writes, “but it didn’t work.” (At least she realizes it doesn’t work for a lot of men either.) “Casual sex is fraught with insecurity and miscommunication,” she writes, as if committed sex were free of both. The reader may wonder why, after the first few dozen demoralizing, drunken encounters Phetasy didn’t think of finding something else to do with her lonely nights, perhaps taking up pingpong. Never mind; her confessional has the requisite happy ending: a blissful second marriage and a baby girl.

Cue Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, which could have been published in the 1960s (and was, in one form or another), as her chapter titles reveal:

  1. Sex must be taken seriously.
  2. Men and women are different.
  3. Some desires are bad.
  4. Loveless sex is not empowering.
  5. Consent is not enough.
  6. Violence is not love.
  7. Marriage is good.

I wonder if these writers have seen the hookup requirements that women on some dating apps specify. They are very specific about the sexual pleasure they want, and it has nothing to do with enduring connections.

Perry’s book is an exemplar of “difference feminism,” the strand of feminism which, for centuries, has regarded women as the weaker sex and men as the violent sex, holding that differences in sexual drive, proclivities, and satisfactions are embedded in human nature. It is unfortunate that Perry is not up to date on the voluminous findings from evolutionary biology showing that the vast majority of females of many species, including ours, are sexually adventurous, having many partners, and that females of many species, including ours, are plenty violent and aggressive [see Lucy Cooke’s Bitch, which I reviewed in Skeptic (27.3), 2022: “What Darwin Got Wrong About the Female of (All) Species”]. As for her claims that “The research is clear” that “Men are (on average) far more interested than women are in casual sex,” we need to ask: what research? What century? What is the sample? College students? Lifestyle conferences? Bumble? Mormons? Rock groupies? Wives of the Taliban?

Perry argues that the sexual revolution liberated women from “the burdens of chastity” (in fact, premarital chastity was on its way out in the Victorian era) but left in its wake “the triumph of the playboy.” Without a moral consensus that “loveless sex” is unethical, bad, immoral, and probably fattening, women had no reason to say no. (Other than, of course, “No, I don’t want to.”) Accordingly, says Perry, today they are saying yes too often and for the wrong reasons, and they are agreeing to sexual acts they dislike, including choking, anal sex, rough sex, and S&M. Christine Emba, who converted to Catholicism and found salvation in Andrea Dworkin’s bitter, puritanical tirades, concurs that women’s sexual woes stem from the “anything goes” attitude that pervades modern sexual norms: as long as you have consent, every behavior is, literally, up for grabs. True sexual pleasure requires authentic, enduring connections, these women argue, which are not to be found on dating apps or through bar hopping.

I’m sure their observations are true for plenty of women, but I wonder if these writers have seen the hookup requirements that women on some dating apps specify. They are very specific about the sexual pleasure they want, and it has nothing to do with enduring connections: “Looking for BBC, or don’t bother;” “seeking Big Dick energy;” “don’t expect to hear from me tomorrow.” And let’s not forget Cardi B’s WAP.

The problem for anyone trying to assess the sexual landscape today, therefore, is that it is divided into territories, some with high walls shielding them from their scandalous (or prudish) neighbors. Sociologists speak of “sexual markets” in which people shop for partners, as they would shop in different markets for preferred foods, according to their sexual orientation, lovemaking desires, ethnicity, race, age, gender, and, apparently, penis preferences. But most sex-book writers tend to focus on one market in particular, which makes any advice they offer seem bizarre if not entirely alien to readers across the wall. Some find the WAP music video vulgar, demeaning, and ugly, others find it playful and funny, the very epitome of an exuberant sex-positivity. (Google the lyrics or watch the video and see for yourself.)

Still, that’s no reason not to write with concern about women who are having sex for problematic reasons. But that’s not news. For decades feminist scholars have been identifying the extrinsic reasons that many women agree to sex: not wanting to lose the relationship; feeling obligated once the partner had spent time and money on them; feeling guilty about not doing what the partner wants or demands; being too shy or embarrassed to say “I want outta here” (looking at you, Aziz Ansari); or wanting to avoid conflict and quarrels. But men also have sex for extrinsic reasons: peer pressure, inexperience, a desire for popularity, or a fear of seeming unmasculine. In studies they report having sex to gain status, enhance their reputation (e.g., because the partner was normally “out of my league”), or get tangible benefits (such as a promotion). They, too, just like women, come to regret having had impersonal hookups with women who turn out to be creepy, a little crazy, selfish…

What is different today, as social scientists and mental health professionals have amply documented, is the extent of alienation, loneliness, sexual confusion, and social despair that afflict many young people and the rise of psychological health problems among teenagers and young adults. The old ways of meeting and mating, with your family and friends vetting your choices and, when your heart was broken, introducing you to their brother-in-law’s sister’s uncle’s cousin, are mostly gone. After college, prospects of finding a serious partner at work have dimmed, what with HR’s Sex Police monitoring your relationships for any sign of a power imbalance or verboten erotic attachment.

Given such complexities, the solutions that these books offer to counteract the supposed fallout from the sexual revolution are sensible but banal: don’t ignore your gut feelings, don’t let any man pressure you into doing anything you don’t want to do, be wary of sexually aggressive men, don’t use dating apps. Perry goes full puritan: don’t have sex with a new boyfriend for at least a few months, and only then if you think he would make a good father to your children (a test not necessarily of his sperm quality but of his trustworthiness). “Just say no” didn’t work in reducing drug use, either.

Such good old-fashioned motherly advice has its place, but it entirely ignores the social and online environments in which most couples today meet and live. It ignores the pull of social comparisons, peer pressure, marketing influences, and Influencer influences. It ignores the role of playful affairs and experimental relationships in teaching participants what they do enjoy as well as what they don’t. Phetasy might be full of regrets now, but I bet she learned a lot about herself and about men from those many experiences, and that one day she will be telling her granddaughter about her lusty, bawdy, naughty years. Or revealing all to the readers of her best-selling memoir, Just Say Yes.

And so: how to finish this “unfinished sexual revolution”? It’s an absurd phrase, because no revolution is ever finished, and many regress—as we all have painfully learned with the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, with sex books being banned, access to reproductive rights and abortion on the ropes, and evangelical Christianity on the warpath. And yet these writers inadvertently suggest ways of continuing, or retrieving, the goals of their foremothers: by restoring the concept of responsibility and toning down the victim narrative. It’s a shame that “responsibility” has become a politically polarized term, too often used by finger-wagging conservative moralists. Its feminist relevance at the dawn of the modern sexual revolution, when women were organizing to “take back the night” and enjoying plenty of those nights, became buried in the ascendance of the victim, in which every bad thing that happens to a woman is attributed 100 percent to the patriarchy or toxic masculinity. Don’t regret a bad encounter or a relationship that you chose or that you stayed in; sue the bastard.

In the 1990s, victim feminists were already endorsing a view of female passivity when they warned of men “getting” women drunk and “taking advantage” of them sexually. In The Morning After, Katie Roiphe complained about this view of woman as an inert vessel the man pours liquor into. Where is her agency, her choice? Why, asked Roiphe, aren’t college women being taught to be responsible for their own intake of alcohol? She was excoriated for not knowing the right answer: because that would be victim blaming. No, it isn’t; we still get to throw the book at rapists and we still get to try to reform patriarchal institutions and customs.

So I take it as good signs for feminism that Perry advises women not to get drunk with men they don’t know and that Phetasy freely admits her regrets. Any sexual revolution worth its salt requires women, and men, to take responsibility not only for the decisions that prove wise and satisfying but also those that turn out foolish or hurtful. As my own liberated foremothers would have said, that’s life. END

About the Author

Carol Tavris, PhD, is a social psychologist and writer. She has written hundreds of articles, book reviews, and op-eds on many topics in psychological science. Her books include Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), with Elliot Aronson; Estrogen Matters; and The Mismeasure of Woman. A Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, she has received numerous awards for her efforts to promote science and skepticism, including an award from the Center for Inquiry’s Independent Investigations Group; and an honorary doctorate from Simmons College for her work in promoting critical thinking and gender equity.

This article was published on February 14, 2023.

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