Sex in the age of post-feminism

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
Font Size:

Where is Camille Paglia when we need her?

In the last few months, the pop culture has been pulling back the layers on what sex in the age of post-feminism looks like — and it’s not pretty. Exhibit A is the terribly written but — to many women in their twenties and thirties — sexy book 50 Shades of Grey. The erotic novel is about Ana, a 21-year-old woman who lets herself become the sex slave of a rich and powerful 27-year-old man named Christian. In this unexpected bestseller, Christian makes Ana sign a contract that stipulates “the Dominant may flog, spank, whip or corporally punish the Submissive as he sees fit, for purposes of discipline, for his own personal enjoyment or for any other reason, which he is not obliged to provide.” And she does.

Exhibit B is HBO’s new comedy Girls, created by and starring the 25-year-old Lena Dunham. Girls is about four highly educated and adrift young women in their mid-twenties trying to manage their degrading and awkward sex lives against the backdrop of an unmerciful New York City. The show’s protagonist is Hannah Horvath (Dunham). Hannah regularly hooks up with a creepy hipster named Adam who never wears a shirt and fantasizes that Hannah’s an 11-year-old girl. He’s the kind of guy who never texts her, tells her to stop talking during sex, and says things like, “If you come up I’m going to tie you up and keep you here for three days. I’m just in that kind of mood.” And yet, she still pines for him to call her. She still goes over to his apartment. She even refers to him as her “boyfriend,” which would be a surprise to him.

In a cover story for Newsweek, Katie Roiphe tries to figure out what’s going on in these two pop phenomena. Why, Roiphe asks, does this “particular, watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism have such cachet right now? Why have masses of women brought the book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list before it even hit the stores?”

It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace, when they make up almost 60 percent of college students, when they are close to surpassing men as breadwinners, with four in 10 working women now out-earning their husbands, when the majority of women under 30 are having and supporting children on their own, a moment when — in hard economic terms — women are less dependent or subjugated than before.

When Maggie Gyllenhaal appeared in “Secretary,” a 2002 comic commentary on a boss disciplining his assistant, she was worried about a feminist reaction against the flamboyant depiction of sexual domination. But she said, “I found women, especially of my generation, are moved by it in some way that goes beyond politics.”

That thing that goes beyond politics is called human nature. As Roiphe writes:

Gloria Steinem writes that these women “have been raised to believe that sex and domination are synonymous,” and we must learn to “finally untangle sex and aggression.” But maybe sex and aggression should not, and probably more to the point, cannot be untangled.

That was one of Paglia’s main points during the ’90, when she was at her polemical peak. The feminists, Paglia argued, have neutered male sexuality and that has killed sex. “If you live in rock and roll, as I do,” she said back then, “you see the reality of sex, of male lust and women being aroused by male lust. It attracts women. It doesn’t repel them.”

In Girls, Hannah’s best friend and roommate is a put-together, uptight girl named Marnie (Allison Williams). Marnie has been dating her metrosexual boyfriend Charlie for four years. The problem is, Charlie is cloyingly sweet and loving — too loving. He defers to her on too many issues, including sex. And Marnie is repelled by him. Whenever he touches her, she explains to Hannah, it’s like “a weird uncle putting his hand on my knee at Thanksgiving.” She doesn’t even want to look at him when they’re having sex, an act that he refers to as “making love.”

“Make love to me?” she laughs. “You mean f*ck me?”

Marnie later tells Hannah, “He’s so busy respecting me, you know, that he looks right past me and everything I need from him.” Hannah, who is in a pretty degrading situation with Adam, the guy she’s hooking up with, responds: “I’m just unwilling to accept the idea that you have too great a boyfriend. Although if you want someone to feed you abusive rhetoric, just send him to Adam’s house for the night. He’ll learn a lot.”

Later in the show, Hannah blandly tells her ex-boyfriend from college, “I am seeing this guy and sometimes I let him hit me on the side of my body.”

Which brings us back to sadomasochism.

Roiphe opens her piece by writing “every era gets the sadist it deserves.”

True, and let’s not forget the original sadist, a man that Roiphe does not mention once in her piece — the sadist that we derive the term “sadomasochism” from: the Marquis de Sade.

Paglia considered Sade to be “the most unread major writer in western literature.” When you think about 50 Shades of Grey and Girls, you realize why. Sade — and Paglia — understood that when the social constraints break down, when sexual liberty reigns supreme, that degradation follows suit. Here’s Paglia (from Sexual Personae) on Sade:

For Sade, getting back to nature (the Romantic imperative that still permeates our culture from sex counseling to cereal commercials) would be to give free rein to violence and lust. I agree. Society is the not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check. When social controls weaken, man’s innate cruelty bursts forth. The rapist is created not by bad social influences but by a failure of social conditioning. Feminists, seeking to drive power relations out of sex, have set themselves against nature. Sex is power. Identity is power. … My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind. Romanticism always turns into decadence. … The search for freedom through sex is doomed to failure.

In its realistic and stark portrayal of casual sex, this is the message of Girls. Hannah, who calls herself the voice of her generation in the show, is not seeking sexual empowerment or liberation in her relationship with Adam. She passively submits to Adam, but it’s clear that she’s not into his weird sex games. She wants to talk to him, to kiss him, to call him on the phone. After he reaches orgasm in one scene, she tells him in a dead voice, “It felt so good. I almost came.” Yeah, right. In another scene, she asks Marnie, “What does it feel like to be loved that much?”

In 50 Shades of Grey, Ana daydreams about love, too: “Deep down I would just like more, more affection, more playful Christian, more … love.”

Marnie may be the most put together of the Girls, but she’s more adrift than her friends when it comes to one thing: In the age of post-feminism, women do not want to be “f*cked.” They want love.

Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of the Hoover journal Defining Ideas and associate editor of The New Criterion. She writes about pop culture at acculturated.com.

Tags : feminism sex
Emily Esfahani Smith