The Book Club

Why Aren’t More Women “Opting Out”?

Dear Wendy and Meghan,

Gosh, what a lot of big complicated questions we have flying around: What is sexual fidelity; what would real female empowerment look like; in what ways are women sexually different than men; do technologies or cultural genres like porn dictate the kinds of intimate relationships we get to have—or not have—with each other? And that’s just a start!

Meghan, you want to know whether watching porn betrays your partner. (We’re assuming the context is a monogamous couple.) Which raises even more questions: What proprietary rights over another person’s body and sexuality come along with coupledom? Is masturbation sexual treachery, or just anxiety release and distraction? Does it matter whether it involves porn stars and fantasy, or just friction? Or is it an issue of frequency—multiple times a week is cheating, but once a week is OK?

Let me try to back into (or out of!) these questions from a different direction. Like you, I, too, was struck by the fact that neither of these authors could get past their own assumptions about porn and sex. Instead, both tell us what they think good sex should be. For everyone. Both want sex to be about intimacy, connection, trust, real breasts instead of fake ones, and so on. So do you and Wendy, I assume. And so do I, to be honest.

Then why do I feel resistant to these forms of social scolding, even if in my heart of hearts, I gravitate more to their views of sexuality than to the porn sensibility? Possibly because both of these books also put me in mind of the Sadeian insight that dictating what people should do in bed, even in the name of virtue, is actually the height of perversity. Read Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom if you can bear to, or watch Pasolini’s brilliant, disgusting, utterly pornographic film version, Salo, which transplants the story to fascist Italy. The point is that people may like making their own preferences into norms, but that’s a bit monstrous in itself.

So, returning to the betrayal question, Meghan, the rather Sadeian problem we find ourselves in, is that dictating the terms of intimacy and desire as stringently as Paul and Levy do invites a level of micromanagement, suspicion, and anxiety that’s destructive of intimacy in its own right. After all, maybe the need to control another person and their body is also an intimacy issue. Is it only men who have intimacy issues? It would be a little smug if women thought that, wouldn’t it? But if women perpetually adopt the scolding mom role, and men escape into adolescent porno sex, I think we’re looking at co-dependent, gendered forms of intimacy avoidance. It was the tone of the books that set me to thinking about this: Even when I agreed with them, the self-certainty about what correct desire is made me want to jump out of my skin. Or go watch some porn.

In short, sustaining intimacy is a dilemma for all of us, and I’m not sure that installing surveillance software on your home computer is the solution. Maybe mass psychoanalysis?

I agree that both Paul and Levy underestimate female agency: They seem to like their women in the prone role a bit too much. What Levy misses about girl-raunch culture, I think, is the degree to which all of this is a form of ongoing experimentation, not the end of the story. Women are trying on wildly contrary styles of femininity and mucking around with gender conventions. And this also takes place in a context of increasing economic independence and social equality. You have a generation of girls who came of age reading Camille Paglia and watching Madonna videos: They’re exploring their whorish pagan sexuality, and vamping, and doing male impersonation all at once. But femininity has always been about masquerade, whether it was pearls and twin-sets, or leopard prints and false eyelashes. Now, in addition, we’ve got the vestiges of traditional femininity—including all the desperation, the narcissism, and the man-chasing—merged with feminist idioms of empowerment and equity. I agree it’s a mess, but it’s a fertile interesting mess.

I also agree that it’s distressing that heterosexual femininity is still organized around the need to capture and retain male attention. Why don’t more women choose to opt out? Yet another large perplexing question—I think it might have something to do with fathers.

Levy worries that girls don’t know what their desires are, that they’re just getting used when they think they’re getting pleasure. As it happens, just last week the National Center for Health Statistics released the first comprehensive government survey of American sexual practices, and the big revelation is that there’s a lot of teenage oral sex going on, and that it’s reciprocal. Not all about girls servicing boys, as Levy insists. So, no, Wendy, I didn’t find the research methods of either of these books so solid, and can now say that the government backs me up on Levy. With Paul we get a flurry of conflicting poll data and stats on every page. But good news about the newfound sexual equity, right?

These books left me wondering: Why are women still perpetually playing the role of social scolds and self-appointed moral beacons? This stance traces back to the 19th century social purity movements when women decided that men were essentially dirty, that gambling, drinking, and prostitution had to go, and that sweeping up social dirt—playing the nation’s housekeepers— would be the path to female empowerment. At least the raunch girls have given up on male reform. I count this as progress, since I’m not sure that being the most self-righteous sex is really the path to anyone’s emancipation.