Did you get the memos? Stop. Don’t look. Don’t be aroused. And don’t have sex. Not until you are sure you’re going to marry that person. Provided that you are legally allowed to marry that person. That one person and no other persons. And let’s not miss the ridiculous idea that sexual freedom is bad for women, and bad for the nation.
Seriously? Am I really hearing all of that? Today?
I am, because that’s the message shouted loudly by several popular columnists and commentators in the past week, as they examine pop culture artifacts like Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls, which looks at the sex lives and relationships of a group of young women in Brooklyn, and Fifty Shades of Grey, the new BDSM-themed erotic trilogy by E. L. James that has, no pun intended, I’m sure “electrified women across the country” according to a review by Julie Bosman in the NY Times last month.
Frank Bruni discusses Lena Dunham’s new series, Girls, in a recent column and he quotes her, “I heard so many of my friends saying, ‘Why can’t I have sex and feel nothing?’ It was amazing: that this was the new goal.”, to support his assertion that sexual liberation has been ultimately harmful to women.
Bruni is essentially claiming that Dunham’s friends’ goal of having sex without feeling anything is in some way related to the feminist goals of sexual liberation. “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” he asks, referring to the sex scenes in Girls. No, Frank, Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for liberation, for the freedom to define one’s own pleasure rather than being told to conform to a set of restrictive norms. Unfortunately, Bruni never gets to explore this question of sexual freedom because he immediately gets sidetracked into an antiporn diatribe used to explain a presumed emptiness in contemporary sexual relationships between men and women. He tosses in several anecdotes, including a story about a man who feels pressured into faking orgasms, to dramatize his argument.
Bruni’s column appeared on the same day as Maureen Dowd’s examination of Fifty Shades of Gray, an erotic BDSM-themed trilogy that has become incredibly popular among a largely female readership. Her examination is an attempt to find out why, at a time when we are embattled by the “war on women,” we would be so entranced by stories of submission. Again, the wrong question. A better question would be “How can we fight the war on women without also fighting the war on sex?”
These two columns, Dowd’s and Bruni’s sparked a small media storm that played out in venues like MSNBC’s Morning Joe. William Bennet even chimed in for CNN. On Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski spent two days on their antiporn crusade. This two day crusade is a perfect example of the way that mainstream media turns our attention away from the really important issues of the day – the economy, education, health, war – to make sure we are panicked about porn and pleasure. Why focus on freedom when we can scare people back to a time when women had sex because their husbands needed it, and men had sex because they couldn’t help themselves? On Morning Joe we learn that conservatives and liberals can’t agree on anything of substance, yet both sides fall for the sex panic narrative that boys watch porn and then expect girls to do disgusting things they can’t possibly enjoy, and girls don’t see a reason to wait for marriage in order to have the kinds of debasing relationships that are depicted for them in porn, but instead settle for chains of meaningless relationships. If only porn had not crept out from under the mattress and snuck onto the internet kids would be headed for heteronormative bliss.
One commenter on Morning Joe actually did suggest that has there been more gained in terms of autonomy and openness of talk about sex, than has been lost to the evils of pornography, but this represents about 10 seconds of a 7 minute piece and is largely brushed aside in the panic over porn and the destruction of the heterosexual nuclear family. Mika, generally perceived as the more liberal of the hosts, actually says that when she goes out and talks to young women she makes sure to remind them that without marriage their lives will be empty: “Don’t forget to include plans to marry and have children so you can share your life in a meaningful way.” Did I really hear a purportedly liberal female commentator in the 21st century telling young women that the only meaningful life is one that includes the roles of wife and mother?
I call bullshit.
Sexual freedom is a fundamental human right. Period. Where are we as a nation when we entertain discussions about human rights being bad or dangerous? It’s faulty logic to set sexual freedom up as a straw man telling women that when we have sexual freedom we will be doomed to have sex without feeling or meaning. Sexual freedom is the freedom to have sex without shame, to define meaning on your own terms, and to derive pleasure from sexual relationship you choose.
Sexual freedom may be dangerous to patriarchy, sexism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression, of course. And that’s exactly why it is my pleasure, and our collective responsibility, to embrace it.