Published:  12:42 AM, 27 February 2018

The feminist pursuit of good sex

The feminist pursuit of good sex

In my junior year of college, before I'd learned much about feminism, I became fascinated by what we now call the 1970s "golden era" of pornography. Porno chic! Clitoral orgasms! A little film called "Deep Throat"! Being a lusty, modern woman, I was enthralled. I resolved to write my senior thesis on the role of that period in changing sexual mores.

And then, pretty quickly, I was confused. Was pornography a vanguard of sexual freedom or a tool of the patriarchy? Caught in a dizzying tangle of opinions from Second Wave feminist writers, many of whom were deeply ambivalent about the fruits of the sexual revolution, I sought guidance from my mother, the journalist and critic Ellen Willis, who in a 1981 essay in The Village Voice asked a question that now looms over #MeToo 40 years later: "Is the Women's Movement Pro-Sex?"

She enlightened me to a strain of early radical feminism that would forever change my thinking on the importance of pleasure politics. Both pornography and men could be misogynistic and predatory, she told me. But they weren't the causes so much as the symptoms of a sexist society. And the answer wasn't sexual repression. Women's liberation should not be "about fending off men's sexuality," she said, "but being able to embrace your own."

My connection to this complex intellectual heritage is at the heart of why I find the prevailing narrative about #MeToo's generational split baffling and harmful. Here's how the story goes: Older critics, flattened into "Second Wave feminist has-beens," are accusing the movement of becoming increasingly anti-sex, anti-agency and anti-nuance.

Younger women, also known as "Twitter feminists," are accusing these critics of being bitter establishmentarians, unable to cede ground to new ideas. They're both wrong, but so is this tired mothers-and-daughters framing, which threatens to derail substantive debate in favor of a catfight narrative.

There are real reasons younger and older women may be experiencing this moment differently. To the extent that there is a generational divide, it may reflect many older women's wariness of the internet, which leads them to not only miss the context of a feminist internet tradition of ironic misandry but also to overlook the more nuanced chatter happening among younger women on social media and digital sites.

Second Wave feminism's reputation, meanwhile, as a humorless group of mainstream white women is due partly to a deliberate attempt in the 1980s to disparage feminists, but also to the movement's race and class blind spots. Add that to a perennial pastime of hating on that nebulous group called millennials and we have the makings of what, on the surface, can be read as a generational feud.

And yet most of the disagreement has to do with ideas about sex, power and the function of social movements - disputes that have divided feminists for decades.

There have always been liberal feminists, from Betty Friedan to Sheryl Sandberg, who wanted a seat at the table rather than to reset the table, who seek equal opportunity within existing power structures.

They include older feminists, who endured pats on the bottom to succeed in the workplace and who urged the movement to prioritize things like women's economic empowerment rather than sexuality, which they considered frivolous and distracting. But there are younger feminists, too, who wish #MeToo would focus on predetermined bad behavior, like rape, rather than rethink tolerated behavior, like sexual pressure, and bristle at suggestions of a connection between the two.

And there have always been radical feminists, who want to see the system upended. In fact, the most famous radicals were Second Wave feminists, and some of their work provided the blueprint for #MeToo. Catharine MacKinnon was an early architect of sexual harassment's legal definition (and has publicly supported today's movement). Susan Brownmiller's book "Against Our Will" popularized the crucial concept of rape as power. Of course, this wing of radical feminism veered into cries of censorship and victimhood, endorsing a sexual moralism disturbingly similar to the religious right.

But what both activists and their critics are missing is that if #MeToo draws on the work of Ms. MacKinnon and Ms. Brownmiller, it's also rooted firmly in the tradition of the other radical Second Wavers. These women were absolutely pro-sex, pro-pleasure and pro-freedom.

 "We've got to learn to sleep with people because we want them," one woman said in a consciousness-raising session transcribed by the author of "The Dialectic of Sex," Shulamith Firestone, in 1968. "Not to prove anything to them, not to make them feel better about their masculinity, not out of weakness or inability to say no, but simply because we want to."

But they also understood that if rape and harassment were political, so was bad sex. In a 1980 essay, the radical feminist Alix Kates Shulman remembered that in those early sessions, "sex was a central and explosive subject to which we continually returned"; feminists "used their sexual discontents to help them understand the power relations between men and women."

I was reminded of this history when the website Babe published its Aziz Ansari article in January. The account of the so-called bad date, during which Mr. Ansari is alleged to have badgered a woman into going further than she wanted to, was an example of reckless reporting and was cited by many as #MeToo's too-far moment. But the instinct that it was an important article was correct. The issue of consensual yet joyless and unsatisfying sex was the same one my mom and her friends were grappling with 50 years ago.

At bottom, #MeToo is not about hashtags or individual firings. It's a chance to reset the table of sexual politics - not by infantilizing women or declaring a war on flirting or administering litmus tests, but by continuing a decades-long push for true equality in the bedroom, for a world in which women are not intimidated or coerced into sex but are also not stuffed into the role of gatekeepers.

For such a movement, the history of Second Wave pro-sex feminism should serve as both North Star and cautionary tale. Ultimately, the arguments of these women got swallowed up by the more coherent, consistent narrative of sexual conservatism, and later by a largely depoliticized version of pro-sex feminism that presented hot-pink dildos as the key to liberation.

One reason this might have happened is that amid these conversations, men were at best ancillary and at worst demonized, an understandable impulse in the 1970s, when the most basic feminist ideas were scary and radical. "A free woman needs a free man," a woman said in a rare moment of clarity during that same 1968 consciousness-raising session.

But there may be a deeper reason this history has been obscured. In a 1982 essay, my mother admits that a misstep of the early pro-sex feminists was "the failure to put forward a convincing alternative analysis of sexual violence, exploitation and alienation."

The burgeoning movement, in other words, didn't make a compelling enough argument for freeing women's sexuality rather than tamping down men's, a distinction that makes clear the connection between bad sex and rape culture, between Harvey Weinstein's monster and Aziz Ansari's Everyman. Instead, just a few years later, protection from violence became the narrow, defensive definition of feminist sexual politics, and the concept of pleasure became synonymous with narcissism and self-indulgence.

This is the time to rectify all that. Condemning a culture that excuses sexual assault and harassment isn't about weakness and victimhood. It's about what my mom, who died in 2006, scrawled on a pamphlet from the famous 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality, which she mailed to me while I was toiling on my thesis. On it, she'd written this plain but transformative note: "Feminism is a vision of active freedom, of fulfilled desires, or it is nothing."

The writer is the features editor at Splinter                                                  ------------------Nona Willis Aronowitz

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