Where Is Our Paradise of Guilt-Free Sex?
The Atlantic|October 2021
Half a century after the sexual revolution, we still haven’t reconciled what we should want with what we do want.
Helen Lewis

Tracy Clark-Flory’s memoir, Want Me, is subtitled A Sex Writer’s Journey Into the Heart of Desire, and it begins with an arresting anecdote: Two male porn actors on a set in Los Angeles are complaining to her about “girls these days.” One actor is called Tommy Gunn, because where would pornography be without puns? The other uses his birth name, Charles Dera. Both agree that their love lives have suffered because too many women watch their films and demand a live-action replay, expecting to be choked, gagged, and slapped around. But who wants to take their work home with them? “It’s, like, not even my cup of tea,” Dera tells Clark-Flory, who covered the sex beat for Salon and is now a senior writer at Jezebel. “I want to go to dinner and have a fucking nice meal and take it from there. Where the ladies at anymore?”

The scene is irresistibly bathetic, in the vein of Tarantino hit men bitching about junk food, but it’s also revealing. For many people under 40, the tropes of internet porn have saturated our lives and colored our expectations of sex. For “YouPorn natives”—the 20-somethings for whom abundant free porn has always existed, on smartphones as well as computers— the effect is even more extreme. Their first glimpse of sexual activity was probably not the descriptions in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the hippie illustrations in The Joy of Sex, or (as it was for Clark-Flory) the glamorous Jenna Jameson adult movies of the ’90s, but the rough, dirty, extreme porn of the free internet. Some of them no doubt saw a digital gang bang before having their first real-life kiss.

Porn consumption is now such a fixture of modern life— there is no chance the American government will take your smut away—that space has opened up to question its effects without being dismissed as a wannabe censor. Which isn’t to say that admitting to reservations about current sexual trends is easy. For Clark-Flory’s 30-something generation (which is also my generation), being Cool About Sex is a mark of our impeccable social liberalism. If two or more adults consent to it, whatever it is, no one else is entitled to an opinion.

Yet here is the conundrum facing feminist writers: Our enlightened values—less stigma regarding unwed mothers, the acceptance of homosexuality, greater economic freedom for women, the availability of contraception, and the embrace of consent culture— haven’t translated into anything like a paradise of guilt-free fun. The sexual double standard still exists, and girls who say no are still “frigid” while those who say yes are still “sluts.” Some men still act with entitlement, while others feel that, no matter what they do, they are inescapably positioned as the “bad guys” by the new sexual rules. Half a century after the sexual revolution and the start of second-wave feminism, why are the politics of sex still so messy, fraught, and contested?

Relitigating the sex wars of the 1970s and ’80s is hardly where young feminists expected, or want, to be. In The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, Amia Srinivasan confesses her reluctance to cover second- wave criticisms of porn in the feminist-theory course she teaches at Oxford. She is Cool About Sex, after all, and assumed that her students would be bored by the question of whether porn oppresses women. She also assumed that the reputation of “anti-porn feminists,” such as Catharine A. MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, had been fatally damaged by their alliance with the religious right to pass laws restricting access to pornography. What self-respecting member of Generation Z would want to line up alongside Jerry Falwell Sr. and Phyllis Schlafly, particularly when the other side is selling a fantasy of libertine pleasure?

Yet her class was “riveted,” she observes in “Talking to My Students About Porn,” the longest essay in her collection. Their enthusiasm was so great that it made her reconsider her own diffidence. The exchange is worth quoting at length:

Could it be that pornography doesn’t merely depict the subordination of women, but actually makes it real, I asked? Yes, they said. Does porn silence women, making it harder for them to protest against unwanted sex, and harder for men to hear those protests? Yes, they said. Does porn bear responsibility for the objectification of women, for the marginalization of women, for sexual violence against women? Yes, they said, yes to all of it.

It wasn’t just the women students talking; the men were saying yes as well, in some cases even more emphatically … My male students complained about the routines they were expected to perform in sex; one of them asked whether it was too utopian to imagine sex that was loving and mutual and not about domination and submission.

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