Written by Rebecca Traister. Originally published on October 20th, 2015 for NY Mag.
Last winter, Reina Gattuso was a Harvard senior majoring in literature and gender studies and writing a biweekly column for the college newspaper, the Crimson. She covered a variety of subjects, among them her sexuality (she identifies as queer) and Harvard’s byzantine class hierarchies, and she wrote a regular feature called “Four Dollar Wine Critic.” In February, she dedicated her column to the subject of sexist sex.
Gattuso is not against sex by any means. “I don’t say yes. I say oh, yes. I say yes, please,” she wrote. And she did say yes at a booze-soaked party hosted by a group of men she didn’t know. One of the men told her that because she was bisexual, he assumed she was “particularly down to fuck.” He said she could make out with his girlfriend if she would hook up with another of the men.
“I have so much to drink my memory becomes dark water, brief flashes when I flicker up for air,” Gattuso wrote. “I’m being kissed. There’s a boy, then another boy. I keep asking if I’m pretty. I keep saying yes.” But in the morning, she wrote, “I feel weird about what went down” and was unsure how to express her feelings of dissatisfaction and confusion over “such a fucked-up experience.”
Eventually, she realized that what she was grappling with was not just the night in question but also the failure of campus feminism to address those kinds of experiences. We tend to talk about consent “as an individual process,” she wrote, “not asking ‘What kinds of power are operating in this situation?’ but only ‘Did you or did you not say yes?’ ” Feminists, she continued, “sometimes talk about ‘yes’ and ‘no’ like they’re uncomplicated … But ethical sex is hard. And it won’t stop being hard until we … minimize, as much as possible, power imbalances related to sex.”
It may feel as though contemporary feminists are always talking about the power imbalances related to sex, thanks to the recently robust and radical campus campaigns against rape and sexual assault. But contemporary feminism’s shortcomings may lie in not its overradicalization but rather its underradicalization. Because, outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex. Young feminists have adopted an exuberant, raunchy, confident, righteously unapologetic, slut-walking ideology that sees sex — as long as it’s consensual — as an expression of feminist liberation. The result is a neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex positivity. Which means a vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish — has gone largely uninterrogated, leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.
Feminism has a long, complicated relationship to sex, one that has cycled from embrace to critique and back again. By the time a generation of women woke feminism from its backlash slumber around the millennium, the sex wars of the 1980s were long over. Some second-wave feminists, including Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, had seen sex, pornography, and sexism as all of a piece, finding it impossible to pick the strands of pleasure from the suffocating fabric of oppression. So-called sex-positive feminists — Ellen Willis, Joan Nestle, Susie Bright — set themselves against what they saw as this puritanical slant. The sex-positive crusaders won the war for a million reasons, perhaps especially because their work offered optimism: that sexual agency and equality were available to women, that we were not destined to live our sexual lives as objects or victims, that we could take our pleasures and our power too. They won because sex can be fun and thrilling and because, for the most part, human beings want very badly to partake of it.
In this line of thinking, sex after yes, sex without violence or coercion, is good. Sex is feminist. And empowered women are supposed to enjoy the hell out of it. In fact, Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale law student and founder of anti-rape organization Know Your IX, tells me that she has heard from women who feel that “not having a super-exciting, super-positive sex life is in some ways a political failure.”
Except that young women don’t always enjoy sex — and not because of any innately feminine psychological or physical condition. The hetero (and non-hetero, but, let’s face it, mostly hetero) sex on offer to young women is not of very high quality, for reasons having to do with youthful ineptitude and tenderness of hearts, sure, but also the fact that the game remains rigged.
It’s rigged in ways that go well beyond consent. Students I spoke to talked about “male sexual entitlement,” the expectation that male sexual needs take priority, with men presumed to take sex and women presumed to give it to them. They spoke of how men set the terms, host the parties, provide the alcohol, exert the influence. Male attention and approval remain the validating metric of female worth, and women are still (perhaps increasingly) expected to look and fuck like porn stars — plucked, smooth, their pleasure performed persuasively. Meanwhile, male climax remains the accepted finish of hetero encounters; a woman’s orgasm is still the elusive, optional bonus round. Then there are the double standards that continue to redound negatively to women: A woman in pursuit is loose or hard up; a man in pursuit is healthy and horny. A woman who says no is a prude or a cock tease; a man who says no is rejecting the woman in question. And now these sexual judgments cut in two directions: Young women feel that they are being judged either for having too much sex, or for not having enough, or enough good, sex. Finally, young people often have very drunk sex, which in theory means subpar sex for both parties, but which in practice is often worse (like, physically worse) for women.”
Head to NY Mag to read the rest of this incredibly important and interesting piece!