Michelle Williams receiving oral sex from Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine

What’s on your agenda for a feminist sexual revolution?

Rebecca Traister has a new piece in New York Magazine — that features quotes from three members of the Feministing crew! — arguing that feminists need to talk more about the inequities in the sexual culture beyond just sexual violence. 

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.

Traister suggests that some needed feminist critique of “bad sex” has fallen through the gap between “a neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex positivity.” Alexandra notes that a certain brand of sex positivity can veer into an uncritical “You get it, girl!” stance that individualizes the problems with sex. “I think of it sometimes as Lean In for good sex,” she says. “In that there are these structural factors that are conspiring against terrific sex, but at work or in the bedroom, if you have the magic word, if you try hard enough, if you are good enough, you can transcend those.” Reina, whose writing on sex here at Feministing has been so on-point, speaks to the way our focus on violence can at times overshadow a discuss of pleasure: “I sometimes think that in our real, deep, important feminist desire to communicate that sexual violence is absolutely and utterly not okay … we can forget that we are often hurt in ways more subtle and persistent … And we can often totally forget that at the end of the day, sex is also about pleasure.”

Utimately, I’m really optimistic that the time is ripe for feminists to develop a comprehensive, cohesive, radical analysis of everything that’s shitty about the sexual culture and put forth a positive — dare I say, utopian? — alternative vision of what true sexual equality would look like. In my opinion, it would include everything “from the orgasm gap to the truly criminal sexual miseducation of our youth to abortion rights to the sexual double standard. Broadening the scope would not only push us to provide the same kind of deep analysis that’s been developed around rape culture in recent years but also help us better see the connections between all the inequities in the sexual culture.”

I think it starts with being clear that consent is the very barest of minimums. What do we want beyond that? What is preventing us from getting it? And I think it requires bravely “leaning in” to those areas where it feels like there are gaps in the current feminist analysis. Where does the feminist “party line” seem at odds with your own lived experiences? Where do you find yourself lacking the feminist language to talk about your experiences at all? Those are precisely the areas where there’s so much potential for us to really move the movement forward by getting honest.

So! What would you all put on the top of your agenda for a feminist sexual revolution?

Header image via.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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