In an essay written in 1970, amid the early years of the women’s liberation movement, the novelist and feminist activist June Arnold recalled several consciousness-raising sessions devoted to sex. The women talked about masturbation, lesbianism and the relationship between love and lust. They deemed sex a “huge and crucial” topic, Ms. Arnold wrote — and yet the nature of their own desires was often inscrutable.
These women spent much of their adult lives wanting to be considered a “good lay,” which sometimes meant contorting themselves to mirror their male partners’ sexuality. “But no man had ever really grooved on our sexuality,” she wrote. “How could he? We didn’t know really what it was yet.”
The sexual revolution was riding high, but second-wave feminism had barely gotten off the ground. The women’s frustration with the sexual landscape was, as Michelle Goldberg recently put it, “what you get when you liberate sex without liberating women.” There was an expectation for women to be free and horny, but the fact that sex was still tailored to men thwarted those efforts at every turn. Many heterosexual women felt their emotional needs were left in the dust while their sexual needs often remained a mystery to both their partners and themselves.
Half a century later, we’re grappling with a similar dynamic. Generation Z — which rightly sees how women are still, after all these years, taught to prioritize men’s desires over their own — has started to reject the concept of sex positivity and question whether casual dating is worth it, sometimes opting out of sex altogether. As the righteous energy of #MeToo fades into a more ambiguous debate, we’ve reached a point where it’s become obvious that consent and figuring out what you don’t want is just not enough. What does it mean to go beyond consent and discover what you do want?
The early feminists in those living rooms had their sights set on this question, one they deemed central to liberation. But uncovering the answer has proved to be a tall order. As a result, we have ended up sidelining a chaotic and mystifying but also politically essential process: pursuing desire on one’s own terms.
At the tail end of 2016, I ended an eight-year relationship about six years too late. Our marriage was modern and progressive by most standards: We experimented with nonmonogamy; my partner did more laundry than I did. And yet I found myself unable to admit a simple fact: Our sex, it turned out, was bad. Intrinsically, gut-level bad. Though sex wasn’t the only thing wrong with our relationship, it was the starkest evidence of our weak connection. But despite this, I stayed frozen in dissatisfaction, unable to articulate my deepest needs to myself, my partner or my friends. How had I, a supposedly empowered feminist, wound up here?
Understanding our authentic desires has long been hopelessly stymied by politics. Even as the feminists of the 1960s and ’70s were recognizing the importance of pursuing sexual happiness, it was clear that embracing one’s sexual freedom was going to be easier said than done. A liberated woman was expected to dodge the roles and rules prescribed to her and replace them with her own desires — the discovery of which often involves unraveling a lifetime of learned behavior.
Just six years after Ms. Arnold wrote her essay, the sociologist Shere Hite released a report on female sexuality. In it, regular women who were navigating the mores of the sexual revolution struggled to pin down what they were looking for. One woman tried to explain that she didn’t want traditional commitment, exactly — just more connection, more affection, more … something. “I don’t believe you have to be in love and married till death do us part,’” one woman said. “But mind and body are one organism and all tied up together, and it isn’t even physically fun unless the people involved really like each other!” One can sense the nebulousness of it all, the work involved in rewriting longstanding cultural scripts.
Meanwhile, a growing sect of the feminist movement, disillusioned by the results of the sexual revolution, had recently veered down a protectionist path when it came to sex, and it was considerably more cut and dried than an active pursuit of pleasure. “Don’t rape me, don’t abuse me, don’t objectify me,” they demanded of a misogynist society.
The don’ts extended to women, too: The ones who wanted to be dominated or have casual sex or even have sex with men at all were kidding themselves. “Every woman here knows in her gut,” wrote the writer and anti-porn feminist Robin Morgan in 1978, “that the emphasis on genital sexuality, objectification, promiscuity, emotional noninvolvement and coarse invulnerability was the male style and that we, as women, placed greater trust in love, sensuality, humor, tenderness, commitment.”
If male-centered ideas about sex hardly encouraged self-actualization, neither did this new strain of feminism. Its subjective judgments about what women should know in their guts did nothing to acknowledge women’s realities and only added to their internal shame machines.
A group known as pro-sex feminists warned against the dead-end politics of focusing only on sexual violence, which just made women the “moral custodians of male behavior,” as Carole S. Vance put it in her landmark anthology, “Pleasure and Danger.” Besides, the suppression of female desire, they argued, had long been a tool of the patriarchy. “The horrific effect of gender inequality may include not only brute violence,” she wrote, “but the internalized control of women’s impulses, poisoning desire at its very root with self-doubt and anxiety.” Fighting against this control and instead advocating pleasure, intimacy, curiosity and excitement were key to expanding women’s autonomy and their ability to live full lives.
A lot has changed since then. Women’s right to sexual satisfaction is taken as much more of a given; most people are now aware of things like clitorises and vibrators. But extracting what we actually want from a mess of cultural and political influences can still sometimes feel like an impossible challenge.
How did I find myself in a marriage filled with bad sex? I was as equipped as anyone could be to seek out real erotic freedom, and yet I still spent my high school and college years feeling uncertain about how to do so. I idolized Samantha from “Sex and the City,” and I also wished my sex was more meaningful. I wanted sex to be meaningful, but I was also turned off by the whole heterosexual dance in which women demand commitment in exchange for sex and men acquiesce. I was turned off by the dance, and yet I clung to the cultural validation offered to married heterosexual couples, staying way too long at the expense of my own happiness.
When I left my marriage at 32 to pursue my true desires, I wondered whether things like blow jobs and B.D.S.M. were actually my desires or just coping mechanisms in a misogynist society — or if you could even separate those things.
None of this push and pull makes for good slogans. It’s precisely sex’s slippery quality that makes the pursuit of sexual pleasure such a tricky political project. It’s a moving target, often obscured by the clashing expectations of both the patriarchy and feminism. Grappling with our true desires can feel like an epic, often lonely journey. It demands of us to be vulnerable and trusting, even when societal circumstances give us lots of reasons not to be. It can be frustrating and demoralizing: Our culture’s expectations for sex keep getting higher, even as the quality of sex can still be stubbornly low.
So it’s no wonder why it’s often more tempting to remain in a defensive crouch, to narrow down our options and home in on boundaries — which is what’s happening now as part of a sort of sex-positive backlash. Christine Emba, the author of “Rethinking Sex,” has called for raising “the standards for what good sexual encounters look like,” for “better rules” that can safeguard against the malaise that many Gen Z women express. “In our haste to liberate ourselves, we may have left something important behind,” she writes — namely, better norms, a shared sense of what good sex should look like.
I would never advocate ceaseless sex as a default; there’s nothing more joyless than forced sexual exploration. But I do believe that reaching for more sexual freedom, not less — the freedom to have whatever kind of sex we want, including, yes, casual sex and choking sex and porny sex — is still the only way we can hope to solve the problems of our current sexual landscape.
In the wrong circumstances, this freedom can result in coercion; we still live in a misogynist world. And yes, exercising freedom can be exhausting. Particularly for straight people, it requires them to move past the cultural defaults and instead actively reach for authentic happiness. Queer people have often made it part of their politics to think affirmatively and deliberately about their desires. In 1983, the poet Cheryl Clarke listed reasons she’s a lesbian: “because it’s part of my vision,” “because being woman-identified has kept me sane.” What would it look like if we all made our own lists?
What those early feminists understood is that sex had a role to play in helping women to break free from the various stereotypes — prude, slut, girlfriend, wife — that so dismayed them. These ideas about women shape their lives in ways that go beyond the bedroom. And in order to dissolve stereotypes, we need to replace them with a constellation of women’s realities, which includes our sexual desires.
In one of those meetings about sex in the 1970s, Ms. Arnold recalled a cacophony of voices: Some women couldn’t enjoy sex unless they were in love; others resented the lingering expectation of marriage. Some felt sexually rejected by their partners; others felt harangued by them.
“I guess we’re not going to get any conclusions from this session,” one woman remarked. “We’re all saying completely different things.”
“Beautiful!” another replied. “Maybe that’s what liberation really is.”