October 7, 1986
The English poet Philip Larkin wrote wryly:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty three,
Between the end of the Chatterly ban
And the Beatles first LP.
Actually, as far as women are concerned, that’s just about right, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs. Since around 1960, the number of women who have lived, or at least aspired to live, their sexual lives on something approaching their own terms has grown from a daring minority to a respectable majority. This is, by any historical standard, a revolution; and like most revolutions, it’s been hotly contested. Part of the conservative backlash against feminism has been an effort to minimize this achievement, to portray women‘s sexual liberation as a joke or a fai1ure or a danger. Even among some feminists there has been a retreat, or at least a revaluation. Now is the time, Ehrenreich et al. have decided, to speak up for sex — to set down a preliminary record of women’s advance on the principle that “a victory, no matter how partial or unfinished, is worth little until it has been acknowledged.” Re-Making Love is full of fascinating social history and invaluable social criticism. It’s a witty, entertaining, but also urgent book, a reminder that we ‘we’ve come a long way—women and men both-- and an invitation to go all the way, from sexual emancipation to political and economic equality.
The sexual revolution was made possible by America’s postwar prosperity, which had two far-reaching effects: it put vast purchasing power into the hands of adolescents, and it provided jobs and apartments in the cities for single women. The teen culture of the late 50s and early 60s was, as Ehrenreich, Hess, and Jacobs describe it, a bleak, conformist affair, which burdened girls with the obligation both to attract boys and to fend them off. Then cane Beatlemania— the first mass outburst of female libido. The Beatles themselves were not initially sexual reels but there were several subversive aspects to the excitement they generated. For one thing, there was a hint of gender ambiguity about then: the long hair, the high-pitched harmonies, the playful silliness. They could rot have been more different from the inarticulate jocks with crewcuts who were pawing high-school girls at date’s end all across America. Even more important, the Beatles were, in a sense, the creation of their female fans, without whom they would have languished in the obscurity of working-class Liverpool. The very fact that nobody could hear a note of music at their concerts suggests that the crowd was really intoxicated with its own power. That may have been, the authors speculate, the real meaning of Beatlemania: a first, inchoate expression of female power, the opening salvo of the sexual revolution.
In any case, the main battles-- or rather, millions of local skirmishes-- followed soon. In the sexual-advice literature of the 1940s and 50s, male dominance and female passivity were presented as virtually a law of nature. Here’s a typical quote from a classic marriage manual of the period:
"For the male, sex involves an objective act of his doing, but for the female it does not. . . .her role is passive. It is not as easy as rolling off a log for her. It is easier. It is as easy as being the log itself."
These quaint notions ‘were put to rout by a dizzying succession of sexual manifestoes, including Sex and the Single Girl (1962), The Feminine Mystique (1963), Jacqueline Susann’s pulp novel Valley of the Dolls (1966), Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response (1966), and The Sensuous Woman (1969). Behind them all, the authors claim, were the landmark Kinsey Reports, whose emphasis on orgasms taught Americans to think quantitatively about sex. Before Kinsey, what women were supposed to expect from sex was described as “satisfaction” or “fulfillment” — pretty obvious euphemisms designed to disguise the fact that more than 50 per cent of American women rarely or never had orgasms. Kinsey made verbal evasion more difficult. One after another, first in discourse and then in deed, the redoubts of sexual reticence fell: masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, same-sex sex, erotic paraphernalia, sadomasochism, the lush, secret garden of sexual fantasy. Most of the new talking and doing came from women, impatient to disavow immemorial patterns of unsatisfying sex and find out what might be better. The whole glorious quest, sometimes quixotic, sometimes heroic, is chronicled in Re-Making Love.
The quest led into some curious byways. “Desire takes strange paths through a landscape of inequality,” the authors write. They’re well aware-- especially Ehrenreich, who is, for my money, the best critic of American society now writing — that consumer culture can coopt and distort even the distort even the most unruly passions. When radical innovation collides with established power, like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, the results are unpredictable. Who could have predicted suburban Tupperware-style parties featuring edible nighties, fruit-flavored erection and nipple creams, Rub-Her Bands, Lick-Ness Monsters, Orgy Butter, Vice Spice Pills, and Emotion Lotions?
Even more curious is the saga of fundamentalist sex. A chapter of Re-Making Love is devoted to the encounter between the Christian right and the sexual revolution. Surprisingly, it has not been an entirely hostile encounter. Marabel Morgan’s best-selling book The Total Woman with its numerous spinoffs and successors (including some startlingly explicit marriage manuals from fundamentalist ministers), clearly tapped into a reservoir of confusion and anxiety among religious women. The testimony of these women, for whom revolt is unthinkable and continued frustration unbearable, is among the most affecting things in the book.
Ehrenreich, Hess, and Jacobs have a purpose in recounting all this history, apart from its piquancy. “In a society that holds an increasingly punitive work ethic above any ethic of love or compassion,” they write, it’s more important than ever “to assert pleasure-- perhaps especially sexual pleasure-- as a legitimate social goal.” The current conservative attack on sexual freedom is not limited to the obvious targets: abortion, pornography, gay rights, sex education. It’s also directed at welfare programs, day care funding, affirmative action, and comparable worth legislation, and for much the same reason: fear of women’s sexual autonomy. Sexual liberation was one aspect of a more expansive and generous sense of social possibilities; the attempt to roll it back is an integral part of Reaganism: austerity for the many, privilege for the few. The state-sponsored anti-feminist backlash is or proof of the familiar feminist slogan: the personal is political.
Re-Making Love is a short book, and sex is a large subject. Naturally, some questions remain open. In particular, the question that haunts this and every discussion of sex is: what, if anything, does it mean? Is it a sublime drama of isolation and fusion, completion and depletion, self-assertion and self-abandonment? Or is it no more than the most exquisite of sensations? Is sex without romantic or symbolic meaning one-dimensional, exploitative, compulsive? Or conversely, is the need for meaning itself a neurotic compulsion, a symptom of physiological infirmity? Is the separation of sex and love one of the innumerable trivializing effects of consumer culture? Or a liberation
from age-old patriarchal ideology?
Ehrenreich and her colleagues come down squarely, and perhaps a little too quickly, on one side of these questions. It is true, as they point out again and again, that the old romantic rhetoric, which celebrated a specific ideal of complementarity-- male initiative and female response, male heroism and female nurture, male speech and female silence, male strength and female grace-- was three-fourths (nine-tenths?) obfuscation. Constructed of lazy generalizations, and enforced with a compensating ferocity, that ideal has stunted inconceivably many women’s-- and men’s-- lives. The authors are unquestionably right: not that; never again.
But is it true that “sex should have no ultimate meaning other than pleasure, and no great mystery except how to achieve it”? The authors regularly invoke terms like “negotiation,” “trade,” and “work”; and they remark, with apparent approval, that “if there is a single metaphor for the reconstructed heterosexuality of the seventies, it would be a bartering session.” You’d think that Ehrenreich, national co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, would be a bit more wary of commercial language. Sexual equality is, without do a doubt a quantitative matter-- but exclusively so? Besides mystique and marketplace, mightn’t there be some other way to conceive of sex?
I confess I don’t know which seems to me the best possible reason, apart from simple justice, for supporting the women’s movement. Just as, in Hegel ‘s famous master—slave dialectic, the master can never enjoy the certainty of uncoerced allegiance, so, too, we will never be sure what brings male and female bodies together as long as women are, by and large, economically dependent on men. Transcendence, affection, lust, reproductive instinct — these are hard enough to sort out. The added complication of economic insecurity, based on unequal power, distorts our experience beyond understanding.
Only a few pioneer spirits, like Whitman, Rilke, and Lawrence, have begun to imagine sex without power; and even they got no more than a glimpse. Eighty years ago Rilke, too, advocated “re-making love.” His tone and emphasis differed slightly from those of some contemporary feminists, including Ehrenreich, Hess, and Jacobs. Yet only the victory of their movement can bring his extraordinarily beautiful vision to fulfillment:
"The humanity of women, borne its full time in suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she will have stripped off the conventions of mere femininity in the mutations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching today will be surprised and struck by it. Some day ... there will be girls and women whose name will no longer signify merely an opposite of the masculine, but something in itself, something that makes one think, not of any complement and limit, but only of life and existence: the feminine human being."
This advance will (at first much against the will of the outstripped men) change the love-experience which is now full of error, will alter it from the ground, reshape it into a relation that is meant to be of one human being to another, no longer of man to woman. And this more human love (that will fulfill itself, infinitely considerate and gentle, and kind and clear in binding and releasing) will resemble that which we are preparing with struggle and toil, the love that consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.