Reading “Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution” by Ellen Willis made me feel, for the first time in my life, that another writer understood and had articulated what I want – not just domestically, or politically, but sexually. Like: during actual sex. Other theorists I’ve encountered tend to encourage repression of some sort: either the repression of sexual urges themselves, or the repression of any emotion connected to sex. These ideas were so ingrained that I didn’t even realize I’d internalized them; reading this essay was like when you don’t realize you had a headache until the moment it disappears. I always thought that the prevailing theories about sex smelled a little funny, but I wasn’t sure why, and I felt enormous pressure to accept them. Willis proves that they smelled funny because they are indeed bullshit—and then she poses a resonant alternative.
Ellen Willis starts with the basic assumption that sex is a fundamental human need whose denial causes unnecessary suffering. That assumption should seem obvious to anyone who’s experienced even the puniest sexual urge, and yet it remains controversial. A “restrictive sexual morality inevitably constrains women more than men,” Willis writes, citing the threat of unwanted pregnancy and its attendant social stigma. Even now, right-wing politicians exploit the vulnerability that biological femaleness entails by restricting abortion and Planned Parenthood funding, in the hopes that sex between unmarried people will become so scary that no one will want to do it anymore.
The 1960s and 70s left hardly had a better idea of what sexual liberation could mean for women. The sexual liberation movement that started in the late ‘50s was purportedly about “free love,” but it wasn’t really about what Willis or I would consider “love.” “Male libertarians intensified women’s sexual anxieties by equating repression with the desire for love and commitment, and exalting sex without emotion or attachment as the ideal,” she writes. Sound familiar? In 2011, I still hear my friends navigating the same duality—either pretending they’re all down with casual sex, even when they’re not, or acting sorta chaste, even if they hate it.
Willis’ debunking of fake liberalism came as a relief to me. It reminded me of all the college-educated dudes who sorta skim Dan Savage columns, then flip back to the Asian porn they’ve been watching, and then later spout something about how monogamy is unnatural and they don’t owe anything to the women they fuck, something something something. (I usually stop listening at that point.) That’s not to defend sexual traditionalism as a safeguard for exploitation, or to attack Dan Savage, for that matter . Willis warns against that line of thinking, noting that conservatism “intimidat[es] women into stifling their own impulses toward freedom so as to cling to what little protection the traditional roles still offer.”
Women are constantly bullied about sex in two opposing directions. The right says, “Don’t ever have sex outside of marriage because then you’ll get pregnant, or some weird bullshit will happen to your Fallopian tubes and you won’t even know about it, because Planned Parenthood will be boarded up and full of tumbleweeds.” The fake left says, “My privilege is your obligation. Go on, touch the organ (not my brain) that makes me more likely to hold public office or write a well-received novel—and then I won’t even call you on your birthday, because showing any commitment or emotional attachment after sex is impossibly antiquated.” In this confusing social climate, which persists into the present day, everyone would benefit from a third alternative.
When Willis writes about a “unified erotic impulse”—a convergence of lust, tenderness, and empathy—it feels revelatory. Of course people want to experience some of the happiest moments of their lives in the arms of partners they care about. The idea of having context-free, emotionless sex to quell a biological urge makes it seem oddly medicinal and perfunctory, the genital equivalent of eating an uncooked potato because you’re that hungry.
The most intuitive position, to me, is the attitude that sex should be guiltless and fun. There’s not a lot of social reinforcement for that attitude, however, and most Americans I know—myself included—are all neurotic about sex, what’s expected of them, and how they’ll be judged. There’s a third type of social pressure that I wish Willis had talked about, but as I understand it, the issue is fairly new. It’s basically the idea that the most desirable people are fucking all the time, in every way, with skill and panache—and if you’re not, it’s because there’s something wrong with you. Contemporary feminist Rachel Hills calls this new, media-driven social pressure The Sex Myth.
Most women I know have sex less often than they’d like – this, in spite of all the men loitering at 5 a.m. in bars. Beyond even the physical attraction and emotional connection, sex partners trust each other with their bodies, and that’s where the people I know falter. What someone is willing to do, wants, or needs varies greatly from person to person, and in a repressive sexual culture, we figure all of this out by trial and error, not frank conversation. The women I know might sleep with total strangers, but they’ll only talk about sex with their closest friends. With sex, especially the first time with a new partner, there’s a profound risk of judgment relative to a standard of normalcy that’s impossible to measure.
Women (and men) might find “normal” if we start talk to each other about the physical act of sex—or more realistically, we can determine that normalcy doesn’t exist. I couldn’t tell you if the lack of conversation about human sexuality creates shame and inhibition, or vice versa. What I do know is that Willis deflated the sexual orthodoxies that keep women from asking each other—and themselves—about fulfilling sex. And then she confidently started the dialogue, lobbing her words at a hidden destination called “pleasure.”