Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion in the WAP video. Credit: YouTube

August 19, 2020   6 mins

For a stretch of my misspent youth in the 00s, I was a regular visitor at a fetish club near London Bridge. The club’s owners always let me — and women like me — in free, because nightclubs are an economy of sex, money and nubile flesh, in which the currency is women.

I got to play-act at being ‘empowered’ and ‘in control’, while the male visitors to the club enjoyed being theatrically humiliated. But in all other respects, the establishment followed the age-old pattern: men with money to spend, keen to surround themselves with young female bodies.

I was reminded of that ignoble episode watching the brouhaha over Cardi B’s song WAP, whose explicit lyrics and trippy, porny video have upset conservatives and spawned a flurry of culture-war argument.

The DJ remix of Ben Shapiro reading the lyrics is, in my view, far better than the original, which tells you how middle-aged and jaded I am these days. But while it’s easy to mock Shapiro, it was the pop-feminist defences of the song that rang hollow to me — not least in the light of my own London Bridge memories of the ambiguous relationship between sex, empowerment and perky boobs.

Clickbait doesn’t get more pop-feminist than Teen Vogue, where “Senior identities editor”, Brittney McNamara, argued that Shapiro et al are frightened of female sexuality. This view has its roots in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when women began to push back against ideas of ‘modesty’ and passivity in favour of a more active and casual idea of female desire. This aspiration is encapsulated by Erica Jong’s phrase ‘zipless fuck’, coined in her 1973 novel Fear of Flying:

“The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not ‘taking’ and the woman is not ‘giving’. No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn.”

Jong’s novel struck a chord with those countless women stuck in sexually unfulfilling marriages. Many sought to kick over the traces of monogamy in favour of affairs, sexual agency and the bodily autonomy which became a cornerstone of second-wave women’s liberation.

The zipless fuck has come a long way since Jong. Largely sidelining the body of thought devoted to specifically female sexuality by feminists since the Sixties, the mainstream view that’s emerged today sees men and women as broadly similar, sexually speaking, with the only difference being patriarchal oppression.

Men have historically oppressed women, we’re told, forcing us to wear baggy garments and get married so men can be sure whose baby we’re gestating. But once freed of economic dependence, the risk of pregnancy, and Ben Shapiro, women will all want nothing more than to empower themselves by donning pleather skimpies and gyrating for the cameras.

Off-camera, and aided by hookup apps such as Tinder, today casual no-strings sex is a social norm for young people of both sexes. But is it really the case that the zipless fuck (or ultra-tight wipe-clean undies) is really what women want? In 1972, a year before Erica Jong popularised the term, the biologist Robert Trivers was investigating the cross-cultural asymmetry in male and female interest in in zipless fucks.

That is, the evidence shows that across cultures, men are considerably keener on no-strings hook-ups than women. Trivers’ ‘Parental investment theory’ argued that this is not a patriarchal imposition. Rather, it has an evolutionary basis: across many species, the parent which spends the most time rearing young will be most picky about when to reproduce and with whom to do so. And indeed, study after study shows that women are fussier shaggers than men (not just among humans but animals too) – and that this difference persists even in highly egalitarian societies.

It makes sense. Contraception is a recent invention, while human preferences have been evolving for millennia. If sex leads to pregnancy — but only for women — and pregnancy leads to at least a decade of child-care commitments, then damn right you’ll prefer to do the nasty with someone who has resources and shows a willingness to stick around. Even if we can now, in theory, have consequence-free sex, evolved preferences aren’t going to disappear overnight.

Sex egalitarians, though, have ignored this possibility. Rather, we’re encouraged to dismiss quaint notions such as wanting marriage or long-term commitment from a man who wants to get into your pants as a hangover of patriarchy.

After all, now that women can control our fertility, there’s no longer any need to constrain our sexuality, right? So even if it is evolution rather than patriarchal conditioning that leads women to want a relationship as well as a shag, we aren’t mindless animals. We have agency. So modern women can sack pesky evolution off along with patriarchy, in favour of Tinder hook-ups and twerking in paddling pools.

But just because we want something in theory, doesn’t mean we end up enjoying it in practice. Studies show that intimacy is the best predictor of sexual satisfaction — and women in particular tend to prefer sex that’s connected, intimate and relational.

By accepting a supposedly egalitarian approach to sex, women are suppressing a common, evolved desire for a more emotionally connected sexuality. It’s making many of them miserable. Worse still, in downplaying the possibility that female sexuality differs profoundly from the male sort, we do women a still deeper disservice than encouraging them to have empty and disappointing sex. Because in pretending male and female desire is symmetrical, when it manifestly is not, we’re obscuring another asymmetry — the one that got me free entry to fetish clubs in my early twenties.

We can pretend men and women objectify each other’s bodies in similar ways. But it’s well established that male arousal works differently from the female sort, and men are far more visually stimulated than women. Men are also consistently interested (again for evolutionary reasons) in women at peak fertility. Put simply, that means men are much more motivated to gain visual and sexual access to hot young women than vice versa. No one (at least not in heterosexual settings) is granting free nightclub entry to buff 22-year-old males.

As my 22-year-old self can attest, this grants young women a measure of power. For a while, at least, men seem mesmerised by you, and today’s ‘empowered’ version of female sexuality sees this as a legitimate source of female leverage. As Cardi B puts it: ‘Ask for a car while you ride that dick’.

The reductio ad absurdam of this dynamic is the growing trend among teenage girls for posting alluring shots on Instagram until they’re 18, then shifting their followers to OnlyFans (think Patreon for user-generated porn) the moment they’re ‘legal’, where their simps send them money for nudes.

Here we see what the official narrative of sex egalitarianism wants to brush under the carpet. The young women self-objectifying via OnlyFans don’t seem to stop and wonder why, if we’re all the same, there isn’t an equally voracious market for buff young men stripping to please rich middle-aged women.

The truth, though, is that sex can’t be egalitarian — at least not in the sense of men and women having the same desires and priorities. We’re evolved animals; nothing is more central to that evolution than sex and reproduction; and the different reproductive roles of male and female humans leave us with different priorities. That doesn’t mean we have no agency, but ignoring our animal nature in favour of an abstract vision of egalitarianism has ended up disproportionately harming women.

Teen Vogue nearly gets there when McNamara briefly considers the possibility that lyrics glorifying aggressive, brutal and abusive sex might just possibly be calibrated more for a male audience. But rather than following that thought through, she retreats hurriedly to the safe haven of Emma Watsonesque ‘choice’ feminism, in which (as The Onion put it) women are now empowered by literally everything a woman does. “Whether or not “WAP” is a product of the male gaze,” McNamara simpers, “what’s important is that it made Cardi and Megan feel empowered.”

A cynic might wonder if it’s also important that teenage girls could watch that video and think this is how they are expected to behave in order to retain a boyfriend’s affection. Fully 40% of UK teenage girls today experience sexual coercion in relationships, a fact that correlates strongly with rising youth consumption of sexually explicit content. Even painful and risky anal sex is now normalised, along with the expectation that girls will not enjoy it.

A sexual revolution that set out to free women from unfair expectations of modesty hasn’t levelled the playing field between the sexes at all. Instead, it’s rolled out an aggressive, visual, low-intimacy, emotionally disconnected male-standard sexuality for everyone, including women — to our considerable detriment. In doing so, it’s stripped women of any vocabulary with which to pursue their own erotic interests, in the form of long-term sexual and also emotional commitment.

The pitiful trade-off women are offered for sacrificing female-centred sexuality is the opportunity to exploit their youthful beauty in pursuit of money or power. But what (predominantly young) ‘sex positive’ feminists seem to ignore is how short-lived this form of power is.

In a relationship based on mutual affection and respect, other bonds sustain a couple beyond youth, and love and desire can both persist. But where a couple has rejected intimacy in favour of a transactional relationship based on mutual exploitation for sex and power, once a trading partner loses leverage the deal is off. There are no prizes for guessing who it is who generally loses leverage first in this ‘economy’. For a middle-aged woman left with the kids, as her beauty fades and her formerly adoring partner moves on to showering someone younger and perkier with gifts, what then does empowerment look like?

The twerkers, girl-powerers and Teen Vogue sex-pozzies have nothing. Framing this bait-and-switch as feminist is a profound betrayal of women’s interests.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.