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Why sexual empowerment screws women The only winners from sex-positive porniness are men

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

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


December 30, 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.

https://twitter.com/BradleyCongress/status/1291735105774522368

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.

This article first appeared on 19 August, 2020


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Ashley Gregory
Ashley Gregory
3 years ago

interesting that the woman is left to bring up the kids and hubby goes on to shower gifts on another girl. 50% marriages end up in divorce 70% of divorces are filled by women. 80% of children’s custardy goes straight to the female. the guy then has to continue to pay for ex-wife and child support, dont think hell have a lot left over for showering sparkly baubles on another girl.

James Suarez
James Suarez
3 years ago
Reply to  Ashley Gregory

He wouldn’t have a lot left over, nor would any sane man wish to make the same mistake, but the data on the gender gap for remarriage shows otherwise; with men more likely to get married after a divorce – see pew research data

Gwynneth Coan
Gwynneth Coan
3 years ago
Reply to  James Suarez

Exactly, men seem to be desperate to do it all over again and the women, often, go “er, no thank you”.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Ashley Gregory

Maybe the women are filing for divorce because the man is up to no good. But marriages, that is not really what the above is about.

ralph bell
ralph bell
3 years ago

Given that very few young people have sex anymore and the fact that males are on most metrics struggling massively more in life than females, I feel this is not broad enough essay. I do feel in agreement with many of the points about the male and females intrinsic differences, less often highlighted and the detriment to both genders in decreasing committed relationships. Jordan Peterson is good on this.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

Either women are sexually-empowered human beings with agency, or they are helpless waifs who are perpetually objectified. Pick one.

Meanwhile, ponder how the scene has shifted from the pearl-clutching outrage over “Baby, it’s cold outside” to the embracing of “WAP.”

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Either your comment is world shaking brilliance or bottomless stupidity, pick one.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago

Ah, women are dissatisfied again with whatever change that came about, even tough (alas) it is now acknowledged that they have agency. Still their dissatisfaction with the way sex and relationships currently work remains – and still they react by blaming someone else (the “patriarchy” or some other magical construct). I see no change at all…
At least the article refreshingly acknowledges the asymmetry between male and female sexuality. But it stops short of connecting the dots – that men suffer as much as women for such asymmetry, feel disheartened by it and wonder if reciprocal fulfillment is at all possible, given such vast disparity. Some honest discussion of how to live well with this asymmetry (rather than exploiting it) would help alleviating the present disconnect (MGTOW, MeeToo, etc.), whereas the tired old crutch of blaming the “patriarchy” perpetuates a resentment that makes both men and women downright miserable.

Fabian Destouches
FD
Fabian Destouches
3 years ago

If men were the winners from sex-positive porniness the trends of male suicide rates, drug over doses and virginity rates would look very different.

Eloise Burke
Eloise Burke
3 years ago

We all probably can agree that sex-positive porniness harms male and female alike. We know; we’re informed; we understand. The problem to be tackled is how to enlighten the young.

Gwynneth Coan
Gwynneth Coan
3 years ago
Reply to  Eloise Burke

It’s all too late. The internet is here and they’re all tuned in. Teenagers always know better – I know, I was one.

ralph bell
RB
ralph bell
3 years ago
Reply to  Eloise Burke

Roll back progress and interact face to face in local communities?

Al M
Al M
3 years ago

“because nightclubs are an economy of sex, money and nubile flesh, in which the currency is women”

Hardly surprising if you go to a nightclub themed around, let’s call them ‘niche’, sexual preferences. My own mis-spent youth was played out in the techno and house clubs of the wonderfully decadent 90s. Going out clubbing and the night, from start to finish, was an end in itself.

Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago

Liberals get mugged by reality!

merigates
merigates
3 years ago

Raising teen girls in the 21st century-such a challenge. This writer presents a very mature POV that I appreciate in my old age. I relate to a lot of what she described. In the age of tech., I would also recommend reading this: https://www.amazon.com/RAPE….
By Cyrus Parsa.
Just the first three chapters will introduce the naive to the very daunting landmines awaiting the innocent (parent and child alike).