How Should Feminists Have Sex Now?

A new memoir on the unfinished sexual revolution explores the difficulty of enacting one’s political beliefs in intimate spaces.

Magazine images of women interspersed with black and white photos of feminists in the early 1980s
FPG / Getty; Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

When the activist and writer Ellen Willis published “Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution” in 1982, the preposition in her title underscored an uncomfortable truth: The sexual revolution had come and (mostly) gone and left women largely unsatisfied. On the one hand, the ’60s and ’70s had ushered in real, tangible gains. Contraception and abortion had been legalized; the stigmas surrounding casual and extramarital sex had lessened. For women, there weren’t as many punishments for daring to have sex as there had been before. Still, the rewards hadn’t entirely materialized, either. Willis is chiefly remembered today for defining the concept of pro-sex feminism, refusing to condemn pornography—as many feminists did—and espousing the radical idea that “sexual love in its most passionate sense is as basic to happiness as food is to life.” But the new “liberated” sexuality, Willis noted in the early ’80s, was “often depressingly shallow, exploitative, and joyless.” True sexual liberation, she argued, would involve “not only the abolition of restrictions, but the positive presence of social and psychological conditions that foster satisfying sexual relations. And from that standpoint, this culture is still deeply repressive.”

Willis published that essay almost exactly 40 years ago, and it’s hard to argue that either the sex or the culture is functioning much better than it was then. Sex has certainly been destigmatized, even wholly atomized into the mass culture around us. (Pornhub gets billions of visits a month; Netflix has a whole slate of sex-themed programming, including the sweetly raunchy teen comedy Sex Education and the attention-seeking home-renovation series How to Build a Sex Room.) The overturning of Roe v. Wade, though, has imposed unforgiving consequences for many people who become pregnant, and well-intentioned sex positivity seems, on its own, inadequate in addressing a modern epidemic of shallow, exploitative, and joyless sex. In her 2021 book, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, the Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan observes how her students, reared in a world of ubiquitous online gangbangs and sexualized violence, are innately drawn to the anti-porn ideologies of the 1970s radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon instead of the ideas championed by Willis and her sex-positive peers.

In the new book Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution, the writer Nona Willis Aronowitz details her own pursuit of sexual utopia, and her attempts to answer two questions: “What, exactly, do I want? And are my sexual and romantic desires even possible amid the horrors and bribes of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy?” Aronowitz is, quite literally, Willis’s heir: She’s her only child, and the editor of a superlative 2014 collection of her work, The Essential Ellen Willis. And yet, Aronowitz confesses, Willis offered little in the way of personal guidance to her daughter when it came to sex, preferring to honor her privacy and let her figure things out for herself. This disclosure fascinated me, because it seemed to embody some of the fundamental tensions in our sexual climate, wherein each generation condemns the next to live and love within social and moral structures that they didn’t choose and can’t always control. What happened to sex in the 21st century, Aronowitz’s own story makes clear, was informed by long-standing failures to reconcile all of the forces—physiological, psychological, historical, cultural, evolutionary—that sex embodies. With such a dismal legacy, how do we even try to make bad sex better?

Aronowitz is a year younger than me; we both came of age in the late ’90s and early ’00s, when sex was being culturally refashioned—much as it was during the ’70s—into a thrillingly cool and casual pastime, where you could amass your own erotic escapades like baseball cards and trade them with friends over brunch. What felt like the goal for us then wasn’t pleasure or intimacy so much as accumulation and adventure—joining the ranks of the bold and uninhibited. “Set your spirit free,” the Spice Girls sang in 1996’s “2 Become 1,” a joyfully literal ode to (protected) sexual intimacy that, at 13, I couldn’t listen to when my mom was around without blushing. “It’s the only way to be.” Two years later, Carrie Bradshaw embarked on a mission to “have sex like a man,” without the emotional squishiness of feelings or expectation (or, you could argue, hope). Aronowitz writes in Bad Sex that she was “probably” thinking of Sex and the City’s Samantha when she started having “genuinely good” sex at 15 with someone who “wasn’t exactly” her boyfriend. “I think people are wrong when they say that sex and love HAVE to be together,” she wrote in her diary at the time, although, looking back, she recalls that “like many teen girls, I wanted more attention and affection than this guy was willing to give.” (This contradiction—the one that might lead a teenager to evangelize the virtues of casual sex, even as she secretly wants something else—feels like it merits closer scrutiny than it gets.)

Part memoir, part history of pioneering feminist figures, Bad Sex is an attempt to make sense of feminism’s failure to, as the singer Self Esteem puts it, prioritize pleasure. Aronowitz begins the book in 2016, a year of turmoil and frustration for many American women amid the presidential election of a self-confessed groper, and the year when she decided to leave her husband because “our bad sex, our weak connection, was depressing the hell out of me.” Arguably, there were other forces at work too: The pair got married young in an attempt to offset $7,000 in medical bills by adding one to the other’s insurance; they appeared to have differing levels of success in their careers; one wanted to live in New York, and the other hated the city. But their sex life, for Aronowitz, finally became untenable when she realized that it was fundamentally at odds with her self-perception. “This was me,” she writes, “who had a reputation among my friends for being candid, dishy, horny, and emotionally indulgent. Me, who had thought and written about sexual politics for years. Me, who grew up with a radical feminist mother who never settled for an unsatisfying relationship and had taught me, through her writing, to value passion and intellectual chemistry.”

Aronowitz is exceedingly well-read, and her book is stuffed with wisdom gleaned from her elders. She cites Audre Lorde, whose essay “Uses of the Erotic” was a bellwether and clarion call for the ways in which erotic power could set women free; she delves into the archives of obscure early advocates for female independence and free love. These historical sections are unfailingly illuminating; it’s Aronowitz’s analysis of her own life and desires that can feel more indeterminate. What I struggled to get past, reading her book, was how much sex seems to embody, for her, a political stance even more than a form of intimate exploration. So much of Aronowitz’s anxiety throughout Bad Sex seems to stem from how she thinks she’s being seen, whether by individual partners or by the world at large or even by herself. “If I wasn’t the woman who had lots of sex, who even was I?” she thinks in one moment. She experiments with queerness not because she’s particularly curious about her inclinations, but because she wants “to beef up my own self-image as an intrepid woman whose sexual repertoire was vast.” Besides orgasms, she writes, the things that appeal to her about sex are the incidentals: “the closeness and the chemical cocktail, the skin touch and the admiration, the thrill of pursuit, the playground of power dynamics.”

This impulse is, I’d argue, not abnormal for women of our generation, older Millennials who came of age during a moment—the first truly online era and thus the first truly exposed—when the performance of pleasure often felt more crucial than pleasure itself. How else do you explain the phenomenon of Girls Gone Wild, in which students on spring break drunkenly pawed at each other on camera for kudos? Or the sex-tape culture of the early aughts, which seemed to embody a desire to emulate professional sex (even if, ideally, only for an intimate audience) rather than enjoy it like amateurs? In one section, Aronowitz notes that her persona during this decade was a “woman who boldly and fearlessly fucks while rejecting cheesy romance”; it isn’t until almost 175 pages later that she casually notes that she also didn’t have an orgasm with an “actual human” until she was 22. It’s hard not to want more exploration of how an extroverted sex life, as the Washington Post opinion writer Christine Emba argues in her new book, Rethinking Sex, has become “a sign and symbol of health and—especially for women—a political statement signifying personal power and our liberation as a class, gender, or generation.” But, somehow, we let the thoughtful and charged sex positivity espoused by Ellen Willis and her peers curdle into the practice of sex as conspicuous, often unsatisfying, consumption.

Bad Sex isn’t that curious about the ways in which cultural forces—the TV shows we devoured, the celebrities we emulated, the social landscape around us—might have shaped not just our behavior, but also our desires. It’s much more interested in political forces. “Reconciling personal desire with political conviction,” Aronowitz writes, “is, frankly, a tall order.” And yet, that’s also her quixotic objective throughout. “What supposedly class-conscious leftist,” she thinks, when she’s deciding whether to leave her marriage, clings to the “privilege” of the institution “at the expense of her own happiness?” She’s intent on avoiding monogamy for what seem to be abstract ideological reasons. Her mother’s work and legacy appear to deeply inform her efforts, but at some point, they also start to feel like a trap: The world has simply changed too much for the idealism of Willis’s generation to be applicable anymore. When Willis wrote about the original Woodstock for The New Yorker in 1969, she observed that “the most exhilarating intoxicants were the warmth and fellow-feeling that allowed us to abandon our chronic defenses against other people.” When the festival was restaged 30 years later, it descended into an explosion of rage, misogyny, nihilism, and sexual violence. And this, not peace and love, was the environment into which Millennials were coming of age.

Politics can be rigidly ideological in a way that relationships can’t; circumstances and people are too unpredictable for manifestos to neatly apply. Willis knew this. “We can embrace marriage, hoping to transcend its contradictions, or reject it, hoping to find something better,” she wrote in her 1979 essay “The Family: Love It or Leave It.” “Either way, we are likely to be disappointed.” Sex-positive feminists could see even in the late ’60s that the sexual revolution was failing women by adhering to misogynistic standards: “Men,” Willis would note a few years later, “were demanding that women have sex on their terms, unmindful of the possible consequences, and without reference to our own feelings and needs.” She and her peers couldn’t have anticipated that those same standards, enabled by technology, would still be governing how women have sex in the 21st century. Similarly, the generation that advocated for consent culture to protect women (and men) couldn’t have foreseen how crudely and unsatisfyingly that culture would develop.

Either way, the generational tides appear to be changing. A number of writers and academics have observed something of a “sexual counterrevolution” happening online—a Gen Z–led backlash against the unfettered sex positivity of the Millennial era. Both Emba’s Rethinking Sex and Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again try to envision models for sex that don’t rely on consent, as a rubric, being enough. The simple idea of care, Emba says, might be a way to acknowledge and respect the humanity of the people we have sex with, without sacrificing personal freedom. And desire, she argues, in a direct attack on conventional sex-positive wisdom, “shouldn’t be exempt from critique” by default, particularly when it’s hateful or dehumanizing. If the past 50 years have proven anything, it’s that things that happen in private will always have public ramifications that ripple out into the world.

But what I also thought about, reading Willis in 2022, was how much the sexual revolution was enabled by a moment in history that encouraged experimentation, rule-breaking, transgression. “Freedom is inherently risky,” she writes in 1989’s “Coming Down Again: After the Age of Excess,” “which is the reason for rules and limits in the first place; the paradox of the ’60s generation is that we felt secure enough, economically and sexually, to reject security.” How do we think about sex now, staring down what feels like the end of the world, particularly when we see the same old modes of punishment and shame recurring? (Free love? In this economy?) Maybe we accept that desire, as the writer Irin Carmon theorizes in an introduction to some of Willis’s work, comes “with a responsibility for justice.” Maybe the most constructive way to think about sex is to think less about the individual experience we seek out for ourselves and more about the collective mores we’ll pass down whether we want to or not—acknowledging, as Aronowitz does, that sex, the most personal act of all, has always been and will always be political.

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