The Fight to Decouple Sex From Marriage

Sixty years ago, Helen Gurley Brown’s best-selling book promised women sexual freedom. Today, it reads like an omen.

Collage of a woman’s face in pleasure and a scribbled-out photo of a 1950s housewife
Mel Haasch

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In 1991, as the Supreme Court hearings of Clarence Thomas were turning sexual-harassment allegations into television, Helen Gurley Brown, the editor and muse of Cosmopolitan magazine, was asked whether any of her staffers had been harassed. “I certainly hope so!” she replied.

The sentiment would not have come as a surprise to readers of the book that had, roughly three decades earlier, shot Brown to fame and infamy. Sex and the Single Girl, first published in 1962, is part memoir and part advice manual, offering tips about careers, fashion, beauty, diet, hobbies, self-care, travel, home decorating, and, yes, dating. The book—like its author, both ahead of its time and deeply of it—often reads as resolutely backward. But it is best remembered, today, for one of the arguments it put forward: Sex, as Brown summed it up in her introduction to the book’s 2003 reissue, “is enjoyed by single women who participate not to please a man as may have been the case in olden times but to please themselves.”

Sixty years ago, that was a radical proposition. That it remains an argument at all helps explain why Brown’s book, progress and backlash in one tidy text, continues to resonate. The Supreme Court, very soon, will likely strike down Roe v. Wadea final, fatal slash following the thousand cuts made by state legislatures across the country. Some lawmakers, delivering on their desire to make America 1950 again, are weighing measures to criminalize contraception itself. These grim developments threaten to return sex to what it was for so long, for so many: a pleasure that becomes, all too easily, a punishment. They also bring gravity to a new anthology that reconsiders Brown’s complicated classic. Sex and the Single Woman, out this week, features 24 essays that take on, among many other timely topics, consent and polyamory and interracial dating and in vitro fertilization and sex as an activity and sex as an identity. The pieces are testaments to the hard-won freedoms of the sexual revolution that Brown both stirred and stymied. But they also read as elegies. They suggest all that is lost when sex is ceded to the state. They warn of what can happen when “the personal is political,” that elemental insight, is remade into a threat.

When Sex and the Single Girl was first published, the pill had had FDA approval for only two years. Lucille Ball and Ricky Ricardo, married in life as on I Love Lucy, had spent several seasons retiring to separate beds to avoid any suggestion of sexual intimacy. (The show’s bashfulness was undiminished by Ball’s very evident onscreen pregnancy.) In that context—language veiled, pearls clutched, truths that affected everyone considered tasteful topics for no one—a book that refused to traffic in euphemism was a form of mutiny. Brown’s manual brought a winking literalism to the adage that “sex sells”: It was a commercial hit, and a cultural phenomenon. Just two years after its first publication, it was given one of the highest honors American entertainment knows how to give: It was made into a movie.

Brown’s book did not simply say sex out loud. It also talked about it, and about the women who had it outside of marriage. At its best, it is casually humane. “What is a sexy woman?” Brown asks. “Very simple. She is a woman who enjoys sex.”

With declarations like that, the book “paved the way,” the editors Eliza Smith and Haley Swanson write in the introduction to their new anthology, “for narratives like Murphy Brown, Living Single, and Sex and the City”: stories that considered women’s sexual liberation in the context of their social and professional lives. Sex and the Single Girl is cheeky and occasionally charming, its tone conversational, its sections full of learn-from-my-mistakes bits of wisdom and whimsical denigrations of the status quo (“Piffle poofle to that!”). Before Brown was an author, she was a copywriter—“a polarizing mix of Mad Men’s Peggy and Joan,” one obituary called her, upon her death in 2012—and the book reflects that background. Sex and the Single Girl, like any good ad, manufactures desires in the guise of fulfilling them. It is a book-length brochure for a life that is free of marriage’s compromises and confinements. Brown, in it, is a brand ambassador for singlehood.

Sex and the Single Girl focuses on, and arguably helped foment, the phase of life that would come to be known as “emerging adulthood”: the interstitial period that separated the years people spent in youth and the years they’d spend in marriage. Brown’s innovation was to consider the women who were scouting the uncharted acreage between Miss and Mrs.—the demographic that was, rather than moving directly from the parents’ home to a husband’s, forging a domain of its own. Assuming that its “single girl” is not likely a wealthy girl, the book offers a flurry of tips about budgeting money, and saving it. (Need to stay in an apartment? Negotiate its rent. Need to fill its bland walls? Call airlines and ask them for promotional posters: They’ll be happy for the free publicity, and you’ll be happy for the free decor.) It offers advice about asking for a raise. At several points, its author endorses—another small radicalism—the benefits of psychotherapy.

Brown’s book debuted a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came along to argue that housewives, far from living the American dream, were living lives of tidy desperation. Both books took aim at marriage. Both spoke to a moment in which women’s options were so stridently assumed—the wedding, the kids, the making of homes, the keeping of them—that, for many, they ceased to be options at all. Before “family values” was partisan ideology, it was simply an inevitability. It implicated everyone. Sex might have had its pleasures, the logic went, but more important, it had its purpose—and that purpose was to make babies, and thereby make families, and thereby make a nation. Sex was social infrastructure. It ordered people, in every sense of the word. It was everyone’s business, even when it wasn’t.

Sex and the Single Girl rebels against all of that. In a culture that conflated sex and motherhood—each scripted as a gift given to others—Brown claimed to celebrate women’s sexuality on its own terms. That claim itself puts her book in loose conversation with feminist works of the era, among them Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, and Anne Koedt’s The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm—the 1970 essay that introduced many people to the functions of the clitoris. Brown’s manual mocks one of the foundational myths of a patriarchal order: that women are sex’s passive recipients. It refuses to entertain mythologies that take men’s sexuality for granted and take women’s sexuality away. Brown’s insistence that sex is enjoyed by single women “to please themselves”—this was one battle in a wide-ranging war.

But Brown fought for only some women. Sex and the Single Girl, written and published in the same decade that saw the March on Washington and the codification of the Civil Rights Act, ignores race as a dimension of women’s identity: It assumes its readers’ whiteness. It edits away all other modes of womanhood. The book, similarly, makes no space at all for sexual expression that is not zealously focused on men. (Brown, in the introduction to its 2003 reissue, tersely allows that lesbians exist, and then changes the subject.) And even among the women it does directly speak to—straight, white, financially comfortable enough to consider an empty wall to be a problem—the book’s talk of liberation often amounts to concession. Brown’s manual announced itself as a Samantha. In truth, it was a Charlotte.

The book’s original title was Sex for the Single Girl; that the final draft excised the crucial preposition is a clue to its pulled punches. “To be desired sexually, in my opinion, is about the best thing there is,” Brown said in a 1996 interview. Notice that sex itself is not the thing she is praising; being desired is. The book reflects that bias. In it, Brown mentions friends occasionally; she mentions family rarely; she mentions her husband, David—a handsome and wealthy Hollywood producer whom she snared, she writes, at the age of 37—all the time. Hers is a men-centric world. Brown chastises women who socialize at bars without man-snagging as their goal (“better they should be at home doing their double-chin exercises”). She touts the benefits, and the pleasures, of physical activity, but adds, “Men like sports; can you afford not to?” At one point: “If you adore your job, men or no men, stay.” At another: “It seems obvious to me that if you aren’t meeting any men through your job, you are in the wrong job.”

Brown’s blunt copy is false advertising. After a while, the carefree singlehood that she claims to be selling begins to look like drudgery. Spared of housework and care work, the women Brown imagines toil instead at the labor of sexual conquest. “If you would like the good single life—since the married life is not just now forthcoming,” she writes, “you can’t afford to leave any facet of you unpolished.” And she means it. Marriage, in this book about singleness, is merely replaced by a patriarchal arrangement of a different kind: women serving not their husbands but instead men more generally—men who will provide them the compliment, and the complement, of sexual attention.

Scholars and critics, over the years, have debated whether Brown should be considered a feminist. She herself claimed to be a “devout” one; a fuller answer might be had, though, in the fact that her advice to women guides them into deference. Men, in her book, are the subject and the object, the syntax and the punctuation—the omega but, more important, the alpha. Brown’s celebration of single women carries a two-word dedication: “To David.”

This is one of the elements of Sex and the Single Girl that gives it its new sobriety. Men as active, women as passive; men deciding, women accommodating: That was Brown’s cosmology. And soon, even more people will likely be forced into its physics. When men and women have sex that ends in a pregnancy, it will be the women who bear the burdens. When men rape women, it will be women who bear the consequences. Feminists fought for sex to be casual—not in the sense that it doesn’t mean anything, but in the sense that it should not mean everything. The world we are facing is one that is losing that fight. And it is the world that Helen Gurley Brown foresaw, precisely because of her limited vision: Men will do what they do. Everyone else will adjust accordingly.

One of the most powerful essays in the anthology Sex and the Single Woman resists that gravitational pull. “When a Man Isn’t a Man,” from the author Samantha Allen, considers one of the original book’s most odious moments: a passage advising readers on how they might interact with gay men. “How do you tell when a man isn’t a man?” Brown asks, and it may be the most wince-worthy line in a book that is full of them. From there, she explains how her “girls” might identify the gay men in their midst so that they might steer clear of them as romantic prospects and avoid investing in bonds with no return. (Though gay men do make, Brown allows, wonderful friends.)

Allen, a trans woman, does the kind of reading that befits a book like Sex and the Single Girl: She finds wisdom even in its regressions. She uses Brown’s treatment of queerness to consider how American society, 60 years later, still polices sex, sexuality, and gender identity. She describes her own feeling, earlier in life, that she had somehow betrayed straight women simply by being who she was: a man who wasn’t a man. Allen understood, because people like Brown repeated it so often, that “there weren’t enough quality straight men in the world to go around.” In a teeming dating economy fueled by purchases, exchanges, and returns, Allen was not the product that she was expected, and assumed, to be. She liked women; she was not a man. And yet she spent years seeing herself as an embodied market demand: “I owed it to women,” she writes, of the alleged shortage of men, “to at least try to be one of the good ones.”

Allen’s story, for now, has a happy ending. “​​My present is simple,” she writes: “I’m a woman married to a woman who’s attracted to women—a beautiful, parsimonious alignment of body and desire.” But she was one of the many people who, in a country that touts “the pursuit of happiness,” struggled to find that communion. Sex, wielded as a default organizing principle, can become its own form of oppression. “I might have failed the women who couldn’t tell right away that I wasn’t a man,” Allen writes, “but they were failed, too—we all were—by a discourse that told us sex and relationships were the essential project of early life, that we couldn’t imagine happiness that didn’t center around them.”

Brown is a bard of that discourse. And the glib contradictions of her book—her habit of promising freedoms in one sentence and revoking them in the next—read, ever more, as an omen. The looming fall of Roe v. Wade might well signal a threat to LGBTQ rights in general, and to same-sex marriage in particular. American states, still, are writing homophobia into their legal code. Politicians and pundits are expressing old bigotries through blatant slogans (“Don’t Say Gay”) and insidious lies. Some lawmakers are attempting to deny the rights—and, with them, the very existence—of trans people. Late last week, Texas’s Supreme Court decided that the state, contra a lower-court ruling, can investigate gender-affirming care for trans kids as child abuse.

Those developments are the result not just of incuriosity so extreme that it becomes cruelty but also of something more specific: the conviction that sex is not something to be discovered but something to be obeyed. Sexual expression, in this bleak vision, is imposed—by the Bible, by nature, by other people—and plays out as a series of shoulds. It should be heterosexual. It should be confined to marriage. It should result in children. It should give leeway to men; it should bind women. Any failure to abide by those standards should be legislated, and therefore punished, by the state.

The revolution that sought to free people from those confines never ended; in some sense it barely began. And now it might move in reverse, forced backward by those who fear others’ freedoms. Sex and the Single Girl understood the regressions because, in its roundabout way, it lived them out. It claimed to liberate women; it counseled them to live in thrall to men. It claimed to celebrate women’s pleasure; its primary concern was that women be pleasurable to other people. “The fact is, if you’re not a sex object, that’s when you have to worry,” Brown once said. In that sense, and that sense alone, today’s women have nothing to fear.