By Michelle Goldberg, Opinion Columnist of the New York Times. She has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.
In her new book, “The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century,” the philosopher Amia Srinivasan, who is quickly becoming one of the most high-profile feminist thinkers in the English-speaking world, describes teaching Oxford students about second-wave anti-porn activism. She assumes her students, for whom porn is ubiquitous, will “find the anti-porn position prudish and passé.” They do not. Rather, they’re in complete agreement with assertions that could come straight from Andrea Dworkin.
“Could it be that pornography doesn’t merely depict the subordination of women, but actually makes it real? I asked. Yes, they said,” writes Srinivasan. She continues, “Does porn bear responsibility for the objectification of women, for the marginalisation of women, for sexual violence against women? Yes, they said, yes to all of it.”
Porn, the students say, provides the script for their sex lives, one that leaves them insecure and alienated. A man in Srinivasan’s class was unsure if sex that was “loving and mutual” was even possible. The women wondered if there was a connection between the lack of attention to female pleasure in so much porn and the lack of pleasure in their lives. “The warnings of the anti-porn feminists seem to have been belatedly realized: Sex for my students is what porn says it is,” writes Srinivasan.
Sex positivity — the idea that feminism should privilege sexual pleasure and fight sexual repression — has dominated feminism for most of my life. It was a reaction to puritanical trends in feminism that ignored the reality of women’s desires.
Some second-wave feminists had treated heterosexual sex — as well as remotely kinky queer sex — as inherently degrading, if not counterrevolutionary, which naturally drove many women away from feminism. (In a 1972 Village Voice essay, Karen Durbin described dropping out of the women’s movement in part because she was “hopelessly heterosexual.”) Sex-positive feminism understood the demand for celibacy or political lesbianism as a dead end, and saw sexual fulfillment as part of political liberation.
But sex positivity now seems to be fading from fashion among younger people, failing to speak to their longings and frustrations just as anti-porn feminism failed to speak to those of an earlier generation. It’s no longer radical, or even really necessary, to proclaim that women take pleasure in sex. If anything, taking pleasure in sex seems, to some, vaguely obligatory. In a July BuzzFeed News article headlined, “These Gen Z Women Think Sex Positivity Is Overrated,” one 23-year-old woman said, “It feels like we were tricked into exploiting ourselves.”
I started noticing the turn away from sex positivity a few years ago, when I wrote about a revival of interest in Dworkin’s work. Since then, there have been growing signs of young women rebelling against a culture that prizes erotic license over empathy and responsibility. (A similar reorientation is happening in other realms; generational battles over free speech are often about whether freedom should take precedence over sensitivity.)
Post #MeToo, feminists have expanded the types of sex that are considered coercive to include not just assault, but situations in which there are significant power differentials. Others are using new terms for what seem like old proclivities. The word “demisexual” refers to those attracted only to people with whom they share an emotional connection. Before the sexual revolution, of course, many people thought that most women were like this. Now an aversion to casual sex has become a bona fide sexual orientation.
In March, Vox’s Rebecca Jennings reported on the spread of the “Cancel Porn” movement on TikTok. “It’s just one facet of a conservatism, for lack of a better term, that’s proliferating on TikTok from rather unlikely sources,” she wrote. “Young, presumably progressive women (for the most part)” who think that what’s sometimes called “choice feminism” caters to “patriarchy and the male gaze.” Jennings quoted the caption to one video: “Liberal feminism telling young girls that hookup culture is liberating, conditioning them to think that if you don’t have extreme kinks at a young age then they’re boring and vanilla, and encouraging them to get into sex work the minute they turn 18.”
Feminism is supposed to ease some of the dissonance between what women want and what they feel they’re supposed to want. Sex-positive feminism was able to do that for women who felt hemmed in by sexual taboos and pressured to deny their own turn-ons. But today it seems less relevant to women who feel brutalized by the expectation that they’ll be open to anything.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In her 1982 essay “Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution,” Ellen Willis, one of the original sex-positive feminists, decried the way the sexual libertarianism pervasive in the counterculture failed women. She wrote of men who “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.”
Somehow, as sex positivity went mainstream and fused with a culture shaped by pornography, attention to emotion got lost. Sex-positive feminism became a cause of some of the same suffering it was meant to remedy. Perhaps now that the old taboos have fallen, we need new ones. Not against sex, but against callousness and cruelty.