Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, by Christine Emba, Sentinel, 224 pages, $27
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, by Amia Srinivasan, Farar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pages, $28
The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession, by Kelsy Burke, Bloomsbury Publishing, 352 pages, $29.99
Lost Americans understand today that sex without consent is a no-go, both morally and legally. Sex without consent is rape.
But consent should be the floor, not the ceiling, for ethical sexual encounters, suggests Washington Post columnist Christine Emba in Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. “Things don’t have to be criminal to be profoundly bad,” she writes.
Consent is a “baseline norm,” but consent alone doesn’t make sex “ethical, or fair, or equally healthy for both participants,” argues Emba. Indeed, there are “many situations in which a partner might consent to sex—affirmatively, even enthusiastically—but having said sex would still be ethically wrong.”
Emba’s vision of good sexual stewardship would involve everyone having less sex with fewer people and caring about those partners more. “In general,” she declares, “willing the good of the other is most often realized in restraint—in inaction, rather than action.”
As it stands, Emba adds, “there is something unmistakably off in the way we’ve been going about sex and dating.” To back up that claim, she offers statements from a number of young and youngish ladies, in addition to drawing on her own experiences with dating as a millennial raised as an evangelical Christian.
Echoes of Emba’s qualms can be heard everywhere these days. Critics spanning the political spectrum, including feminists like University of Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan, seem worried about modern sexual mores. Compared to prior laments from social conservatives and feminists, today’s debate is less focused on purity and patriarchy. It is more concerned with women’s satisfaction and happiness. Yet despite that focus, the conversation too often fails to treat women as individuals with widely varying values, tastes, and preferences.
The complaints Emba and her subjects have about modern romance vary in their particulars. But they coalesce around a common theme: discontent about sexual encounters with men. These men don’t care about their partner’s pleasure. They try things during sex—such as choking—that these women do not want. They pressure these women into sex. Or they don’t call afterward. Or they call only for hookups. Or they call for a while but ghost suddenly. Or they string women along with relationships that are OK but will not lead to marriage or kids.
Such complaints have been staples of sexual critique since sexual liberation started becoming a core American value. Promiscuity. Casual sex. Hookup culture. The labels assigned to the problem have shifted over time, as have the diagnoses of its origin. Feminism, porn, dating apps—all have taken some blame.
And not without reason. There’s no doubt that at least some feminists fought for women’s right to “have sex like men.” There’s no doubt that the internet and smartphone apps have made it much easier to hook up with larger numbers of people. And while pornography’s effect on off-screen sex is more debatable, there’s no doubt porn has become more ubiquitous and less taboo.
The net effect has been bad for women, argues Emba, whose book’s second chapter is titled “We’re Liberated, and We’re Miserable.” Women assume more risk in sexual encounters and reap fewer rewards, she says. They feel sex is expected when they date, and they often comply not out of authentic desire but because they think it is what’s normal or because saying yes is less hassle than saying no. Or they do it because they want someone to like them. They hope it will lead to relationships, but it often doesn’t (and meanwhile, their “biological clocks” are ticking). And even when they do want sex, they don’t want it like this—with the dirty talk, or kinky moves, or failure to provide emotional as well as physical fulfillment. They want more care in sexual encounters.
Yet “the broader culture,” Emba complains, would have us believe most men and women are happy with the “sexually liberated status quo.” She implicates the usual villains: Hugh Hefner, Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the City. But for the references to apps like Tinder, this book could have been written decades ago. Indeed, much of it was written decades ago, in books like Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005), which railed against “raunch culture” and women’s objectification (often at their own hands). The fear undergirding all of these jeremiads is that previous generations’ sexual revolution has forced today’s young women into a world for which they’re not equipped. These authors aren’t the moralistic scolds of yore, insisting that all premarital sex is bad or that only bad women like sex. They just want women’s sexual and romantic choices to make them happy.
Critiques of this sort, including Rethinking Sex, turn on trotting out stereotypes about men and women while setting up a dubious binary between good sex and bad sex. “Good sex” is gentle and respectful, and it generally happens within the confines of relationships; “bad sex” is cold, casual, and commitment-free, leaving emotionally scarred women clutching their barren wombs. But it is not impossible for sex to be both casual and caring, or for even brief and uncommitted encounters to be beautiful and life-affirming. Nor will abstaining from uncommitted sex guarantee a path to romantic and familial bliss. These are possibilities Emba doesn’t really grapple with.
In fact, Emba does not have much respect for individualism in sexual preferences. Rethinking Sex gives the impression that, among women at least, the dissatisfaction it describes is basically universal. The book also gives the impression that it is mostly young women who are unfulfilled by modern dating culture, without taking into account the perspectives of young men.
I can’t say just how common it is for men to be more relationship-seeking than hookup-oriented, nor how often men really want to please sexual partners but are confused about how to do so. Nor can I attest to the prevalence of women who are not looking for serious attachments, or how many would hate it if sex were all rose petals and deep looks in each other’s eyes. But I do know—from a few decades of talking with male and female friends, and from my own experiences—that these things are common enough not to be dismissible anomalies.
Undoubtedly, some (many?) women would like sex to be more caring. Undoubtedly, some (many?) women feel unable to set sexual boundaries, or repeatedly have sex that leaves them feeling bad. But the fact that Emba talked with a couple dozen women who have had such experiences tells us little about what women want writ large. Nor would it be more illuminating to interview a couple dozen women who said the opposite.
What women want, in my experience, is to be treated like individuals, not sexual cogs. (The same goes for men.) But for this to happen, we should probably stop acting like there is one correct standard for good sex. Because good sex—that is, sex that’s physically and ethically satisfying—will look different to different people.
So how can any two people possibly figure out if their ideas of good sex are compatible? It would go a long way to be more open and communicative about our desires, and to not consent to sex we don’t really want to have. Stop blaming the culture, or sexual freedom, or porn, or TV, or Tinder. Start encouraging honesty and agency.
Emba rightly rejects the idea that we “call on the coercive power of the state to address all the problems of sex.” But she still wants to reshape sexual norms in a way that moves past “what we’re allowed to do” (i.e., have sex as long as consent is given) “and toward what would be good.” And what would be good, in her vision, excludes a good deal of activity that people consensually engage in, such as BDSM. A “craving to dominate,” she writes, “is generally less healthy than a desire to express affection.” Again, she sets up a binary between good sex, which is affectionate and should be socially encouraged, and bad sex, which is a bit kinky and should not. But any kinkster could tell you that rough sex doesn’t preclude affection, and that plenty of BDSM sexual relationships take place between loving individuals.
Although Emba tries to pass off her prescriptions as common sense, they rely on misunderstandings about a lot of people’s sex lives and a bias toward conservative sexual mores. No one should be having BDSM sex if he or she doesn’t want to. But there’s no evidence that those who enjoy it are less psychologically healthy than those whose tastes are more vanilla, or that a little role-playing in bed leads to harmful attitudes outside of it.
Yes, there should be more to sexual ethics than consent. Treating sexual partners with honesty and respect—”willing the good” for them, in Emba’s parlance—is certainly important. But a version of the good that relies on changing other people and making everyone conform to one’s personal preferences will always fail. The way to ensure that your love life and sexual experiences align with your values is to take responsibility for them and accept your own agency. It’s on you to communicate, to say yes, to say no. If you want to rethink sex, that’s on you too. You can’t force folks to come with you.
Expecting others to change their sexual choices to fit our own sexual preferences is entitlement logic. When certain communities do this, it gets condemned—as it should.
Take incels, a mostly male group of the self-labeled “involuntarily celibate,” who are prone to bashing women and modern culture because they can’t get laid. Incel communities are rife with suggestions that women are stupid and selfish, choosing “high value” men who treat them poorly while ignoring perfectly viable mates out of superficial concerns. Underlying all of this is the idea that incels are owed sex—and not just any sex, but sex with the type of women they desire.
Emba calls incels “not exactly a sympathetic bunch” and suggests that “their difficulty in connecting with the opposite sex has turned into a personality-warping obsession.” This may be true, but it seems odd coming directly after a section in which straight and bisexual women talk about hating men and swearing off relationships with them. Emba portrays these women as reacting reasonably to the conditions they face. But a more impartial observer might suggest that they have also let a difficulty connecting with the opposite sex warp their personalities.
Incel resentments drove Elliot Rodger to murder six people and wound many others in the 2014 Isla Vista massacre, and they have surfaced in several other mass shootings as well. Srinivasan details some of these incidents in The Right To Sex, a collection of essays about sexual desire and politics.
These men’s conviction that women owe them sex is obviously a distorted way of thinking. But it’s also not so different from some feminist ideas, Srinivasan suggests. Many feminists have long claimed that people are unfairly sexually marginalized because of their body size, their gender presentation, or some other superficial characteristic. Activists of various stripes ask people to reevaluate their desires all the time, guided by the belief that (as Srinivasan summarizes it) “what is ugliest about our social realities—racism, classism, ableism, heteronormativity—shapes whom we do and do not desire and love, and who does and does not desire and love us.”
How do we “dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obliged to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question often answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion?” Srinivasan asks. There is no right to sex, but might there be “a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires”?
In taking this tension seriously, The Right To Sex showcases Srinivasan’s admirable tendency toward nuance. In writing about porn, consent, sex work, sexual entitlement, and more, she is willing to take readers in one direction and then, just when you think you know where she is going, abruptly pivot, allowing us to consider the terrain from a number of different views.
A chapter on sexual assault and misconduct dismisses up front the idea that false rape accusations are common. But then Srinivasan delves into the outsize effect that such charges have on racial minorities and asks “whether the notion of due process—and perhaps too the presumption of innocence—should apply to social media and public accusations.”
Like Emba, Srinivasan grapples with how porn influences sexual proclivities in ways that may not be awesome for women. But after giving voice—not unsympathetically—to famous anti-porn feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon, Srinivasan goes on to question the idea that “what young people need is better and more diverse representations of sex.” That prescription, she says, “leaves in place the logic of the screen, according to which sex must be mediated; and the imagination is limited to imitation, riffing on what it has already observed.” She suggests that real sex education “wouldn’t assert its authority to tell the truth about sex, but rather remind young people that the authority on what sex is, and could become, lies with them.”
Like Emba, Srinivasan stresses that she does not want to get the state more involved in changing sexual norms. She writes at length about the negative influence of carceral feminism, which sees the criminal justice system as the proper locus for effecting social change, and she dissects some feminists’ support for criminalizing prostitution.
“There isn’t much reason to think that throwing sex workers and their clients in jail will eventually lead to the end of sex work,” Srinivasan writes. “There is, though, every reason to think that decriminalization makes life better for the women who sell sex. From this perspective, to choose criminalization is to choose the certain immiseration of actual women as a putative means to the notional liberation of all women. It is a choice that again reveals, deep in the logic of anti-prostitution feminists, an investment in symbolic politics.”
That isn’t a new debate. Sex work has divided feminists for decades, a fact the University of Nebraska–Lincoln sociologist Kelsy Burke demonstates clearly in The Pornography Wars. The book examines America’s crusades to banish pornography, from Anthony Comstock’s mail-based anti-obscenity laws in the late 1800s to today’s battles over internet porn.
It’s a great overview, more informative than polemical. And it has a fresh angle: Rather than portray porn performers, producers, and pro-sex feminists as polar opposites of the people crusading against pornography, Burke suggests “this dividing line of anti- or pro-porn is a false dichotomy.” Indeed, she reports that “no one I interviewed or observed believed that either the complete elimination of pornography or complete sexual freedom was a feasible or even a desirable goal.”
One point of agreement: “Everyone involved in the porn debate agrees that parents should not let teachers, peers, TV shows, or other adults be the only ones to shape what their children learn about sex.” And they often agree that free porn is a problem, although their solutions differ. (Quit watching, says one side. Pay for porn, says the other.) And they “share concerns over the safety, autonomy, and consent of those within the industry” (although their suggested responses again diverge).
Another area of overlap: Advocates on both sides want women (and men) to enjoy sex and have healthy sex lives. Burke quotes both Christian conservatives and progressive feminists dedicated to helping people have better sex. They all speak of women (married, unmarried, liberal, conservative, young, old) having bad sex lives—a range of unsatisfied women far more diverse than Emba’s.
All these observers agree, like Emba and Srinivasan, that “sex matters far beyond the private sphere in which it most often occurs.” America’s battles over pornography reflect the conviction that “sexual desires, experiences, and identities are connected to broader social systems, including capitalism, the law and criminal justice, the media, and beyond,” Burke writes. “The pornography wars are never about pornography alone.” Underlying all of this is a belief on both sides that sexuality is important and that, properly channeled, it can be “a path to freedom and authenticity.”
Anti-porn feminists, Burke argues, fall short in purporting to know “what authentic sexuality for women should look like” for all people. But she agrees with them that “we all experience sex with society at our side.”
Srinivasan asks, “What would it take for sex to really be free?” We could start by acknowledging the multiplicity of factors that determine what women (or men) want when it comes to sex. Our desires are, at least in part, socially constructed, political, and mutable. But they are also unpredictable, sometimes unknowable, and highly individualistic—a point that no serious attempt to diagnose people’s sexual discontent can ignore.