Almost exactly a year ago, the writer Katherine Dee, who blogs about internet culture and trend forecasting, predicted what she called a “coming wave of sex negativity.” Sex positivity, she suggested, had created new stigmas, including around discussing the harms of sex work and self-commodification. “People do not want to be atomized,” she wrote, adding, “Nobody wants this dystopia.”
Not everything Dee foresaw — like a shift toward earlier childbearing among the upper middle class — has come to pass, at least so far. But she nailed an emerging movement, one that now has a manifesto in “Rethinking Sex: A Provocation” by the Washington Post columnist Christine Emba, which I found bold and compelling even when I disagreed with it. Emba’s argument is that sexual liberation, as currently conceived, has made people, and especially women, miserable. It’s created, ironically, new strictures and secret shames, at least in certain elite milieus, around “catching feelings,” hating casual sex and having vanilla sexual tastes.
One anecdote from the book illustrates the perversity, so to speak, of the current moment. Emba describes meeting a woman at a Washington party who tells her about the man she’s been dating. In most ways, he’s great. “But he chokes me during sex?” the woman confides. She’d consented, but she didn’t like it. She was so unsure about whether her feelings were reasonable that she turned to Emba, a stranger, for advice. “The taboo on questioning someone else’s sexual preference was that strong,” writes Emba. Her book is aimed, in part, at breaking that taboo.
Emba is a heterodox thinker, and it’s hard to situate her book ideologically. As she writes in the introduction, she was raised evangelical, converted to Catholicism in college and spent her early adulthood planning to save sex for marriage before eventually letting go of abstinence. Her worldview, she writes, has “ping-ponged a bit, from purity culture to a rebellion against it to something in between.”
“Rethinking Sex” speaks the language of both radical feminism and traditional Christian ethics; it quotes Ellen Willis and Thomas Aquinas, Andrea Dworkin and Roger Scruton. Emba critiques sex positivity, at least in its popular form, as submission to patriarchal capitalistic values, but there’s also a strong streak of conservatism in her work. Among her chapter titles are “Our Sex Lives Aren’t Private” and “Some Desires Are Worse Than Others.”
It would be easy enough to pick out the passages where Emba’s judgementalism gets the better of her, where she fails to exercise the empathy she later holds up as a crucial value. “Sure, the double standard around sex is shrinking, but in many of the situations we’ve held up as enlightened — the casual, the kinky, the polyamorous and ‘experimental’ — the actual practice of sex seems less pleasant than it did before, when there was at least a little held back,” she writes. An editor might have asked: Before when? And for whom? Sure, the pressure toward libertinism can feel coercive, particularly for those who want conventional romance. But in the not-so-recent past, the pressure on sexual nonconformists was even more oppressive.
I’m more interested, though, in what Emba gets right, which is that modern heterosexual dating culture appears to be an emotional meat grinder whose miseries and degradations can’t be solved by ever more elaborate rituals of consent. Now, I write this as an outsider, having married young. But the stories I hear from many of my friends match those Emba tells, and there’s plenty of empirical data about growing romantic loneliness and alienation. Fewer adults have live-in partners than in recent decades, and young people, despite their apparent panoply of options, are having less sex. “In different ways, both genders have lost confidence in their ability to be together — they no longer know how to do it correctly, or if it’s even possible,” Emba writes.
As a step toward a solution, she proposes replacing a transactional approach to sex with an ethic of what Aquinas called “willing the good of the other,” or determining to act in one’s partners’ best interests. This sounds nice in theory, but often, heterosexual women are too willing to act in what they believe to be their partner’s best interests, rather than their own. The woman who confides to Emba about choking surely thinks she’s doing something good for her partner by indulging him.
The problem — and I doubt Emba would disagree with this — is that many women are still embarrassed by their own desires, particularly when they are emotional, rather than physical. She writes that sex positivity “champions the primacy of appetite — our wants are above reproach and worthy of fulfillment, no matter what.” Her book, however, is full of examples of people suppressing their longings. She interviews many women who seem to feel entitled to one-night stands, but not to kindness. What passes for sex positivity is a culture of masochism disguised as hedonism. It’s what you get when you liberate sex without liberating women.
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