The Convenient Lie of 'Sexual Empowerment'

The Convenient Lie of 'Sexual Empowerment'

This is an adapted excerpt from Tracy Clark-Flory’s Want Me: A Sex Writer’s Journey into the Heart of Desire, a memoir about coming of age under the illusion of sexual freedom.

I was sitting on a weathered wooden bench next to Brian (“or was it Ryan?!?” I later wrote in my journal). We were sharing a bottle of rum that he’d stolen from a convenience store of a mega hotel with a thundering waterfall in its lobby. I was a high school sophomore on a Hawaiian vacation with my parents—and I’d been invited by some boys to a party on the beach. Brian and I swigged while staring out at the white sand, where a dozen or so other kids similarly swigged. Nearby, a girl around my age wearing a strappy tank top and short shorts was yelling while falling into some bushes of beach cabbage. The thick mass of waxy green leaves and bursting white flowers cushioned her tiny body before she bounced right back and then promptly fell again.

Her words were slurred by booze and muted by the falls, but I got the impression she was yelling at me. In response, Brian said, loud enough for all to hear: “Don’t pay attention to her. That’s just Trashy Ashley.” I wasn’t even sure of Brian’s name in that moment, but all these years later, I still remember “Trashy Ashley” with the crystal clarity of the neighboring pool.

Then I was throwing up into the beach cabbage. Brian, I later wrote in my journal, “was so sweet about it.” He told me I’d feel better once it was “out of my system” and walked me to a beach chair where we proceeded to make-out. “That shit was SO amazing (underlined),” I wrote of this post-vomit tongue-wrestling, my first real kiss. Then he suggested we try one of the cabanas by the pool, which had privacy curtains that could be closed completely. I’d just had my first kiss, but now came in quick succession: first fingering, first hand job, first blow job, first cunnilingus. Then, at his suggestion: first “titty fucking” and first “69.”

All the while, I kept a vigilant eye on the curtains of the cabana, knowing that any of the nearby partiers could easily peek in, noting that the rum was making the edges of my vision blur, and understanding that “bad things” could happen to girls in moments like this. Brian suggested sex and I gave a firm “no.” About this, I felt “really good,” I later wrote, obviously proud at standing up for myself. Now, this makes me wonder whether there were other acts to which I might have liked to have said “no,” and if I even knew the answer at the time.

In my journal, I concluded the Hawaii scene by writing, “He comes, yada yada yada.” Yada yada yada. As though I’d ever done that before, as though it were already old hat. I was emphatic about my own enjoyment, though: “It was fun, & I’ll be smiling & happy for the next week, non-stop (underlined),” I wrote. “It was like an AMAZING (underlined) in-my-dreams fantasy come to life.” I went on to volunteer, “I don’t feel demeaned or degraded or stupid or anything (underlined). He wasn’t taking advantage of me, I did exactly what I wanted & got exactly what I wanted, same w/him.”

It was a lot of underlined text.

A few years ago, I returned to this long-ago journal entry after a deep-dive into contemporary feminist research that mapped the shifting sexual landscape for young women. My teenage voice read just like the subjects of those papers analyzing narratives around young women’s sexual agency: the emphatic denial of victimhood, the claims of being in control, and the emphasis of getting exactly what I wanted. These were part of neoliberal feminist narratives that emerged in the nineties, alongside shouts of “girl power.”

Those narratives emphasized young women’s potential for empowerment through individual choice and striving. The scholar Laina Bay-Cheng suggests that this emerging ideology created a new metric by which young women’s sexual behaviors were judged. There wasn’t just the virgin-slut dichotomy anymore, but also the dictate of sexual agency. This contemporary scholarship hit me as an energizing revelation in its nuance and compassion.

If neoliberal narratives around sexual agency emerged in the nineties, the 2000s were when a manifestation of this phenomenon was given a popular moniker, with Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. The book took aim at a moment in which women were “making sex objects of other women—and of themselves” amid the “frat party of pop culture.” I flinched whenever passing the book’s hot-pink cover in my college bookstore. It wasn’t that I intellectually disagreed with the general assessment; it just felt at times that Levy was arguing against a caricature, like the one-dimensional mud flap girl leaning against the title on the book’s cover.

I often silenced my desire for greater pleasure, while grasping for that narrative of control and self-interest

Her book presaged an era of worry about the choices privileged young women were making around things like having casual sex, watching pornography, and taking strip aerobics classes. As manifested in the media, the young woman of concern was often specifically white, middle- to upper-class, and heterosexual. The very concept of the “girl gone wild” implies a progression—a passage from “good” to “bad.” Historically, women of color have been portrayed through racist stereotypes as inherently wild; Black women, in particular, assigned by default to the category of “bad” girl, as the professor Patricia Hill Collins has explained. The same is true of queer women. To be granted any movement within that dichotomy—to raucously reject the constraints of “goodness” through participation in “raunch culture”—was a privilege, although it was rarely talked about that way.

Soon after Levy’s book, a critique of hookup culture exploded with the publication of Laura Sessions Stepp’s 2007 Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both. It was an extensive journalistic project that raised reasonable questions about the impact of a changing sexual norms on young women, but it also was prone to stunningly old-fashioned declarations, like “having sex with lots of men might limit [one’s] ability to sustain a long-term commitment.” That isn’t to mention such bromides as “Admit it, the bar scene is a guy thing” and “Guys will do anything for homemade baked goods.”

In my early 20s, I pushed back against these kinds of critique, finding many of them sexist, retrograde, and, in the case of Female Chauvinist Pigs, stigmatizing of sex work. I still do. By the time my 30s were in sight, though, I was feeling stifled by the reigning scripts around heterosexual dating and sex. I often silenced my desire for greater pleasure, intimacy, or commitment, while grasping for that narrative of control and self-interest. I started to feel like I was pantomiming empowerment. The growing weight of my own experience underscored a thread of truth in these critiques: The sexual revolution ushered in new freedoms, and new pressures, alongside enduring constraints.

Recent feminist scholarship makes clear that the strictures of the traditional sexual double standard, holding men as studs and women as sluts, have loosened over the last several decades, leading to a greater range of acceptable, but also mandated, sexual behavior. At the same time, the virgin-slut split has morphed into an ambiguous continuum with “prude” at its center. Bay-Cheng argues that today young women face that additional, intersecting line of sexual judgment: agency.

Girls, she writes, “are now also evaluated according to the degree of control they proclaim, or are perceived, to exert over their sexual behavior.” That judgment is leveled “by specific individuals, in the rhetoric of popular media,” and “from the broader perspective of the generalized other.” She argues that the appearance of autonomy and self-interest—assessments deeply influenced by biases around race and class—can guard against the enduring insult of “slut.” Researchers have found that the insult of “slut” now has less to do with being sexually active and more to do with being sexually out of control. “The contempt at the crux of contemporary slut-shaming, then, may have less to do with a girl’s adherence to gendered sexual morals than her lack of neoliberal agency,” writes Bay-Cheng.

In this sense, enthusing over a hookup, and overlooking its nuances and ambiguities, is arguably a form of self-protection for some young women—namely white, cis, middle- to upper-class, heterosexual ones. This new standard of “agency” results from individualized and neoliberal notions of empowerment, which naturally impact “the lives of people who are already living and cast to the margins” by undermining social support.

The improvement of women’s sexual experiences has now been detached from imperatives of social justice and collective struggle. Instead, empowerment is cast as a personal problem, which places pressure on individuals to successfully navigate systemic disadvantages. In other words: If you are not emotionally and romantically fulfilled, erotically unencumbered, and awash with pleasure, well, hmm. What’s wrong with you? This mentality trades the shared work of social justice, and the acknowledgment of oppression, for “personal responsibility,” in which the only limitations are ostensibly your own.

Avoiding sexual judgment is all about impression management, which is “not simply a matter of individual skill,” argues Bay-Cheng, as “some girls are bolstered or shielded by race and class privilege,” while others “must ceaselessly work against racist and classist stereotypes of hypersexuality and irresponsibility.” The availability of images of young women seeming to boldly go after their own sexual interests may create the impression of freedom, but feminist scholars writing on the subject over the last couple decades suggest that “the normative burden on girls has only increased in load and complexity,” as Bay-Cheng puts it. The appearance of sexual freedom is one of those normative burdens.

Of course, if the concept of sexual agency has been misappropriated by neoliberalism, the question becomes: Can it be rescued? Some feminist scholars—including Deborah Tolman, who has written extensively about adolescent girls and sexuality—have argued that it can be saved in part by returning to a definition “predicated on girls’ development of sexual subjectivity”—in other words, a “sense of oneself as a sexual being, as well as making decisions or simply acting in ways that included or considered one’s own embodied sexual feelings.”

That doesn’t mean the circumstance

Such an approach hinges on the understanding that girls’ sexual feelings take place within the strictures of our current social and cultural reality, which can “make their expression dangerous, difficult or even impossible for girls themselves to discern,” as Tolman and her co-authors put it. This version of sexual agency doesn’t deny the reality of systemic oppression, but sits within it, complex and sometimes ambiguous.

We can wish better for young women—a world that values their desire, subjecthood, and pleasure—but that doesn’t mean the circumstances for that “better” are here now. Sexual violence is pervasive, the state of sex education is abysmal, reproductive rights are under attack, and yawning pleasure disparities persist in heterosexual sex. The choices young women are able to make about their sexual and romantic lives are also deeply impacted by non-sexual factors, Bay-Cheng tells me, like stable access to housing and transportation. This is the enduring legacy of a stalled revolution, which liberated women to have sex in a world still mired in sexism and power imbalances.

Moving away from neoliberal notions of sexual agency means that we “stop trying to market, measure, or observe it,” Bay-Cheng told me during a recent interview. “A much more fruitful reversal of perspective is to look at the environments in which people exercise agencies,” she says. “Instead of looking at girls, we could maybe take their position and scan the worlds in which they live.” The question then becomes: What can a girl or woman do? “You cannot possibly fix in a systemic way the constraints on agency by trying to change individuals,” says Bay-Cheng. “That is not the source of the problem.” She advocates for “a more thorough analysis of how contextual factors, including non-sexual ones, shape young women’s sexual choices and lives.” This is a seemingly subtle but revolutionary shift from focusing on girls’ and women’s choices to the circumstances within which they make choices.

As though these women should be better navigators of their own oppression

Women’s options are fundamentally constrained; their choices are not free. Until we change the context, young women will struggle to make sense of a world full of punishing contradiction, misdirection, and impossibility. They will find whatever compromises and solutions work for them. Too often, those who have safely reached the shores of adulthood look behind and blame young women for the choppy waters they now sail across, as though these women should be better navigators of their own oppression. They shake their heads and cluck their tongues. This disapproval implicitly demands that girls try to enact the fantasy of a finished revolution. It asks them, as does so much of our culture, to perform.

A couple years ago, I found myself on a beach some thirty miles north of that mega hotel that I’d visited as a 15-year-old in denim cutoffs. I recalled the part of the story that I wanted to forget. Soon after getting together with my high school boyfriend, I’d accidentally left the journal in his car, where his friends promptly discovered it and began reading aloud from my much earlier Hawaii entry: cabana, 69, titty fucking, “he comes, yada yada yada.” Afterward, my boyfriend called me on the phone, voice vibrating with outrage. He said: “I didn’t think you were that kind of girl.”

I understood that being “that kind of girl” would mean losing him. So I said: “I didn’t want to do all of those things, it didn’t happen like I wrote it, you don’t understand, I only made it seem like I liked it, I felt pressured, it was really intense, I was just trying to get through it, I wanted to get away.”

I stopped writing in the journal after that, and I stopped trusting which story was true. Both versions were refracted through what I felt these boys wanted of me. I was fifteen years old and already losing my own perspective. All these years later, I have gotten it back: I was a girl living in a world where women’s desire is narrowed to being desired, and where physical and reputational danger lurk behind every sexual encounter. I was a girl living in a world that had granted women new liberties alongside new burdens and existing limitations.

Both stories were true; both stories were a lie.

From WANT ME by Tracy Clark-Flory, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Tracy Clark-Flory.

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