What’s Left of Sex?

What’s Left of Sex?

by Elaine Rapping

As everyone must surely have been reminded more than once by now, this summer marks the 25th anniversary of Woodstock. The four-day rock concert phenomenon has come to signify the very essence of that nationshaking, if not actually revolutionary, decade “The Sixties” to those too young or unhip to have participated.

The mass media, in its zeal to gobble up and regurgitate in its own image everything in its path, has pretty much insured that Woodstock will stand in our collective memory as the heart ofThe Sixties.

“Drugs, free love and rioting” are what my students believe it was all about; what they envy and resent my generation for having been allowed to enjoy so freely and with (in their view) so few negative consequences. For them, of course, it’s AIDS, recession, “Say No,” and political despair. For us, they believe, it was all days of rage and nights of passion.

And they are largely right. I am not one of those disillusioned and remorseful ex-Sixties types you see on PBS documentaries and network news magazine shows, all paunchy and sour-faced, ready to renounce the era as naive, self-indulgent, and irresponsible. I agree with Thomas Pynchon that those who participated in the movements of the day were singularly blessed. We had the time of our lives because we were involved in exhilarating, cataclysmic social changes that challenged—for now and forever—some of the worst values, traditions, and beliefs of American culture and politics. Misogyny, homophobia, racism, militarism—they still thrive of course—but not in the same homogeneous and unchallenged ways as before.

Nonetheless, as I recall my own countercultural days and nights, and as I look at the sexual landscape in which women today travel, I feel a mixture of nostalgia and despair. For me and my feminist friends, the “sexual revolution” was never about “free love” (whatever that means). It was about sexual freedom and equity for women, which are very different things. We intended to free ourselves of the sexual double standard. Men had all the power, all the choice, all the “good” sexual adjectives and options. Women were forced to play by men’s rules, to deny (or never discover) our own sexual desires and proclivities, to fragment and repress ourselves. And if we failed to accept these rules, we got all the “bad” sexual adjectives and were in danger of losing our “reputations,” our livelihoods, our physical safety, our very lives.

Those are still the things progressive feminists fight for in our political and personal lives. But the going is hard. And as the bombardment of soft core, wet dream, Woodstock imagery makes clear in the area of sexual (as opposed to more general) gender equity, we have not come a very long way at all.

Feminism, for sure, has made its sexual values and demands felt. But the dominant male response has been hardcore resistance, rooted in anger and fear. You see it everywhere you look these days, from Fatal Attraction to Snoop Doggy Dogg to “Mike Tyson will be back!” T-shirts. It’s the Easy Rider, Jim Morrison, “the proper position of women is prone” aspect of Sixties sexual politics that thrives today, not the kinder, gentler feminist version.

If you want more proof and can handle some really depressing male attitude, check out last February’s “special Valentine’s Day issues” of Esquire and GQ, in which women and (hold your breath, now) feminism were boldly featured as the main subject matter. “Ah, women, what do they want? What do they want from us? .. .and why are they so damned angry?” sighed GQ on its cover, which featured Geena Davis in a largely unbuttoned shirt, touting an article called “Geena on Top.”

And it gets worse. Esquire offered a 22-page special supplement on women, headed by a lengthy piece on “The New ‘Do Me’ Feminism.” It also featured a poll in which one-thousand 18 to 25(!) year-old women answered questions like “Are you more sophisticated sexually than your father” and “Who would be sexier to men: Dianne Sawyer or Connie Chung?”

The emphasis on sex in this poll is far from atypical. Along with sports and such celebrity role models as Eastwood and Stallone, sex is what men’s magazines push. And what a retro brand of sex it is. All “wham, bam,” “heh heh,” “that’s cool” juvenility and bravado. “What I wouldn’t give to be a black lesbian with a pierced navel,” comments one writer. And this pretty much typifies the tone and perspective of most of the articles by men which try to figure out what feminism is all about and how to deal with it.

After “lesbian envy” the most common response to feminism seems to be an irritation about any attempt to communicate about sexual relationships. In a critique of the new Antioch College code for sexual behavior (in which verbal permission must be given before sex acts occur), for example, the author expresses exasperation that the code means: “you have to ask my permission to cop a feel.”

Which brings me, with tears in my eyes and fire in my blood, to “The New ‘Do Me’ Feminism,” wherein a wildly mixed bag of prominent women writers—ranging from lesbian-feminists bell hooks and Susie Bright to pseudo-feminists Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia— uniformly declare themselves to be “pro-sex” and “pro-men” to the wild cheers of the editors.

That these women represent political and sexual beliefs which put them in different universes of discourse was conveniently ignored by the editors. They managed to edit the words of the women, and pose and identify them all, in a way which led one to believe that they were indeed talking about the same kinds of issues and ‘writing from the same perspective,” We love men,we love sex, we hate traditional, puritanical, fuddyduddy old feminists.”

Rebecca Walker, a founder of the feminist group Third Wave, is quoted as saying: “Feminism is a tool everyone should have, right next to the dildo.”

The bell hooks quote was the most outrageous. “We need a versatile dick who…can negotiate rough sex on Monday, eating pussy on Tuesday, and cuddling on Wednesday.” This excerpt from her work no doubt fueled the fantasies of a lot of men who would not understand a word hooks said to them if they actually met her.

Next to hooks’ article is one by Katie Roiphe warning (yet again) of the dangers of “rape crisis feminism” and its hysteria over male sexual aggression which, she is here to tell you, doesn’t exist at Princeton. And then there’s Rene Denenfeld, author of The New Victorians: Wiry Young Women are Abandoning Feminism—same reasons, no good sex— followed by Susie Bright, sexily posed and identified as a “sex guru.”

I am not blaming hooks or Bright for the confusion and misogyny of thisjournalistic outrage. They—as we who have read their works understand—are speaking from a feminist perspective which assumes, automatically, that sex and gender issues are socially constructed and negotiated. They are calling for a sexual climate in which women will control their own sexuality and act upon their own desires.

But reading how the editors used and abused their names, words, photos and activism in the slick and lascivious pages made me cringe with frustration and even shame. We are a long way, it seems, from the Utopian days—when it will be possible t o t a l k seriousiy about our sexual desires on male turf and feel safe—much less understood and respected.

Which brings me back to Woodstock and the counterculture and what has been happening to sex and gender relations, not only in popular culture but everywhere, ever since those lush, decontextualized images entered the public domain, and came to symbolize the “Sexual Revolution” of The Sixties. Somehow we have come to a place where feminism has come to mean— in the public understanding—you’re either anti-sex or pro-sex. And the definition of “sex” in this equation makes us losers no matter which side we choose.

The headlines bring this home to us in bloody detail every day. In counterpoint to the raffish Woodstock images, the media run daily reports of atrocities done to women by individual madmen and others, considered sane, who tend to run in packs and get younger every year. The Glen Ridge sexual assault case, in which a retarded woman was brutalized and raped; the Spur Posse case in which high school boys scored points for every sexual encounter— voluntary or forced—with a girl; the swimming pool assaults on young girls by gangs of boys; the astounding figures on sexual harassment within grade schools; all of these and more would seem to be inconceivable in a civilized, much less feminist-influenced, world. Of course, apologists and reactionaries of all stripes will simple blame the “permissiveness” and “moral anarchism” of The Sixties themselves for these incidents, citing media-generated ideas about “free sex” and “godless feminism” to explain the epidemic of misogyny. “They pass out condoms, teach sex education and pregnancy-this, pregnancy-that, but they don’t teach us any rules,” one member of the Spur Posse told Jane Gross of the New York Times.

Nor are these arguments wholly false. Indeed we did, we feminists, demand that women be given access to resources and services which would enable us to live our sexual and reproductive lives “freely” as we saw fit. And that—no matter what the right may insist—was a moral, politically healthy demand. But as the sorry picture I’ve just drawn makes clear, none of these demands has, in fact, led to the feminist sexual heaven we envisioned. And that’s because men—who still control most of the money, media, and resources—refused to hear or take seriously what we were actually saying.

So, Happy Twenty-Fifth Anniversary, Woodstock Nation! I’m going to celebrate not with peace, love, and flower memorabilia, but with much gutsier, angrier, cultural iconography. I’ll be listening to Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville,” and watching Tlielma and Louise. It might seem more appropriate to dig out Joni Mitchell’s optimistic ode to Woodstock, the refrain of which goes, “We are stardust, we are golden.. .and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” But the times, unfortunately, call for less sweet-toned sounds and thoughts.

Elayne Rapping’s latest book is Mediations: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars.

Elayne Rapping’s latest book is Mediations: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars.