On a macro-level, maybe not so much.
An interesting account comes courtesy of Sally Quinn, a woman who started at Smith College in 1959. Quinn recalls a time when sex was never talked about, and something she and her friends weren’t even sure anyone they knew actually did. Quinn tells Lisa Miller at New York Magazine as part of their “Sex Issue”:
“Making out” was permissible but also unmentionable. A girl might be attracted to a boy, and even aroused during making out, but she could never appear to want sexual contact; it had to just “happen” — and even then, it was necessary to protest at each new stage. “No” definitely did not mean “no.” I did some petting that I would characterize as “heavy,” but I never went so far that anyone would get the impression that it was okay to go all the way.
Quinn goes on to recount a few close calls, including a time when she was forced to stay in a date’s dorm room after was too drunk to drive her home (he stayed in the next room). It was the “most dangerous” thing she’d ever done, because getting caught would’ve meant expulsion.
Quinn didn’t drink, and she didn’t have sex until she was 23 on a trip abroad. Quinn tells Miller:
I followed the advice an older friend had given me: “For your first time, you should elect a person you want to be with, someone you genuinely care about, who is really attractive, and attracted to you, and who loves you, but who you are not in love with.”
That all sounds very quaint and repressed, but compare this with an email I received from a reader who had also just lost her virginity at 23. She said:
It wasn’t bad necessarily. I initiated it, we used protection, and he was nice and respectful. But, I think I should have been clearer to myself about what my intentions were going into it, because I can’t help but feel disappointed he hasn’t contacted me since. I keep wondering what’s wrong with me that this guy I really like doesn’t like me back. I keep thinking I’m not smart, or pretty, of good enough for him, which makes me think I’m not good enough for anyone else either. Also, I wonder if I would have felt differently if I orgasmed too, or been more assertive about what I wanted, because as you stated so perfectly, “woman are taught to repress their disappointment in mediocre/bad sex.” I know it takes time and practice to learn about your body and what works for you during sex, but I’m not sure I really want to have sex again if I feel this way now. I’m also pissed that I’m the one dealing with this flood of emotions, and wish he could understand how it feels.
Ironically, even though today’s woman has the language and freedom to pursue and discuss her own pleasure that her 23-year-old counterpoint might not have dreamed of 50 years ago, that pleasure still, in many cases, eludes her. Of course, Quinn doesn’t tell us in her account of cherry popping whether her encounter ended badly for her or not, or what sorts of thoughts, feelings, regrets, or longings she had after the fact, but the point of her story is clear: Is sex any less fraught?
As we recently discussed, casual sex has reached a strange plateau for women. “Sex-positive” feminism has helped many women embrace their own lust, pursue sex more often, engage in casual hookups, and choose sex purely for pleasure without shame in doing so. And yet, many women are writing about the distinct lack of pleasure in the experience, whether it’s “pussy affluenza”—soft boners and lazy lovers—or the fact that the female orgasm is still so elusive, leaving many wondering what the point of casual sex is if they aren’t even getting off.
Rebecca Traister also dug in deeper on the issue in a related piece for New York, examining the fact that modern feminism, in painting the concept of sex positivity with such broad strokes, has inadvertently left an important factor out of the discussion—quality:
Young feminists have adopted an exuberant, raunchy, confident, righteously unapologetic, slut-walking ideology that sees sex — as long as it’s consensual — as an expression of feminist liberation. The result is a neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex positivity. Which means a vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish — has gone largely uninterrogated, leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.
Attitudes have changed, but not so much as to allow women to be forthright in pursuit of their own specific, explicit pleasure. So where does this leave us?
The issue of bad sex is obviously not a brand new problem. Men in their twenties have always been utter gargoyles in the sack—you’d get more warmth and responsiveness from a handheld mixer. I must point out here, again, that I attended college in the 1990s, when sex was just as shitty (barring a very few notable exceptions, of course, who should be paid handsomely to tour colleges teaching other men how to be attentive lovers).
But, as Traister notes, that’s not just the sexual ineptitude of youth. The game is rigged because its still inordinately centered on male pleasure, which is idiotically simple compared to the kaleidoscope that is lady lust. Women may choose freely to engage in this disappointingly one-dimensional sex, but they still must show up to this lame party with a disproportionate amount of enthusiasm and prep-work, something largely drawn off pornographic notions of pleasure and performance. And this, she reminds us, is the sex that “is supposed to be women’s feminist reward.”
Of course, it could be worse. Traister puts it in perspective:
Having humiliating sex with a man who treats you terribly at a frat party is bad but not inherently worse than being publicly shunned for having had sex with him, or being unable to obtain an abortion after getting pregnant by him, or being doomed to have disappointing sex with him for the next 50 years. But it’s still bad in ways that are worth talking about.
But how do we get this conversation going? When we are still fighting for sex education, clear consent, abortion access, and against harassment and rape culture, it’s not easy to wedge in the idea right there that women really really really do need to come, too. (Worth noting is that sex gets better as you get older because at some point you are both more confident and too old to pretend things that suck are good.)
It’s still so difficult to talk about female pleasure as an equally essential goal of sex—it requires women asserting it, but equally crucial is men thinking of sex as a worthwhile exercise in getting someone other than themselves off. Of being curious enough to want to solve the puzzle, and not too fragile to give up when it’s not as obvious and automatic as their own pleasure.
But it’s never as simple as a woman saying put your hand here, your tongue here, go clockwise, stop, now reverse—it’s a universal acceptance that sexual pleasure is not just one set of coordinates. Maybe in another 50 years, this will start to sink in.
Image via USA/Grease.