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Posts Tagged ‘uncharted territory’

Everyone else seems to be. They’re talking about women and sex and “Girls” and sex and feminism and sex and HBO and sex and the sexual revolution as failure and the sexual revolution as success.

It feels a little weird to be writing this, honestly, being that it’s 2012 and all. But with whom and where and how and how often women are doing it remains a hot topic. As it should. Sex, after all, is hot. And our sex lives are as integral to who we are as our professional lives — and collectively, every bit as much of a barometer as to what’s going on with women as salary surveys and graduation rates and polls about who’s doing the housework.

Of course, as is generally the case in discussions about women, women and our changing place in the world, and/or women and sex, there lurks just the faintest whiff of  judgment. In a piece entitled “The Bleaker Sex” in Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Bruni takes to the Opinion pages with his thoughts on Lena Dunham’s upcoming HBO series “Girls”:

The first time you see Lena Dunham’s character having sex in the new HBO series “Girls,” her back is to her boyfriend, who seems to regard her as an inconveniently loquacious halfway point between partner and prop, and her concern is whether she’s correctly following instructions…

You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of “Girls” engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What’s happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess…

In a recent interview, presented in more detail on my Times blog, she told me that various cultural cues exhort her and her female peers to approach sex in an ostensibly ‘empowered’ way that she couldn’t quite manage. “I heard so many of my friends saying, ‘Why can’t I have sex and feel nothing?’ It was amazing: that this was the new goal.”

First, not so fast, Bruni: while salaries may be better and Congress less choked, the numbers are still far from impressive. While clearly we have made progress on those fronts, I challenge anyone to make the case the work’s been done, equality achieved. The numbers certainly indicate otherwise, as we’ve pointed out from time to time.

Now to the sex: While yes, I’ll give you that sexual scenes painted in this and other previews of “Girls” (I haven’t seen it; the show premieres on April 15) do indeed indicate a bit of a muddle, if not a mess, I don’t see that as problematic. On the contrary: I’d argue said muddle makes perfect sense. And I’ll raise you one: I think said muddle is an apt metaphor for what women are going through in every realm.

Women today are raised on empowering messages: from the time we’re little, we’re told girls can do anything boys can do. (As we should be.) We come of age in the relatively safe, comfortable confines of school, believing in this message and in its natural conclusion–that feminism‘s work if over, its battles won. So too do we believe in the natural conclusion of that other message–that “girls can do anything boys can do” also means that we should do things the way they do.

And then, buoyed by the beliefs that feminism is old news and that men and women are not only equal but basically the same, we smack up against the realities of the real world: the judgments, the biases, the roles that don’t fit, the obstacles to changing them. The inequities. The shoulds. And we think there must be something wrong with us–that we’re alone in the muddle. When the reality is that the world still has not caught up to the messaging we’re fed, nor does the messaging necessarily have it right. Women are wandering uncharted territory. And, without a map, everything looks a muddle. We’re feeling our way through.

As Hanna Rosin wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal,

The lingering ambivalence about sexuality is linked, I think, to women’s lingering ambivalence about the confusing array of identities available to them in modern life.

Exactly (and I’m not just saying that cuz I wrote an entire book about it). The doors have opened, but the trails have yet to be cleared.

And then, of course, there’s this (I can only imagine the backlash I’m gonna take for this one, but I’m gonna say it anyway, because I make the point often in the context of work): women and men are different. There’s neurobiology and all kinds of research to support this idea–and yet, it’s an idea that’s traditionally been seen as dangerous. And it’s seen as most dangerous by women: the worry being that to say that men and women are different, we do things differently, we experience things differently, must necessarily mean that one way is better, one’s worse. As though to claim a difference would be to set us off on a slippery slope of regression, inevitably sliding right back onto Betty Draper’s miserable, unempowered couch. Or as though to recognize a difference is to divide everyone into two overly simplified extremes, opposite ends of a spectrum–men are dogs and women just want to be monogamous. People are too complex for generalizations (generally speaking). So I guess my real question is this: Why is sex without feeling anything the goal? What exactly are we aspiring to there? Who decided that’s what empowerment looks like?

I mean, isn’t feeling something kind of the fun of sex?

And back to those messages: isn’t it ironic that women today are raised on the message that it is their right (hell, their responsibility) to (enthusiastically!) embrace their sexuality–and that one’s sexuality is indeed one’s own for the embracing–even while this very notion is again (still!) under attack? Not only is our sexual and reproductive freedom–the freedom to express our sexuality outside the confines of marriage without threat of banishment (let alone death by stoning, a freedom not shared by many women walking the earth) or biology–staggeringly new, it’s tenuous. Something we’re raised to take as a given is something that still needs fierce defending. Every step we take, we battle anew.

It’s tempting to buy into the idea that the fight is over, as tempting as it is to put a cheery, tidy spin on what came before. In that piece of Rosin’s that I mentioned earlier, she refers to the success of the sexual revolution, attributing it to, among others, “sex goddess Erica Jong.” Jong penned a response at The Daily Beast, which she kicked off with a quick anecdote and the line, “That was the way we weren’t.” Here’s a bit from her piece:

Of course I was delighted to be called a sex-goddess and bracketed with Dr. Ruth Westheiner, whom I adore, but when Rosin said the ’70s were all about the sexual revolution and that the sexual revolution was one of the props of women’s current success, I felt a chill run down my spine. ‘Dear Hanna-you just don’t get it,’ I wanted to say. ‘If only you’d lived through some of the things I have–being trashed as the happy hooker of literature, being overlooked for professorships, prizes, and front-page reviews because it was assumed I was–’tis a pity–a whore, you might see things differently. And then, if having lived through that, the pundits now said you were rather tame, you might wonder whether women could ever be seen for what we are: sexual and intellectual, sweet and bitter, smart and sexy. But I am grateful to be a sex goddess all the same.’

…As a young and even middle-aged writer, I used to attend pro-choice rallies with GOP women. No more. Will my daughter’s generation now believe that feminism, like democracy, has to be fought for over and over again? We cannot be complacent about birth control, abortion, the vote, or our daughters’ and granddaughters’ future. Just when things look rosiest for women, a new Rick Santorum will be waiting in the wings. And his wife recruited to put a new spin on his misogyny. Just when colleges graduate more women than men, and women are beginning to be paid a little more than a pittance, the press and publishers trot out female quislings to announce that the woman “problem” has been solved. Rubbish.

The fight goes on. There’s plenty to battle against. So again, that muddle? Seems pretty clear to me.

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What if failure was not only an option, it was the only option? According to a recent article by Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame) in this month’s O magazine, we’d all be a lot better off. In fact, “Failure is the Only Option” is the title of the piece, in which Gilbert suggests we’d be happier if we screwed up. Early. Often. And big.

Now, easy for her to say: her divorce, after all, begat one of the publishing world’s most staggering successes in recent memory (soon to arrive at the multiplex near you), not to mention an amazing round-the-world adventure and another go at the whole Committed thing. (So, it’s probably no surprise that she’d encourage failure on an epic scale: she, after all, is living one serious silver lining.) In the course of making her case for failure, she hits on one of our main theses about the overwhelm women feel in the face of limitless options, and why those options trip us up so colossally: They’re So. Damn. New.

Here’s a little bit of what she says:

We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map. As a result, we each race forth blindly into this new maze of limitless options. And the risks are steep. We make mistakes. We take sharp turns, hoping to stumble on an open path, only to bump into dead-end walls and have to back up and start all over again. We push mysterious levers, hoping to earn a reward, only to learn–whoops, that was a suffering button!

We’ve all accidentally pushed the suffering button. This new job is gonna rock! Quitting this job is gonna rock! This cheese rocks so much, I’m just gonna keep eating it! I’m totally gonna rock these 5-inch heels all night long! How can we ever know if we’re doing the right thing?

Maybe the better question is When can we know if we’re doing the right thing? To which, the only correct answer is: after we’ve done it. In which case, if it was the wrong thing, it’s too late to do anything but pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try something new (or swear off cheese altogether). But until we’ve given what may or may not rock a shot, well, we’re generally operating without a map. (When you think about it, it’s terrifically ironic: women, who are so talented at comparing ourselves to others, don’t have a whole lot of comps to go by while charting our own course through this life.)

Of course, the major failures–the ones we’re afraid of making–are more significant than a blister or a day spent, uh, divesting oneself of sins of the Cowgirl Creamery variety. But the half-full way of looking at it might be that all those missteps are indeed serving a purpose: in many ways, women today are making the map. And while, one might expect the moral of a story called “Failure is the Only Option” to be something along the lines of “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so you might as well go for it!”, Gilbert’s points are more charitable: stop pressuring yourself to be perfect, and every time you blow it, consider it a gift to your little sisters. Failure as philanthropy. Check it:

Let’s just anticipate that we (all of us) will disappoint ourselves somehow in the decade to come. Go ahead and let it happen. Let somebody else go to art school. Let somebody else have a happy marriage, while you foolishly pick the wrong guy. (Hell, I’ve done it; it’s survivable.) While you’re at it, take the wrong job. Move to the wrong city. Blow it all catastrophically, in fact, and then start over with good cheer. This is what we all must learn to do, for this is how maps get charted–by taking wrong turns that lead to surprising passageways that open into spectacularly unexpected new worlds. So just march on. Future generations will thank you–trust me–for showing the way, for beating brave new footpaths out of wonky old mistakes.

So here’s to blowing it. And here’s a word to the wise, from a sister who’s been there: half a wheel of Mt. Tam is too much cheese.

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