“Now I try to live my feminist politics in bed as well as elsewhere”

When Babe published a first-person account of a young woman’s awful sexual encounter with actor Aziz Ansari, one she later interpreted as sexual assault, many considered it to be crossing a line in the #MeToo movement. In this perspective, the transgression into the private sphere of dating led to a multitude of other women’s supposedly more legitimate stories being discounted and damaged the movement itself. Neoliberal and conservative commentators Caitlin Flanagan and Bari Weiss wrote condemnatory pieces in The Atlantic and the New York Times. Feminists criticized the way Babe had reported the story, and then how it defended its reporting. Women lamented the lost opportunity to talk about the inequities of power in intimate relationships.

This nuanced discourse suffers, however, from what hasn’t been discussed — a longer, broader historical context of intimacy, sexual desire, and sexual satisfaction. Bad dates — including those we deem sexual assaults — and women’s experiences of horrible sex have been a reality for a very long time. Grace’s story, as told however badly by Babe, does not represent the first time these problems have been revealed. I would suggest that a critical, lost moment in the history of sexual relations offers an important touchstone and continues to have relevance for current debates and the struggle to change cultural norms and practices. While changes in sexual mores dated back to the beginning of the twentieth century, the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s reached more people in more places and altered everyday intimate relationships.

Women Share Their Sexual Experiences and Knowledge

In a groundbreaking survey in the 1970s, women identified a revolution that remained unfinished even as they acknowledged its importance. The 1976 Hite Report: A National Study of Female Sexuality gave over 3000 women who responded to a series of surveys the chance to talk about their understandings of sex, what they wanted in their intimate relationships, and what they got. Reflecting the issues and concerns of the day, the most revelatory part of researcher Shere Hite’s study were the sections on female sexual satisfaction and orgasm. Hite’s study directly responded to the work done earlier by William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, who argued that most women could reach orgasm through clitorial stimulation during heterosexual intercourse.

Book jacket for The Hite Report. Includes a pink bubble burst that says "over 48 million copies sold worldwide"
Book jacket of The Hite Report from Google Books. (© Seven Stories Press, Shere Hite)

As many women who failed to orgasm were considered frigid, Hite’s findings that most women could orgasm by masturbating refuted the idea that women were responsible for a couple’s sexual dysfunction. While Hite’s survey methodology provoked strong opinions and continues to be contested, the responses provided a snapshot of at least some American women’s sexual experiences. It let women share their unmediated sexual knowledge with others.

Failures and Successes in Sexual Encounters

The Report assessed a long list of subjects, including masturbation, orgasm, women who don’t orgasm, intercourse, how to orgasm during intercourse, orgasm from clitorial stimulation or cunnilingus, lesbian relationships, women’s socialization in placing others’ needs first, and the sexual revolution. I characterize the kinds of information provided in two ways. Many sections provided a how-to manual, explaining to women successful means of attaining orgasms. Other sections provided a snapshot of sexual practices and what women thought about the current state of affairs. In the early chapters of the report, women described a consistent pattern of unsatisfactory sex. One problem that emerged was the diversity of ways women reached orgasm. Women’s plaintive voices gave examples of their partners’ failure to sexually satisfy them. As one subject noted, “I also realize now that so many males who seem so concerned with whether you were satisfied or not are only interested in inflating their egos by hearing a ‘yes’ reply.”1

It’s important to remember that the Hite Report also provided numerous stories of sexual gratification and of successful intimate relationships. Women shared frank stories of pleasure and how it was achieved, with or without a partner, and with different partners. Respondents recognized the importance of having a caring, egalitarian partner in their satisfying intimate interactions. One woman enthused about her sex life. “My husband is the best lover I ever had, and I hope we have sex till we’re a hundred and ten years old!”2 The couple had figured out what sexual practices besides penetrative sex worked to give her an orgasm. Women also felt empowered to tell men what they needed in the bedroom or take the necessary action themselves. One woman noted she no longer felt any shame about stimulating herself if her partner failed to discern her needs. “To hell what the guy thinks of me; I deserve satisfaction as much as he does!”3

Barriers to Sexual Equality

But in an ironic twist, the Sexual Revolution itself became a barrier to better sex. Women identified the problems they experienced with the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. One frustrating aspect lay with the contradiction between having experiential knowledge and not putting it into practice. In a section titled “Sexual Slavery,” Hite discussed the societal structures that prevented women from having satisfying sexual lives. Satisfying male desire remained the focus of too many sexual relationships, and women were increasingly expected to cater to that desire in their clothing, hygiene, and availability. The typical sex act proceeded from foreplay to penetration to orgasm — but usually only of the male partner. Yet when women masturbated they almost always orgasmed. Why, the Report asked, did women refuse to masturbate to orgasm?

The answer in part resulted from societal roles formed within a patriarchal society. From childhood, women were socialized to put other people’s needs before their own. As one scholar put it, this was “the sexual politics of heterosexuality.”4 Even as women acknowledged the sexual revolution as a good thing, liberating them to embrace their own pleasure, they also recognized the negatives. Some expressed unhappiness at the commercialization of sex — douches and hair removal and other products needed to be sexy. A sense that they could no longer say “no” represented a much more significant dilemma. Women recognized a new pressure to have more sex with more partners, especially if they wished to avoid being called “frigid” or “square.” They resented the new expectation that they would automatically have sex, and some felt they had lost a kind of protection. “Basically it’s progressive but women still get fucked — literally, because now you have to prove how liberated you are and men use that.”5

The Unfinished Revolution

As Washington Post cultural critic Alyssa Rosenberg has noted, changing who holds power demands tremendous energy and dedication. Grace’s accusation that she had the worst night of her life with Ansari does not discredit #MeToo. The encounter with Ansari highlights the unresolved issues of the Sexual Revolution: the importance of both partners’ pleasure; increased pressure on women to have sex; and the ways it can be complicated to say “no,” especially when it falls on deaf ears. Like the Hite Report, Babe’s telling of Grace’s story represents an unrepresentative sample, but one that gives voice to what thousands — probably millions — of women routinely experience. Much the same way Shere Hite’s unorthodox survey examined the ways women could and should experience pleasure, the “worst night of my life” marks a milestone in an unfinished transformation. The Report noted that the standard model of sex – foreplay, penetration, male orgasm – was culturally constructed, that this model could be changed to one of mutual satisfaction.

Perhaps that may be the Report’s most important insight. If Ansari and others like him want to be feminists, they need to learn one of feminism’s most fundamental lessons: The personal is political. Women responding to Hite’s questionnaire knew that. It’s hard to have equality in the boardroom when there is none in the bedroom. When women’s sexual autonomy is honored, their desires heard, and they are treated as full partners, the Harvey Weinsteins and Aziz Ansaris will no longer have the power to assault women with impunity. In 1976, Erica Jong recognized the ways both women and men benefited in her New York Times review of the Hite Report. “Women who read it will feel enormously reassured about their own sexuality and if enough men read it, the quality of sex in America is bound to improve.”6 #MeToo demands mutually satisfying sexual relationships, equality between partners, and respect in private and public as ways to win the revolution. Responding to the Ansari situation, Elizabeth Breunig argues it’s time for another sexual revolution. I say we should just finish the first one.

Notes

  1. Shere Hite, Hite Report: A National Study of Female Sexuality (New York: Dell Publishing, 1981), 266. Return to text.
  2. Hite, 227. Return to text.
  3. Hite, 295. Return to text.
  4. Liz Stanley, Sex Surveyed, 1949-1994: From Mass-Observation’s ‘Little Kinsey’ to the National Survey and the Hite Reports, 224. Return to text.
  5. Hite, 457. Return to text.
  6. Erica Jong, “If Men Read It, Sex Will Improve,” review of the Hite Report: A National Study of Female Sexuality, The New York Times Book Review, October 3, 1976, 7-8. Return to text.

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