The feminist movement is one of the best illustrations of “Be careful what you wish for”. The movement’s success created a paradox for itself: as women’s freedom of choice has expanded, it has done so by establishing the principle that to expand female choice, women’s choices must be considered unassailable and thus even bad choices are valid and to be celebrated. This tautology: “a woman made the choice, therefore it must be a good one,” prevents the movement from self-regulating and allows many bad ideas and choices to metastasize.
‘That was a good question. Not for church; I was there for money. The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007 has just now created a new opportunity for travel: financial-disaster tourism. The credit wasn’t just money, it was temptation. It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire countries were told, “The lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with money in the dark varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a heretofore suppressed megalomania. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish. All these different societies were touched by the same event, but each responded to it in its own peculiar way.’
Michael Lewis’ 2010 essay examined different cultures’ responses to virtually unlimited credit: what do people do when money is apparently no longer a constraint? Western liberalism has spent the last 60 years removing all effective constraints on the individual, moving from a collective society to one optimized around individual freedom. Americans’ feelings of isolation, atomization and disconnectedness are arguably the result of discarding most of our societal, cultural, and sexual traditions, practices and constraints. When we have externally imposed guard rails on our lives, it’s hard to tell if those rails are there to prevent us from falling off a cliff or to keep us out of the promised land. Chesterton’s Fence argues that we shouldn’t discard traditions, practices, or constraints without understanding why they existed in the first place.
In many ways, Betty Fridan’s _The Feminist Mystique _launched the modern feminist movement. She concludes the first chapter by saying:
We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my house’
But what more was it that they wanted? Without defining the “what?”, is the answer merely to want, and to pursue, but never to get to the thing?
“Everybody gets something out of every transaction,” said Joe, explaining why people want to be conned. That’s what ads do for you. They’ll let you complain that they are telling you what to want, as long as you let them tell you how to want.
Suburban women who ostensibly had “everything,” defined by earlier standards, wanted more. They had safety, freedom, children who lived to adulthood, consumer conveniences—all major goals of economic, industrial, and scientific growth. (White) Women in the 1950s led lives that women in the 1850s could scarcely dream of. When the lights went out, what did women do with their newly acquired wealth? Women had been taught what to want, but not how to want. Girard believes our desires are mimetic: you desire what others desire, and so women wanted what men wanted, or perceived men had. Women learned to want like men wanted, and thus what men wanted.
Feminists view and have viewed women’s problems as being imposed by “the patriarchy,” a nebulous, poorly articulated force. A common narrative in feminist thought is that throughout history men have held all political, and economic power through the restriction of women’s choices. As Western societies industrialized and farm life was no longer the dominant economic unit, men left the home and went to work while women stayed home and raised the children. This structure “oppressed” women, as many women did not have the same choices as men—most importantly the ability to earn financial capital through paid labor.
Women’s ability to vote, go to school, earn money, and have sex, were limited by this “patriarchal” structure. If women wanted equality, they needed the same choices available to them as men therefore dismantling cultural and institutional forces which exerted control over acceptable choices was the solution. Men, and the institutions they had built under patriarchy and the restrictions they imposed on women became the enemy, and as a result the project of feminism became seeking access to institutions and removing restrictions on women’s choices. Choice became the fundamental principle the movement argued for. When we seek more freedom, it’s important to ask: “freedom from what or freedom for what”?
In the Western world, after 60 years of the modern feminist movement, women can have sex like men. We have removed all the restrictions previously by family and the state on dating and optimized for the individual. Sex is now a marketplace, and we treat people like products, and the forces of capitalism have for the first time created a truly free sexual marketplace. Women wanted what men wanted, and now they have what men have. Both women and men have free choice, but the larger culture critiques men’s choices more strongly than ever, a balancing of rights with responsibilities, while feminism has argued for unlimited choice with no corresponding accountability. Women have all the freedoms, and little responsibility. Does the inability to critique women’s choices serve women?
As the feminist movement grew, it experienced tensions from competing internal factions. For example, some women really do enjoy casual sex with multiple partners; some are exhibitionists. As the porn industry began to grow with the popularization of home videos (VHS), feminism began to address “the sex and porn question”. Should feminism be sex-positive and for pornography/”sex work”, or “sex-negative” and anti-porn. The growing ideological divide threatened to drive a wedge through the movement. Anti-porn feminists (APF) believed porn was wrong for two major reasons:
- The production of pornography requires harm:
- Porn caused rape and violence against women.
- Porn had a causal connection with gender inequality.
- The radical feminist denouncement of pornography as the subordination of women. Porn is inherently rape under a patriarchal structure. Women’s stated choices to participate are coerced.
Liberal feminists won the battle for feminism to be pro-porn but in that victory may have ceded key ground that caused them to lose the war. APF attempts to condemn pornography due to their claims about the harms it cause, or the wrongness of sex under patriarchy, faced significant challenges. Their attempts to pin the problem on harm incentivized the industry to find ways to avoid changing while appearing to address these harms (via regulation and consent). Radical feminist attempts to equate pornography with sexuality in the context of “patriarchy” ran up against the resistance to condemn all sex, coupled with the suggestion that ‘good’ porn could help liberate sexuality from its patriarchal meaning. Most women like sex and feeling sexy. APFs unwittingly provided the opportunity for pornography to reinvent itself, evade feminist criticism, and become mainstream. In addition, most women who participate in porn say they do so willingly: are they capable of making their own choices? Or are they incapable? If the latter, how can we evaluate other female claims about their own subjective states?
The porn industry’s focus on ‘choice’, or, a woman’s choice to participate in the production of porn, made the central issue about consent. A liberal society defaults strongly to an anti-paternalistic approach. By appealing to “choice” and “consent” the porn industry conceded that pornography might harm its performers, but that such harms were not wrong because all performers were adult women who had given their consent. APFs were then faced with the philosophically difficult (if not impossible) and alienating task of problematizing women’s choices.
Feminists have argued that women’s fundamental right is the right to choose: to have children or a career, to dress provocatively or conservatively and to have sex when and how they pleased. Choice is the fundamental element in all feminist arguments, but tying their fortunes to it has become a Catch-22.
With the benefit of a half century of hindsight, it seems clear that porn and sex work have been a net negative for women; those outside of porn and sex work compete with women inside them. Optimizing for individual choice, without looking at how those decisions affect people in the aggregate has created many obvious contradictions within the feminist movement. It’s become impossible for liberal feminists to argue that other women’s choices should be taken away-especially when those choices relate to sex. Feminists have been consistent in their messaging that it is “The Patriarchy™” who limits women’s ability to choose how to dress, and control their sexuality. As a result feminists tend to be extremely careful when it comes to pushing for restrictions on how other women behave. However, this reluctance can create tension when theory meets practice. Natasha Walters’ Living Dolls explores this rhetorical trap feminists have found themselves in.
“At one point I turned to Helen to understand more about how she felt about her best friend’s work. She was keen to express her support for it.
‘Women are now in much more dominant roles in society, and they can say, you know what, I’m doing this for myself. It’s something to be proud of,’ she said. And how does that make other women feel? I wondered. ‘Well, if you’re happy with how you look, why shouldn’t you be happy with how other women look? Cara chooses to do this work, and it’s in a magazine that people choose to buy – you don’t have to buy it.’
This emphasis on choice is key. Anyone who would like to criticise this culture that sees women primarily as sexy dolls will find themselves coming up against the constantly repeated mantra of free choice. At one Babes on the Bed club night in Scotland, the club was picketed by a feminist group, and Cara’s nose wrinkled with scorn when she described them.
‘I had them – I had them outside one of my club nights, in Scotland somewhere. To be honest, I think it’s stupid, the feminists coming round, throwing eggs and that, I think they should grow up. The girls that are entering, are entering out of choice, they are not being forced, and so let them.’
Many young women I spoke to seem to feel that their lives have been impoverished by the devaluation of sex into exchange and performance rather than mutual intimacy.
This new culture of shags and threesomes, orgies and stranger fucks, seems to be replacing the culture in which sex was associated with the flowering of intimacy. Although this is so often associated with liberation, I am not convinced that this is what all feminists were seeking, then or now.
‘Feminism is now seen as sexual promiscuity, which is such a narrow view of empowerment. Liberation isn’t just about promiscuity. For some women liberation may be about having a new sexual partner every week, but for a lot of women it will be about finding someone to be with for your whole life, growing together over the years, and you never hear about that any more. What liberation means to me is that in any sexual relationship you are cherished, and you cherish.’
I was struck by her view that a focus on individual choice often ignores the effects of those choices. ‘I think the thing is that even if they feel that way for themselves, don’t they realise what they are doing for other women?’ she said of women who decide to go into stripping or sex work. ‘It took us a while to get to where we are now, which is basically where men were at – to be able to insist on respect. And these women are breaking it all down. They are putting us back to where we used to be.”
While feminists have been working to expand women’s choices, the system has been working to get what it wants. The capitalist machine wants consumers for its products, cogs for the machine of production, and zombielike devotion to the belief that their choices are free.
Shouldn’t women be allowed to take their clothes off in front of men in public for money or pleasure? Shouldn’t we be allowed to make our own free choices about what to do with our own bodies?
The answer to both is a resounding yes, but nevertheless, that’s the trick. The question that you should have asked, that you did not ask because you were hypnotized into asking the above questions, is: to what extent am I free to make the decision TO take my clothes off?
Why is it that most liberals will defend (to death) the rights of sex workers, but would never want their daughters to do sex work? “Sex work is work, it’s just like any other job”. Yes of course it is, you’re having a stroke.
Once feminists structured their arguments around choice, they lost the fundamental ability to do what all successful groups have throughout history, to optimize society so that “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Women should be free to criticize and restrict the freedoms of other women if women as a whole can benefit.
Basing a movement around unconstrained choice has produced what one would expect; childlike behavior. Becoming an adult is a process in which children make more and more of their own choices over time, while their parents begin to expose them to the consequences of those choices. Children are not celebrated for maximizing the number of choices they are able to make, but rather are gradually exposed to the world’s feedback loop. Choose poorly, and life can get bad quickly. Make good choices, and you get to keep leveling up. When they fail, we offer feedback and structure for how to make better choices in the future, and help them weigh the costs and benefits of short vs long term thinking. As they earn additional freedoms, those come bundled with additional responsibilities and the burden of the full consequences of one’s choices. More choice is not always better, and a world where critical feedback on one’s choices is not socially acceptable is a world where one is destined to fail. Feminists have expanded women’s choice, but in the process centered choice as an unassailable quantity that must grow at all costs. Paradoxically this has left women unable to help each other make better decisions through critical feedback.
A perfect example of this paradox came up on a recent episode of the Femsplainers podcast. In the episode, Danielle Crittenden interviewed Nancy Jo Sales about her recent book “My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno”. In 2015, Sales wrote one of the early articles about the rise of dating app culture, and later made a documentary about the phenomenon called “Swiped.” Her book is part memoir, part social commentary. In it, she documents her journey as a late 50s divorcee through the trials and tribulations of dating on dating apps. During her search for a partner, she sought out men between 25 and 29 and stated on her profile that she was looking for casual sex. Unsurprisingly to most readers, she reported a myriad of unsatisfying experiences. In the interview, Crittenden inquired why if she initially had such bad experiences, she “over and over again” would meet up with men for quick anonymous sex?” Crittenden felt similar to the reviewer in the NYT who compared reading the book to the experience to watching a horror movie:
‘In less plague-y times, I loved taking in a midnight horror movie in Times Square. It’s great to be in a community of like-minded people shouting advice to imperiled B actors onscreen: Do NOT go into that basement. Unfortunately, reading Nancy Jo Sales’s latest, a fascinating but harrowing account of our relationship to dating apps, does not offer the same pleasure. Because this is real life — and worse, this is the author’s real life. I’ve just spent four hours staring at my Kindle, murmuring to no one in particular: Nancy, don’t text him, Nancy, honey, don’t do it, be strong, resist this one time, Nancy. … NOOOOOOO.’
Even if she were a young twentysomething, Sales would seem astonishingly naive. She replaced reality (and its evolved biological basis) with ideology and was surprised by the results. In the interview, Sales tells us that after the NYT review she “clapped back” and claimed that the NYT’s review was insulting to someone of her journalistic stature, citing her award winning prior work (argument from authority). She accused Crittenden of “judging” and “slut shaming” her, and repeated over and over, “what is wrong with me choosing to date that age bracket of men?”
Despite the inanity of her question, we all know the true answer: Danielle broke the first rule of contemporary feminist discourse: never judge or question a woman’s choices, especially when that choice relate to sex. In our heads, everyone breaks this rule, although most know this is a socially toxic position and thus have enough tact not to verbalize it. Sales ended the interview early after taking offense that anyone would insinuate that she was foolish for doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I think someone famous has been quoted on that topic…
Nancy rails against the evils of dating app culture, which she believes is “misogynist” and exists to “serve up women’s bodies to men”. That dating apps exist, and were created by gay men and only later adopted by heterosexuals who chose to adopt this technology, seems lost on Nancy. She believes that dating apps are part of a capitalist system (agreed), and manipulate us by optimizing for profit by keeping you on the app (obviously) as opposed to what their marketing promises…“Love”. Nancy believes her bad experiences were a result of “the misogyny of dating apps,” not her choices. She contends that she knowingly made these choices because she is a journalist who was using her own life as a warning to other women and exposing a problematic industry. Ladies, consider yourself warned! Luckily, Nancy was virtuous enough to take one for the team. No other women have been courageous enough to speak about this taboo topic prior to May 2021.
In Sales’ eyes there’s more than enough blame to go around. Capitalism! Big Tech! Men! Gen Z! Why can’t a late 50s divorcee have emotionally connected yet NSA casual sex in the exact way she want’s on demand with men 30 years her junior without being slut shamed by Faux feminists? “Nancy Jo Sales, please pick up the white courtesy phone, Candace Bushnell is on the line.” Hiding behind the bulletproof rhetorical shields of, “choice”, “consent”, “non-judgement” and “slut shaming” everyone is responsible for Nancy’s problems but herself. As a bonus, any critique is further proof of the misogyny of the dating app world she warned herself about in her 2015 article to women like her. Maybe someday she’ll start reading her own essays, but that day is not today.
Feminists got the world they asked for-a world where women have unconstrained choices. Was it the one they wanted? Some feminists appear to want to constrain women’s choices again, with them doing the constraining. It is now assumed that a woman’s choice was a good one because she made it and it is taboo to publicly criticize a woman’s choice. Is porn good for women? Is taking your clothes off empowering? Are woman happy having sex like men? Why have women’s happiness measures declined since the start of the modern femist movement? Are they, and we, on a hedonic treadmill, expecting ever-greater improvements? Is it possible that some choices women make are bad for them? Is it possible that women were happier under “patriarchy”? Is working as satisfying as Feminists have told women? Is it possible that unconstrained female sexuality is not a Utopia for women? Is it possible that more choice is not always better for women?
What does the future of feminism look like? The future of sex? What would the movement be if it was divorced from its fixation on “choice?” Will anyone accept outside structure and strictures today? Almost no attractive women under the age of 30 contemplate these questions, and virtually none alter their sexual behavior because of them. Watch what people do, not what they say. In the late 18th century a group of English citizens dumped some tea in Boston harbor with the possibly specious cry of “No taxation without representation”. Maybe the answer is not optimising for choice and freedom, but rather, consent to be governed, and restraint. As women gain more political power, might they rethink demands for freedom at any cost? Another goal could be ensuring their continued success by participating in the governance process; gaining rights while balancing responsibilities. Once political power is secure, feminists could begin advocating for some restriction of women’s freedoms without fear of tyranny.
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