People pay for sex. This has been true for as long as we have had money. But until recently, the people paying for sex were rarely women. This was due to stereotypes about women’s libidos and sexual adventurousness that women internalized, as well as the lack of agency that many women had over their lives in and out of the bedroom. Women have historically paid a very high price in certain contexts, including the US, for exercising sexual autonomy. And there is still widely held stigma against women who pay to play. Nonetheless, recent research suggests that there has been a marked increase in women paying for sexual services as they have gained more economic independence and social mores have begun to change. This can be seen not only in women seeking out prostitutes and escorts but also in the rise of erotic massages and sex parties that cater predominantly or exclusively to female clientele. As striking as the numerical rise in these sexual practices is, the reasons why women seek them out are even more interesting. Some of these include:
As I have often said on this blog and elsewhere, our society is deeply uncomfortable with female autonomy, especially as expressed through sex. As a result, it has produced a number of narratives to control women and their sex lives. One of the oldest and most effective of these is the purity myth. That is, society’s obsession with female virginity and valuing women based on sexual constraint. In many religiously conservative communities, this is even enforced with pledges and paraphernalia like rings. However, this myth does not only root itself amongst the religiously conservative; its assumptions are shared by the culture at large. But women now more than ever are pushing back against its demands on their lives. A great example of this can be found in the work of Amber Rose. For years Rose has been bashed for her forthright sexuality and has been hounded by her ex Kanye West, who like a petulant teenager claimed he had to “take 30 showers” after their relationship before he could be with another woman. Rather than stoop to her misogynistic critics level, Rose has become an outspoken advocate for women embracing their sexuality, creating an annual SlutWalk that has drawn thousands into the streets to reject a society that shames women for engaging in sex. In pop culture, women who embrace their sexuality have often been cast as femme fatales, dangerous and not to be trusted. For many years, these characters were maligned and ignored, but we now are beginning to see new appreciation for their value as subversions of patriarchal norms. As film critic Abbey Bender recently noted in a viral tweet, these characters have also frequently been sheathed in white—the ultimate symbol of purity. By appropriating symbols of purity culture and mixing them with female ambition, rage, violence, and sexuality, these women rejigger our understandings of power and sex along lines of gender. And as I wrote in the wake of Harvey Weinstein revelations, our embrace of female sexuality is crucial to our healing of wounds caused by seeing women as objects. Screw purity, let women have their “perverse” desires freely and fully.
Names are important. They are used to address and lay claim, and often names become part of our identity and sense of self. And yet, when women marry, they are usually expected to cast all these considerations aside and change their surnames without a fuss. In the West, this legal and cultural norm can be traced back to the Norman conquest, when the practice of “coverture” was proliferated. Under coverture, a husband and wife become one entity in the eyes of the law and society, erasing a wife’s independent identity and rights. This historical foundation has been a powerful constraint for women’s sexual and professional autonomy. Just a few decades ago, as reporting from The Atlantic shows, this philosophy led to women being pulled from welfare for having extramarital sex and being excluded from many professions. And it remains uncommon for this dynamic to run in the opposite direction; it is still exceedingly rare for a man to take his wife’s name, which has much to do with cultural scripts. Or as singer Kylie Minogue once remarked, “Nobody wants to be Mr Minogue. It takes a very strong man to put themselves in that position and I fully appreciate that." In much of the world, the US very much included, a wife’s decision to keep her own name is seen as an emasculation of her husband. Thus a woman’s decision is framed in terms of its consequences for a man. Most can’t seem to muster any empathy for women’s suffering for relinquishing their names—identity erasure, bureaucratic hurdles, and professional penalties. (Worse, some data suggest half of Americans believe it should be legally required that a woman assume her husband’s last name!) Even in places where women do not typically take their husband’s name after marriage, there are still deeply rooted traditions that connect a woman’s value to attachment to a man; if not a husband, then a father. There are a handful of notable outlier nations like Greece and France, where it is actually illegal for a woman to assume her husband’s name (and some where they need not take a familial name at all), but even here regressive norms persist. Men are more likely than women to be known and addressed by their surnames, which often confers authority and respect and deepens gendered inequality. A recent New York Times report showed that at Wimbledon there continues to be a gendered practice of identifying female champions by their husband’s name (even in cases like Billie Jean King’s, where the couple has been long separated). Of a piece with this, earlier this week a mother and daughter were hassled at Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport due to a difference of surnames, with the mother being berated by a Customs and Border Patrol agent that she should have taken her husband’s name to confirm maternity. These recent cases highlight the enduring ways that marriage and naming practices are used to constrain and control women. We have a name for this: patriarchy.
Today commemorates the finalization of the Declaration of Independence, a document meant to enshrine America’s foundational values. In it, Thomas Jefferson enumerates three rights he considered necessary for future citizens to flourish. The second of these is “Liberty.” We now more often use the word freedom but the idea lives. Everyday someone claims ours is a nation of freedom(s) and freedom is used to explain most of our political actions at home and abroad. But for a nation founded nominally for the right to live freely, everybody but white men has and continues to struggle to exercise true autonomy. I prefer the word autonomy to freedom; it has weight and the ring of real power. We still live in a world where female autonomy is destabilizing and this is rooted in our history. When early colonists encountered native societies where women were empowered and sexually autonomous, they scoffed and sought to right an “unnatural order.” And this would later continue with family separation and the forced sterilization of native women. Similarly, rape and abuse of black women was central to the flourishing of slavery. During Reconstruction, black women like Maria Stewart, spurred by this legacy, fought vigorously to enshrine female autonomy in our nation’s laws. And more recently, the scholar Danielle McGuire has highlighted the pivotal role control and sexual abuse of black women played in shaping the civil rights movement. In the late 19th century, when agitators for women’s suffrage like Susan B. Anthony were arrested for their activism, the New York Times ran a single paragraph about the issue in its “Minor Topics” section. This history can be still be felt forcefully because it is not history at all. Just this past week the Times blamed its lack of coverage for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful primary campaign on the fact that her supporters were young women. And we cannot forget that one of the first actions of the Trump administration was to ban aid to NGOs that promote or perform abortions. The same administration that could now oversee the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Sex is the fulcrum around which much of female difficulty exercising autonomy turns. Women’s sexual autonomy is treated frequently with anger and violence, and we still know how to shame women who dare to be free like the Puritans before us. Now as in our past, our failed leadership on female autonomy not only undermines our founding principles but kills women. In this frame, invocations of independence and freedom ring hollow. Time is up for a nation that does not fully support female autonomy.
Joan Didion famously wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But our society also tells many stories in order to suppress and control, harm and abuse. This is particularly evident in our stories about women, which often have a simple, insidious throughline: that women who are autonomous and empowered are untrustworthy and dangerous. This fiction finds life in everything from the false but popular Madonna-Whore dichotomy—where only fathers or husbands can contain womens’ terrible force—or the constant, feckless chastizing of Maxine Waters by pundits and other politicans for daring to use her voice and platform. Earlier this week, Bloomberg ran a piece on the plight of single mothers in Japan that put the consequences of our societies’ stories about women in stark relief. The article highlights the countless ways in which single mothers and their children suffer materially, psychologically, and socially in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Worse still, single mothers in Japan with jobs do worse on almost every metric than those who don’t work, and the article pointedly suggests this has as much to do with taboo as economics. In my new book, Untrue, I similarly relate the copious literature showing that women in the US fare substantially worse financially from a divorce than men do, and that the only meaningful recourse is remarriage. What these facts tell us is that women are most valued when attached to a man and that the penalties for existing outside attachment to a man are severe. Some prominent new voices in pop culture have been pushing back against these narratives, allowing women to carve out space on their own professionnal, sexual, and cultural terms. There is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Issa Rae’s Insecure, Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, Hannah Gadsby’s astounding new comedy special Nanette, and so so many more. In all of these brilliant works, female creators are presenting stories where women can be unruly, angry, unsure, empowered, alone, or in community of their choosing. But the world around them is still playing catch up. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research argues that across developed nations the cost of modern maternity is a consistent pattern of women failing to realize both their professional and reproductive aspirations. A gap that the study’s authors contend is unaffected by currently implemented policy prescriptions like extended maternity leave. The picture their study paints is of a world where we have raised women’s expectations for their lives without meaningfully changing the offices or homes they inhabit. (To be fair, this week the Supreme Court tried to bring women's expectations back down, ruling that so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" can lie about abortion and reproductive health.) We may be beginning to get better stories about women (thanks to listening to the ones they tell themselves), but we are still a long way from seeing these stories lead our politics and culture.
Recently I shared (on Twitter) Lauren Evans’s outstanding article for The Establishment on the pernicious perspective embedded in the term “revenge porn.” This commonly used phrase, which has found its way into legal statutes in several countries as well as a handful of US states, refers to the practice of nonconsensually sharing sexually charged photographs of another person. As Evans notes, to categorize this behavior as “revenge” is to legitimate it as a response to a prior wrong. It follows many other modern cultural phenomena in blaming (female) victims for the harms done to them. Evans’s article put me in mind of Asia Argento, who was recently caught up in a mob of blame for the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, who she was dating at the time of his death. Bourdain, a brilliant writer and thinker, was rightfully beloved by all who followed his career and enjoyed joining him on illuminating adventures in Parts Unknown. Despite Bourdain writing a book about his past struggles with suicidal ideation and addressing the issue frequently in interviews, many people were nonetheless quick to accuse Argento for his death. Some called her a “manipulater&user” and a “witch.” Others accused Argento of being “unfathomable” in her deceit—she was photographed with another man in the hours prior to Bourdain's death—and a destroyer of the MeToo movement. Some also suggested prosecution: “What investigators must do is to look deep into [Bourdain’s] communications with her to see what they find and file charges were [sic] needed be.” Predictably blame landed on a woman, and worse still, one accused of being untrue. How little light there is between this and our past. We can hear echoes of Hester Prynne or Salem in the accusations that Argento is a witch. One twitter user called her a "succubus," taking us back to the days of the Malleus Maleficarum. Plus ça change. Female sexual autonomy remains disruptive and destabilizing to the social order, and the penalties women pay, whether Argento or victims of “revenge porn,” are steep. The messages society is sending these women are clear: be quiet, contain yourself, your body is not your own.
Exciting things are in the air with the start of summer just around the corner. As reported in the Hollywood Reporter, I will be partnering with Lionsgate to adapt my last book, Primates of Park Avenue, for television! I know that this news already has many of my fans stoked; if you are too, please share your thoughts below or on Facebook and Twitter.
In recent years, there has been a growing awareness that one of the most powerful constraints on female ambition and autonomy is disproportionate and unequal punishment for behaviors men routinely get a pass for. This bias can be clearly seen in continuing gendered double standards around cheating. Take the recent example of Tatiana Akhmedova: she is the ex-wife of Azerbaijani-Russian oligarch Farkhad Akhmedov, who refuses to finalize their divorce and pay out a court-ordered settlement of $500 million (in the form of a mega yacht) because of his wife’s alleged infidelity. This despite the fact that there is strong reason to believe that Mr. Akhmedov himself stepped out of the marriage and sired a child with a paramour. Or we can look to the case of former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry (pictured above), who was abruptly forced to plead guilty to felony theft and resign in March due to an affair with her bodyguard. This contrasts sharply with the treatment of her male peers who have been untrue, like Mark Sanford, who had a cross-continental affair while Governor of South Carolina and lied about it, but was able to serve out his full term and then be elected as a congressman for that state two years later. These dynamics could also be seen at play in the 2016 Presidential Election, where Donald Trump’s serial philandering was brushed away with boys-will-be-boys logic while Hillary Clinton was castigated for her husband’s indiscretions. These disparities of treatment for infidelity along gendered lines show we still have a long way to go towards true equality; our current state of affairs looks little different from the days of Hawthorne’s scarlet A. If we want to move forward, a good first step would be learning to defy these truly outdated social scripts around those who cheat.
I will be speaking with Dr. Tammy Nelson, author of The New Monogamy, on her webinar The Future of Marriage about The Future of Female. Tune in on Wednesday, May 2nd at 12pm! Register online NOW and explore with us the topics of women, sex, monogamy, female libido, lust, infidelity, gender equality and more!