You probably don’t know that in September 1968, there was a riot in Manhattan’s Financial District. Streets were shut down, parked cars were damaged when men scrambled atop them, the police were called in, and activity on the trading floor all but halted. An article about the chaos in New York Magazine noted that “Ticker tapes went untended and dignified brokers ran amok." So what caused Wall Street to turn into such a zoo? A 5’3” clerical worker just shy of her 21st birthday.
Judith Krantz, the prolific author and novelist whose salacious stories of sex and excess defined the 1980s, died on June 22, 2019. She was 91 years old. Scorned by “serious” writers and readers for her books that were widely considered Harlequin-esque pablum, she was also partly responsible for mainstreaming one of the crucial messages of second-wave feminism: that female sexuality, desire, and satisfaction matter.
The April showers are out and the taxes are in, which can only mean one thing: Spring is finally here. With the (moderately) warmer weather comes steamier preoccupations. After all, birds do it, bees do it… Let’s take a brief look at women and sex in TV this Spring.
Scholarship and research might sound boring, but they’re very dynamic and alive— always changing. The presumptions that undergird entire disciplines have shifted over the last few decades due to who is conducting research. For example, because female primatologists have brought new forms of empathy, curiosity, and identification to their studies, the science in this field has improved markedly. We now know much more about the social and sexual behaviors of non-human female primates. We have learned that maternal and sexual strategizing were huge selection pressures in evolution! Female monkeys and apes aren’t just passive players in the game of sex, “being mounted” by males—they’re soliciting copulations, building support networks, evading male control, and much more.
I began researching and writing Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free nearly three years ago. I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into. Infidelity holds a unique force as a taboo in our culture. It’s not discussed very often and, when it is, it usually happens under a cloud of scandal or in hushed tones, with moralizing language. But as I worked on this project, I got to hear stories of women who confounded all the clichés—they sought out sex, not emotional connection; they were sexually adventurous to an extent that we don't usually associate with women; they had libidos that were strong; or they were wilting in monogamous relationships and looking for a solution. I found myself exploring topics like polyamory and hotwifing and Skirt Club and more, all of which afford a glimpse into larger tectonic shifts in our sexual beliefs. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and other global activism, more stories from women’s own perspectives are finding their way into the public square. When we decouple female sexuality from male desire, we begin to see that female sexuality is more surprising, weird, and powerful than we've imagined. And now, on Untrue's publication day (!!!), it is clearer than ever that we are overdue for a revolution in how we approach infidelity and female sexuality. New research from Dr. Alicia Walker shows yet more evidence that infidelity, contrary to conventional wisdom, can increase desire between spouses and improve overall contentment (even after the affair has ended). Another heartening sign: Kristen Stewart, who was embroiled in hysterical scandal after an affair, is experiencing a renaissance. In fact, she is not only staging a comeback but taking new thrills in asserting the importance of female sexuality and autonomy in her public comments. Meredith Chivers continues to challenge the notion that women are the less sexed sex, with plenty of strong data from her lab. These developments make Untrue seem as timely as could be. All of which is to say, I am excited to share this book with readers and start building a world where women have total sexual autonomy and receive the pleasure we all deserve. And where monogamy really is your choice, rather than something foisted upon you. I hope you'll grab a copy and join me in this revolution!
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.
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.
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.