The sexual revolution was supposed to set us free. No more shame, no more fear, no more “lie back and think of England”. We were freed, in some ways. Wider access to contraception, and the decriminalisation of abortion, freed women from the terror of unwanted pregnancy. Sexual education freed young people from ignorance. The liberalisation of attitudes towards homosexuality freed gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from stigma.
But history is rarely simple, though there are some who would like us to believe that it is. One narrative about the sexual revolution, currently dominant within the Liberal Left, presents a rigidly teleological framing: the gospel according to Progress, with a capital ‘P’. The bad old days are behind us, we are told, and we have now entered a new era of liberation. Woe betide anyone who does not feel liberated.
In spite of all this freedom, women are still expected to prioritise their partners’ sexual desires over their own. The other week, for example, The Times ran an article on the politics of anal sex among straight people, noting that young women are under increasing pressure to consent to it. “Among the heterosexual people I interviewed,” wrote Lisa Taddeo, “anal sex went from being a whispered desire or fear to carrying with it a unique shame that surprised me. Interestingly, that shame was levied against the women who didn’t want to do it.”
Buzzfeed editor Patrick Strudwick took issue with the piece, accusing The Times of assuming its readers were “Victorian prudes”. In 2017, Teen Vogue editor Phillip Piccardi made similar comments when criticised for publishing a guide to anal sex intended for teenage readers, featuring a diagram of female anatomy that failed to include the clitoris.
Both these men seemed to be oblivious to the fact that, without a prostate, women are not physically equipped to enjoy anal sex in the same way that men do. The vast majority of women report that it is painful and the vast majority of men know this, but many pressure their partners into it regardless. For some men, it seems that the pain is the point, given the popularity of porn featuring aggressive anal penetration that leaves female performers with serious injuries.
It is hard not to point the finger of blame at the porn industry, endlessly creative in its commodification of female suffering. In 2010, researchers analysed more than 300 popular porn scenes and found that 88% contained physical aggression, overwhelmingly committed by men against women. The online porn of today makes the Playboy magazines of the 1960s look laughably tame. Boys and girls are now typically encountering porn for the first time during adolescence, and copious research reveals a correlation between porn consumption during sexual development and changes in attitudes and behaviour, including increased sexual aggression in boys. Is this what liberation was supposed to look like?
In 1989, John Stoltenberg wrote that “pornography tells lies about women. But pornography tells the truth about men.” Maybe it’s just a small group of sadists driving the demand for violent porn. But, then again, maybe not. A recent survey of British men under 40 asked respondents if they had ever committed certain acts of violence or aggression against their partners during sex: spitting on them, gagging them, slapping them, or strangling them: 71% said yes. A third of those men admitted that they did not ask for consent beforehand. A majority felt that porn had influenced their sexual tastes to some degree.
When 71% of young men are committing acts against their partners that would unambiguously be recognised as criminal in any other context, it’s difficult to pretend that a taste for violent sex is not now mainstream. Can this really be what the majority of men have always fantasised about? Or is it that the porn industry has taken a cruel, quiet seed within human sexuality, and grown it, deploying algorithms that push viewers towards ever more extreme and addictive content?
The ‘Progress’ narrative struggles with the viciousness of porn, although its proponents do their best to try and repackage old forms of sexual violence as new forms of sexual pleasure. While there are plenty of women telling us that being strangled, torn, or beaten is frightening and degrading, it is always possible to find a few women who insist that they like it. After I wrote an article a couple of months ago titled “Women are being strangled, choked, slapped and spat on during sex — we need to stop pretending this is normal”, I was inundated with tweets accusing me of “kink-shaming” people with unusual sexual tastes because I was “frigid” and “prudish”. Some suggested that a bit of strangling would set me right. Many of these tweets were sent by women, angry that I had failed to recognise that being turned on by violent assault is a matter of personal choice.
A strange kind of choice. The sort of choice where, if you choose the wrong option, then you’re accused of being “boring”, “vanilla”, and a “massive virgin.” At the grand old age of 28 – a MILF, in porn industry terms – I’m impervious to such name-calling on Twitter. It’s not so easy for teenagers coming of age in a culture in which violent, loveless sex is assumed to be compulsory.
I work for a campaign, We Can’t Consent To This, which documents cases in which women have been killed or seriously injured by men who claim they consented to the violence as part of “rough sex”. We often hear harrowing stories from young women who tell us acts like strangulation are now seen as a routine part of sex — as one student put it, “I felt that choking was normalised as a sexual behaviour. It’s… something that girls are kind of groomed into doing.”
Our grandmothers were called sluts if they wanted anything other than missionary. Today’s young women risk being called frigid if they say no to the porn-soaked fantasies presented to them as freedom.
We are supposed to believe that hook up culture offers women the opportunity to revel in their sexual autonomy, but the survey data tells a different story. Unlike men, the vast majority of heterosexual women do not orgasm during one night stands. In fact, they are more likely to feel pain during penetrative sex. Most experience a sharp dip in self esteem following casual sex, suspecting — correctly, if we go by counterpart surveys with men — that they have been used for sex by partners who do not respect them.
The fleeting thrill of feeling sexually desirable does not make for lasting happiness, and young women mostly say that they would prefer a committed relationship to a hook up, but that this choice is not available to them, since young men are mostly satisfied with the status quo. “Choice” is all very well as an ideal, but when there is only one choice presented, freedom looks — and feels — an awful lot like its opposite.
No wonder more young women are trying to opt out. Some anorexics attest to the fact that their illness can serve to desexualise their bodies and allow them to escape male attention. Others achieve the same goal by deliberately becoming overweight. A growing community of detransitioned women are speaking out about the difficulty of inhabiting a teenage girl’s body, apparently useful only to be looked at, groped, and penetrated. There are even a growing number of young women rejecting our sexual culture by finding a vocation. “Why are so many millennials becoming nuns?” asked a HuffPost headline on Twitter. Isn’t it obvious?
Maybe there was a moment, at the beginning, when the sexual revolution really did seem to promise women something truly liberating. If so, that moment has been and gone. It used to be that women were constrained in their sexuality, pressured to conform to an ideal that served male interests, rather than their own.
They still are.