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Tut-tutting over sex is a form of bondage

Date

Emma Young

Influential ... the cover of the April 2012 edition of <em>Newsweek</em>.

Influential ... the cover of the April 2012 edition of Newsweek.

Sex and feminism are intimately connected. Feminism is a multi-faceted movement, but a permanent point of negotiation has been sexual freedom for women. The contraceptive pill was made available to women both married and unmarried in the 60s, bras were burned in the 70s, Fatal Attraction did nothing good for women in the 80s, and Madonna simulated masturbation on stage in the 90s.

But in April 2012, Newsweek turned back the clock. The influential magazine's cover article, complete with an image of a blindfolded female model, critiques how women are having sex. According to the author Katie Roiphe, the fantasy of being sexually submissive is running rampant because women have too much power in the workplace. Burdened by ''free will'' and the responsibilities of breadwinning, the generations who've grown up with more power than ever before are reverting when it comes to sex.

Roiphe suggests women have an uncomfortable relationship with power: ''It may be that equality is something we want only sometimes and in some places and in some arenas; it may be that power and all of its imperatives can be boring.''

Chief among her evidence is the success of the New York Times bestseller by E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey. It's a story of a man who wants to dominate and a woman who's willing to submit to him out of love. More damningly, says Roiphe, it's selling like hot cakes among women.

Roiphe's complaints are many. One of them is that women are policing other women in bed. Specifically, she says straight-laced feminists are making other women feel guilty about what they really want.

But the connection drawn between the ascendance of women in the workplace and their wish to give in to men in bed is absurd. The analysis she cites of 20 studies on what professional women want to be doing in their bedrooms, published in Psychology Today, is useless since we're not in a position to know if the results are new. Polls on this matter haven't been historically commonplace, so there's not a lot to compare it with. ''Would you vote for Tony Abbott in the next election?'' ''Do you support the carbon tax?'' ''Do you prefer handcuffs or a riding crop?''

True feminism embraces a range of sexual behaviour among women and, indeed, men. Feminists do not tell other women not to have fantasies that feature submission. There's strong support among feminists for sex-positive feminism, which is precisely what it sounds like.

More to the point, would we even bother to consider this fantasy as something out of the ordinary if it were a male one? Would a magazine editor expect us to be shocked by it? Would it make the cover of Newsweek?

What flare-ups like this signify is that equality between the genders is far from a done deal. Women have made substantial gains in the realm of sexual freedom, but a double standard still applies: a woman who likes sex runs the risk of being seen as promiscuous, whereas a man who likes sex is more likely to be seen as just a man.

The right-wing American radio host Rush Limbaugh reminded us of this archaic distinction in February. He flexed his muscles when the congressional committee convened to address President Obama's proposal that the contraceptive pill be paid for by health insurers. His target was a 30-year-old Georgetown law student, Sandra Fluke, who was there to advocate for contraceptive coverage. He called her a ''slut''. He suggested she distribute sex tapes since taxpayers would be subsidising her sex life.

President Obama and the media were all over Limbaugh for his comments, but no one can say this attack on women's sexual health and sexuality was without precedent.

The Republican debates in the race for the presidential nomination were a forum for more assaults on women's rights. Rick Santorum's policy prescriptions on abortion and contraception - suggesting birth control is ''not OK'' - brought up the question of what contraception says about the women who sign up to use it, and it happened with enough publicity to make it echo way beyond American shores.

Notions of how a woman is supposed to behave in bed, in the office, or reading a book in the privacy of her own home persist with more strength than is appropriate in 2012. Women have access to more freedom than ever before, now let us get on with it.

Emma Young is a Sydney writer.

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57 comments

  • Women will always be in this position if they persist in allowing their lives to be influenced by fashion and looks. Men's magazines contain pictures of good looking women in the nude, whilst women's magazines contain pictures of good looking women with clothes just on. Where are the women's magazines full of good looking nude men? Ultimately, though, the current situation will never change because guess what? Men and women are different!

    Commenter
    liklik
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    April 24, 2012, 7:52AM
    • Thank God for the difference.

      Commenter
      JJ
      Date and time
      April 24, 2012, 8:32AM
    • That's the reason we're in this position? Because of magazines? Come on! Might it be that women read Magazines to look at actual fashion? Maybe we don't demand naked men in magazines because we are less visual and prefer stories of handsome and gallant men to turn us on (Oh Ryan Gosling!). I don't think centuries of oppression, religious and cultural discrimination and men enjoying the status quo can be distilled into a magazine centrefold. Sure women are different; but using the example of magazines we like to read to make us seem trivial and shallow is just another way of putting us down.

      Commenter
      Pepsi
      Date and time
      April 24, 2012, 9:11AM
    • Pepsi, why do you naturally assume that my suggestions are a put-down? I think therein lies the answer..........men and women are different, always have been, always will be. Generally, in nature, males are dominant and the females submissive when it comes to reproduction (i am aware this is not always the case) and i fail to see why it needs to be any different or more importantly, why it must be an issue. Men like to be dominated too..................we just don't seek to analyse why. From a mans point of view there should be more dominating of men by women, and less discussion about it.

      Commenter
      liklik
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      April 24, 2012, 9:52AM
    • The magazine centrefolds are actually a great example, because at the end of the day the market shows what people like to read. Both men and women seem to respond well to having half naked and attractive women all over the pages. Men just don't have that ubiquitous appeal.

      There is no reason to see this in a negative light.

      Commenter
      Tref
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 24, 2012, 12:30PM
    • liklik
      It's not the influence of fashion and looks that govern women's lives. It's about the control of the price of sex and attacks on this by other women that control their lives. Pre-feminism men were expected to buy the cow, put a roof over their head, put food on the table and clothes on their back in order to obtain sex. Even where a woman was a "flapper girl" it was still a social expectation that a man would marry her. Feminism broke these shackles on men and now there is little expectation to buy the cow in order to get the milk. Therefore, other women seek to control female sexuality because they worry that the price of sex has been devalued: no point buying the cow if you can get the milk for free. This has always existed but it has grown over recent decades due to social changes. Men now see little reason to buy the cow because of these social changes (divorce laws, "alimony", putting up with them etc). So the investive towards women will continue to be applied.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      April 24, 2012, 1:21PM
    • Bender, i must disagree! History shows us that mistresses have always existed as have distinctive expectations of women in terms of fashion and looks. Whilst i agree that women have influenced this to a point, men have been the driving force behind the way that society views women as a whole, and they continue to be today, despite the advent of feminism. As i stated earlier, men and women are different. This won't ever change.

      Commenter
      liklik
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      April 24, 2012, 1:38PM
    • @ liklik

      Not really surprising that your ideas on sexuality are as simplistic as your ideas on politics.

      …”the fantasy of being sexually submissive is running rampant because women have too much power in the workplace”

      I think Emma go it the wrong way round. Women, realising that simplistic men such as liklik (“From a mans point of view there should be more dominating of men by women, and less discussion about it.”), are insecure about women having equal power in the workplace (and everywhere else), so they try to please men giving them what they want in an effort to please someone they care about. I doubt they are upset about their equality to the point they fantasise about being subordinate again!

      Commenter
      QED
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 24, 2012, 1:57PM
    • QED, its not about me but i'm guessing i'm the only reason you've responded at all. I take your "simplistic" comment as a compliment, given the convoluted explanation you have provided, which can be basically surmised as "women wish to be submissive in the bedroom to make ignorant men feel better about themselves". You truly believe that? How funny and sexist to boot!

      Commenter
      liklik
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      April 24, 2012, 3:22PM
    • liklik Which part of women ‘playacting’ submission to make their partners feel more secure is sexist? Sounds like an act of kindness and more believable than Emma’s theory.

      Yes, I do find you annoyingly incorrect consistently. I think you are confusing ‘simplistic’ with ‘simple to understand’ (you are the former). Verbose can be simple to understand if you are smart enough.

      Commenter
      QED
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 24, 2012, 3:54PM

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