Years ago, I read and reviewed a couple of books on the history of marriage during an argument with incels. The books confirmed what I already knew which is that there has been more change in the West in the norms around sexuality and core institutions like marriage and the family which used to restrain and channel sexual desire toward constructive ends in the last 60 years than in the previous 2,000 years. As Christianity faded and lost its grip on the American elite (the trend had been accelerating since the end of the Victorian era), sexuality was decoupled from marriage, religion and reproduction.
“In 1991, as the supreme court hearings of Clarence Thomas were turning sexual-harassment allegations into television, Helen Gurley Brown, the editor and muse of Cosmopolitan magazine, was asked whether any of her staffers had been harassed. “I certainly hope so!” she replied.
The sentiment would not have come as a surprise to readers of the book that had, roughly three decades earlier, shot Brown to fame and infamy. Sex and the Single Girl, first published in 1962, is part memoir and part advice manual, offering tips about careers, fashion, beauty, diet, hobbies, self-care, travel, home decorating, and, yes, dating. The book—like its author, both ahead of its time and deeply of it—often reads as resolutely backward. But it is best remembered, today, for one of the arguments it put forward: Sex, as Brown summed it up in her introduction to the book’s 2003 reissue, “is enjoyed by single women who participate not to please a man as may have been the case in olden times but to please themselves.”
Sixty years ago, that was a radical proposition. That it remains an argument at all helps explain why Brown’s book, progress and backlash in one tidy text, continues to resonate. The Supreme Court, very soon, will likely strike down Roe v. Wade—a final, fatal slash following the thousand cuts made by state legislatures across the country. Some lawmakers, delivering on their desire to make America 1950 again, are weighing measures to criminalize contraception itself. These grim developments threaten to return sex to what it was for so long, for so many: a pleasure that becomes, all too easily, a punishment. They also bring gravity to a new anthology that reconsiders Brown’s complicated classic. Sex and the Single Woman, out this week, features 24 essays that take on, among many other timely topics, consent and polyamory and interracial dating and in vitro fertilization and sex as an activity and sex as an identity. The pieces are testaments to the hard-won freedoms of the sexual revolution that Brown both stirred and stymied. But they also read as elegies. They suggest all that is lost when sex is ceded to the state. They warn of what can happen when “the personal is political,” that elemental insight, is remade into a threat. …
Brown’s book debuted a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came along to argue that housewives, far from living the American dream, were living lives of tidy desperation. Both books took aim at marriage. Both spoke to a moment in which women’s options were so stridently assumed—the wedding, the kids, the making of homes, the keeping of them—that, for many, they ceased to be options at all. Before “family values” was partisan ideology, it was simply an inevitability. It implicated everyone. Sex might have had its pleasures, the logic went, but more important, it had its purpose—and that purpose was to make babies, and thereby make families, and thereby make a nation. Sex was social infrastructure. It ordered people, in every sense of the word. It was everyone’s business, even when it wasn’t.
Sex and the Single Girl rebels against all of that. In a culture that conflated sex and motherhood—each scripted as a gift given to others—Brown claimed to celebrate women’s sexuality on its own terms. That claim itself puts her book in loose conversation with feminist works of the era, among them Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, and Anne Koedt’s The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm—the 1970 essay that introduced many people to the functions of the clitoris. Brown’s manual mocks one of the foundational myths of a patriarchal order: that women are sex’s passive recipients. It refuses to entertain mythologies that take men’s sexuality for granted and take women’s sexuality away. Brown’s insistence that sex is enjoyed by single women “to please themselves”—this was one battle in a wide-ranging war. …”
Modernism, of course, with its signature obsession with the inner world of the Self and all of its base and evil desires, which is romanticized, is the sensibility that lurks underneath the surface of these debates. The thing that changed is that the Self was put up on a pedestal in our culture. God was knocked of the pedestal and replaced by the Self in the Sexual Revolution. We take for granted today that there can be no limits on self-exploration, self-expression, self absorption, self care, etc. Nothing is owed to anyone else including our own biological offspring because we really owe everything to ourselves. This is why Margaret Atwood sees pregnancy and motherhood, not as a natural biological process of human reproduction, but as slavery to an unwanted child in service to the state.