By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Essays

Sex and Privacy

Dispatches from the Liberation Front

Lily Meyer

Composition for Eye and Camera (detail), 1969, by John Piper (1903–1992); photo © Agnew’s London, Bridgeman Images/©2023 The Piper Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS London.

Should a book called Bad Sex have bad sex in it? You’d assume so, but journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz’s memoir/feminist history Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution, does not. Instead, Aronowitz pairs the story of a tumultuous and enjoyable stretch of her own sex and love life with a broad history of American feminist efforts to fix, redeem, or get rid of sex, heterosexuality, and marriage. Some of this history is personal: The author’s mother, Ellen Willis, was a rock critic and radical feminist who cofounded a 1970s activist group called the Redstockings and, in essays written largely for the Village Voice, became a leader of pro-sex rhetoric, advocating for pleasure in all its nuance amid the 1980s wave of antipornography puritanism.

Aronowitz is less prone to bucking trends. Indeed, Bad Sex is part of a highly trendy genre: the braided memoir-history, whose rise can be traced in part to two mid-2010s books about female singleness: Kate Bolick’s Spinster, in which the author intertwines her life with those of great single women through history, and Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies, which covers similar ground but is driven by data and interviews. All the Single Ladies is a strong, thought-provoking book; it gives a reader much more to hold on to than Spinster. Yet it was Bolick’s model that took hold.

Books like Spinster, which are anecdotal rather than sociological, often make simplified or false promises—and conflate, rather than intertwine, the autobiographical and the historical. Bad Sex falls into precisely this trap. At first, Aronowitz, Teen Vogue’s sex and love columnist and the award-winning editor of an anthology of her mother’s writing, presents herself as a representative of all befuddled straight women, promising that the book will lead to a collective understanding of why “we still haven’t transcended the binds that make sex and love go bad.”11xNona Willis Aronowitz, Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution (New York, NY: Plume, 2022), 2. But this purported history treats its author’s story as less an example than a promise: If I can become liberated, she claims, you can too. By the end, Aronowitz somewhat improbably casts herself as an emissary from the realm of sexual freedom.

Many braided memoir-histories commit no worse crime than offering dull surface-level overviews of their historical subjects, and of their writers’ lives. Mixing genres often seems to preclude detail and intricacy, leading to shallow self-investigation and shallower commentary. (It is hard to fit real analysis into a book that dedicates less than half its space to it!) But Bad Sex, while only intermittently boring, is troubling in a deeper way. It is steeped in a discourse of liberated sex that is prevalent, though rarely examined, and that falsely assumes that sexual freedom can be permanently attained through public discussion, as if it were the final project in sex ed. Liberated-sex discourse pushes us to expose ourselves fully; to pin down our pleasures; to “specify” ourselves sexually, as French philosopher Michel Foucault put it. It asks us to turn our sexual preferences into a permanent identity, a flag to which we pledge public allegiance, not a shifting array of acts we imagine, watch, and perform. In so doing, liberated-sex discourse limits both possibility and privacy. It relies heavily on a politics of exposure that is—in this era of oversharing and surveillance, and of a vanished constitutional right to privacy—neither progressive nor productive. It also, of course, offers no guarantee of good sex.

The Candyland Path

Liberated-sex discourse descends, in part, from the consciousness-raising groups key to 1960s feminism. Such groups aspired to bring about political and sexual change via frank discussion. The purpose of such activism, Aronowitz writes, “wasn’t to solve everyone’s private problems, but rather to understand the social basis of their complaints.”22xIbid., 14. Many consciousness-raising groups helped their participants do precisely that, and their ethos of transparency and collaboration remains undeniably valuable. Still, consciousness-raising has its limits. Socialist feminist Silvia Federici, pointing this out in her 1984 essay “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet,” noted acidly that the “women’s movement has [tended] to overemphasize the role of consciousness in the context of social change, as if enslavement were a mental condition and liberation could be achieved by an act of will.”33xSilvia Federici, “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet,” Social Text no. 9/10 (Spring–Summer, 1984), 339,

Yet today, a very public form of consciousness-raising—one that occurs not in apartments or classrooms, but online—is central to mainstream feminist discourse, especially where sex and its aftereffects are concerned. Consider heteropessimism, the phenomenon of straight women disingenuously complaining about being attracted to men, which—as Asa Seresin wrote in “On Heteropessimism,” the New Inquiry essay in which they introduced the term—lets women seem progressive while doing nothing to acknowledge or resist their supposed complicity in heteropatriarchy.44xAsa Seresin, “On Heteropessimism,” The New Inquiry 72 (October 2019), But when a discourse moves from griping to real personal exposure, modern-day consciousness-raising gets more troubling. The #MeToo movement was sparked and strengthened by myriad women telling personal stories of abuse and trauma but has done little to protect anyone from further abuse. When the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturned Roe v. Wade and, with it, the constitutional right to privacy, many people reacted—counterintuitively, except by the logic of consciousness-raising—by publicly describing their own abortions. While such sharing can be cathartic and often feels powerful, it has not yet been shown to effect change.

In any type of politics, talk can only go so far without action. In terms of sexual politics, talk is more limited still. Philosopher Amia Srinivasan writes in The Right to Sex that desire often echoes or emulates ugly political realities while remaining able to “cut against what politics has chosen for us.”55xAmia Srinivasan, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), 91. Srinivasan is speaking here of prejudice: Desire can reinforce or undermine a person’s biases. But the same principle holds for progressivism. All the heteropessimistic conversation in the world cannot make a straight woman want other women. A woman whose greatest wish is to submit sexually to men will not change her mind if she watches enough feminist porn. Indeed, the very concept of changing one’s mind sits oddly in discussions of sexual desire, which is mutable without being logical.

The discourse of sexual liberation often tries to override this reality. Consider heteropessimism’s companion strain, the tendency among some queer people—women especially—to make a show of their pity for straight ones. Consider, also, Aronowitz’s terror, which appears often in Bad Sex, of being seen as vanilla or boring. Both these stances, opposite as they may seem, reflect a worldview that considers a person’s sex life freer only insofar as it deviates from the straight, missionary-position norm. According to this discourse, liberation is not just being able to choose among an ever-expanding array of sexual practices, but actively choosing each of them in turn. For some people, this is true. For others, not so much. But for no one is a teleology of sexual behavior truly productive, no matter how many fun nights such a teleology might generate.

Bad Sex pretends otherwise, even as it pretends that talking about sex in public is essential to enjoying it in private. Yet Bad Sex rarely explores the joys of the hidden, though the author does let us know that secrecy and anonymity turn her on. Rather than consider private life in depth, though, Aronowitz matches her experiments and experiences with broader historical themes or contemporary issues, pairing them so neatly that the book starts to seem like a Candyland path to good sex. It doesn’t help that she never mentions the perhaps self-evident truth that not many people share the same ideal “sex session,” to use a term of which Aronowitz is fond.

But it wouldn’t suit Bad Sex’s purposes for Aronowitz to point out the fundamental idiosyncrasy and unteachability of good sex. Her book is, ultimately, an extended performance of sexual liberation, designed to inspire envy and imitation. Granted, imitation is key to liberated-sex discourse, which suggests that only by taking cues from people other than our partners—by, in essence, crowdsourcing our pleasures—can we become sexually free.

Unrepressing Ourselves

I wrote we above. I meant women. Like #MeToo, Bad Sex renders self-revelation a female responsibility—or, as Aronowitz would likely have it, a female privilege. In one passage on consciousness-raising, she writes, “Raw honesty wasn’t just a political strategy; it was also a new and exciting way to experience womanhood, one that would define the generations to come.”66xAronowitz, Bad Sex, 25. On returning to memoir later in the same chapter, she reinforces the link between honesty and womanhood, writing that, by her adolescence, “candor between women, especially about sex, was the norm.”77xIbid. Her belief in that candor seems so total that, at several points, she chastises her past self for withholding details or feelings about her sex life from her friends. Openness can be a great thing; sharing information can be a vital way to learn, grow, conquer shame, and so on. But openness and closedness, the public and the private, are neither mortal enemies nor modes one must choose between. Aronowitz seems to choose anyway. Not once in Bad Sex does she entertain the idea that, as Jean Garnett writes in her essay “Scenes From an Open Marriage,” “black-box privacy…can be its own kind of intimacy, an unassailable communion not unlike sex.”88xJean Garnett, “Scenes From an Open Marriage,” Paris Review, June 29, 2022, In Bad Sex, privacy is no good.

Yet public performance seems to be a heavy burden on Aronowitz. She’s nonmonogamous, yet careful to distance herself from Burning Man polyamorists. She feels “exposed and uncool” when teased about being straight.99xAronowitz, Bad Sex, 168. She struggles to overcome her need to be seen as a “sexpot” and, early in the book, describes lingering in her marriage out of fear of appearing hypocritical: “How would it look if I admitted I stayed with a person I didn’t like to fuck, despite my almost religious devotion to the fruits of the sexual revolution, especially the pockets that focused on female pleasure?”1010xIbid., 12. Quickly, though, she quits lingering and gets on the Candyland path toward what writer Andrew Martin refers to, in his satirical novel Early Work, as a “rigorously exploratory sex life.”1111xAndrew Martin, Early Work (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 83. His protagonist’s explorations with his girlfriend wind up being hollow; they are, in the end, a fig leaf for bad sex. Aronowitz does not acknowledge this possibility, or the fact that not everybody welcomes exploration. She’s too busy emphasizing how much of an explorer she is.

Among the audience Bad Sex addresses, this is a common enough tendency. A straight woman in a secular community today is not likely to be shamed for having premarital sex, but she may still get told she’s a boring prude for not being adventurous enough. This idea is a manifestation of what queer theorist Sophie Lewis, in her essay “Collective Turn-Off,” refers to as capitalist society’s habit of “commanding us all, women especially, to unrepress ourselves, to talk about sex constantly as though ‘confessing’ something innate, and, always and ever, to enjoy!1212xSophie Lewis, “Collective Turn-Off,” Mal Journal, no. 5 (August 2020), Foucault discusses the mandate to unrepress ourselves in his three-volume work The History of Sexuality (1978–86), but Lewis’s newer nod to enjoyment is still welcome. Sex, at this stage of the twenty-first century, is meant to be perfectible, like every other bit of life. Aronowitz certainly seems to think this is true. Lewis disagrees—which is intriguing, given that she’s a committed utopian. In the perfect world she imagines, enjoyment is ephemeral. Talking about sex, meanwhile, is basically banned, with one major caveat: In Lewis’s sexual utopia, everyone is “well versed in saying ‘I would prefer not to.’”1313xIbid.

Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, preferring not to has been fraught. In Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, historian Hanne Blank discusses the “orgasm standard” that emerged when the sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson began studying sexuality in the 1950s, publishing a massively researched behavioral summary called Human Sexual Response in 1966. Masters and Johnson helped debunk the myth that women should reliably come via penetrative sex, which delighted many feminists who wanted to “kick the whole notion of ‘vaginal orgasm’ to the curb.’” But Masters and Johnson also inadvertently turned clitoral orgasms into “tokens of liberation [such that] some women began to feel that the pressure to have orgasms was oppressive in its own way.”1414xHanne Blank, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2012), 142. Such pressure is a precursor of, and remains present in, today’s liberated-sex discourse. Yet its survival does not mean that no one resisted it—only that the loudest form of resistance, a sex-negative backlash known as antiporn feminism, was unreasonable to the point of uselessness.

Bad Sex goes into half a chapter’s worth of detail about the “porn wars” of the 1970s and 1980s, which were, in essence, a messy and unsuccessful public effort to determine what sexual activities are and are not feminist. According to some antiporn hard-liners—Robin Morgan, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon—pornography and prostitution were inadmissible. So, perhaps, was sex with men, or sex in what Morgan called the male style, which she claimed revolved around “genital sexuality, objectification, promiscuity, emotional noninvolvement, and coarse invulnerability.”1515xRobin Morgan, quoted in Aronowitz, Bad Sex, 175.

Ellen Willis rejected this line of thought utterly. She argued that feminism’s role should be to create space for women to explore their desires, not to decide what those desires should be. In “Lust Horizons,” a 1981 Village Voice piece on the women’s movement’s attitudes toward sex, she wrote that “it is axiomatic that consenting partners have a right to their sexual proclivities, and that authoritarian moralism has no place in a movement for social change.” Yet endless choice, in “Lust Horizons,” is not synonymous with liberation, as it is in Bad Sex, but merely a stop along the way. In the essay’s final moments, Willis directs readers’ attention to the hazy middle ground between the pressure to reject male-style sex and the pressure to have and enjoy it. She returns to “the fundamental questions. Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?”1616xEllen Willis, The Essential Ellen Willis, ed. Nona Willis Aronowitz (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 208.

A small but growing number of contemporary feminists have begun attempting to address these questions, while rejecting the storytelling impulses of liberated-sex discourse and #MeToo. Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex does this; so does the British philosopher Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, which takes its title from a line in Volume 1 of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. Angel objects to talking about sex even more strenuously than Foucault does. She argues that while consent culture is too complex to be labeled Net Bad or Net Good, it is undeniably a form of harmful and controlling sex discourse. So is the #MeToo mandate for women to speak out, which “not only valourized women’s speech, but risked making it a duty too, a mandatory display of one’s feminist powers of self-realisation, one’s determination to refuse shame, and one’s strength in speaking back to indignity.” It is, of course, vital to value women’s speech. It’s not so great to demand it, or predetermine what it represents. Ditto pleasure. Angel notes that sexuality “is lived, learnt, developed over time, in particular contexts,” and argues that no public conversation should attempt to steer private development. Instead, she writes, “If we want sex to be joyful and fulfilling, it is on sex’s contexts that we should focus our emancipatory energies.”1717xKatherine Angel, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent (Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2021), 6, 68.

Aronowitz tries to attend to sex’s contexts. Repeatedly, though, she describes a contextual problem—“woke misogynists,” say, or pressure to perform—but offers only solutions rooted in personal choice. Generally, her approach to the issues Angel and Federici describe is to admit that we shouldn’t assume that our desires “can ever be context-free,” but rarely to suggest or describe collective, contemporary efforts to create new context. For instance, in her chapter on open relationships, she wants to present them as political—she objects to the fact that, among her peers, “people who talked up the radical dimensions of nonmonogamy often received a sneer”—but her ideas land squarely in the realm of the personal. At the end of the open relationship chapter, she writes, “The best truth I can offer is that while nonmonogamy is not at all relaxing, it also feels worthwhile to try and excavate the deepest wells of my own generosity and trust.”1818xAronowitz, Bad Sex, 219, 246.

While Aronowitz frequently seems concerned with being a “sexpot,” she also appears to attach importance to impressing her peers out of bed. She’s constantly gauging how leftie and intriguing her partners are “on paper,” as if to prove not only that she’s having properly liberated sex but that she’s having sex with sufficiently cool people. On meeting her current partner, she dismisses him as “too dorky and normie” to date seriously, falling for him only after deciding he’s “one of the most unusual people I’d ever met.” (Translation: He’s not straight, goes to a “hipster church,” and “was in business school but also…was a democratic socialist.”) Aronowitz’s worries about coolness extend to the book’s most vulnerable chapter, in which she explores difficulties achieving orgasm with a partner. She starts with a scene in which she hires a happy-ending masseuse, then interviews a number of women who pay for sex. But rather than highlight her kinship with these women, she separates herself from them on the grounds that their “sexual predilections were miles apart” from her own.1919xIbid., 212, 283. I found myself feeling angry on behalf of her interviewees, artificially distanced from—and, implicitly, portrayed as lesser than—their interviewer.

None of this fretting over appearances is especially liberated or liberatory. Rather, it betrays a deep status anxiety that infects Aronowitz’s writing about sex. For her, having good sex is at least partly about status: It’s a sign not just of liberated desires, but of being politically and socially enlightened. Having good sex is un-normie. It means you’ve succeeded, at least in the bedroom, at resisting what she calls “the horrors and bribes of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy.2020xIbid., 3.

Bad Sex contains very little bad sex both because Aronowitz wants to demonstrate her skill at resisting patriarchy, etc., and because she is more interested in separating herself from others than she is in aligning herself with them. She works to preserve her authority, or her status, over her readers—a habit that is common among self-help writers and advice columnists. Books like Melissa Febos’s Whip Smart, Lillian Fishman’s Acts of Service, and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, all of which take sex as a central subject, do not shy away from the evident grossness and uncontrollability of the human body. A comparable willingness to engage with these aspects of physicality is nowhere to be found in Aronowitz’s writing.

Ellen Willis, it’s worth noting, defended her right not to be liberated—and not to speak all her desires aloud. Early in Bad Sex, Aronowitz quotes a breakup letter her mother wrote at the height of the sexual revolution in which Willis told her ex, “Part of [the problem] had to do with your determination to conquer my inhibition about being very matter of fact about sex, telling you exactly what I wanted.… Maybe it’s reactionary, but I am just not that way.”2121xIbid., 22. Aronowitz infers from this that her mother “felt bullied,” which is very likely the case. But she does not seem to consider the fact that conquering others’ inhibitions can very often be a bullying thing to do. Where sex is concerned, talking is not always freeing. Raw honesty isn’t always right. It feels a little retrograde to write a defense of sexual silence, yet I love my unknowns, my mysteries, my black boxes of privacy. I have found my own liberation inside them. I want no part of a feminism that acts as if that couldn’t be true.