sex on campus

Why Sex That’s Consensual Can Still Be Bad. And Why We’re Not Talking About It.

The game is rigged.

Outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex. Photo: Andrew Lyman, SCAD class of 2016
Outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex.
Outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex. Photo: Andrew Lyman, SCAD class of 2016
Outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex.
Outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex. Photo: Andrew Lyman, SCAD class of 2016

Last winter, Reina Gattuso was a Harvard senior majoring in literature and gender studies and writing a biweekly column for the college newspaper, the Crimson. She covered a variety of subjects, among them her sexuality (she identifies as queer) and Harvard’s byzantine class hierarchies, and she wrote a regular feature called “Four Dollar Wine Critic.” In February, she dedicated her column to the subject of sexist sex.

Gattuso is not against sex by any means. “I don’t say yes. I say oh, yes. I say yes, please,” she wrote. And she did say yes at a booze-soaked party hosted by a group of men she didn’t know. One of the men told her that because she was bisexual, he assumed she was “particularly down to fuck.” He said she could make out with his girlfriend if she would hook up with another of the men.

“I have so much to drink my memory becomes dark water, brief flashes when I flicker up for air,” Gattuso wrote. “I’m being kissed. There’s a boy, then another boy. I keep asking if I’m pretty. I keep saying yes.” But in the morning, she wrote, “I feel weird about what went down” and was unsure how to express her feelings of dissatisfaction and confusion over “such a fucked-up experience.”

Eventually, she realized that what she was grappling with was not just the night in question but also the failure of campus feminism to address those kinds of experiences. We tend to talk about consent “as an individual process,” she wrote, “not asking ‘What kinds of power are operating in this situation?’ but only ‘Did you or did you not say yes?’ ” Feminists, she continued, “sometimes talk about ‘yes’ and ‘no’ like they’re uncomplicated … But ethical sex is hard. And it won’t stop being hard until we … minimize, as much as possible, power imbalances related to sex.”

It may feel as though contemporary feminists are always talking about the power imbalances related to sex, thanks to the recently robust and radical campus campaigns against rape and sexual assault. But contemporary feminism’s shortcomings may lie in not its over­radicalization but rather its under­radicalization. Because, outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex. Young feminists have adopted an exuberant, raunchy, confident, righteously unapologetic, slut-walking ideology that sees sex — as long as it’s consensual — as an expression of feminist liberation. The result is a neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex positivity. Which means a vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish — has gone largely uninterrogated, leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.

Feminism has a long, complicated relationship to sex, one that has cycled from embrace to critique and back again. By the time a generation of women woke feminism from its backlash slumber around the millennium, the sex wars of the 1980s were long over. Some second-wave feminists, including Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, had seen sex, pornography, and sexism as all of a piece, finding it impossible to pick the strands of pleasure from the suffocating fabric of oppression. So-called sex-positive feminists — Ellen Willis, Joan Nestle, Susie Bright — set themselves against what they saw as this puritanical slant. The sex-positive crusaders won the war for a million reasons, perhaps especially because their work offered optimism: that sexual agency and equality were available to women, that we were not destined to live our sexual lives as objects or victims, that we could take our pleasures and our power too. They won because sex can be fun and thrilling and because, for the most part, human beings want very badly to partake of it.

So it was only natural that when feminism was resurrected by young women creating a new movement, it was self-consciously sex friendly, insouciant in its approach to the signs and symbols of objectification. No one would ever mistake these feminists for humorless harridans or frigid dick-rejectors. But the underpinning philosophy had shifted slightly. Sex positivity was originally a term used to describe a theory of women, sex, and power; it advocated for any kind of sexual behavior — from kink to celibacy to conscious power play — that women might enjoy on their own terms and not on terms dictated by a misogynistic culture. Now it has become shorthand for a brand of feminism that was a cheerleader for, not a censor of, sex — all sex. Feminism’s sexual focus narrowed in on one issue: coercion and violence. Sex that took place without clear consent wasn’t even sex; it was rape.

In this line of thinking, sex after yes, sex without violence or coercion, is good. Sex is feminist. And empowered women are supposed to enjoy the hell out of it. In fact, Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale law student and founder of anti-rape organization Know Your IX, tells me that she has heard from women who feel that “not having a super-exciting, super-positive sex life is in some ways a political failure.”

Except that young women don’t always enjoy sex — and not because of any innately feminine psychological or physical condition. The hetero (and non-hetero, but, let’s face it, mostly hetero) sex on offer to young women is not of very high quality, for reasons having to do with youthful ineptitude and tenderness of hearts, sure, but also the fact that the game remains rigged.

It’s rigged in ways that go well beyond consent. Students I spoke to talked about “male sexual entitlement,” the expectation that male sexual needs take priority, with men presumed to take sex and women presumed to give it to them. They spoke of how men set the terms, host the parties, provide the alcohol, exert the influence. Male attention and approval remain the validating metric of female worth, and women are still (perhaps increasingly) expected to look and fuck like porn stars — plucked, smooth, their pleasure performed persuasively. Meanwhile, male climax remains the accepted finish of hetero encounters; a woman’s orgasm is still the elusive, optional bonus round. Then there are the double standards that continue to redound negatively to women: A woman in pursuit is loose or hard up; a man in pursuit is healthy and horny. A woman who says no is a prude or a cock tease; a man who says no is rejecting the woman in question. And now these sexual judgments cut in two directions: Young women feel that they are being judged either for having too much sex, or for not having enough, or enough good, sex. Finally, young people often have very drunk sex, which in theory means subpar sex for both parties, but which in practice is often worse (like, physically worse) for women.

As Olive Bromberg, a 22-year-old genderqueer sophomore at Evergreen State, sees it, modern notions of sex positivity only reinforce this gendered power imbalance. “There seems to be an assumption that is ‘Oh, you’re sexual, that means you’ll be sexual with me,’” Bromberg says. “It feeds into this sense of male sexual entitlement via sexual liberation of oneself, and it’s really fucked.”

And again, this is all part of consensual sex, the kind that is supposed to be women’s feminist reward. There’s a whole other level of confusion around the smudgy margins when it comes to experiences like the one I had at college 20 years ago. It was an encounter that today’s activists might call “rape”; which feminist hobgoblin Katie Roiphe, whose anti-rape-activist screed The Morning After was then all the rage, would have called “bad sex”; and which I understood at the time to be not atypical of much of the sex available to my undergraduate peers: drunk, brief, rough, debatably agreed upon, and not one bit pleasurable. It was an encounter to which I consented for complicated reasons, and in which my body participated but I felt wholly absent.

“A lot of sex feels like this,” Gattuso wrote in May, after her popular Crimson columns drew the attention of Feministing, a website at which she has since become a contributor. “Sex where we don’t matter. Where we may as well not be there. Sex where we don’t say no, because we don’t want to say no, sex where we say yes even, when we’re even into it, but where we fear … that if we did say no, or if we don’t like the pressure on our necks or the way they touch us, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t count, because we don’t count.”

This is not pearl-clutching over the moral or emotional hazards of “hookup culture.” This is not an objection to promiscuity or to the casual nature of some sexual encounters. First of all, studies have shown that today’s young people are actually having less sex than their parents did. Second, old-fashioned relationships, from courtship to marriage, presented their own risks for women. Having humiliating sex with a man who treats you terribly at a frat party is bad but not inherently worse than being publicly shunned for having had sex with him, or being unable to obtain an abortion after getting pregnant by him, or being doomed to have disappointing sex with him for the next 50 years. But it’s still bad in ways that are worth talking about.

Maya Dusenbery, editorial director at Feministing, says that she increasingly hears questions from young women on college campuses that are “not just about violence but all the other bullshit they’re dealing with sexually — how they can get guys to get them off, for instance. I think they need feminists to put forth a positive alternative vision for what sex could be and isn’t. And it’s not just about rape. That’s not the only reason that sexual culture is shitty.”

And it’s not as if that culture disappears upon graduation. Dusenbery, who is now 29, speaks of her “great feminist shame”: After a decade of sexual activity, she very often still doesn’t get off. “In one way that feels so superficial, but then, if I believe sexual pleasure is important, that’s terrible! Come on, Maya! Communicate!” She winds up feeling bad for not having done the work of telling her partners how to make her feel good. “What I want is not for me to have that burden. I want one of my male partners, who are wonderful men who care about me, to have just once been like, ‘No, this is unacceptable to me. I’m not going to continue to have sex with you when you’re not getting off!’ And I can’t imagine that happening.”

Gattuso, who is now on a Fulbright fellowship in India, writes to me in an email: “I sometimes think that in our real, deep, important feminist desire to communicate that sexual violence is absolutely and utterly not okay … we can forget that we are often hurt in ways more subtle and persistent … And we can often totally forget that at the end of the day, sex is also about pleasure.”

Pleasure! Women want pleasure, or at least an equal shot at it. That doesn’t mean some prim quid-pro-quo sexual chore-chart. No one’s saying that sex can’t be complicated and perverse, its pleasures reliant — for some — on riffing on old power imbalances. But its complications can and should be mutually borne, offering comparable degrees of self-determination and satisfaction to women and men.

After all, sex is also, still, political. Contemporary feminism asks us to acknowledge that women “can have as many partners as men, initiate sex as freely as men, without being brutalized and stigmatized, and that’s great,” says Salamishah Tillet, a professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-founder of A Long Walk Home, an organization that works to end violence against women. The problem arises, she continues, with the feeling that “that alone will mean we’re equal. That alone is not an answer to a system of persistent sexual domination or exploitation. These women are still having these encounters within that larger structure, and men are not being asked to think of the women having sex as their equal partners.”

The black feminist tradition has never completely bought into sex positivity as a means toward a political end. Stereotypes of hypersexualization have always made it harder for black women to be believed as victims of sexual assault and also made it harder for them to engage in a sex-positive culture. Just last year, bell hooks startled an audience during an interview by suggesting that “the face of … liberatory sexuality” for black women might be celibacy.

I am not suggesting that contemporary feminism do away with its sex-positive framework or with its anti-rape activism. But it may need to add a new angle of critique. Describing the strain of popular sex positivity often simply understood as “You get it, girl,” Brodsky says, “I think of it sometimes as Lean In for good sex. In that there are these structural factors that are conspiring against terrific sex, but at work or in the bedroom, if you have the magic word, if you try hard enough, if you are good enough, you can transcend those.” Like Lean In, this kind of sex boosterism can be very valuable. But, continues Brodsky, we need to add to it, just as we do in the workplace. “We need both collective solutions and individual solutions.”

Dusenbery imagines a world in which feminists stop using the language of combat — as in combating rape culture — and instead set out to promote a specific vision of what sexual equality could entail. “It would include so much more: from the orgasm gap to the truly criminal sexual miseducation of our youth to abortion rights to the sexual double standard. Broadening the scope would not only push us to provide the same kind of deep analysis that’s been developed around rape culture in recent years but also help us better see the connections between all the inequities in the sexual culture.”

One thing that’s clear is that feminists need to raise the bar for women’s sex lives way, way higher. “Sure, teaching consent to college freshmen may be necessary in a culture in which kids are graduating from high school thinking it’s okay to have sex with someone who is unconscious,” says Dusenbery. “But I don’t want us to ever lose sight of the fact that consent is not the goal. Seriously, God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual.”

*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Why Consensual Sex Can Still Be Bad