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Not Liberating, After All How did feminists end up in bed with Hugh Hefner?

Not Liberating, After All How did feminists end up in bed with Hugh Hefner?

September 21, 2005

Ariel Levy attended Wesleyan University in the 1990s, and she doesn't feel the better for it. It was a place where "group sex, to say nothing of casual sex, was de rigueur." It was a place where they had "coed showers, on principle." When Ms. Levy suggested to a department head that it would be nice to have at least one course in the traditional literary canon, she was dismissed with icy contempt. Yet elsewhere on campus a professor of the humanities taught a course on pornography featuring, um, detailed textual analysis.

It was all supposed to be so liberating. But it wasn't, as Ms. Levy argues forcefully in "Female Chauvinist Pigs." It was merely the academic groundwork for what she calls "raunch culture," now so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. Young women wear shirts emblazoned with "Porn Star" across the chest. Teen stores sell "Cat in the Hat" thong underwear. Parents treat their daughters' friends to "cardio striptease" classes for birthday parties. This is liberation?

Ms. Levy is baffled. "Why," she wondered, "is laboring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering?" Why did female Olympic athletes pose for Playboy before the summer 2004 Games? Why did Katie Couric feel the need to point to her cleavage and gush "these are actually real!" when she guest-hosted "The Tonight Show" a couple of years ago?

Some sort of pervasive pressure, apparently, requires "everyone who is sexually liberated . . . to be imitating strippers and porn stars." Ms. Levy describes the perfect distillation of this impulse--a social group called CAKE that hosts steamy, hooking-up parties in New York and London. CAKE makes big bucks advertising "feminism in action"--it claims to be the place where "sexual equality and feminism finally meet"--but its events are indistinguishable from those held at the Playboy Mansion.

The surface logic of such conduct is fairly simple, notes Ms. Levy. "Women had come so far," or so the thinking went, that "we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny." If male chauvinist pigs "regarded women as pieces of meat, we would outdo them and be Female Chauvinist Pigs: women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves."

Well, Ms. Levy is having none of it, and she is not the only one. Even Erica Jong seems to feel that something has gone wrong. Known for popularizing the idea that a woman may want consequence-free sex, Ms. Jong today declares: "Being able to have an orgasm with a man you don't love . . . that is not liberation." It isn't? Someone should tell this to Annie, a blue-eyed 29-year-old who admits to Ms. Levy that she "used to get so hurt" after a night of sex that didn't yield an emotional bond. Now she has gotten over it, or tried to: "I'm like a guy," she brags.

How did this happen? Why did feminism sell its soul to the sexual-liberation movement in the first place? After all, the original feminists were fighting to be taken seriously. Hugh Hefner, by contrast, said that his ideal girl "resembles a bunny . . . vivacious, jumping--sexy." There seems to be a contradiction here.

Ms. Levy's answer is that, after a brief and failed fight against pornography, feminism joined forces with Hef & Co. to fight for abortion rights. This is a plausible explanation, as far as it goes. Abortion has indeed assumed a primary importance in both feminist "rights" thinking and in the whole culture of soft-core libertinism: Mr. Hefner is a big fan of abortion, for obvious reasons.

But something else may be going on. Feminism grounded itself, in its early days, in the idea that there were no differences between the sexes. A girl wanting to keep her virginity was bad, for sexual reticence amounted to asserting a separate standard, a Victorian one at that. To Hef, modesty was a "hang-up," and to the feminists it was a "patriarchal construct." Ms. Levy believes that feminism was on the right track but then veered off-course: "What has moved into feminism's place . . . is an almost opposite style, attitude, and set of principles."

But maybe feminism's foundations were weak from the start. Everyone in Ms. Levy's book--whether it's middle-class girls who feel anxiety about appearing "hot" or grown women who confess to Ms. Levy that "accumulating sex for its own sake . . . is not that sexual"--shows that a woman's experience of sex and love is very different from that of an adolescent boy or a man. Indeed, the more a woman imitates a man, the clearer these differences become.

Paris Hilton tells Rolling Stone: "My boyfriends always tell me I'm not sexual. Sexy, but not sexual." (Ms. Levy reports that on one of the infamous videotapes she takes a cellphone call during intercourse.) Plainly, the sexual revolution has not brought fulfillment for women. Even its mascots experience boredom, and for the civilians there is distress and heartache.

It may be that, like Ms. Levy, a lot of feminists now regret getting in bed with Mr. Hefner. Yet if you mention the word "modesty" within 20 feet of them their heads spin around like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." This is where they get stuck. Only if feminism can embrace the more traditional ways that men and women have courted throughout the ages can it have anything practical to offer young women. To the extent that feminists dismiss as worthless anything that is perceived as "backtracking," they only help to perpetuate the "raunch culture"--even as they deplore its effects.

Take a beach scene that Ms. Levy recounts, when the male "friends" of two girls pressure them to take off their suits. Soon surrounded by a circle of 40 screaming men, the girls say "no way!" but eventually give in and spank each other to appease the crowd.

Such a girl requires, in addition to perhaps Mace, a compelling alternative to the Female Chauvinist Pig. Otherwise she may well give in to social pressure--not to mention professorial nonsense--and then wonder what's wrong with her when she is not happy with the pig in her bed or the pig she has become.

Ms. Shalit is author of "A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue." You can buy "Female Chauvinist Pigs" from the OpinionJournal bookstore.


Copyright 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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