Coincidentally, shortly after I wrote my post about Susan Dench’s hook-up culture piece, Suzanne Venker posted her own response to the original article on the BDN site. Those of you who are familiar with Venker’s work won’t be surprised that she is very supportive of Dench’s argument. Even less surprisingly, that support is premised on some critical misunderstanding about what feminists believe and promote about sexuality.
In response to mounting criticism of Dench’s piece, Venker writes, “That’s how committed some people are to the idea that feminism is about equal rights. The younger a person is, the greater the commitment. It takes getting married and having kids, or at least a good dose of maturity, before people realize all that stuff about the sexes being the same is bunk.”
Wow! Okay, so we’ve hit the ground running here. The fundamental premise of feminist thought is most certainly not that women and men are identical. Certainly, there are some behavioral patterns that are gendered for a variety of reasons that could include but are not limited to: different socialization practices, shared experiences within gender groups, adherence to social norms, the effects of privileges and disadvantages, etc. I have never, ever, ever, ever met a feminist who has come even close to expressing the sentiment that women deserve equal rights because they are the same as men. Women deserve equal rights because they are as good and as valuable as men. Post-modern feminists even argue that not only are women not the same as men, they’re not the same as each other, either. This may come as a shock, but there is immense variability between women, seeing as how we dwell in all parts of the world, come in all races and sizes, and have significant differences in education, class, religious affiliation, income, ability, aptitude, personality, health… the list could probably go on and on forever. The thing is, rights aren’t about sameness. They’re about humanity.
Venker continues, “Feminism simply went too far. We can fight all day long about whether the rules of love needed to be changed or whether feminism is necessary anymore. But there’s no getting around the fact that the sexual revolution was a disaster. Women were sold a script about sex and gender roles, one they’ve been hanging on to ever since. The underlying theme is the idea that women can, and should, have sex like a man: without getting attached.”
Uh, nope. First, there is no singular, pervasive consensus among feminists about sexuality. As the sexual liberation movement progressed, radical feminists like Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin were adamantly railing against what they considered the sexual exploitation of women, the latter of whom considered nearly all heterosexual activity, including and especially penetration, to be degrading to women. So, obviously, they’re not the feminists Venker is talking about. My best guess is that her criticism is directed at sex-positive feminists (whose ranks I count myself among), in which case her accusation lands closer to the mark but is still wildly inaccurate. I have never encountered a feminist who encouraged women to engage in unwanted sexual activities. What this branch of feminism does encourage is for women to feel free and unashamed to have the kinds of sex they do want to have with as few or as many partners as feels right to them. If you are a woman who only enjoys sex within the context of a committed relationship, please continue to exclusively have sex that way! In fact, sex-positive feminists tend to be big believers in enthusiastic consent: the idea that sexual activities should be ideally regulated by “yes means yes”, rather than simply “no means no”. Or in other words, sex should happen in a context that both partners feel good about, where consent is not assumed, and neither partner pressures or convinces the other to participate in an unwanted encounter. Talking about consent gives both parties an opportunity to consider whether or not the activity in question is something they really want to do. Encouraging such practices seems like an awfully far cry from telling women how they “should” be having sex – or worse yet, that women’s attitudes toward an unwanted sexual activity should be reformed to match a male partner’s detached desire.
Venker wraps things up by asserting, “Gender relations are dependent upon masculinity and femininity, but any mention of this is met with skepticism or outright derision. Post-feminist America thinks males and females are virtually identical. We’ve become genderless.”
By “gender relations,” I’m assuming Venker is referring to heterosexual, romantic relationships. Or rather, I hope that’s what she’s referring to, because there are a whole lot of contexts where primary emphasis on gender roles would be wildly inappropriate: for example, the workplace springs immediately to mind. However, Venker’s assertion is still worthy of every ounce of that skepticism and derision she gets in response. I’m guessing that Venker and her husband respectively find stereotypical masculine and feminine traits very attractive. If stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are authentic representations of who they are and what they want, I have no problem with that. I’m comfortable with Venker’s ability to draw conclusions about who she is and what she wants. What I am not comfortable with is Venker’s attempt to promote the gender binary as a one-size-fits-all solution for relationship trouble. Gender can be expressed, explored, or transcended in all sorts of ways within the context of happy relationships and happy marriages.