How can you distinguish sexually confident straight men from simpering boys who are covering up their fear with a show of braggadocio? Show them Hannah Rosin’s “Sexual Freedom and Women’s Success” in which she contends that women’s social and economic empowerment inclines them to be more promiscuous, and ask them what this might have to say about their own sexual opportunities. Expect the first answer to be a leering crack. Sex is funny because it’s bumbling, messy, and humane, and often the most appropriate response to the broaching of erotic matters is a joke. But then say, “Seriously though, do you think that higher all-around levels of female education and wealth would increase your personal chance of getting laid?” The ones who pause to sincerely consider this question are your confident men. The ones who persist in giggling about sluts: simpering boys.
There’s a sexual renegotiation going on right now in the western world. Nowhere near as epochal as what happened a generation ago in the 1960s and 70s, but significant nonetheless. In that earlier round the starting positions were utopian free love versus received religious notions of sex as evil. The deal that got hammered out was that sex was now good but still irresponsible. It may be enjoyed, but only if you make a show of being right-thinking in other ways. So sex outside of marriage is fine, as long as it still occurs within the bounds of a loving, long-term, exclusive relationship. A certain amount of sexual leeway is granted for the purposes of securing one of these relationships, just as an older generation allowed sex for the purposes of procreation. A flurry of early-twenties promiscuity is tolerated as long as there’s the implicit promise that everyone will get serious later, like college freshmen indulging themselves with a couple of Art History electives before buckling down and going pre-Law. The enforcement mechanism for this new set of taboos was likewise softened and secularized. People who flouted them were no longer immoral, merely misguided. A man who openly pursued multiple women was not a heartless lothario, but rather compensating for deep-set insecurities. (Though probably a bit of a misogynist as well.) A woman who slept with an inappropriate number of men was not a wanton whore, but we did have license to question her emotional maturity and speculate on what variety of psychotherapy would benefit her the most.
That’s an improvement, but when it comes to sex, societal regulation is still often not a means but an end in itself. And this in turn is bound up with the vital task of ensuring that, when all is said and done, men have more power than women. The interaction between sexual niceties and gender inequities is its own complex ongoing negotiation that is way larger than what I can get into here, so I’ll punt on it and leave the details to Amanda Marcotte, who has done me the favor of writing more or less what I think. Here, let me just relate two recent conversations I had with friends–both women, both professionally accomplished, past their twenties, and generally self-possessed–and then boldly assert that they represent a trend.
Friend number one was telling me about how she happily sleeps with different men, notions of appropriateness be damned. We found ourselves struggling with how to describe exactly what it is she enjoys. “Casual sex” doesn’t cut it because there was nothing casual about it for her. She is picky about her partners, and serious about the sex. The emotional connection is as important as the physical. She just doesn’t consider every encounter a down payment on a marriage. “I’m like a guy,” she finally said, and we left it at that, though there’s nothing at all masculine about her.
Friend number two can be out for drinks with men and find herself amazed at how much electricity they direct her way. She may not be the youngest woman in the bar, or the prettiest. If she is not available, she makes it clear in a way that’s matter-of-fact rather than coy. But the lack of coyness is itself the lure, because if she were available she wouldn’t be coy about that either, and there’s something about that directness men find intriguing. (Yeah, I know, it’s her word for all of this, but I’ve been around her and can vouch so trust me.) We didn’t know how to characterize this quality. Finally, I said, “You’re kind of masculine” and we both agreed this was on target, but also obviously wrong because, well for starters, she has a high voice and long curly hair, looks good in dresses and just generally reads as woman, woman, woman. Later she told me, “When I turned 36 I said to myself, from now until I’m about 50 I’m just going to get hotter with each passing year.” Of course the rules are that only men get to do that, but again, trust me, I think she’s right.
If you believe Rosin’s article, my two friends are not anomalies. Their attitudes are going to become more common as time goes on. The anomaly is that the best adjective any of us could come up for them was “masculine”. The negotiation that is going on right now may be over the varieties of sexual autonomy that are available to women, or–even more radically–a decoupling of all such varieties from gender roles. Fifteen years down the line, there may be just as many cads and coquettes, but their numbers will be distributed across biological males and females in equal proportion.
Rosin’s article is part of a larger thesis in which she argues that the United States is undergoing an economic transition in which women are, for the first time, becoming the richer sex, and that the effects of this will be far-reaching. You don’t have to buy this or even believe that greater economic power for women leads to greater sexual autonomy to be happy about the latter. Sexually confident straight men should hope that Rosin is correct if for no reason other than self interest. Which is why recent right wing grumblings here in the United States about sluts using contraception seemed so flat-footed. Why have your political party come out boldly in favor of making it hard to get laid? Are there really enough men out there whose desire to dominate women outweighs their desire to have sex with them? I’m not being rhetorical here–I’m asking in all sincerity. Guys, when you shame a slut, what do you get in exchange?