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April 6, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 14
Casualties of the sex war
By Karen Durbin
Over the past six months or so, something peculiar happened to me and to many of my friends and acquaintances. Most of us might be described as having one foot in the counter-culture and the other off in some private world. We’re in our late 20s, and many of us are journalists. The women have all been active in women’s liberation or are sympathetic to it. All of us have done time in the anti-war movement although few of us ever did much of it in jail. We’ve tried most of the drugs that are around, and we feel ourselves indefinably apart from older “straight” types.
In the past six months, however, the thing we’ve held most in common is a kind of emotional atomization.
The one marriage in the group broke up last spring, the couples who were living together went on separate trips abroad, got separate apartments, and generally subjected themselves and everyone else to an agony of indecision. The last couple to go are in the process now; maybe the fact that they’ve never lived together makes it easier to draw out the split.
Then, too, we’re all feeling adrift politically. Politics of any kind, straight or raving-radical, seems empty right now. The counter-culture is a media dream, the revolution a counter-culture fantasy. The grand schemes — for a radical media and arts magazine or a People’s Party based on the Dutch Kabouters or any number of other terrific-sounding collective projects — have all collapsed under the weight of their own rhetoric. It’s no more than an embarrassment to suggest reviving them, a painful gaffe, like asking after a relative who’s just died.
I thought for a while that it might be only us, that these things were contagious among close friends. But then I looked around and it seemed to be everywhere. I’m hard pressed to come up with a single friend who loves anyone, who is loved, who remembers what the word means. Sex, yes. Lots of sex, more than ever; one of the advantages of being unattached is that you can sleep around more easily. It seems like a throwback to the ’50s, but without the tight-lipped cultural context that at least made it intelligible rebellion then.
Also, it has affected women as well as men. When men make Don Juans of themselves, I’m not really surprised, even when they’re erstwhile hippies who supposedly know better than to think they’re proving anything by putting sexual notches in their belts. And one man I know said his recent frenetic sexual activity didn’t give him the feeling of conquest or achievement but served as a distraction. (“It keeps my mind off the fact that I haven’t done any serious writing in almost a year. If I have three or four women in and out of my apartment in a day, I’m too damn busy and too tired to have to face the typewriter.”) I asked him if it wasn’t a hassle to have so many emotional entanglements in his life. “What you don’t understand,” he said, “is that there aren’t any emotional entanglements. These women don’t want anything from me but a fuck. They’re a whole new breed — completely cool. We don’t even talk much, just casual chatter to pass the time. Oh, there’s one who’s sort of literary. She’s always recommending books for me to read.”
I’m beginning to wonder what’s happening here and if what I’m seeing are — to lift a phrase from The Voice — casualties of the sex war. Recent contacts with organized feminism — a day spent at the Conference on Prostitution, an hour of watching several well-known feminists and a group of men on the Susskind show — reminded me why I haven’t been directly involved in the women’s movement in more than a year.
I dropped out of the movement after nearly two years of activity — demonstrating, organizing, writing — because I’d come to feel increasingly obsessed by it. I was tired and confused at feeling hemmed in by a movement that had helped me so greatly in the past. I felt I no longer belonged, and the reason was fairly simple. I wasn’t radical enough. I didn’t hate men, I was hopelessly heterosexual and attached to one man in the most intense way. (We’d been living together for two years. As far as I know, only my parents and the movement disapproved.) At every big meeting I went to, I found myself embroiled in angry arguments with radical lesbians who said I was copping out and that they were the true feminists, or with angry non-lesbians who said true revolutionaries didn’t consort with the enemy.
This last argument almost looks logical on the fact of it. A guerrilla fighter in Brazil might well be better off with no liaisons (particularly liaisons with members of the ruling class) to tie him — or her — down. It didn’t seem to make a great deal of sense in the women’s revolution, however. Men are the other half of the human race; unless you think a future of sperm banks, acquired homosexuality, and skillful masturbation is pretty delightful, you go on consorting with the enemy. It might even be argued that one honorable activity of a feminist is learning how to create new, liberated relationships with men.
This was hardly a prevailing view among radical feminists two years ago (and it isn’t now), and the women’s movement has no exception to politics in being swept by a party line, however informal, which is uncomfortable to depart from.
At the Prostitution Conference, Pamela Kearon got many enthusiastic cheers for a speech which occupied itself mostly with ridiculing men’s fears of impotence and was studded, so to speak, with cheap shots at the “enemy.” When another speaker posited the need to understand male sexual psychology as well as female, the audience booed, and Kearon walked off the stage and out of the auditorium.
Later, in an article for The Voice, Kearon stated that the distinction between prostitutes and other women who consort with men is that the latter are “unpaid vaginas.” This is a view of sex that strikes me as puritanical in the extreme. The last place I frequented which dehumanized sex so completely, separating it from mind and feeling, reducing it to its textbook physical details, was the Catholic Church. Kisses on the lips were not sinful; open mouth kisses were. Unpaid tongues, with marriage the price. Does Kearon rally to men, or would that make her an unpaid larynx?
And why, if a woman reserves her sexual activity for other women, is she not then, too, an unpaid vagina? Isn’t the question one of whether or not she gives herself freely under whatever circumstances? But you can’t give yourself freely to someone you hate and fear, and men are to be hated and feared. The concept of the unpaid vagina rests solely on the last assumption, that no man is worth loving, since all men are the enemy.
The Susskind show was remarkable only because most of the women on it seemed so enraged — before discussion had even begun — that no real exchange of ideas was even possible. During the segment I watched, several endless minutes were consumed by a fight over the comparative strengths of male and female bones. It was depressing and painful to watch; I turned it off, puzzling over the very real joy I had felt in my own evolving liberation and wondering why it was that this part of feminist experience never seemed to emerge in these debates. I think any woman not yet involved in feminism would have been frightened off by that program — feminism seemed to consist of nothing more than pain and rage.
I was surprised, after all these months, to find that so little had changed. I’ve always thought the man-hating aspect of women’s liberation was a temporary necessity, part of the wrenching away of the self from old, confining forms. I based this on my personal experience: as I grew more sure of my personal worth, I felt less dependent on men for the definition of my life, gathered courage to move from a boring job to an interesting one, I felt less personal rancor toward men in general than ever before in my life. (I think a great deal of rightful resentment exists in most women toward men, although it’s frequently suppressed and unacknowledged.) One doesn’t hate what one no longer fears. Apparently in that television studio and at that conference, there wassail a great deal of fear and more hatred.
The fact remains: men are a necessity to heterosexual women. One sees, however, some peculiar accommodations to that heterosexuality now, primarily the stillborn attempts by women to forge these new, freer relationships with men. The old nightmarish dependence begins to go out the window, as one divests oneself of the idea of marriage-happily-ever-after. But what is taking its place? Partly, it seems, a game of imitate-the-oppressor. Women talk about the freedom to treat men as sex objects, rumors circulate that the magazine Ms. will have a male fold-out (not true; however, Cosmopolitan, a magazine which excels at turning the concept of female freedom on its heading bizarre ways, is putting this piece of nonsense on the market in April).
This is a political and emotional dead-end for a movement that in its early years spoke out strongly for preserving that humanistic sensibility which has traditionally been attributed to the so-called weaker sex. The point was not that women should become hard-nosed power seekers or cool sexual manipulators — in other words, imitation men — but rather that by insisting on their full humanity, by refusing to permit men to treat them as objects, they would force the discovery of new, humane sexual relationships.
A friend of mine reported the other day that the women he meets are becoming alarming. He describes a typical evening: he’s asked his agent’s assistant out for a drink. Afterwards, they stop at her apartment. He kisses her once or twice (“It seemed expected of me,” he said); she immediately begins to take off her clothes. Feeling like a fool he blurts, “Wait a minute, I don’t even know you.” “That’s all right,” she replies. “I prefer to fuck men I don’t know. It’s better that way.”
Another male acquaintance describes his latest woman friend with, perhaps, unwitting candor and no lack of enthusiasm. “Jane,” he says, “is exactly what I want. She’s attractive — dark, slim, almost boyish — and totally self-sufficient. She lives in a comfy Upper East Side apartment and seems happy enough at her job.” (She’s an advertising copywriter.) “I don’t know — maybe it’s because she’s older, somewhere in her 30s, but she just makes no demands on me at all. No messy emotions, she never gets heavy. I don’t really know much about her — except that she recently ended a long involvement with a married man — and I prefer it that way. What matters is that she makes me feel great in bed. She says I give her more orgasms than any man she’s ever had.
“It’s a real ego massage to be with her,” he blithely continued, oblivious to my retching noises. “I think I understand what it’s like to be a beautiful girl. you offer someone your beauty and you don’t have to give them anything else. That makes me feel terrific, y’know?”
Terrific. One question: did he like Jane? He seemed slightly startled and after a pause said, “Yes, I suppose so. She’s really quite nice.” He added that he sees her every 10 days or so, in between other women who are apparently no more demanding than she but not so full of praise.
There’s a word for all of this, of course: reification. Turning that which is not a thing into a thing. Jane is a thing for my acquaintance; he is a thing for her; they are a pair of glorified vibrators. What they have isn’t love or affection or even simple friendship; like the man said, it’s massage.
Well, why not? The Sacher-Masochs were, by all accounts, a satisfied couple. Ditto Ken and Barbie. And the Levittown swingers we laugh at, as well.
Yet it seems bleak and a little dead. A year or so ago, so much seemed possible, and even if it didn’t seem possible, the try itself was worth making. New worlds were going to be forged. New men, new women, free of sex roles and competition, free of all the sexual levers that a sick, aggressive, macho society had manipulated us with. Now here we are. Brave New World. Society doesn’t have to manipulate us, we can manipulate ourselves. Let’s drop a little soma and go to the feels. Anything else might hurt.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]