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Will #MeToo Change Our Sex Lives?

Ask Second Wave feminists

The 1971 Women’s Liberation Parade on 5th Avenue in New York. Photo: Bettmann/Getty

Alix Kates Shulman was on her second marriage in 1967 when she heard about the women’s movement on the radio. At 35 with two kids living in New York City, she was afflicted with that very particular malaise made famous by Betty Friedan a few years earlier. She started going to meetings and was an instant convert, helping to plan the famous 1968 Miss America demonstration in Atlantic City, where feminists hurled bras and girdles into trash cans to protest beauty standards. Soon afterwards, her friend Kathie Sarachild convinced her to attend a consciousness-raising session in the East Village held by Redstockings, a group of radical socialist feminists comprised mostly of young women. The meeting was full of candid talk about sex and its discontents. Shulman remembers feeling electrified.

“At that point I was faking orgasms,” she told me recently over jasmine tea in her Chelsea loft. “Everybody was.”

Shulman’s marriage remained intact, and even appeared to improve, through that first explosion of feminism. Her husband was happy to drive her and other women to the 1968 Miss America pageant. In 1969, when America had just barely become aware of women’s liberation, Shulman caused a sensation by publishing what she called the “marriage agreement,” in Up From Under magazine (the piece was then reprinted in Life, Redbook, and New York). She and her husband had “decided to re-examine the patterns we had been living by,” she wrote, “and, starting again from scratch, to define our roles for ourselves.” What followed was a formal, egalitarian document outlining the division of childcare and domestic chores.

But the reality was more complicated. When Shulman wanted to tell her story at an abortion speakout, her husband objected: “It’s my abortion, too!” He and Shulman were sexually estranged, and they’d both been mired in extramarital affairs for years. In the months following the marriage agreement, they split up, got back together, split up again. Newly emboldened by women’s liberation, Shulman tried to jump-start their sex life by asking her husband for what she wanted in the bedroom. It was too late: The personal had fused with the political.

Will #MeToo change how we date and have sex? It might be too early to tell.

“He approved of the women’s movement,” Shulman said, but he became uneasy when “it started to threaten him.”

Shulman is just one example of a woman whose central romantic relationship was upended by that simple, magical sentiment of consciousness-raising: The OG “me, too.” The last two years have brought on a new wave of hyper-awareness about consent and power, in the workplace and elsewhere. The public calling card of #MeToo has been holding famous predators accountable for rape, harassment, and other sexual misconduct. But so far, it’s less clear how the movement will affect everyday relationships between men and women. Will #MeToo change how we date and have sex?

It might be too early to tell. So in the absence of long-ranging data on #MeToo, I decided to look into what happened to heterosexual sex and love the last time women demanded such a seismic shift in sexual dynamics. One thing quickly became obvious: We’re in for some deeply ambivalent behavior.

The 1970s women’s movement is famous for fighting rape and consent-breaching, laying the groundwork for #MeToo decades later. But before Take Back the Night and Susan Brownmiller’s landmark 1975 book Against Our Will, early radical feminists understood that garden-variety sex — consensual or not — was key to understanding the patriarchy. Kate Millett, in her 1970 book Sexual Politics, saw sex as “a charged microcosm of the variety of attitudes and values to which a culture subscribes.” In rap sessions like the Redstockings meeting Shulman recalled, women were grappling with conflicted feelings about the 1960s sexual revolution. For some, it had been undeniably positive; the Pill lifted the albatross of pregnancy risk and, particularly in countercultural crowds, women were no longer considered “damaged goods” if they had sex before marriage.

But sexual liberation had also created new problems. For men, the point had been more, widely accessible sex, and now the pressure was on women to “put out.” Women now wished they had the right to say “no,” particularly to the radical Movement men for whom they’d been stuffing envelopes. Sexual favors were often the price of political clout. And the sex women were having was usually bad, because most men had no idea what they were doing: “The guys fucked like rabbits,” feminist sex pioneer Betty Dodson told historian David Allyn. “It was so boring you could die.” Yet women were expected to writhe around in ecstasy, lest they be called “frigid” or “a drag.”

The twin movements of women’s liberation and the sex revolution spread from coastal cities across the nation, and women began voicing their dissatisfaction. Sociologist Shere Hite’s national 1976 study on female sexuality is full of women identifying their own versions of that “bad date” with Aziz Ansari. “I’ve never been raped but I’ve often had a combined feeling of unwillingness and accession,” one woman wrote. “Men have been raised in an environment where sex is seen as something they need, and that they must trick and seduce women into letting them have, against the woman’s better judgment,” another explained.

For these early feminists, women’s liberation was an antidote to all this. “I got braver and began to say what I wanted, both negative and positive,” remembered Sarachild, who’s still active in Redstockings to this day. Also: “I learned how to orgasm.” Marilyn Webb, a radical feminist who’d also been involved in the New Left, told me, “I was more aggressive in terms of wanting to have sex and feeling like I was entitled to being a sexual being.”

Yet many of those same feminists realized that even men they deemed allies were hostile to women’s new political confidence. At a leftist demonstration in 1969 protesting Nixon’s inauguration, Webb and Shulamith Firestone were slated to talk about women’s liberation, only to be shocked when the crowd booed and jeered. One man famously shouted at Webb, “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” Vivian Gornick, who wrote a seminal piece in the Village Voice profiling the first Second Wave feminists, remembers this moment as “a terrific catalyst.” Although most of the activist men she knew weren’t like that, it was still obvious that “they didn’t get it…They paid lip service to [feminism], but when it came right down to it, they did not honor it.”

It got even more nebulous in romantic relationships. Men would seem supportive, then feel threatened. Some men were turned off; others thought women’s liberation was hot. “A lot of intelligent men were fascinated with feminism and at the same time, nervous,” Erica Jong, longtime sexual liberationist and Fear of Flying author, wrote me in an email. “I was lucky to have boyfriends who were interested in my pleasure, liked my brain, and overcame their fears.” Shulman described the thrill of being able to teach her lovers about feminism. “That was very sexy to me,” she said. But there were also “some men terrified by women’s freedom [who] tried to pretend they weren’t.” Many relationships formed pre-feminism, like Gornick’s marriage, did not survive. Her husband “really got behind feminism” at first, but once she was conscious, “there was no going back.”

Non-activist men were weighing in on the “newly liberated woman,” too, and they seemed to be quite torn. Susan Brownmiller, in a 1975 interview with People magazine about her new book on rape, praised some modern men for “getting rid of jock notions of masculinity,” then later described a group of police officers who “jeered me” and didn’t “believe there is a crime such as rape.” After the success of her report on female sexuality, Shere Hite decided to conduct a similar study on men in 1981. Some called women’s liberation “ridiculous,” “a complete farce,” “a farcical gyration of dykes.” Others praised it as a long time coming. But most answers seemed laced with ambivalence. Like this guy: “Many feminists, especially radical and militant ones, make me nervous and uncomfortable (even though I consider myself to be a feminist), because I feel that they dislike me or see me as a man, and not a unique human being. (I hate being stereotyped by anyone.)”

Every early feminist I interviewed said it was always easier for a man to publicly embrace the women’s movement than to change deeply ingrained sexist behavior in his own life.

When asked by the Hite study whether the women’s movement had affected their relationships, most said not at all. (At least not in a way they were conscious of.) Some said it had a positive effect, like the man who wrote that because of “women’s lib,” his wife had become “more independent and more aggressive — more fun to be with.” Others, of course, yearned for the good old days: “Women are too liberated. I want romance back, and more love.”

The debate over sexuality divided feminists in the late ’70s, when rape and pornography became the focus. Radicals like Andrea Dworkin recast heterosexual sex as inherently oppressive, while anti-porn activists like Catherine MacKinnon claimed that porn contributed to violence against women. In response, “pro-sex” feminists argued that sexual repression of all kinds is harmful to women. Still other feminists became lesbians or celibates as a political statement. But nuanced accounts of women’s BDSM fantasies, butch-femme relationships, and enduring love for men showed, as historian Alice Echols put it, that even though many feminists wished one’s sexuality could reflect their beliefs, “sexuality was neither that malleable nor so easily aligned with one’s politics.” So, for the next few decades, most heterosexual women soldiered on. Some things would never be the same, but as #MeToo has made clear, other things remained stubbornly unchanged.

When it comes to sexual exploitation on the job, “there’s nothing that anyone has said now in the #MeToo movement that we didn’t all say 40 years ago,” Gornick said. “Me and every woman I know worked in offices where somebody was always hitting on you. There were times you walked into an office with your stomach in a knot, because you knew what was coming, and there was no way out of it.”

Women are having far more success calling out those problems now, even if speaking up still comes with enormous personal risk. Many (though not all) of the offenses they’ve been describing are taken for granted as indefensible, and because of that, women are more indignant. More people are starting to believe them. There is now a language for the harassment that Gornick and so many other women thought of as commonplace. “These women [in the #MeToo era] are ten times angrier than we were,” Gornick said. “Now they really want blood.”

Even if some feminists back then did want blood, their rage wouldn’t have been taken seriously: “They would never get a story in the paper” about harassment in the first place, said Gornick. In other words, Shulman said, “bad behavior was still perfectly acceptable” in the mainstream. If men “were to change their behavior, it had to be because they desired to, not because, uh oh, they would get in trouble.”

It remains to be seen whether the fear of “getting in trouble” at work will translate to the non-professional realm. Not wanting to get fired is one thing, but understanding concepts like enthusiastic consent during a hookup is another. The Second Wavers I spoke with agreed that personal relationships with murkier dynamics of power and consent are probably going to be harder to navigate and regulate than the workplace, where the incentive to behave may be stronger. Some worried that improving private sexual dynamics didn’t seem to be on #MeToo’s agenda at all: “It’s a protest movement,” Sarachild observed, “a movement against something bad rather than a movement for something better.”

To make it even more complicated, the cultural conversation around sex and consent isn’t one-sided: “There’s the #MeToo movement,” Webb said. “But then there’s this president.” She told me her friends struggle to explain moments like the Brett Kavanaugh hearings to their teenage children, and worry that negative models of masculinity will bleed into the youngest generation’s personal lives.

Every early feminist I interviewed said it was always easier for a man to publicly embrace the women’s movement than to change deeply ingrained sexist behavior in his own life. What’s shocked a lot of people about #MeToo is that regardless of many men outwardly understanding that rape, harassment, and sexual pressure are bad, their personal lives reflect a different reality. Because nowadays men aren’t supposed to be sexist, it’s harder and harder to spot the “bad men.” Especially the men you’re supposed to love.

Still, the more we candidly talk to those men we love, the more likely it is that things will improve. Shulman seems the most optimistic about the next generation, maybe because in the 1980s, decades after her second marriage broke up, she found Scott, the feminist love of her life. At first he was a “dinosaur,” she said, completely unenlightened about women’s issues, but their romance was “a process of consciousness-raising.” He listened and learned. He was patient enough to give her orgasms. “He was eager to change,” Shulman said, “and I loved that about him.”

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