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.