Ugly Sex: Remembering Girls

The wages of Second Wave feminism

I’ve been cleaning out drafts and ran across one from January 2013 that I think is relevant today. Lena Dunham has been stumping for Hillary Clinton who has been losing support among women amid a growing concern about her views on feminism. Many find this confusing. It is confusing. Feminism is murky, difficult to understand.

This post hit on some of that confusion.


HBO's GIRLS started again last weekend. In an interesting review from Australia’s Daily Life, Clemetine Ford praises GIRLS for portraying the new realities of "ugly sex:"

[O]ne of Dunham’s greatest achievements with GIRLS is the way she explores sexuality and performance. Without judgment, she portrays a myriad of sexual choices that might seem unusual to an outside observer but that make complete sense to the person within them. To be an empowered sexual woman isn’t to only have the kind of sex that involves a respectful partner and results in orgasm.

Read that last line again.

In this latest feminist twist, "empowerment" requires neither respect nor satisfaction. Or to cut to the quick, apparently empowerment does not even require self-respect. (Or logic. According to Jezebel, what's the point of orgasm-free casual sex?—it allows one a moment to pretend security and intimacy.)

After some exposition on and praise for unsatisfactory sex, Ford claimed:

We are all stumbling towards some kind of maturity, and we are bound to take detours down dark paths along the way. In the end, we still reach our destination.

Feminists often say such things, 'just keep living as you want, and it will all work out in the end.' This is a rather naive position for women who dedicate themselves to hard work in their professional lives where they know that success doesn't just happen. The advice also isn't true.

Two women have dared to level with the GIRLS about living a life of detours down dark paths.

January's doldrums brought a long and well traveled confession from Elizabeth Wurtzel, and a lesser known, though better written, confession from The Daily Mail's Liz Jones. Like Wrutzel, Jones has lived her truth, a life full of those dark paths that supposedly lead to our destination—or not:

Goodness knows, January is a depressing month. Short damp days, the hangover from overspending at Christmas, newspapers and magazines full of pictures of the rich sunning themselves in sunny climes. For many, the next few weeks are all about nesting, but if, like me, you have no one to nest with, the new year can loom ominously. Having just endured two weeks of being alone - giftless, friendless, family-less - January is even more dispiriting. Picture me, on New Year's Eve: in bed with three cats and Bridget Jones on TV. I fell asleep at 11pm and, when I awoke, eagerly activating my BlackBerry, there were zero text messages, not even one from Orange.
I still have an untouched box of posh Christmas crackers because I had no one to grasp the other end with. I received two Christmas cards - one from my agent and one from my editor. And I kept thinking about Nigella Lawson: I bet she isn't alone at this time of year. Why am I not only divorced, but utterly friendless? Aren't friends supposed to be there for you, always, like the women in Sex And The City?

It doesn’t have to be those two. I can find other tales of regret.

After the Wurtzel essay, Megan Daum of the New Yorker pondered how Hannah Horvath, the GIRLS main character and "voice of a generation," should respond to such bleak portends of her possible future:

How must it feel to be trapped inside a self-imposed, culturally sanctioned extended adolescence, only to get the news that this limbo might be a permanent condition, that not even fame and best-selling books guarantee a graduation into respectable, adult life?....
I had a number of reactions while reading Wurtzel’s essay—this is sad, this is beautiful, what is the purpose of this paragraph?—but mostly I wanted to call up Hannah (or text her, or ping her, or whatever it is she answers to) and tell her to pay it no mind while also paying close attention....“This story has the best possible ending, because I am telling it,” Wurtzel writes in “One-Night Stand.” Sometime in the course of writing my story, I thought the same thing. But then it came out, and even though life was exciting for five minutes, the money I was paid for it went straight to Visa and ConEdison and Sallie Mae, and I didn’t feel any more enlightened or empowered than I had before. I saw then, as I have so many times since, that stories don’t end just because you tell them. They may become funnier or more colorful or more meaningful because you’ve told them. They may make it easier to wake up every morning and keep living that story. But they don’t change it or make it a happy one. Change, unfortunately, can only be accomplished off the page. Change means enduring some measure of sameness while you build a foundation from which you can launch yourself into your next adventure. A pure heart beats as steadily and as monotonously as a sell-out one.
And with that, my dear Hannah, I say get a job and get writing, in that order. If you’re patient, one day you’ll have a life.

Experienced older women write of regret, loneliness, and meager means, but Daum offers no wisdom on the restraint necessary for solvency, the effort required to maintain friendships, or anything else of consequence. Instead, she reheats the feminist go-to advice that happiness evolves from employment.

Just get a job and everything will work out

"Get a job" wasn't such great advice back when we GenXers graduated from college and found jobs aplenty with post grads often starting with six figure salaries. Depending on the woman, the money either merely took the edge off of our dissatisfaction or, as with Jones and Wurtzel, enabled our denials. These days, we often talk of those years as a bit of a wasteland. Knowing now what we didn’t know then, we would have saved more, started families sooner, and similar. Regardless, recommending a life through employment for a current young woman betrays a lack of understanding of their plight.

Dunham writes Hannah as unemployed because so many Millennials are unemployed or under-employed. If Millennials follow the standard feminist advice, not only might they face the loneliness of the Elizabeths, but also do so without the career satisfaction, the designer suits, or even the ability to wipe out their college debt. (Well, Lena Dunham can because they she money and family connections. Most women, even those young media types who cheer her honesty, don’t have those advantages.)

So I wonder, is this really all feminists have to offer the young? Do as we say—invariably something self serving about sex or career—and this time things will magically work out in the end?