In an essay written in 1970, amid the early years of the women’s liberation movement, the novelist and feminist activist June Arnold recalled several consciousness-raising sessions devoted to sex. The women talked about masturbation, lesbianism and the relationship between love and lust. They deemed sex a “huge and crucial” topic, Ms. Arnold wrote — and yet the nature of their own desires was often inscrutable.
These women spent much of their adult lives wanting to be considered a “good lay,” which sometimes meant contorting themselves to mirror their male partners’ sexuality. “But no man had ever really grooved on our sexuality,” she wrote. “How could he? We didn’t know really what it was yet.”
The sexual revolution was riding high, but second-wave feminism had barely gotten off the ground. The women’s frustration with the sexual landscape was, as Michelle Goldberg recently put it, “what you get when you liberate sex without liberating women.” There was an expectation for women to be free and horny, but the fact that sex was still tailored to men thwarted those efforts at every turn. Many heterosexual women felt their emotional needs were left in the dust while their sexual needs often remained a mystery to both their partners and themselves.
Half a century later, we’re grappling with a similar dynamic. Generation Z — which rightly sees how women are still, after all these years, taught to prioritize men’s desires over their own — has started to reject the concept of sex positivity and question whether casual dating is worth it, sometimes opting out of sex altogether. As the righteous energy of #MeToo fades into a more ambiguous debate, we’ve reached a point where it’s become obvious that consent and figuring out what you don’t want is just not enough. What does it mean to go beyond consent and discover what you do want?
The early feminists in those living rooms had their sights set on this question, one they deemed central to liberation. But uncovering the answer has proved to be a tall order. As a result, we have ended up sidelining a chaotic and mystifying but also politically essential process: pursuing desire on one’s own terms.