'Bad Sex' and how the sexual revolution left women's desires behind
BRITTANY LUSE, HOST:
You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. And a warning to listeners - today's conversation is entirely about sex and not just any sex, sex that's kind of mid, unsatisfying sex, bad sex. "Bad Sex" is the title of a book that gets into the causes of lackluster sex - mental, emotional, historic and systemic. And the author really changed how I thought about being a woman who's dated and loved men.
NONA WILLIS ARONOWITZ: It's about the unfinished business of the sexual revolution, especially when it comes to female desire.
LUSE: That's Nona Willis Aronowitz. She wrote the book as she was leaving an unsatisfying marriage and re-entering the world with a big libido and a lot of questions, like how do you discover your true desires when sexism seeps into sex?
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: And while I was on this personal journey, I was also reading a lot of history.
LUSE: Nona found that for centuries, women who date men have grappled with balancing safety and respect with love and pleasure.
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: That's honestly a throughline that I saw through every generation of activists where you have these feminists who are trying to imagine a better future for themselves, but they're actually living in the present and dealing with people who have been socialized in the past.
LUSE: Stick around because Nona will unpack the histories and the intimacies of what it's like to be a woman who's spent a lot of time thinking about how to have good sex with men.
So I want to get, I guess, a definition of terms. Define what you mean by bad sex.
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: Well, so the bad sex of the title, I think, has a few meanings. One, it refers to the sex that I had in my marriage, which a lot of people seem to be very shocked about. They're like, I can't believe you're talking about the bad sex in your marriage. Poor Aaron or whatever. For the record, he's fine with it and also knows that we had bad sex. We talked about it all the time. And I'm not saying that he was bad in bed. I'm saying we had bad sex. So I think that bad sex can just be a bad connection, a bad - like, a lack of chemistry and also just a lack of communication of what you want because sometimes you don't even know what you want, even with the most well-meaning partners.
But then, you know, it also means something broader. It means sex that's not satisfying for all kinds of reasons because people are still stuck in a dynamic of, like, men are the pursuer and women are the gatekeepers because people have different motivations that cause them to accept bad sex or bad relationships. There are all kinds of elements of sexism and misogyny that threaten to undermine our pleasure. Like, it gets broader and broader.
LUSE: How would you describe the sex landscape at the moment, especially for women who date men and the kind and quality of sex they're accepting?
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: I think we're in a bit of a backlash to the sort of flattened, mindless sex positivity of the '90s and aughts. And now I think as Gen Z is getting a little older, we're in a full-fledged rethinking of what sex positivity really can and should mean. I think for a while, there was this vibe of, like, get it girl. You know, get your orgasms. Like, you know, have sex with whoever you want, and you're liberated. And then starting maybe, I don't know, five, 10 years ago, that narrative started to become more and more complex.
We had very hard conversations about sexual assault and not only sexual assault, just sort of encounters that didn't make women who date men feel good. You know, I'm thinking of Aziz Ansari. I'm thinking of "Cat Person." And it's not like sex is getting worse, per se. It's just that our standards are really high, and yet we still haven't figured out how to meet that high standard. And sometimes that high standard itself can create shame and disappointment. And so I think we're at a really weird moment where we know we're supposed to, you know, have sexual pleasure or feel romantic fulfillment, but we don't necessarily know how to get there. And some people are just opting out altogether.
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LUSE: Up next, the long history of bad sex and how the sexual revolution left women's desires behind. Stick around.
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LUSE: One of the things I really liked about the book is that in the way that you define and discuss bad sex, you really accomplished two things that I had been wanting, I think, out of writing around sex, which is, one, you framed bad sex as simply unsatisfying as opposed to lumping it in with experiences that were harmful or coercive or abusive. Like, sometimes it feels like the sex that women have with men is framed in terms of painful or harmful or simply consensual...
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: Right.
LUSE: ...Or multiorgasmic without really...
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: Right.
LUSE: ...Anything in between or beyond that. I also appreciate the fact that this wasn't a book about sex tips. It was about, like, how we got here. There's something with a much longer history and a lot more nefarious at play than just, you know, I'm having this experience that doesn't feel that great. How did the sexual revolution of the '60s and second-wave feminism miss the mark when it came to good sex for women who have sex with men?
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: Oof, let's see if I can distill this. I think, yes, the pill sort of pushed it along because it removed the inevitability of pregnancy. And that was huge for women, and I think...
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: ...Very liberating for them. But from the beginning, it was sort of freeing sex and freeing the stigma of sex through a male lens. Like, all of a sudden, you wouldn't be shamed for having, let's say, premarital sex or sex with more than one person. But the actual sex was still prioritizing men's desires. And women still didn't really know how to discover their desires on their own terms.
And then the feminists came around. And I think, like I said, in those early days, sexual desire was taken extremely seriously. And there was a lot of imagination and energy around that topic. And then what happened in the '70s is the feminist movement became very preoccupied with rape and danger and protecting women from men's violent impulses, which is, of course, extremely important. But what I think ultimately got lost was those things needed to be balanced with the pursuit of pleasure.
And there were pro-sex feminists that were advocating for this, of course. My mother was an early radical pro-sex feminist. Her name was Ellen Willis, and she was in sort of those very early consciousness-raising sessions that really kicked off the more radical, the more imaginative, the less sort of, like, corporate version of feminism in the late '60s. But I think what the culture really glommed on to was, like, the paradigm of rape and, you know, anti-domestic violence and Take Back The Night. And again, all those things were transformative in terms of protecting women from violence. But I think they overshadowed and drowned out the voices who were trying to prioritize female pleasure.
And then from there, I think it's just been very difficult to have that conversation and then also have the sexual assault, danger, consent conversation and have them sort of seamlessly intertwine. I think we still struggle with that to this day.
LUSE: Yeah, it's interesting. It's like there's a - there's so much between sex shouldn't hurt - right? - or sex should be wanted and something agreed upon by everybody, and sex should feel good, sex should be fun.
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: I also do think that there's an uncomfortable conversation to be had about danger being part of pleasure and risk being part of pleasure. I think, you know, the sort of campus consent movement or like the, you know, consent is sexy thing is like really well-meaning, but it does sort of ignore the fact that some people are turned on by uncertainty or games or even violence or some sort of risk-taking. And I think that for a lot of people, that's always going to be part of their sexual makeup. And maybe that's cultural and socialized. What's nature, and what's nurture? But I do think that like completely safe sex, emotionally safe, physically safe, is, like, not necessarily going to be hot for some people.
LUSE: You talked to men, and you explored men's reactions to the sexual revolution and second-wave feminism. It seems, at least at this time, that, like, women were expected to change their attitudes toward sex, lest they be called frigid or women were seeking a more equitable approach to sex. And there were some men that were hip to that. But most men didn't have to change their attitudes or didn't have to think about changing their attitudes about having sex with women. Like, has that dynamic shifted at all in today's world?
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: I think so. I mean, I think - let's give men a little bit of credit. I think there are a lot of men out there who are trying to be good partners, trying to give women pleasure during sex. But I do think that even those well-meaning guys have a lot of internalized misogyny. And I think it's really hard to fully absorb just how much you need to be conscious and how much you need to sort of deprogram your own misogyny as a man, like, because you're just steeped in it from the very beginning of your life. We all are. That's happened to me a lot, where I'm sort of just interrogating my own upbringing. And I'm like, well, I was raised by, like, two radical leftists. And still, I've really absorbed some bad cultural messages.
LUSE: Coming up, how Nona tested her sexuality and affirmed her true desires. Stay with us.
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LUSE: You know, after having so much bad sex throughout a long relationship, I was really blown away by the rigorous testing you did of your sexuality. I really mean that, seriously. Like, it was an interrogation of self as much as it was going out into the world and seeing what you really responded to. How did you go about, during that process, determining what was compulsory and what you actually wanted?
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: Yeah. I mean, it was such a journey. Like, it, I guess, started with, here I am. I'm single. I'm 32. A lot of people around me are sort of already married and may be thinking about having kids. And then there is this whole other set of people who decided not to do that yet or ever. And I all of a sudden felt like, OK, I'm part of this, like, different club now, somebody who stepped off the heterosexual conveyor belt to, like, discover their desires. And I started having sex with a lot of people. And I was having sex - again, I was having sex with other people when I was in my relationship because of our non-monogamy and also because, I mean, frankly, some of that was, like, plain old cheating. And both of those things have totally different norms than just, like, normal dating, you know? And then I started to sort of question my heterosexuality.
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: I started to sort of think that that was, in some sense, weird that I had had so much bad sex with men, and yet I still assumed I was heterosexual. And I had never really interrogated actively why I wanted to have sex with men in the way that I think many queer people sort of by default have to do. Like, they have to have - go through sort of an active process because the default of society is being heterosexual. And then if you're not, you have to be like, what are my desires? And I sort of took a cue from that style and really gave it some thought of like, what about men do I desire? And, like, why do I want to have sex with them? And why do I want to love them, especially when there's so much, like, you know, complication and rancor sort of mixed in there?
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: Like, what makes it all worthwhile? And that was actually really enlightening. That was kind of, like, one of the major aha moments of the book, of, like, hetero people should really be thinking about why they're hetero, just like any other desire, you know?
LUSE: I want to talk about this one chapter where you talk about the problems of heterosexuality and how there's this response that's discussed seriously and, alternatively, tossed around as a joke, where heterosexual women should give up men altogether. And you say that this doesn't serve hetero people or lesbians. Can you say more about this?
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: Yeah. Well, I think the word on the street, the term that explains that is hetero-pessimism. That was coined by Asa Seresin a few years ago. And it really - yeah, like you said, like, people are genuinely sort of, like, anti-hetero. But even hetero people are sort of, like, facetiously anti-hetero in this very defeatist way that I find to be incredibly annoying, but also just not useful at all.
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: It's very defeatist. It's kind of denying your own desires to say, I'm hetero - a.k.a., I want to have sex with and love men, I guess, if you're a woman. And yet, like, I don't like those men. I don't trust those men. Heterosexuality is doomed and ha ha ha. Well, it's like, it's not that funny, and it's not that cool to say I desire this thing, but I'm not going to try to make it better. Once I did sort of determine that I was mostly heterosexual, it's my responsibility to continue to make those relations better, like, either with my writing and activism or just on an individual level. Like, I can't just talk about men like they're trash because, like, I like - I supposedly like them. I supposedly love them. Why are you treating the people you're supposedly, like, wanting to love and have sex with so badly? So I think that that's, like, step one in improving heterosexuality, just, like, not being ashamed of your own desires. I think that's really part of it.
LUSE: You also mentioned, too, that, like, there is some homophobia inherent, too, in the idea that, like, someone can or should just begin having sex with, you know, people that they're not inherently attracted to.
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: Right. Right. And yeah, that's the other element is that queer people are humans, too. They can be jerks also. They can be bad at relationships. They can hurt you. You can have bad sex in queer relationships also. And I think that that's sort of like not taking queer people seriously. I think a lot of queer people find heteropessimism extremely annoying also. And if you're hetero, don't idealize, like, another type of relationship. Try to have the best hetero relationship you can have and don't give up politically on the project.
LUSE: You know, so much has changed, even honestly since this book was published. Shortly after your book came out earlier this year, we saw the overturn of Roe v. Wade, which rolled back abortion access in many states across the country, which also greatly affects and changes the social consequences of sex for many people. You have a chapter that unpacks abortion and pregnancy termination in the book. How are you thinking about the bad sex conversation now, I guess, in this, like, post Roe world?
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: I mean, I think the simplest way to put it is there is no sexual liberation without reproductive freedom. Like, it does not exist. And abortion has always existed. But legal abortion, really, one thing it did do was further separate pleasure from reproduction. But this certainly puts a huge, huge, huge onus on people with uteruses who decide to have sex for pleasure or any other reason. Yes, of course, there were conservative forces who did not want abortion to be legal, but there were also supposedly liberal forces talking about, you know, the worst cases of people who had miscarriages, who can't get care or, like, people who had fetal abnormalities, who can't get, you know, third-trimester abortions. But for the vast majority of people who get abortions, it's simply because they're choosing a different life, and they're often choosing what's going to make them happier at that moment. And I think that abortion is a huge part of preserving the pursuit of happiness, which is just, in my opinion, another way of saying the pursuit of pleasure.
LUSE: You know, we've spent all this time talking about bad sex. What is good sex, and how can we have it?
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: (Laughter) Oh, God. Well, that's the million-dollar question, Brittany. But I think the the broadest answer is sex in which you are extremely tuned in to the other person's desires. Like, it's not enough for you to be having a great time, but you also have to have a sense that the other person is having a great time. And I think you can have that with a total stranger. You can have that with the love of your life. And it's like this beautiful dance where you're responding to each other's desires in this way that feels like you're very, very connected. And when they don't quite know, they ask. But often they know through other ways, like body language and vocalizations and, like, little things that they're observing and appreciating and loving about the person. And it does involve some, you know, kindness and tenderness and generosity. Even if you're having, like, a super anonymous, like, nasty encounter or whatever, like, there's tenderness beneath it because you care whether the other person's having a good time.
LUSE: Nona, thank you so much for joining us today. This was really great.
WILLIS ARONOWITZ: Thank you so much for having me.
LUSE: Thanks again to Nona Willis Aronowitz. Her book, "Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, And An Unfinished Revolution," is out now. This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...
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LUSE: Our editor is...
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LUSE: All right. That's all for this episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. Talk soon.
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