Bzzzzt! Sorry, Newsweek, but NO.
The cover of this week’s Newsweek – on stands today (at right.)
That’s one way to sell magazines, but the accompanying article has so many things wrong with it, it’s difficult to know just where to begin. But let’s start with the author, Katie Roiphe, on research into the sexual fantasies of women:
An analysis of 20 studies published in Psychology Today estimates that between 31 percent and 57 percent of women entertain fantasies where they are forced to have sex. “Rape fantasies are a place where politics and Eros meet, uneasily,” says Daniel Bergner, who is working on a book on female desire to be published next year. “It is where what we say and what is stand next to each other, mismatched.” The researchers and psychologists he talked to for his 2009 New York Times article, “What Do Women Want?” often seemed reluctant to use the phrase “rape fantasy,” and in scholarly pieces, the idea makes even the chroniclers of these fantasies extremely nervous and apologetic.
Just me? Or does it seem Ms. Roiphe takes serious issue with the reluctance to use the term “rape fantasies”? Is it possible she has no idea why that would be? Is she actually advocating that respected researchers publicly declare that what women really want is to be raped? And just how does she think that would play out in the real world? It’s not as if this idea isn’t already out there, making cases of date rape and spousal sexual abuse at once more prevalent and more difficult to prosecute.
Moreover, 31 to 57 % of women “entertaining” the fantasy hardly makes submission the end all, be all sexual fantasy for women – even for that 31 to 57%. But okay, I get it. Ms. Roiphe’s article is just another addition to the long and vaunted tradition of pop psychology rendered through the “analysis” of pop culture.
In this case, Roiphe looks at the success of self-published ebook/”Mommy porn” phenom 50 Shades of Grey and the new HBO comedy Girls. Defining this as a “craze” for spanking, she plunges head-on into the worn idea that all this gosh-darn success and power we women have these days just makes us long for powerlessness.
It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace, when they make up almost 60 percent of college students, when they are close to surpassing men as breadwinners, with four in 10 working women now outearning their husbands, when the majority of women under 30 are having and supporting children on their own, a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before.
Roiphe looks at the demographics of the women reading 50 Shades of Grey:
As it happens, the prevailing stereotype of the Fifty Shades of Grey reader, distilled in the condescending term “mommy porn,” as an older, suburban, possibly Midwestern woman isn’t entirely accurate: according to the publisher’s data, gleaned from Facebook, Google searches, and fan sites, more than half the women reading the book are in their 20s and 30s, and far more urban and blue state than the rampant caricature of them suggests.
This, combined with the fact that there are smart women behind Girls, counts as evidence for Roiphe to buy into the idea that empowered women are longing to be dominated by men; especially at a time “ in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been.” Give me a break.
All this tells me is that even well-educated, accomplished, ‘bread-winning’ women are constrained in the open expression of their sexuality by a society still very much influenced by religious morality. I would submit that it is far less about the role of women in today’s society, and much more about our Puritanical past (and present.)
Alas, Roiphe is not the first to push this line, nor will she be the last. For that matter, EL James, the author of 50 Shades of Grey, is pushing nothing new. Sure, James’ novel has some “hard-core” sex scenes, but it’s the same formulaic story of a young women falling for, and submitting to, a powerful man. Nothing new here. Really.
In the end, this is what Roiphe concludes:
It is perhaps inconvenient for feminism that the erotic imagination does not submit to politics, or even changing demographic realities; it doesn’t care about The End of Men or peruse feminist blogs in its spare time; it doesn’t remember the hard work and dedication of the suffragettes and assorted other picket-sign wavers. The incandescent fantasy of being dominated or overcome by a man shows no sign of vanishing with equal pay for equal work, and may in fact gain in intensity and take new, inventive—or in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, not so inventive—forms.
No. This is just so wrong. The prevalence of works like 50 Shades of Grey, and female sexual submission fantasies speaks not to the frustrations of feminism, but to the fact that there is still so much left for feminism to accomplish. Women may be less subjugated than ever; we may be more economically independent than ever; but that doesn’t mean the work is done.
We’re currently in a period where a good chunk of the Republican Party finds it acceptable to label a women a “slut” for using birth control. The modus operandi in the fight against abortion rights is regulations based entirely on inducing guilt and shame. That equal pay to which Roiphe refers still doesn’t actually exist, and laws promoting that goal are being stripped away by men such as Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker.
So, no thanks, Newsweek. You’re not helping.