May 11 • 31M

Rethinking Sex

My conversation with author and Washington Post columnist Christine Emba

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Tara Henley
Conversations with heterodox authors and journalists from around the world, asking the questions that are not being asked.
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“We’re liberated, and we’re miserable.” That’s the title of a chapter in Christine Emba’s new book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation — and one I think a lot of people will relate to. The sexual revolution held lots of promises of freedom and liberation, but in many ways, it just hasn’t delivered. We’re in the midst of a sex recession. Marriage is in decline. And, according to a Pew survey, nearly half of American adults say dating has gotten harder for most people over the last 10 years, and fully half of single adults have given up on dating entirely.

Women know this. Men know this, too. But many are not willing to talk about it publicly. Because to critique where the West has landed on sex and intimacy is to critique feminism, and to question the overreach of #MeToo. Add to that: To focus on relationships between men and women is to risk offending the progressive consensus, which sees the whole conversation as reinforcing heteronormative discourse.

Christine Emba wades into these troubled waters in her debut book. She’s an opinion columnist and editor at The Washington Post. And she joins me today to talk about the mess between men and women — and how we might get out of it.


TH: Christine, welcome to Lean Out.

CE: Thank you so much for having me.

TH: It’s really great to have you here. I found this book quite surprising, for a lot of reasons. You go after some sacred cows here; as the subtitle suggests, this is a provocation. Add to that, I found your politics did not necessarily fit into any particular box, which is refreshing. I want to start with your background. You are a Christian evangelical who converted to Catholicism. You write in the book about remaining a virgin into your twenties. How did you decide to write a book about the sex crisis between men and women?

CE: [Laughs] All of that intro is true. First of all, I really like the fact that my politics are not that easily identified, frankly. In the first review of Rethinking Sex that came out, Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times said the same thing. She was like, “Christine Emba is a heterodox thinker; she quotes Roger Scruton, but also Andrea Dworkin.” I think that’s helpful because I think both sides have some wisdom here.

But back to your main question. You know, I’m an opinion columnist at The Washington Post, and my focus is ideas and society. During the #MeToo moment in 2017, 2018, I was writing a lot about these cases, about the Harvey Weinsteins, the Matt Lauers. But I was also very interested in the not so cut-and-dried cases, the Cat Person, the Aziz Ansari. These situations that were consensual, and so, not criminal, but still sort of deeply bad. That so many young women and men, but especially women, seemed to relate to, seemed to think was the norm. That made me think of my own situation, my own friends and peers. How starting from the outside of the modern sexual world, looking in, to becoming part of it myself, I’d come across, again and again, this disconnection between what people actually wanted — real relationships of care — and what they were settling for. And even saying was good.

Fly-by-night hookups in which the next morning they were left disappointed, and sad, or pretending not to care, not to have feelings. Pretending that sex didn’t mean anything to them, even though it obviously did. I was interested in exploring these tensions. How did we get to this place? What parts of the sexual revolution and feminist movements had perhaps taken a turn from their original destination? And what were the assumptions that I and my peers were holding about sex that might actually be hurting us, rather than helping us to the human flourishing that we desire? These were more personal questions, I think, than just the top-line stories. And there were so many of them that it did feel like it needed a book to explore.

TH: There’s so much to pull from what you just said. The “deeply bad” you speak of — the impression I get from the book is that this is bad sex, bad encounters, uncomfortable sex, uncomfortable relationships. How did we get to a place where women and men are so unhappy with their romantic lives?

CE: Navigating our love lives has always been difficult. But today the general outlook has become not just jokingly sad, but actually depressing. And the pessimism comes at a moment when we might actually expect the opposite. We’re living in a golden age of sexual freedom. The average age of first marriages is rising. Birth control is widely available. Most people are accepting of premarital sex. We’ve breached the ramparts of repression, post-sexual revolution, and the wall of silence that supposedly prevented us from expressing our sexuality has fallen. And yet it hasn’t made us happy. Many people today actually feel a bit lost. And I would suggest that part of the reason why is that our definition of freedom is skewed. We have defined freedom, in a liberal capitalist society, as the freedom to go your own way. To not be bound by any rules or restrictions. To not be bound by other people. To not have ties.

Freedom means the freedom to move. But that freedom can look a lot like loneliness. When you excise your feelings from the conversation, when you forfend to connect with anyone for fear of dimming your career prospects, because you’re afraid that having feelings might trap you — then, yeah, you end up not being able to share your feelings and being alone. And that is what freedom has looked like for a lot of people.

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I also think that people do need boundaries to help structure and shape behaviour and move them in the direction that they would like to go. So that they know what to expect when entering a sexual encounter with someone. So that a first date looks like a first date. And not, as one woman told me, “we had sex, but then he surprised choked me.” I think there’s a lot of confusion and a lack of connection in this moment.

TH: I think you’re right about that. I do want to talk about feminism. This is one of the sacred cows. There’s a point in the book that really surprised me, where you were talking about how we have actually primed young women to be the kind of sexual partners that young, uncommitted men want. You know, buying into this idea of no-strings-attached, transactional sex, with really low expectations on the act, and, on account of the rise of porn, often involving quite degrading things. Walk me through your main criticisms of feminism in this context.

CE: In Rethinking Sex, I do a deep dive into how the feminist movement was, in my opinion, co-opted over the course of the sexual revolution and into the moment that we live in today. The early feminist movements really had a revolutionary idea in mind: Smashing a patriarchal system that centred male preferences, and toxic value systems, and replacing it with a vision in which women and their distinctive concerns and femaleness were equally valued and respected.

But our post-feminist movement asks for less. I try to work through how this shift happened in the book. Rather than dismantling a male-dominated system, they redefined female progress as just gaining power within the existing system, which meant adopting its values. Instead of a revolutionary, almost utopian society where women were valued as women, and ostensibly female virtues were actually taken seriously, female desire taken seriously, female humanity taken seriously — we just kept the same ideals and stuck a woman in. So the boss is still the ideal, it just now looks like a #GirlBoss. Playboy is still fine, as long as women can be playgirls. When it comes to dating, it looks like women and men accepting this approach to sex, and women even trying to adopt the male ideal in order to wield what’s seen as its power.

TH: To be fair, the status quo not working for men either, which you point out in the book. We can talk about incels later, but even the median experience of men is not great. When you look at the data around the dating apps, it’s a very small pool of men doing all the dating and many men are not finding dates. They’re not finding companionship, or they’re finding the kind of empty encounters that are feeling quite uncomfortable to them as well.

CE: Men aren’t asked in this society to be better, or more loving, or more open people themselves. And they also still face the same pressure to lean into stereotypical roles, making it harder for them to ask for and achieve the connection that many of them actually want. If this standard is upheld, the most stereotypically masculine man is still the winner. And men who don’t act like that, or who can’t live up to that bad ideal, feel left out. They end up feeling like the losers.

TH: In the book, you talk about the sex positivity movement. You write that there is this thread of feminism that was profoundly anti-sex, and particularly anti-heterosexual sex, and that didn’t believe it was possible to have healthy sex in the context of patriarchy. But you point out the sex positivity movement makes the opposite mistake by refusing to judge any behaviour whatsoever.

CE: I spend a lot of time in Rethinking Sex trying to figure out how we got to the current moment and how it diverged from the original goals of the feminist movement. I have to point out that there were good things there. Those revolutions happened for a reason. But so much of that conversation was co-opted and warped. And the idea of sex positivity was a key loss, actually. The feminist journalist Ellen Willis coined the phrase “sex positivity” in a very specific context. She was writing against feminists in the movement who said that sex with men wasn’t possible, that to be a good feminist you had to separate entirely from heterosexuality, that change was never going to happen. She wrote about being sex-positive in the sense that women’s desire for relationships with the other sex is good — and we can be positive about that.

But today, the idea of sex positivity has ballooned beyond its original scope. It’s not just the idea that women’s desire is valid, but it’s the idea that being a good modern woman, or a good liberal, or a good feminist, means just sort of being up for it all the time — with an emphasis on adventurousness and never saying no. Being sex positive in the current moment seems to mean having as much sex as possible and always enjoying it.

TH: I’m quite critical of feminism, although I grew up in very progressive circles. Part of it is what you were talking about earlier, the #GirlBoss thing, and understanding that there was some wrong turn where we, as women, defined equality as the ability to compete as men in the labor market. But then also with the excesses of #MeToo. There’s a moment in the book that I just found amazing. You’re quoting Ezra Klein in relation to a California bill on adopting affirmative consent standards for sexual assault investigations: “It will settle like a cold winter on college campuses, throwing everyday sexual practice into doubt and creating a haze of fear and confusion over what counts as consent. This is the case against it. And also, the case for it.” And later he says, “men need to feel a cold spike of fear when they begin a sexual encounter.” Your thoughts?

CE: [Laughs] I found that piece so, so fascinating. I’ll read the sentences that I write after that: “There is something to be said for this sort of fear. Perhaps men should be nervous, so nervous that they make an analysis of their actions in the same way women do. Yet, even a stricter, more punitive version of consent doesn’t solve the deeper problems of our sexual culture, and creates others too.” You know, not every sexual misstep is a crime, but if we enact a legal regime around what sex is good and what sex is bad, and punish people based on consent, we ignore the fact that our rules are so impoverished that they’re easy to misconstrue. Plus, as is the case with everything else in our criminal justice system, we end up levying the harshest punishments against the poorest or brownest or otherwise most undefended, not necessarily those most in the wrong.

One of the threads running through the entire book is that the idea of consent, as the standard by which we judge sex, is impoverished. It’s not enough, for a number of reasons. Consent is a legal criteria. It’s an excellent and necessary baseline. The baseline is the floor; it’s not the ceiling. We should be striving towards something higher than just that baseline. And I suggest that the ideal that we should be striving for is willing the good of the other. This is an ideal that is not criminally enforced, or enforced by the state. It’s something that we have to enforce ourselves. We have to have a social understanding of what sex looks like, and what the good looks like, to reach for something higher.

TH: Back to the fear piece, one thing I hear in interviews a lot from women is that men are scared now of asking women out. That is counterproductive to the human flourishing that you talk about. So many women want partners, a home life, a domestic life, a satisfying romantic life. But if men are too scared, because of that fear that Ezra Klein writes about, is that not counterproductive for all of us?

CE: Right. I mean, back to earlier in our conversation, I talk about that too in the chapter “We’re liberated, and we’re miserable.” There’s no clarity for men as to what they’re supposed to do, or allowed to do, or what their actions will be read as, and whether they’ll be punished for them.

So, in a world where sex is everywhere, there are a lot of men who find themselves afraid. [They think] if I ask out a woman, maybe she’ll assume that I’m going to pressure her into sex? Or if I talk to someone at work, is that going be read as a sexual thing? Because there aren’t really any boundaries. And so, men, rather than finding themselves in that position, would rather not [participate]. They only go to dating apps, where it’s explicit that everyone is there for dating. Or give up on the scene altogether.

I talked to a number of psychologists about this, too, especially psychologists working with younger people. One said to me, “Young men are terrified. Men in their twenties are terrified and they talk about it a lot, because there’s just no clarity about what they’re allowed to do, what they should be doing, how women will respond apart from just, I guess, the rule of don’t rape someone.” But that’s a really low bar. We need a lot more clarity than that.

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TH: Getting to incels, now. There’s a genre of books about women who are alone and childless. They go on a quest to understand their romantic lives — and often don’t come up with an answer at the end of it. There’s sympathy for that position. We don’t hear much sympathy for incels. You have expressed sympathy in this book.

CE: I have in this book, and I have in the past. A couple years ago, to some backlash, I wrote a piece in the Post entitled “Men are in trouble, incels are proof.” For the readers who are not familiar, incel is short for involuntary celibate. It’s a self-imposed name that young men have given themselves; they define themselves by their inability to find a sexual or romantic partner. In this book, I do take pains to point out that I am not sympathetic to what seems to be, in many cases, an incel-held ideal that men deserve a woman, and they deserve the woman that they want. They deserve a hot chick who will do whatever for them. That’s not fair; nobody deserves someone else.

But I think the discussion of loneliness, the fact that people want a romantic partner, want a connection, and find themselves unable to find it — I do think that that is sad, and that inability to connect with someone, to find a partnership that contributes to your human flourishing, would be sad for a man. And is sad for women, too.

I think that one of the great losses that we are beginning to see talked about, and are trying to come to terms with now, is that so many people have chased a fiction of what freedom looks like, what sex looks like. And they’re finding that it’s left them empty-handed. That’s sad for anyone, male or female.

TH: And I would say, we all do deserve love. We all deserve connection. That doesn't get talked about enough … Another piece in the book is that you’re in your thirties now and [women] have this biological clock ticking away in the background.

CE: Rethinking Sex is both talking about how we’ve misunderstood consent as a rule for sex, and also about assumptions that we’ve made about what sexual culture should look like, what sex means, what we should act like, that are not correct. That are faulty, or even hurting us.

One of the assumptions that I critique is the idea that in sex, men and women are basically the same. Which to me kind of seems obvious. But, you know, in writing this in the book, it felt almost like a taboo to say men and women are not the same. They have different concerns and different vulnerabilities when it comes to sex. For women, the biological clock is definitely a major one.

I’m arguing for the idea that we should be willing the good of the other. And that means seeing the other person and keeping their vulnerabilities and differences in mind. When it comes to trying to find a partner, if you want to have children, women have more urgency because our biology is different. When you think about treating someone fairly in a relationship, and caring for them, that would mean taking that into account, considering the fact that the female timeline might be different than the male timeline. And not wasting someone’s time, when it comes down to it.

For women, I’m looking at Lean In feminism and #GirlBoss feminism — this idea that you need to succeed in your career first and foremost, rather than do anything else. This idea that we can almost pretend that truths of biology and fertility are not real, that we can somehow escape them. That might be something to think about early on.

TH: I recently had Rob Henderson on the podcast, and he has this concept of luxury beliefs. It’s the idea that certain views are fashionable in the elite classes but have a huge impact on the lower classes. We have seen elite marriage hold pretty steady but working class marriage has completely fallen apart. What do you think about that piece?

CE: I am very familiar with that term, and I find it fascinating and so useful. I think that it’s really evident when you look at the statistics for marriage. It is the elite classes who say, “Freedom, feminism — that means that you should do whatever you want. Don’t worry about getting married. Every family formation is great, or none at all. Do what you will.” Then they just end up in heterosexual marriages by the time they’re 35 and go on to have very stable nuclear families. Elites who choose not to do that are still buffered from consequences. Because you might have money to pay for fertility treatments, if you ignored your biological clock and find yourself wanting a child late. Or you have money to be a single parent, or even simply a wealthy single person into old age.

But then for non-elites who have followed these directions — “don’t find a partner, don’t get married, have kids out of wedlock, do whatever you want” — they are not buffered in the same way from the consequences. Whether it’s trying to start a family alone and finding that really expensive and hard, or being with multiple partners and then finding oneself with none. Experimenting throughout most of your youth and then finding yourself alone later. That looks different when it’s not buffered by money and education and a class cushion.

TH: I thought it was so interesting that you drew on a Catholic saint for this idea of willing the good, and that you are introducing a religious concept into what has been a very secular conversation. Could you comment on that, to close?

CE: I suggest willing the good of the other, which is Aristotle, by way of Saint Thomas Aquinas. It’s his definition of love, actually. And not just romantic love — care for the other person. Willing the good of the other, I argue, is a better standard for sex because it asks us to see our sexual encounters as mutual, to actively care for the other person’s wellbeing, as much as we would our own. And in willing their good, it implies that we are actually trying to figure out what the good is. Both broadly, in terms of what the good of sex is, and also for the other person.

When I talk about religion in the book, and my faith, I bring it up because I think people want context for how this person decided to become an expert on sexual ethics. I’m not; I’m a regular person trying to figure it out. But I do think that religious traditions are a history of how we, as people, have come together and tried to think through big issues and create ethical frameworks that stand the test of time. So, I think that it is silly to discard any sort of religious understandings of sex because they’re seen as old fashioned. They worked for a reason; maybe there’s some wisdom there.

Willing the good of the other, I think, is a helpful and useful standard because it’s not necessarily just Christian, or just Catholic. I cite from Buddhist teachings and Jewish teachings. The golden rule, this idea that it’s important to treat the other as you would like to be treated, is basically universal. The idea that there is a higher good that we should look for, that we should be aiming for and trying to embody, and even trying again to embody when we inevitably fail — that is in some senses a religious idea. But it’s valuable to anyone. It’s this thought that we can be better than we are, and that we should try. That our personal desires don’t trump the wellbeing of other people.

This transcript has been edited and condensed.

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