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Weekend reads: Bad Politics
A new genre of memoirs reveals one reason behind the decline in women's happiness - liberal feminism is antithetical to fostering healthy relationships
Some years ago, a friend of mine made an observation that I have thought about ever since. “We, as women, can do absolutely anything,” she said, “except for the one thing that our grandmothers took for granted — get married and have kids.”
In the months leading up to my 40th birthday, contemplating this statement, I found myself overwhelmed by despair. I was single and childless, and couldn’t figure out how it had happened. I had scrupulously followed the life path set out for women of my generation. I had gone to university and excelled; I had spent time “finding myself” in foreign countries; I had launched a professional career and worked gruelling hours to achieve success; I had paid off colossal student loans; I had moved to bigger, more cosmopolitan cities to pursue better opportunities; I had “worked on” myself. All the while, believing that the rest — marriage, children, a home life — would fall into place when the timing was right. When none of that materialized, I felt utterly adrift.
My life was devoid of the milestones of adulthood. And, since many friends were now busy raising children, it was also devoid of daily, close contact with others.
In my distress, I made a radio documentary. But at the time, my only solution was to more aggressively pursue the more-freedom-is-always-better mantra that I’d been raised with. So I downsized my possessions, uprooted my life, and moved across the country yet again, chasing down some vague idea of adventure.
It should come as no surprise that this approach did not yield the results I was looking for. I was not able to course correct until, during research for my book Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, I visited extended family in Ireland, an older, more communal society, and observed how the women there lived. While some worked and others didn’t, their lives centred on family and community. Spouses stayed together, and men and women cooperated more. The families I knew all had at least three children. Extended kin networks, who lived close by, provided everything from meals and childcare to emotional support. Nobody was making a go of life alone.
My depression lifted the day I arrived and, for the most part, save some dark months during Toronto’s endless lockdowns, has not returned.
I had misunderstood what I need in life, what we all need. And in the wake of that realization, I began to adopt different values, and make different choices, and build a life anchored in connection instead of autonomy.
To do so, I had to reject liberal feminism.
In Louise Perry’s game-changing book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, she defines liberal feminism as an iteration of feminism that’s hyper-focused on maximizing individual freedom and self-actualization, often at the cost of all else.
Spend just a few minutes online and you’ll find plenty of exaggerated examples of this ethos — a “boss girl” feminism that fetishizes career, a cult of self-care that rationalizes self-centred behaviour, disdainful jokes that mock men, diatribes against domesticity, memes that portray motherhood as an albatross around one’s neck, posts that champion single living and solo travel, and endless essays about severing long-held ties, from marriages to friendships, in order to pursue one’s own happiness.
This worldview interprets women’s well-being in the narrowest of terms, focusing on the issues that matter most to economically elite women (think: professional success). And, much like the rest of social liberalism, liberal feminism is intensely interested in smashing the social norms that it views as restrictive. It has little use for family, community, tradition, place, or belonging. Or, indeed, biology.
As a result, the old order, with all its social and sexual mores, is rejected out-of-hand, without consideration for unintended consequences. Which, as we’re seeing now, include widespread loneliness for women (and men).
The liberal feminist ethos, I believe, is a good explanation for the much-puzzled-over reality that women’s happiness has actually declined since the 1970s, when the liberal feminist revolution took root.
If you believe your highest goal in life is to make yourself happy, you set yourself up for dysfunctional relationships, and rob yourself of the benefits of interdependence.
To unpack this trend, we can turn to a growing genre of memoirs written by distressed, middle-aged women who find themselves single, childless and lost in life. But instead of questioning the ideology that’s landed so many of us in such dire straits, these authors double down on liberal feminism, and personal freedom, channeling all of their energy into ever-more extreme sexual quests.
It does not seem to occur to them that the frame itself is the problem.
A pioneer in this genre is Emily Witt’s Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love. In the book, faced with a disorienting lack of social norms, and the new, extreme sexual freedom that’s imposed on everyone in the culture — even “people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did” — Witt elects, bizarrely, to smash more societal norms.
She sets out on a reluctant quest, stamping out her own instinctual discomfort, as well as her longing for a more traditional life, to experiment with orgasmic meditation, kink, sex parties, Burning Man, and polyamory.
Witt’s profoundly depressing long-form 2022 essay for The New Yorker, about the dating app Feeld, gives us an idea of where all of this leads. “For single people, casual sex is not a glib lifestyle choice but a serious attempt to be happy within a specific reality,” she writes, underlining the profound ambivalence lurking just below the surface.
At another point, referring to the more mainstream dating apps, Witt observes:
I kept experiencing a suffocating gender dynamic: Regardless of the kind of person I am, I was somehow forced into the role of a desperate pursuer trying to win the affection of the elusive and “emotionally unavailable” male, a dynamic that was confusing to see revived in a moment when I was experiencing as much sexual agency as I’d ever had in my life.
This same baseline dissatisfaction at the state of modern mating — and the same attempt to rationalize this unhappiness away — also surfaces in titles like Aimée Lutkin’s The Lonely Hunter: How Our Search for Love is Broken. Lutkin’s own solution to isolation is to move across America, get out of her comfort zone, and embark on experimental sexual liaisons with men and women. And then to further embrace the politics of liberal feminism. But by the book’s end, none of this seems to have moved the needle on Lutkin’s own loneliness in any meaningful way.
Still, perhaps the most striking iteration of convoluted cheerleading for liberal feminism comes from none other than Nona Willis Aronowitz, daughter of the late sex-positivity feminist Ellen Willis, and a sex columnist at Teen Vogue.
Her 2022 memoir, Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution, proves to be a profoundly self-absorbed outing, in which she chronicles leaving a companionable, mutually supportive marriage to self-actualize through transgressive sex. Such straightforward narcissism is then somehow cast as a political act. (“Second Wave feminists were well aware that heterosexual romance presented a major roadblock to political clarity,” she reflects at one point.)
But Bad Sex’s “revolution” amounts to Willis Aronowitz engaging in risky sex with detached strangers — and then ruminating endlessly on these encounters. “My phone’s photo library was littered with screenshots of ambiguous texts, dispatched to friends so they could offer their insight,” Willis Aronowitz observes.
Having failed to achieve any real satisfaction through casual sex, the book concludes with Willis Aronowitz in a new long-term relationship, albeit a non-monogamous one, performing the mental gymnastics required to double down yet again on liberal feminism.
We should ask ourselves: Who are books like Bad Sex written for? What agenda do they serve? Who are these feminist politics for?
What exactly is liberating about working 60-hour weeks on Zoom — alone in tiny condos we can barely afford in big, impersonal cities — and then logging off to eat takeout and tend to dating apps that place actual companionship far out of reach?
What kind of life is that?
We have traded the communal for the individual, the we for the me. And it’s not making us happy. For many women, what it often means is isolation, overwork, economic precarity, and alienating casual sex.
We have allowed liberal feminism to convince us to trade close, committed human relationships — in all their messy glory — for theoretical, frictionless freedom.
The simple fact of the matter is that, as Louise Perry argues, there is such a thing as too much freedom. Giving up some autonomy for the greater good — whether in a friendship, a partnership, an extended family, or a community — is both personally rewarding and collectively uplifting.
As human beings with a tribal past, we are hardwired for interdependence. Even our body chemistry operates best under such conditions. Caring for others gives meaning and purpose. Caring only for ourselves makes us miserable.
We humans need people. And needing people means they need us too. Which means that all intimate relationships require some level of sacrifice.
But liberal feminism has cast these basic truths about humanity — so obvious as to be unremarkable in previous generations — as somehow oppressive to women. It has encouraged women to view communal life as inherently draining, thereby sowing the seeds of our own isolation, and thus, our own misery.
It’s no wonder that women are unhappy. Anyone who views relationships this way sets themselves up for disaster.
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