Why Don’t You?

Cristina Nehring. A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century. Harper, 2009.

Jessica Valenti. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women. Seal Press, 2009.

Virginia Woolf, in a letter to a friend, explained her reasons for writing A Room of One’s Own: “I wanted to do something for the young women—they seem to get fearfully depressed.”

Jessica Valenti, the founder of Feministing.com, also wants to do something for the young women. In her latest book, The Purity Myth, Valenti takes on what she calls the virginity movement (i.e., the religious right) and its refusal, through “purity balls” and abstinence education, to allow young women to be sexual creatures. Valenti begins by insisting that virginity is a social construct, and that one becomes a good person by being a good person, not by having or not having sex at 16 or 19 or 25. And so Valenti would like to “outline a new way for us to think about young women as moral actors, one that doesn’t include their bodies.” Unfortunately, the tortured logic in that sentence is not anomalous, and points to a deeper problem with what is, in other ways, a necessary project.

Because she wants to argue that having sex doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, Valenti insists on divorcing sex from emotional and ethical consequences altogether. Here’s her take on her first time: “Societal standards would have me believe it was the day that I became morally sullied, but I fail to see how anything that lasts less than five minutes can have such an indelible ethical impact.” This is a confusion of the attitudinal for the radical. She can’t really mean the joke—if she’s measuring ethical impact with a stopwatch, then what would she say about the time it might take to pull the trigger of a gun? Valenti’s posturing here is symptomatic of a political culture in which the right claims a monopoly on morality and the left is unable (or unwilling) to articulate its own moral convictions. The left doesn’t talk about the emotional consequences of sex. To mention guilt, shame, or regret as a result of sex suggests that sex is not the great self-actualizer we all expected it to be. So Valenti has to say that sex is no big deal; that it has no meaning, period. But when many women I know are still wrestling with sex and its importance in their 30s, it’s unhelpful, to put it mildly, to tell girls that sex leaves no mark. Instead of offering a substantive alternative to traditional morality, Valenti joins liberals in talking about choices, that therapeutic euphemism that puts moral decision-making on roughly the same level as ordering the heart-friendly items off an Applebee’s menu. As in: “There’s no in-between identity for young women who are making smart, healthy choices in their sexual lives.”

Valenti never acknowledges that a young woman’s smart, healthy choice may be abstinence—that a girl might suspect that sex could have an impact she’s not ready for, and as such might want to hold off. Of a 19-year-old interviewed for an MTV documentary series about celibacy, who said she was abstaining from sex until she felt she could be faithful to her boyfriend because she’d cheated before, Valenti writes: “Clearly, Kristin’s problem isn’t sex—it’s trust. But instead of dealing with the actual issues behind her relationship woes, this young woman was able to circumvent any real self-analysis by simply claiming to be abstinent.” But if sex is the thing that leads to mistrust, aren’t these issues inextricable? Valenti, who says many times throughout the book that she is looking to inject empathy into our discussion of sex, here becomes patronizing. She doesn’t articulate her support for her less precocious sisters until the last pages, in a footnote: “For the record: I think virginity is fine, just as I think having sex is fine. I don’t care what women do sexually, and neither should you.” It’s always nice to be bullied into an open mind.

Liberals need to make the case that being sexually active doesn’t make you a moral relativist. We need to redefine what is moral if we are going to make young women—all women—feel that sexual freedom is not sin or selfishness. To that end, sexual freedom might be defined as having sex with whomever you want, contentedly, with no fear of punishment for an adverse outcome by a paternalistic government; sex that is safe because it is protected, but also safe because you feel secure in the knowledge that what you are doing is what you want to be doing, not something you are surrendering to because of outside pressure. It should be considered a virtue to take responsibility for your future—whether by using birth control, remaining abstinent, or having an abortion. Feminists should be able to talk about the possible value of sexual restraint, or say that at certain times sex may have emotional consequences, without fear of sounding like Caitlin Flanagan or Wendy Shalit. You may believe in sex and its power and beauty while still acknowledging that you can suffer from it.

We say these things about love—that it’s beautiful, and you can suffer from it—but to say them about sex might mean that we are less adventurous and more vulnerable than we had hoped. And that would mean that the right was right about the sixties—that the decade wrought destruction, not progress.

Valenti thinks sex is no big deal. Cristina Nehring, in A Vindication of Love, argues that it’s our pass to the sublime, and we’ve left our pass somewhere in the bottom of a diaper bag. “We have domesticated Eros,” she writes. As Laura Kipnis has argued, love is the drudge. But unlike Kipnis, Nehring actually believes in love. Any feminist who has wondered at the relative quickness with which many of her sisters have taken to the old forms—marriage, motherhood—might nod in agreement and wait eagerly for some rigorous, vibrant critique of those old forms. If only to hear that the fullest expression of free womanhood is not the ability to walk about Park Slope looking like a Sloane Ranger who has accessorized her down vest and jeans with a stroller.

This is not quite what one gets here. Nehring believes that feminism may have helped bring about what she perceives to be a lack of grand passion on the part of women. “Romantic love, at the start of this century, is cause for embarrassment,” she writes. And: “To this day, a woman in love is a woman who must relinquish her feminism credentials.” These are astute observations. Second Wave feminists described love as a prison;1 Third Wave feminists described sex as empowerment. While both of those redescriptions were necessary, the feelings that follow from love and sex have not been reclaimed as empowering in the same way that, say, the word bitch has. So women who came of age after the sexual revolution may have an especially hard time conceiving of romantic feeling as feminist.

Disappointingly, what Nehring suggests as a solution sounds like a temporary escape. Because she asks us to take inspiration from literary figures, real and imagined, who loved at fever pitch, her sexual freedom is not exactly sized for mortals, even mortals who aspire to be literary figures themselves. Nehring’s book recalls Diana Vreeland’s famous “Why Don’t You?” column in Harper’s Bazaar, in which she would posit a list of fantastical suggestions like “Why don’t you own, as does one extremely smart woman, twelve diamond roses of all sizes?” and “Why don’t you turn your child into an Infanta for a fancy-dress party?” If you are feeling constrained by monogamy, why don’t you take a hint from Iseult, who fell in love with a man who thought she was “too good for routine”? Or Emily Dickinson, about whom Nehring writes: “It was not an easy life, in the bland Disneyland way that we sometimes imagine lives should be. But it was a life of rare, fine feeling and charged communication from which much can be learned. With a minimum of entertainment, Dickinson lived an abundance of drama and desire, high lyricism and disconcerting passion.” As anyone who has ever stood alone with their charged communication while the object of their desire took off with someone considerably less charged can tell you, the knowledge that you and Emily Dickinson are walking the same astral plane is small consolation. Did Dickinson comfort herself with the knowledge that she died alone but alone and touched by an unearthly passion? If so, it was because she also had genius.

Those of us afflicted with high lyricism but not genius might not be lauded for such experimentation. “The soul creates its own occasion,” Nehring writes by way of encouragement. But she never acknowledges that the soul trying to create its own occasion may easily damage other souls, and may then feel remorseful days or decades later. Nehring’s sexual freedom, in the end, means selfishness, and the rewards she offers for indulging this selfishness do not seem sufficient, if you are afflicted by both high lyricism and a conscience: you will gain the knowledge that you can generate and sustain a grand passion, that in doing so you have wrung art out of life; and if your masterpiece shatters, you can congratulate yourself for knowing that you have partaken of the secular sacrament that is emotional pain.

According to her subtitle, Nehring wants to reclaim romance for the 21st century, but a more useful strategy for a century in which tradition seems to be overtaking liberation might be to explore what drives many people to take lovers but never leave their spouses. What about stability is as alluring as disconcerting passion? Can one reconcile yearning with reality? When does the intellect interfere with the heart? Does a partnership of supported, respected equals inevitably turn into a sibling-like bond? These are the questions asked by the single and married women I know. And yet Bloomsbury is not an option. Sex doesn’t seem to be the tool with which we want to forge larger souls and more open minds—or, rather, for those of us who have fumbled around with that tool, it hasn’t usually proved to be a useful one. Which is not to say that periods of sexual freedom don’t have a powerful, bewitching resonance. But among the educated, liberal women I know, the prospect of being able to have sex with whomever you please, endlessly, induces a shudder at the idea of the loss of lifelong partnership. If you asked me whether I’d want the magical Bloomsburian power to sustain a square dance of the heart, or the magical Bloomsburian power to make a life doing work that reflected my deepest ideals, I’d choose the latter. The women I know would choose the same, even as they would want to honor the possibility of alchemic, anarchic affairs. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says this about monogamy: the problem is not that we are pledged to one person for the rest of our lives, it’s that in choosing one person we say farewell to the other selves we wanted to be. But there is difficulty in determining what is to be gained in holding on to that multiplicity, those possibilities, when one is an adult. What is gained by having access to all the people we were and want to be—and in having more than one person be the thing that frees those selves? This is the question alive in those who wonder about the value of stability as currently lived. It’s a necessary question, but our culture’s insistence on coupledom makes it difficult to see the way to answering it—or the use of answering it. If Nehring had addressed this conflict, her book might have truly helped to envision how love might be separated from monogamy.

Instead, she idealizes Margaret Fuller as a consummate sufferer for love. Fuller strained after deep communion with men, such as the married Emerson, who could not return her strong feelings, but eventually found happiness with a decidedly noncerebral Italian. She died with her lover and their child when their boat capsized en route to New York. Nehring’s chapter on Fuller made me think of The Peabody Sisters, Megan Marshall’s biography of three siblings who helped found the Transcendentalist movement. Elizabeth Peabody was a friend of Fuller’s, and equally learned and passionate; she too shared a deep bond with Emerson, as well as several other prominent intellectuals of her day. But Peabody, who watched her sisters marry men she herself had been attached to—Nathaniel Hawthorne and Horace Mann—lived until almost 90 without ever marrying. What exhortations could Nehring wring from such a story? The heroism, if there is any, makes too quiet a sound.

Marshall does not romanticize the loneliness and fortitude of these women who did not live as their times required. The sisters saw themselves as women who were too good for domestic routine. They feared marriage would prevent them from exercising their minds, and yet as they taught, wrote, translated, edited, and painted, they yearned for equal partners. They fashioned their own romanticism but did it while supporting the family when their physician father could not; their Transcendental belief in the individual’s sovereignty, as Marshall points out, was tempered by a sense of duty toward family and one another. These women were caught between liberation and tradition, and Marshall does not gloss over the doubts they suffered because of it.

The truth is that we already have a small but worthy canon of books about the women of the past who have loved and lost or gained—Parallel Lives, for instance, and American Moderns. What we need now, I think, are books by women about love and sex that speak out of and to the present—and do not rely on the simple answers of evolutionary psychology, or titillate by embracing the retrograde.

Such books are never easy to write, and they pose their own special difficulties for my generation. Women who went to college in the 1990s, as I did, learned that what our culture had told us about being female was a lie. After we graduated, we were meant to keep dismantling the lie. We would be perpetually wary of compromising our freedom and strength. We would always be clear about what we wanted and direct our actions toward it. And so we are more male, perhaps, than our mothers were; like men, we have been allowed to indulge ourselves with a prolonged adolescence, albeit one complicated by biology. Like men, we now know what it is to feel invincible, cheered on by rock music, course readers, and each other, road-testing an ever more unfettered sexuality, armed with state-of-the-art birth control and mouths like sailors. In the course of this self-fashioning we perfected a tone of bravado.

Perhaps, as Cristina Nehring suggests and as Jessica Valenti unwittingly demonstrates, it is still not possible for women to be sincere about our romantic desires. To speak of romance might require some sincerity, which my generation has a horror of, fearing that we might stray into sentimentality. And female sentiment, whether about place or family or friendship or pop culture, has yet to be granted the status of wisdom, the way male sentiment has. When a man writes a novel about the artifacts of his youth, he just might win a Pulitzer. The nerd as Romantic hero, lost in his own gothic castle of theory, records, and comic books, tortured by his own special powers of genre-bending and logorrhea, is the latest incarnation of the Great American novelist, as described by Leslie Fiedler: “In a compulsive way, he returns to a limited world of experience, usually associated with childhood.” Fiedler was indicting this tradition, but contemporary male writers benefit from having inherited it. While the dominant forms of female romanticism remain at the level of gossip magazines, chick lit, and Jennifer Aniston. Thus a woman who takes herself and her desires seriously might not want to express those desires, for fear of being confused with someone who wants to escape from her life rather than contend with it. Much better to be an alternative weekly sex columnist and prove that women can talk trash and talk dirty in a dispassionate, clinical way, because to truly be emancipated, a woman must be emancipated from emotions, especially those surrounding sex and love, our old drugs of choice. Much easier to be sexually brave, to limit our losses by sticking to the physical and ephemeral.

What Fiedler said of the American literary imagination may be true of the American imagination in general: it cannot conceive of adult romantic love because it fears the female. This fear—this misogyny—remains a prominent strain in our public discourse. It was apparent, for instance, in the House’s passage of the Stupak amendment, an attempt to prevent any woman receiving federal subsidies from buying an insurance plan that offers abortion coverage. Books might not make this kind of fear disappear. But they could function as protest: private knowledge as a weapon against certainty, whether coming from the left or the right. One such weapon would be a book in which a woman writes of the pleasure taken in other people—the pleasure taken in getting tangled up in all the selves we think we are, but also in being known deeply, and seen clearly, by one person. Such a book could describe those pleasures without undue piety for exclusivity unto death, in order to show us what men and women truly owe each other.

  1. Susan Brownmiller: “A requirement of femininity is that a woman devote her life to love—to mother love, to romantic love, to religious love, to amorphous, undifferentiated caring. The territory of the heart is admittedly a province that is open to all, but women alone are expected to make an obsessional career of its exploration, to find whatever adventure, power, fulfillment or tragedy life has to offer within its bounds.” 

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