The “Sex as Empowerment” Scam

January 28, 2011

“..From a purely entertainment point of view, to create a movie with a female lead that’s empowered with her own sexuality is a powerful thing.

And if we can give teenage people something to think about from a sex perspective, I would say it would be to open a conversation where women are empowered with their own sexual experiences from an educational level as well as an entertainment level.”

Ashton Kutcher, interview about No Strings Attached

Sleeping with someone just because you want to isn’t terribly empowering, and frankly it’s probably not very difficult, either.

Mark Regnerus, interview about Premarital Sex in America

So which is it? Is casual sex empowering? The definition of the word empower is “to enable or permit; to give more opportunity for independent action.” The Sexual Revolution empowered women to have no-strings sex with impunity. Hookup culture empowers women to engage in casual sex by providing a ready supply of males and few short-term consequences.

But how does casual sex empower women? What does it enable or permit them to do, other than have more sex?

1. Women often use this term to mean having power and control over a man. Rendering him putty in your hands, literally, means that for that moment, you have the upper hand.

“I felt so powerful when he begged me. He said I was the hottest.”

2. Eliciting feedback that you are good at sex makes you feel powerful compared with other women.

“Ha, he said his stupid girlfriend can’t even give good head. I have something that bitch doesn’t.”

3. Assuming a posture of “empowerment” masks your vulnerability. You are cool with keeping things casual. Until you’re not.

“Cool, dude, I’m not looking for anything serious either. And I don’t like to cuddle.”

I don’t think sex is a very good source of empowerment. We are empowered by doing a job well, having the love and loyalty of friends and family, becoming educated, preparing for the responsibility and rewards of adulthood. Looking at sex as a way to feel a sense of accomplishment seems terribly wrong, and sad.

Crystal Bui recently wrote an editorial on hookup culture for Tufts’ student newspaper.

“Some genuinely do enjoy hookup culture and feel empowered by dictating the terms of intimate encounters. But there are also disadvantages. Because a dating culture is nearly nonexistent on college campuses, some students (male and female) are pushed into this hookup culture and have found it to be dissatisfying and degrading. The feelings of empowerment that many participants of the hookup culture describe are frequently contentious, at best, and are often disputed by sociologists, psychologists and those who are spectators to this foreign culture.

While I do not completely agree or disagree with critics’ claims regarding the impacts of hookup culture, I do believe that there is one downplayed, but troubling, consequence: Perhaps we, as a generation, are failing to form functional and meaningful relations with others.”

Perhaps it is because hookups often lack conversation that many of us have become mute in our own interactions — even with basic friendships. We’ve forgotten how to talk to each other and how to share experiences with each other — heart− and gut−wrenching experiences, like the time your girlfriend cheated on you. Like when you used to cut yourself. Like the night your loved one died. Like the day your parents divorced. Like the time you felt alone.

Maybe hookup culture is our own way of grasping at the safest alternative. After all, if you don’t reveal yourself and if you act indifferent, then you’re invisible, infallible and incapable of getting hurt.”

Contrary to empowering women, hooking up is backing them into a corner, where they lose access to meaningful relationships, which are genuinely empowering.

I was thinking about the persistence of the “empowerment” meme, and how to tackle it, when I came across a recent post by Amelia McDonell-Parry, Editor-in-Chief of The Frisky. The Frisky is a site for women that covers celebrity gossip, fashion, sex and relationships. Ms. Parry shares a lot about her personal life on The Frisky, and a couple of years ago wrote how her fiance had dumped her out of the blue one day, taking up with someone new shortly thereafter. I don’t know if there was a correlation, but suddenly there was a plethora of risque articles there promoting non-monogamy in every conceivable form:

Ms. Parry, now 31, has been dating, drinking and having sex  for the past couple of years, but recently, she swore off sex for six months. After all of that experimentation, how does she feel?

“I need to feel confident completely in who I am without a drink in my hand or a man in my bed. I need to really see and believe, 24/7, that I am a whole person who is lacking nothing, rather than depending on a man or a buzz to give me that validation. So. I’m taking a break from drinking. And from dating. And from sex, even with people I don’t care about.

In bed with someone, I feel like a f**king goddess. I feel hot, smart, funny, sexy, beautiful, all of it. I feel in control. Control is what I have been grasping for ever since I was blindsided by my fiance calling things off. And I don’t feel like I’m lacking anything. In bed with someone, I feel whole.

Then the sun comes up…rolling over, I look at the person I slept with and I wonder if they felt as awesome as I did the night before. As time goes on, I usually don’t hear from them, or I do and they want something very different than what I want. They don’t want to get to know me better. They already know enough to determine they’re not interested in something more. And suddenly I don’t feel so whole again. It’s not that I regret my decisions. I just hate that the high I get from them—the control, the confidence, the courage—doesn’t last.”

That is one of the most painful things I’ve read, and I share it here not to benefit from someone else’s hurt, or to say “I told you so,” but because this woman has worked hard to communicate to thousands of female readers that casual sex is empowering. I applaud her honesty about what a false promise that is. Embracing sex as empowerment is really about the desire for control, in the belief that gaining control will make you whole, lacking nothing that a man wants. Ms. Parry gives us a rare peek into the mind and soul of a regretful sex-positive feminist. She was just a woman who grasped for male validation and found it lasted only as long as the moon hung in the night sky.

It’s powerful and honest testimony from a woman who walked the walk.