I just finished reading two new books where the main plot is about women’s sex lives: “City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert, fiction, a novel about a promiscuous woman’s life in New York City, and “Three Women” by Lisa Taddeo, nonfiction, a journalist’s account of how sex acts shaped the lives of three ordinary women. We could take it as a sign of our liberation that these books about women’s lust are mainstream popular, but if you look at the storylines, not so much. While none of the women are stoned for adultery, their lives remain defined by their relationship to men.
Both authors try to tease apart love from lust by taking us into the workings of a woman’s mind and giving us a close-up view of her thinking. We get to see the messy choices between satisfying craving or seeking stability, being truthful or dwelling in fantasy, choosing her own orgasm or facilitating his, manipulating him into co-dependence or freeing herself from his power. Sadly, it’s Gilbert’s fictional character that does the best job of keeping her men as satellites in her orbit, while the real women in Taddeo’s reporting choose lives that revolve entirely around the men they desire.
We may wish to believe that biology is not destiny, but these stories illustrate the extent to which sex is a driving force in a woman’s life. We are born into the template of virginity, mating and child bearing, not much different from the template farmers use to manage livestock. Husbandry. Our social role is still mostly domestic. How do we break free of the rigidity of the husbandry template without giving up our desire for love, partnership and children? How do women find agency in the world without the lure of their sex? We might like to think our power is not vested in gender, but is that how we behave? These are modern questions.
In a break with stories of the previous era, none of these women are economically dependent upon the man they crave. They are emotional dependents, their happiness literally riding on him. Perhaps we’re all dependent for happiness on reciprocity from the people we love. But there is a risk in women allowing so much of their identity to be consumed by coupling. And the risk increases dramatically with age.
Where does a woman’s self-satisfaction come from if her main criteria for success in life is being half of a couple? Couplehood doesn’t last forever. What kind of future are we preparing for ourselves without a vision for our own wholeness distinct from our partner? Public policy may have opened doors for women’s equality, but to step into the future we need alternatives to the highly gendered behaviors and social norms handed down to us through millennia. One reason to read these books is to witness how women remain unequal in our own minds.