Since young men and women were given the liberty to choose their own partners, there have been elaborate informal systems about what is—and, more importantly, what is not—permitted while dating. Play hard to get, but don’t be easy. Be sexy, but not overly promiscuous—these contradictions are well known. The rules shift over time, but largely demand more from women than they do from men.
At Stanford, casual sex is praised as a liberatory method of self-care for men and women alike, from the Sexual Health Peer Resource Center’s “Sex Week,” to the mandatory “Beyond Sex Ed” event at New Student Orientation. Brianna Booth, Stanford’s Director of Positive Sexuality, defines “positive sexuality” as “having a thoughtful, connected, and compassionate relationship to sexuality—toward oneself and others.” In culture, sex positivity is the celebration of all consensual sex, from kinky to casual. However, urging students to embrace casual sex without exploring its biological effects can be dangerous.
The new rules that govern dating force women to play on men’s rules. Just as women in the workplace are expected to act like men to achieve gender parity, women are expected to adopt male psychological behavior with respect to sex. Sex positivity has been weaponized against women as it demands that women hide our biologically-driven emotional attitudes towards sex, alter our hormones to adjust to the demands of casual sex, and change our appearance to allow for casual sex to happen.
In the current young female imagination, sex positivity is celebrated as the miracle that freed women from our shackles that prevented us from going out and having fun. Though casual sex may be fun, basic female biology means that sex can never quite be “casual” for women.
While I will support a woman’s choice to have consensual sex with whomever she wants, the narrative of sex positivity caters to men’s biology while deceiving women that it is for their liberation. Women who want to indulge their biological craving for sex thus must navigate and play along the men’s rules. But women’s biological desire for sex is fundamentally different from that of men. Women are biologically inclined to only sleep with one man, while men are biologically inclined to sleep with many women, which gives men an upper hand in the informal sexual marketplace.
Known as “parental investment theory,” women are only able to be pregnant with one baby (or set of children) at a time, while men are able to impregnate a different woman every time they have sex. This means a man’s genes can be more widely spread. Before birth control, nearly all acts of sexual intercourse could lead to procreation: the “love hormone” women feel during sex was useful in creating a strong bond between mother and father. Today, it serves to make women “catch feelings” for people they have sex with, a biological factor in direct opposition to the prospect of no-strings-attached sex. When sex is framed as being purely about pleasure, the emotional attachment intrinsic to female sexuality is ignored. Sex is often not about pleasure for women. The widely documented “orgasm gap” shows that men receive pleasure at much higher rates during sex (especially casual sex) than women.
The burden of precautionary steps necessary for casual sex is often placed on women. Rather than the widespread use of male birth control or vasectomies, 15% of women 15-49 use birth control pills, while the number shoots up to 46% for college-aged women. Any woman who has taken birth control knows that these pills are riddled with side effects including weight gain, depression, increased cancer risk, and ironically, loss of libido. These mind and body-altering pills are normalized at the highest levels. Women are forced to bear the physical burden of casual sex.
The burden of sex positivity is not simply physical—it determines female self-expression. The message of “be a slut, do whatever you want” is not empowering to women, but encourages us to merely be pleasure objects for men. After completing the pre-college milestone of shopping for “slutty-going-out-tops,” I realized that dressing in ‘self-empowering’ tightly-clad clothes played into what is attractive for men. At frat parties (a giant mating ritual in a bad disguise), it is clear that women must put in far more time and effort to appear “sexy” than men do. The closest equivalent to a male “slutty-going-out-top” is a button-up shirt that exposes some chest hair. It is no coincidence that women “dressing for themselves” aligns with what men are attracted to.
Despite the so-called embrace of female liberation through sexuality, women’s choice of sexual partners with is tightly governed. For example, I was in a relationship with a male student three years older than me last year. While I freely chose to be in this relationship and never felt any pressure from him (sexual or otherwise), I was shamed by several students for choosing to date someone older. Any agency I could exercise became non-existent on this issue because he was older than me. The assumption is that I was being coerced into a relationship that I was too young and dumb to understand. The resulting narrative that women are too naive to date whom they want, but are mature enough to have casual sex in their teens and start selling their bodies online the moment they turn 18, reinforces women as servants to male desire.
An infinite supply of ready-to-consume porn and the gamification of lust are two more symptoms of a culture that threatens female sexuality. This fact should not cause women to hate men, embrace political lesbianism, or cut off sex altogether. Rather, it is my hope that young women realize that female sexuality is special and worth protecting because of its unique biological characteristics. Only when “sex positivity” reckons with these biological facts can it promote good sex.