A few months ago my stepdaughter turned eleven. On the verge of adolescence, Stella wonders daily about the stuff of female life. Hair, clothes, boyfriends. Condoms, sexual harassment, abortion. A New York City kid’s list of concerns is somewhat more bewildering than mine was at her age. At the same time, however, her school and community are full of information, advice, and opinions. There’s no shortage of talk about “safe sex,” “date rape,” a woman’s “right to choose.” One might expect that Stella would be well on her way to womanly “self-esteem” and “empowerment.” Her fifth grade class, at any rate, had the “women’s issue” thing down pat. In 1992, when the school held student elections, only one student out of all the fifth grade classes voted for Bush. As Stella confidently informed us, “Republicans don’t like women.” Now while I’ve never been a registered Republican, I have certainly known some very nice Republicans—a few don’t even beat their wives, or husbands.
Some assumptions are silly and easily corrected. Others are subtle and far more pernicious. They invade our language and our discussions, creating sound bites and effectively preventing thought. At the heart of the message of “empowerment,” which my stepdaughter and her friends encounter every day, lies the image of woman as capricious little girl, forever victim, without real responsibility or real power.
Consider the notion of “safe sex.” After all, many states now pass out condoms to fifth graders. Put aside, for the moment, the prevailing and appallingly condescending opinion that our children are not human beings with free will, but rutting beasts who will do what they will do. Stick to the phrase, “safe sex.” “Safe” for whom? “Sex” for whom? Surely the two words are ludicrously contradictory? Sex can be many things: dark, mysterious, passionate, wild, gentle, even reassuring, but it is not safe. If it is, it’s not likely to be very sexy. (I always envision that marvelous shot in Naked Gun Part 2 ½ of Leslie Nielsen fully encased in a gigantic condom.) How abandon oneself to another, how give your body into someone else’s care and control, and remain safe? The world of “safe sex” is an exclusively male world of in and out. It’s slam, bam, thank you ma’am, and to the extent it isn’t, it isn’t safe. It’s a world without passion or foreplay, where the female is once again mere passive receptacle. Scared, cautious, tepid, always under control. Do I wish for Stella that she experience that kind of sex? No, I do not.
Some will say, would you rather she have unprotected sex and risk getting pregnant, risk death? I am foolish enough to hope that because we have talked openly and completely—not in half-truths and slogans—when she chooses to have sex, it will be with someone to whom she is committed and loves. Someone to whom she can say, “All that I have is yours,” and to whom she can give of herself and her body freely, wildly, and without fear. But most of all, Stella deserves the truth. The rest is up to her. Sex is dangerous. It’s supposed to be.
The women’s movement has been, of course, very much behind the “safe sex” campaign just as it has succeeded in turning “date rape” and “sexual harassment” into causes célèbres. Colleges now have written regulations specifying that the sexual act must be explicitly and verbally consented to in order to prevent rape. The man must hear “Yes, I want to have sex with you” before the action may continue. One can only imagine the dampening effect of this bit of verbiage in the heat of the moment. But reality aside, the implication, of course, is that a woman is such a fragile and delicate flower she can be forced into anything by the big, bad male. She might not really want to have sex but is only doing it to please him. The reasoning behind such rules is a truly frightening combination of idiocy and genuinely chauvinist assumption. “Yes,” it seems, is not enough, but “no” always means “no.” Really. Tell that to Mr. Darcy, Heathcliffe, Vronsky. On the one hand, we are asked to believe that women always know their own mind and say so (unlike the rest of humanity), and on the other we are told that women are so easily pressured into unpleasant acts that there must first be explicit consent. No wonder men are so confused.
But when distinctions are blurred and reasoning fuzzy, the real losers will be women. If so many situations can be interpreted as rape, then the real horror of violent rape is trivialized. A woman who drinks too much and ends up in bed with a man cannot later claim rape just because her thinking was blurred. A man who takes advantage of such a situation may be ungentlemanly but he is not behaving illegally. She cannot simultaneously claim to be a free, moral, responsible agent and not take responsibility for having consumed too much alcohol. Only if women do in fact see themselves as essentially weaker and inferior to men will they also interpret regret the morning after, or changing one’s mind, or an unpleasant experience as rape.
Similarly, the brouhaha about sexual harassment has succeeded largely in blurring distinctions and trivializing the real problem. How draw the line between unsuccessful flirtation and sexual harassment? Surely the answer must be quite straightforward: when something specific (job, grade, award) is lost or threatened because he or she would not have sex. When this definition is broadened to include any number of situations, we become hopelessly and endlessly mired in the complexities of human relationships, and the genuine and all too common problem of authentic sexual harassment gets lost in the shuffle. If a woman is indeed so fragile that she cannot handle lewd or sexual comments and overtures, hateful though they may be, one can only advise her to stay out of the public square.
Here again, the women’s movement has been behind the hype and hyperbole every step of the way. Indeed, one of its foremost heroines in recent history is Anita Hill. Young women everywhere are encouraged to see Ms. Hill as an inspiration and “role model.” I, too, was grateful to Ms. Hill-for three days of riveting television-but I didn’t believe her then and don’t believe her now. Still, we will never know the full truth, so let us suppose for the sake of argument that everything she said was true. Is this, then, someone from whom to draw inspiration?
This is a woman who continued to receive promotions and assistance from a man who had lewdly harassed her, who took trips alone with him, and who, later, corresponded with him. More important, she allowed a man she considered to be guilty of sexual harassment to remain in a position of power and influence, a position that demanded a person of high integrity. She warned none of her female colleagues, informed no one in authority, about Thomas’ behavior. This ambitious young lawyer kept her story to herself-thus subjecting who knew how many other women to similar treatment. When Ms. Hill finally did come forward, after years of silence during which Judge Thomas continued to rise in prominence, it was only at the end of his Supreme Court confirmation hearings and under enormous pressure from various interest groups. Even if one considers Ms. Hill’s conduct from the most charitable position possible, one must still conclude that she is at best a coward, at worst a liar. Certainly the source of her fame is her status as victim. Is this really the message we want to send to our young women? (But then logic, that creation of dead white males, was never supposed to be our strong point.)
In perhaps the defining “women’s issue,” abortion, our vision of ourselves as victims produces an especially devastating result. Victims of nature, we feel entitled to wield what little power we possess over the real victim-the unborn child. Finally, we have found something so defenseless it cannot fight back, and we zealously guard our “rights” to that bloody power.
When we see ourselves as victims of nature rather than blessed participants, as victims of men rather than partners in life’s complex tale, we harm only ourselves. Convinced of our own inferiority, we strive neither for virtue nor for love, neither for great deeds nor for caring families, but only for that empty substance, “empowerment.” Only those who believe they truly have no power speak of being “empowered.” We seek to create a bubble world in which everything is under our control, everything is safe. Sex can be safe and without consequences. Sexual relationships can be legislated, defined, wrapped up in bows-each of us experiencing the world hermetically sealed in Leslie Nielsen’s giant condom.
Where should my stepdaughter look for help in charting the mysterious waters of womanhood? Wherever else, surely not in those pamphlets and self-help books so readily available. Not in the slogans and sound bites brandished everywhere like weapons. She will be far better served by listening to the voices of women past and present who speak with their minds and their hearts: women who search for truth in the very midst of the complexities of human relationships-not by avoiding or denying reality but by embracing it. Let her read, among many, many others, Madame de la Fayette, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Sigrid Undset, Margaret Mitchell, Dorothy Sayers, Margaret Drabble, A. S. Byatt, Mona Simpson. But first, she might start by re-reading an old favorite, Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit.
”What is Real?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but Really loves you, then you become Real.” “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.” “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Kari Jenson Gold is an actress and writer living in New York City.