Women, Sex and Power


This address was delivered by Karen Lehrman Bloch at the Cedars-Sinai Women’s Guild Symposium 2018: “21st Century Woman.”

So who is the “21st Century woman”? I think she’s strong, independent and spirited; unafraid of both her femininity and her sexuality; fiercely brave, confident and, of course, feminist.

But wait, how can she be both feminine and brave? Sexual and remain a feminist?

The truth is, those words were never meant to be contradictory. They became contradictory because of an essential misunderstanding of the original meaning of feminism.

What I’d like to do today is briefly touch on this misunderstanding and offer a vision for a deeper, more authentic feminism — a feminism that honors the original meaning.

I also think women will be a lot happier when we begin to understand that we don’t have to give up parts of ourselves for feminism. That, in fact, those parts are what make us stronger.

So let’s start over. Let’s talk about what feminism really is and how it was supposed to empower women. And let’s deal in the realms of facts and reality.

Feminism is not about following a set of rules or politics imposed by other women.

Feminism is not about voting for a woman just because she’s a woman.

Feminism is not about legislating equal numbers of judges or CEOs.

Feminism is not about exploiting your sexuality when it’s useful.

Feminism is not about destroying a man’s career because of a compliment.

Feminism is not about empowering women through victimhood — or shutting down voices of disagreement.

What is feminism?

I. Feminism can be summed up in three words: freedom, responsibility and individuality.

Freedom for women to vote, be educated, have careers — or stay home with our children. Freedom for women to wear miniskirts if we want, freedom to flirt, both in the office and out, to get involved with a co-worker — or to abstain from all sexual relations until marriage.

Freedom for women to become the unique individuals that we are.

Third Wave feminism, which began in the ’80s, was, in my opinion, a huge setback for women. Third Wave feminists actually restricted women’s freedom by adding onto feminism a set of politics, a list of behaviors, even fashion choices. Third Wave feminist leaders attempted to tell women what to think, how to behave, who to vote for.

None of this was part of the original meaning of feminism.

Now we have a Fourth Wave of feminism. Intersectional feminists are adding onto feminism another layer of do’s and don’ts.

Women, say intersectional feminists, must hate masculinity, privilege victimhood and, most important for many, continuously attack Israel. How interesting that a movement that started out 100 years ago as a way to free women from societal restrictions became a movement that urges women to hate Israel, one of the most feminist countries in the world.

II. Feminism also means personal responsibility — taking control of your life.

For feminist leaders in the past three decades, “personal responsibility” were dirty words. Why? Because focusing on a woman’s responsibility, they said, would take the focus off “the patriarchy.”

But just like with true liberalism, you can’t have freedom without responsibility. Why? Well, who else should take responsibility for our lives? The government? Our husbands? Our dates?

I think we’ve had some rather bizarre #MeToo moments precisely because of the lack of emphasis on women’s responsibility. Like “Grace,” the young woman who publicly humiliated Aziz Ansari because … why? She didn’t like the way the date was going but made no effort to tell him that? Or to simply go home?

In fact, the underlying premise of many of the non-assault #MeToo cases is actually quite unfeminist: It is based on the false notion that all women become helpless in difficult situations.

Sadly, many women do. But that’s not the fault of “the patriarchy.” It is largely the fault of the feminist establishment for, essentially, ignoring women’s personal growth.

Real assault cases are, of course, horrific, and right now we’re watching one of the worst: Dr. Larry Nassar, the doctor to the young gymnasts. This is a case of complete institutional failure and, as a result, at least 265 victims were subjected to pure evil.

But denying that sexual tension, even in the workplace, is not complex, that women don’t have responsibilities — that life isn’t perfect — doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.

Right now, any woman can destroy a man within seconds by merely describing an awkward pass. Is this empowerment  or is it the same passive-aggressiveness we’ve spent a half-century trying to overcome?

III. We don’t live in a patriarchy.

Anyone who seriously thinks we still live in a patriarchy — where men control and oppress us — needs to visit countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, this is another great irony of today’s feminist leaders: They have virtually ignored the women in Iran who have been protesting the wearing of compulsory hijab.

So far, 30 Iranian women have been arrested and tortured for this. This should be at the top of Western feminists’ priority list. Instead, it hardly gets mentioned.

But we do have oppressors here — what I have come to call the Gender Industrial Complex. The Gender Industrial Complex tells women who to vote for, which careers are preferable, who to like, who to hate, which ideas to regurgitate, what color to wear, which pronouns to use, which films to see, which films not to see — and most important of all: how to shut down anyone who disagrees with you.

The Gender Industrial Complex is our new oppressor. And if you call yourself a feminist, you need to fight back against it, just as our grandmothers fought against the patriarchy.

Real feminists don’t follow orders — even from other women.

IV. Women are different from men.

Contrary to “gender theory,” this stems mostly from biology, not culture. More important, it’s actually a positive, producing things like babies and making life much more fun and interesting.

Women and men are not the same, and we also don’t exist along a gender spectrum. Social scientists use bell curves to show our biologically based differences. Take aggression. The bell curves for males and females look very different. But there will always be a small group of women who are naturally more aggressive than a small group of men.

What else does this mean? It should be assumed that women think about sex differently from men. This doesn’t mean that women don’t think about sex. This doesn’t mean that women don’t love sex as much as men do. What it means is that women are evolutionarily built to connect our emotions to sex.

Probably the worst thing that feminist academics did in the past three decades was to make women feel ashamed of our femininity and sexuality.

So, while many women have no problem with today’s hook-up culture — where sex is typically expected — many other women, as hard as they try, can’t do it without feeling lousy afterward. Instead of seeing this as a special aspect of being a woman, feminists today blame this lousy feeling on men — either on a particular man or again on “the patriarchy.”

Many of today’s non-assault #MeToo cases could have been avoided, in fact, if feminists had explained all of this to women. If they had taught women that we each need to know what works for us and act accordingly.

V. Femininity and sexuality.

Probably the worst thing that feminist academics did in the past three decades was to make women feel ashamed of our femininity and sexuality — to neuter women. Leaving aside the fact that feminism had no interest in neutering women, a neutered woman is by definition a less empowered woman.

Being at one with our femininity and sexuality is an integral aspect of our strength and self-esteem. Just look at Gal Gadot.

Gal is so unabashedly feminine and sexy that when “Wonder Woman” first came out, some feminists went ballistic. They had been taught that showing our femininity or sexuality was a sign of weakness.

A hundred years ago, that was true. But we went through this thing called the sexual revolution in the ’60s, and one of the positives was that women took ownership of their sexuality.

And by taking ownership — by feeling it and knowing that it doesn’t undermine our ability to run a company or fly a plane — women were made whole in a way that we hadn’t been since hunter-gatherer times.

But it’s a responsible sexuality: It’s not about sleeping our way to the top; going to a man’s hotel room and then claiming victimhood; wearing scanty clothes at inappropriate times.

Sexuality, true sexuality, comes from within.

VI. Beauty.

Being at one with our femininity and sexuality also helps with the other issue Third Wave feminists got wrong: beauty. Beauty is not a myth; it’s not a cultural construct. It’s a harsh reality that only gets harsher with age. But as French and Israeli women know better than anyone: When you’re feeling at one with your sexuality, when you truly own it, it doesn’t matter how old you are.

VII. What about men?

Don’t men have any responsibility here?

Of course. Just because we don’t live in a patriarchy doesn’t mean that men, as individuals, don’t have a lot of work to do. I’m always amused when I read conservatives talk about returning to the ’50s and the Era of the Gentleman.

Sure, many men in the ’50s had good manners in public, and I would love to see those manners return. But we are all too aware of what often went on inside the home or inside the office.

We want men to treat women with respect — not just to keep up appearances. We want men to treat women with respect because it’s the right thing to do.

But here’s the thing: We don’t need to dump masculinity to make this happen. Masculinity is not toxic. Uncivilized masculinity is toxic. Civilized masculinity ends wars. Civilized masculinity moves mountains. Civilized masculinity is, well, sexy.

Another great irony of today’s feminism: the effort to defeminize women and feminize men. So that we’re all gender-neutral robots. No thanks, and again, this was never the intent of the original feminists.

But how do we make sure masculinity is civilized? Parents, especially fathers, need to teach their sons to be proud of their strengths and abilities — but to always have manners and respect. It’s not easy (I have a high-testosterone 8-year-old son; I am well aware). But it’s doable. All of us know men who are both gentlemen and quite masculine.

But also, women — as friends, girlfriends and wives — have a role here. We have the not particularly fun job of helping to civilize men. Actually, I take that back. Imagine how Gal had civilized her early boyfriends. I have no doubt she had a great deal of fun and success — or they were out the door very quickly.

VIII. So what’s the bottom line?

The goal of feminism was to unshackle women, to be able to engage in the world as strong, fully formed adults who know what works for us and what doesn’t.

It’s time to teach women again that we are fully in control of our bodies and our destinies — to reach deep inside of ourselves to find our unique identities.

And so I propose the beginning of a new, Fifth Wave of feminism. We can call it rational feminism or independent feminism or noncomformist feminism. Or, we can just call it feminism, because it would be bringing feminism back to its original meaning.

The key components again would be freedom, personal responsibility and individuality. Taking back our lives from those who wish to control us, both women and men.

That, and only that, is the true meaning of feminism and empowerment. That is the 21st century woman.


Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.

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