China, with its rapid modernization and growing affluence, has become a fascinating case study in what happens when a people once encumbered by tradition, authority, and economic disadvantage are given greater freedom. Human behavior, you can be sure, changes in radical ways, and perhaps nowhere as much as in the area of sex. In an article called “Sex Please, We’re Young and Chinese,” published this year in Time magazine, a journalist reported that the Chinese are having more sex, at increasingly younger ages and in increasingly kinky ways. (The country currently produces seventy percent of the world’s sex toys, and not all of them are for export.) According to the census, nearly three-quarters of Beijing residents now have sex before marriage, up from fifteen and a half percent in 1989. Meanwhile, divorce rates and unwanted pregnancies are skyrocketing across the country, and officials are publicly beginning to fret over the yawning moral vacuum around sex, a void that used to be filled by government influence and traditional mores.
However, for China’s youth—such as Muzi Mei, the Carrie Bradshaw of Beijing who became a superstar by blogging about her sexual conquests, which she estimates at “far above one hundred”—these issues are negligible in light of the freedom they can now explore. Shortly after posting an audio recording of herself climaxing during sex (her website crashed the same day when fifty thousand people tried to listen at the same time), Muzi Mei told a reporter, “I express my freedom through sex. It’s my life, and I can do what I want.”
Despite the vast historical and cultural differences between China and the United States, I’m amazed by the uncanny similarities between what is happening there and the seemingly widespread sexual exhibitionism in the name of freedom by young American women. I’ll give you a few snapshots from the past couple of years that epitomize the phenomenon: At nineteen, Paris Hilton tapes herself having sex with a boyfriend, who then releases the video worldwide, calling it “One Night in Paris.” Hilton’s fame hits the stratosphere when it becomes the number one selling video of 2005. At twenty-five, just a couple months after giving birth to her second child and divorcing her husband, Britney Spears gets out of a limousine not wearing underwear and flashes her Brazilian bikini wax to the world. In the ensuing media frenzy, she appears oblivious, showing no sign of regret. In early 2007, both Paris and Britney land themselves on the cover of Newsweek looking sweaty and devilish after a night of drinking on the town, under the headline “Girls Gone Wild: What Are Celebs Teaching Kids?” In the related article, the author expresses a concern that America’s “girls gone bad” are turning the country’s young children into “prosti-tots.”
Newsweek’s cover line, “The Girls Gone Wild Effect,” is a reference to the ubiquitous video series founded and produced by Joe Francis, the Hugh Hefner of Gen X. Accompanied by his camera crews, Francis visits beaches, nightclubs, and parties across America seeking “everyday” college-age women who will flash their breasts, make out with each other, and masturbate on camera in exchange for GGW-emblazoned T-shirts or hats. With videos entitled “Craziest Frat Parties” and “Forbidden Spring Break” selling hundreds of thousands of copies, he manages to rake in as much as forty million dollars a year. When asked why he thinks thousands of young women are so eager to exhibit themselves for his cameras, so willing to objectify themselves in exchange for trucker hats and tank tops, Francis says simply: “It’s empowering. It’s freedom.”
With characteristic hysteria, the media has simultaneously reviled and lavished attention on America’s girls gone wild, who in turn are increasingly seeking their fifteen minutes of fame imitating the brazenness of porn stars. You’d have to barricade yourself in a bomb shelter to avoid the general uproar, but I’m especially captivated by this phenomenon because all of its protagonists—Britney and Paris, along with Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan and Co.—are almost exactly the same age as I am. I’ll just be honest here and say that I don’t like this at all. My celebrity peers’ incessant public bids for sexual affirmation, their lack of self-reflection, their narcissism, and their indulgence embarrass me. I don’t like that they never seem to be able to speak intelligently about anything, even though they are in powerful positions to speak for our generation and influence the next. (“The cool thing about being famous is traveling. I have always wanted to travel across seas, like to Canada and stuff.” –Britney Spears, 2006)
My intense dislike is shared by many others. Cultural commentator Kay S. Hymowitz, in her article in City Journal entitled “The Trash Princess: Why Americans Love to Hate Paris Hilton,” writes that despite the fact that Hilton is “a composite of contemporary American sins,” our general revulsion towards Paris is a hopeful sign of “lingering cultural sanity.” Unlike Hymowitz and most of America, however, I can’t “hate” the Brat Pack of my generation, our cheerleaders of entitlement. After all, sans fame and money, I’ve grown up in the same time and place with them, and the truth is, we’re not all that different.
Recently, I was struck by young feminist author Ariel Levy’s recognition that women’s experience of freedom has changed with my generation. As she writes in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, “The women’s movement introduced revolutionary ideas that caught on so thoroughly they now seem self-evident.” Indeed, it’s extraordinarily difficult for young women to appreciate the significance of the freedom we now lay claim to. We assume that the right to determine the course of our lives is certain and infallible, but we forget it was only a historical nanosecond ago when women grew up with no such assurances and had to fight, desperately at times, for this power. The truth is, my generation has generally not been taught women’s history in a meaningful or significant way, and by meaningful and significant I mean in a way that would illuminate our great historical fortune.
Our ignorance of even the simple facts can be astonishing. I didn’t know until very recently that marital rape wasn’t made illegal in any state until 1975 or that women were not admitted to Princeton or Yale before 1969. That was just a few years after safe, affordable birth control became available, allowing hundreds of thousands of young women to choose their own destinies beyond marriage or motherhood for the first time in history. Because of seemingly simple advances in women’s rights such as these, a girl’s options in life are now nearly limitless. We can still be wives or mothers if we so desire, but we can also become doctors or scientists, writers, academics, engineers, politicians, or business leaders on par with any man. We can be astronauts, soldiers, or nuns. Heck, nowadays we can even be men—thanks to science—complete with male anatomy and the testosterone of an NFL football player.
Second-wave feminism, the movement that spanned the sixties through the eighties (women suffragists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries constitute the “first wave”), was rooted in a powerful belief: More freedom for women, via equal rights and equal access to power, would transform society. The revolution born of this conviction was political and legal in nature, as well as cultural, psychological, and personal. Thousands of second-wave feminists from the baby-boom generation, inspired by icons such as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Freidan, and Gloria Steinem, fought for women’s rights in American courts and focused their attention on the structures and dynamics within culture, families, and relationships that kept them imprisoned in the cage of patriarchy. “Feminism,” author and cultural theorist bell hooks said, “ is about men and women sharing power equally. And so it necessarily transforms the world for the better for women and men.”
Second-wave feminism was also rooted in the belief that a woman’s individual liberation was inherently connected to her sexual awakening. Truly emancipated women would “own” their sexuality; divorce it from male-imposed ideas, limitations, and expectations; and be uninhibited in their attainment of pleasure. On the other hand, women should also have the right to not be sexual at all—something that the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin chose later in life and spoke about publicly as a “feminist” choice. This consensus among “second wavers,” that the sexual autonomy of women was a pillar of their revolution, helped spawn (along with rock and roll) America’s sexual revolution in the sixties and seventies. Yet the close relationship between feminism and sexual liberation was a contentious and arguably ruinous one, as Levy describes in Female Chauvinist Pigs:
Within the women’s liberation movement, the question of how to represent sex—even the question of how to have sex—became divisive. Two distinct and passionately oppositional factions developed. On the one hand there were the antiporn feminists, and on the other, there were the women who felt that if feminism was about freedom for women, then women should be free to look at or appear in pornography. Screaming fights became a regular element of feminist conferences once the “pornography wars” got underway in the late seventies. . . Everyone was fighting for freedom, but when it came to sex, freedom meant different things to different people.
Unfortunately, the split between what became known as “sex-positive feminists” and “anti-pornography feminists” was merely one of many splinters that occurred within second-wave feminism. The movement may have begun as a unified front, a collective fight for women’s freedom to make their own choices, but within a decade, it was clear that all women didn’t want to make the same choices. Feminism quickly turned into a loosely connected plurality of diverse factions—radical feminism, separatist feminism, postcolonial feminism, liberal feminism, ecofeminism, Marxist feminism, individualist feminism, essentialist feminism, queer feminism, existentialist feminism—fighting one another for very different agendas based on sometimes diametrically opposed convictions concerning the nature of women and the purpose of liberation.
Then sometime in the very early nineties, third-wave feminism was born. Often characterized as a backlash against second wave, “third wavers” were an aesthetically rebellious, extremely empowered group of mainly Gen-X women who championed minority voices and transgender rights. Indeed, they often criticized second-wave feminists for privileging white middle-class perspectives over those of their more disenfranchised sisters. But this third wave was also, arguably, a direct response to the splintering of its predecessor—an unconscious effort to minimize the hemorrhaging that was occurring in the feminist movement by embracing pluralism and tolerance to an extreme. Indeed, for third wavers, no one should be excluded from the feminist label. As Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, central figures of the third wave, write in their book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future:
You’re sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are—but with a political consciousness. And, vice versa: You want to be a feminist because you want to be exactly who you are.
By being pro everything—pro-sex, pro-homemaker, pro-career, pro-motherhood, pro-transgender, pro-queer—third wavers managed to philosophically elevate the exercise of women’s choice over the substance of women’s choices themselves, avoiding the need for discrimination or morality altogether. In an essay for the feminist magazine Bitch entitled “Freedom of Choice: Parsing the Word That Defined a Generation,” Summer Wood writes, “The phrase ‘It’s my choice’ [has] become synonymous with ‘It’s a feminist thing to do’—or, perhaps more precisely, ‘It is antifeminist to criticize my decision.’” Sisterhood, in other words, became all about acceptance. Wood goes on to cite a controversy created by the argument that cosmetic surgery is a “feminist exercise,” a view promoted by feminist academic Kathy Davis in her book Embodied Practices: Feminist Perspectives on the Body: “The paternalistic argument against choice rests on the assumption that women who want cosmetic surgery need to be protected—from themselves (their narcissistic desire for beauty) or from undue influence from others.”
If you want to understand the roots of how young women today can strip for cameras in the name of freedom, you need not look much further than the current zeitgeist epitomized in that statement. To impinge on women’s freedom of choice, the thinking goes—even if it protects them from their own narcissistic actions—is wrong. These days, whatever a woman chooses is an act of feminism, and by logical extension, feminism has become the ability to do whatever we want. Not surprisingly, this trajectory of feminism through its second and third wave mirrors the development of American culture since the sixties in general—not just greater pluralism leading to greater relativism, but an increasing blur between the exercise of individual liberty on the one hand and narcissism, entitlement, and consumerism on the other.