I think it’s one of the major paradoxes of modern American life, how the women who are by every outward indicator doing better than ever–women 35 or 40 and under, who have higher salaries, more education, and more wealth than their male peers–are so unhappy and feel so powerless and victimized. How can this be? Why do the women who, on paper, seem to have more power than the men around them (because, in this society, money is power), feel almost unanimously like they are helpless, traumatized victims of patriarchy?
Why are women who grew up in a society where rape victims are entitled to special protections that no other class of crime victims get, where sexual violence is considered more heinous than any other kind of criminal act, where sex crimes are treated more harshly than any other form of crime, where relationships that would have been commonplace a couple of generations ago (such as those between men in their 20s and women in their teens) are now seen as perverted and disgusting, and where things that were never seen as rape before (like having sex with a woman who willingly, eagerly went along with it but had a couple of drinks first) are now legally equivalent to holding a woman down and forcibly penetrating her, feeling across the board like they are powerless victims of a rape culture?
Why are women who have more access to reliable, affordable birth control than any women before them–access that has only increased in the last decade, to now include over-the-counter access to emergency contraception and copay-free access to many forms of birth control–convinced they are the beleaguered victims of a war on women?
Why does the reality of women’s lives seem so out of sync with what they are feeling?
I think it’s because we are setting women up for misery. We are sexualizing teen girls beyond what has ever happened before, and pushing them to want sex and seek sex and dress for sex and make men want sex, but then the minute they have sex, we tell them they are victims, children who are too young to make choices about sex, who must necessarily be traumatized for life by what happened.
We are encouraging young women to engage in a culture of drunken, meaningless hook-ups, telling them that getting married and having kids is a drag, is boring and unfulfilling and regressive, and that liberation and happiness is to be found in having the longest string of commitment-less hook-ups they can manage for as long as they can manage, that anybody who encourages them to settle down or get married or, gasp, consider having kids before they get old enough that it might be hard is a misogynistic, theocratic monster. But then, we tell them that every sexual encounter they had while drinking was rape, that any sex they regret was rape, that any man who would dare have sex with a woman without full assurance that, five years later, she’d feel totally positive and happy about it is an evil rapist out to destroy her. We encourage women to engage in hook-up culture, redefine rape so that nearly all “hooking up” becomes legally rape, and then act appalled about living in a rape culture.
Everything we are telling women is wrong. Engaging in a long string of commitment-less, relationship-free sexual encounters beginning in your teens and continuing for a couple of decades is not liberating, empowering, or fun. And, the unhappiness of women today should be enough to prove that. The reason women today feel so powerless isn’t because men have more power; they have less. It’s not because men are wielding the power they have more cruelly; women have more freedoms and protections than ever before. Women feel disempowered, traumatized, victimized, unhappy, and unfulfilled at higher rates than ever before because we are actively, continually encouraging women, from the time they hit puberty, to engage in behaviors that we have defined, simultaneously, as both empowering and traumatizing, as the key to freedom and liberation as well as acts of debasement and abuse. We cannot have it both ways, and we are making women incredibly unhappy by trying to.