gender wars
The Sexual Revolution’s Unlikely Winners

Modern mobile dating applications are intensifying the hookup culture and tilting the sexual landscape in favor of shallow, boorish young men looking for no-strings-attached sex. That’s the picture that emerges from a long feature story by Vanity Fair‘s Nancy Jo Sales:

Marty, who prefers Hinge to Tinder (“Hinge is my thing”), is no slouch at “racking up girls.” He says he’s slept with 30 to 40 women in the last year: “I sort of play that I could be a boyfriend kind of guy,” in order to win them over, “but then they start wanting me to care more … and I just don’t.”

“Dude, that’s not cool,” Alex chides in his warm way. “I always make a point of disclosing I’m not looking for anything serious. I just wanna hang out, be friends, see what happens … If I were ever in a court of law I could point to the transcript.” But something about the whole scenario seems to bother him, despite all his mild-mannered bravado. “I think to an extent it is, like, sinister,” he says, “ ‘cause I know that the average girl will think that there’s a chance that she can turn the tables. If I were like, Hey, I just wanna bone, very few people would want to meet up with you …

“Do you think this culture is misogynistic?” he asks lightly.

For their part, the women quoted in the story are not quite as gleeful about the new opportunities afforded by the Tinder-powered culture of sex-on-demand:

“It seems like the girls don’t have any control over the situation, and it should not be like that at all,” Fallon says.

“It’s a contest to see who cares less, and guys win a lot at caring less,” Amanda says.

“Sex should stem from emotional intimacy, and it’s the opposite with us right now, and I think it really is kind of destroying females’ self-images,” says Fallon.

“It’s body first, personality second,” says Stephanie.

To be sure, the Vanity Fair story focuses (probably intentionally) on just one aspect of the modern sexual landscape. Men and women’s attitudes toward no-strings-attached-sex are not uniform—many women find it liberating, many men would prefer to opt out altogether, most people of both genders probably find it appealing some of the time, and most ultimately yearn for something more. But the thrust of Sales’ argument—that on the whole, this free-for-all sexual environment is more suited to male than to female preferences—rings true.

To a certain degree, this creates a problem for feminists, who have centered their agenda since the 1960s around loosening sexual strictures that limited the choices that women could make. Partly as a result of feminist-inspired social change, partly for other reasons, we’ve created an environment where young people have virtually unrestricted access to intoxicating substances ranging from alcohol to ecstasy, we’ve removed traditional prohibitions on premarital sex, and we’ve demolished traditional restraints on sexually adventurous behavior by both young men and young women. Yet somehow the sexual utopia has failed to arrive. Instead of creating a gender-blind paradise of sexual bliss, we seem to have constructed an arena of sexual competition that advantages—men.

This is the paradox helping to drive the sex wars on campus: “liberated” sex often works out better for young men than for young women, so efforts to free women from so-called repressive sexual norms sometimes reinforce male privilege rather than challenging it. Some of the more controversial steps by feminists on campus recently, like dramatically expanding the definition of sexual assault under “affirmative consent” policies, are best understood as efforts to compensate for the unintended consequences of past feminist efforts to create more space for free female choice.

These new efforts, clumsy, clunky, and controversial, aren’t likely to work. The core problem can’t be fixed by bureaucratic methods: The culture of no-strings-attached sexual encounters tends to reinforce gender inequalities even if, strictly speaking, consent is granted 100 percent of the time.

The gender wars are at least as old as the human race; the problems on display in the Vanity Fair piece aren’t going to be solved anytime soon. The Tinder generation will have to come up with its own sexual norms. They won’t be the norms of Mad Men, but they won’t be the norms of ‘Marty’, either.

In the meantime, though, it looks as if the big winners of the sexual revolution are the hordes of shallow, privileged men swiping through scantily-clad women on iPhone dating apps. This is not, it seems safe to say, what Betty Friedan had in mind.

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