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Stop telling women how to conduct their sex lives

<h6>Photo Courtesy of the Women*s Center website</h6>
Photo Courtesy of the Women*s Center website

I read “What TV gets right about sex” by Andi Grene ’24 out of curiosity. I’m not a big TV person, but the cover photo was taken from “Euphoria,” a show I vaguely plan to watch eventually. While I was amused by Grene’s anecdotes of her grandmother’s horror at how “pornographic” TV has become and her personal experiences watching “Big Mouth,” I disagreed with her equating casual sex with female liberation. Any attempt to describe what everyone’s sex life should look like, regardless of whether the intention is to empower or oppress, will inevitably fall short. Any such prescription strips away agency. I will be focusing on the experiences of women in particular, but it is important to recognize that the following questions of sexual agency and choice are ones everyone grapples with.

Toward the end of her piece, Grene says when campus opens up, she “[expects] that my female colleagues will likewise conduct their sex lives with comfort; in my mind, this is a sign of self-respect, and self-respect is a sign of intelligence.” This follows a discussion about the flourishing of casual sex that has resulted from the rise of Tinder, Bumble, and other such apps, as well as the general shift in social norms. As Grene points out, increased sexual agency represents an important shift toward gender equality. However, we certainly shouldn’t conflate having sex with having self-respect. Doing so is simply another way of disrespecting women’s sexual agency.

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Treating casual sex as a sign of self-respect, and thus a sign of intelligence, and thus a sign of strength, is absurd. The reasoning runs parallel to a comment featured in a recent Buzzfeed article maintaining that “strong smart women” should “abhor” female musicians “[acting] like pole dancers in their videos.”

So which is it? Does the strong, smart woman download Bumble, or does she avoid it like a hive of bees? Does a woman abstain from sex because she respects her body and herself, or does she have a lot of sex because she respects her body and herself? These are questions that oversimplify complicated realities. Yes, there shouldn’t be a societal stigma against women having sex, nor should the concept of “virginity” carry such weight. But general formulations dictating how women “should” conduct themselves obscures individuality. 

Grene’s article contains many of these generalizations that do not make room for individual lived experience. She states, “Strong people do not let ungrounded timidity encourage disrespect and dehumanization from others.” While it’s unclear exactly what this sentence means, I interpret it to suggest that “strong people” refute “ungrounded timidity” when engaging in sexual activities, despite the risk of society’s disapproval.

Why might a woman be “timid” when approaching sexual activities? Past experiences of sexual assault, for one. Religious beliefs. Grene’s piece centers heterosexual relationships, specifically between straight men and straight women, but a woman might be on the asexual spectrum. She might be waiting for the right person. She might be shy about her body. She might be processing sexual education that favored abstinence or attached shame to sex. She might not be ready. 

Overall, what matters is that she doesn’t want to. None of these attitudes are “ungrounded” or invalid. A woman’s abstention from sexual activity doesn’t say anything about how strong she is, how intelligent she is, or her sense of self-worth. All it says is that she doesn’t want to have sex. There’s no larger conclusion to be drawn from this: Her choice should be respected.

We shouldn’t adopt any particular pattern of sexual activity as an ideal. Not even casual sex, even though it seems like the most radical departure possible from harmful stereotypes that label women as submissive and helpless and demand that they be modest and chaste. Adopting a new ideal only creates a new stereotype. Women shouldn’t be expected to engage in sexual activity any more than they should be shamed for it. 

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Casual sex shouldn’t be stigmatized. It brings joy and satisfaction to some, and can also make some women feel used and bad about themselves. The same person can have varied experiences. Some feelings of shame are an effect of societal expectations, and we shouldn’t respond by creating pressure to engage in casual sex. We should seek instead to get rid of expectations. 

We cannot ignore that casual sex isn’t for everyone just because doing so simplifies sexual liberation. Casual sex can become toxic. Those of us who have been on campus can likely recall both friends’ tales of fun encounters and veritable horror stories from the Street. Some women prefer being in a relationship. Again, asexual women exist and should be recognized as well. 

Ultimately, the ideal we should strive for is the lack of an ideal altogether. We should have a society that encourages women to make their own individual choices that suit their needs and wants.

Brittani Telfair is a junior from Richmond, Va. studying in the School of Public and International Affairs. She can be reached at btelfair@princeton.edu

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