The last thing a woman wants to be worrying about while in the heat of the moment is whether her arousal is an expression of her own distinct eroticism or a symptom of patriarchal oppression. Yet, in the #MeToo landscape, many 30-and-under women and men — including me — are finding it harder to untease the two as we navigate dating and fledgling relationships. In a surprising twist, what began as a very public airing of powerful men’s sexual misconduct has come to cast a certain sinister pall over private intimacies that once seemed perfectly O.K. to enjoy.
“After being exposed to so many accounts of different women’s sexual abuse or harassment, I was hyper-aware and hyper-sensitive about it,” said Jessica Tallarico, 30, of Toronto, a newly engaged friend of mine. “So on one occasion, playing around affectionately in bed, my fiancé got the tiniest bit rough and I had such an adverse reaction to what would normally be playful. Adverse as in, I became defensive, flooded with a bit of fear.
“This felt so strange to me because it happened with my partner who I love and trust immensely, and he did nothing wrong or really that out of the ordinary.”
This winter, around the time that The New Yorker published “Cat Person” and Babe.net published the Aziz Ansari takedown, #MeToo grew to include a conversation on good sex: what it is; who, historically, has been allowed to have it (hint: not the people with vaginas); and how we can have more of it. It’s an important, albeit privileged, conversation, but it’s also one that tends to ignore certain messy truths about sex — the fickleness and wide variability of female desire, for instance, or the inconvenient fact that good sex often defies logic, political values and social mores.
This has put young feminists like Ms. Tallarico and Virginia Rand, a 24-year-old writer and actress in Los Angeles, in a tricky situation. Ms. Rand recalled one recent sexual encounter in which her partner asked for verbal consent “every step of the way.”
A rape survivor, Ms. Rand is well versed in feminist theory; she understands just how important and vital a shift such behavior from a young man is when it comes to casual sex. Yet, in practice, she had mixed feelings. “It’s difficult because on the one hand you’re like, ‘Dude, if I didn’t want it, I would stop you,’” she said. “On the other hand, that can be used against you if it was assault.”
Ms. Rand is not the only one conflicted by the new standard of consent; men are, too. Miles Mobley, a 24-year-old college student in Fresno, Calif., remembered an experience with a close female friend last year. They were both naked and fooling around, he said, but when he went to initiate sex, she told him to stop.
He did so immediately but was confused because “it seemed we were going one way, and then all of a sudden we were not.” He asked her if she was sure she didn’t want to. “And then she said, ‘No, it’s O.K.,’” he said. They had sex. Now Mr. Mobley is plagued with a sense of uncertainty and guilt over the incident: “Was it wrong of me, to ask a clarifying question? Was that coercion? That wasn’t what I meant at all. I was just legitimately confused.”
Mr. Mobley said that post-#MeToo he and many of his male friends have sworn off making the first move. “Now, I just sit back and wait for the girl to do it,” he said. “I know there’s been a lot of sexual situations that have not come to fruition because of it, and I’ve even had girls be like, ‘Why didn’t you kiss me?’ But I just really don’t want to overstep my boundaries.”
We tend to expect sexually liberated women to act the same as sexually liberated men (or at least the idea of them — promiscuous, assertive and self-centered in their pleasure seeking). It makes sense: For most of history, we only had the male model as an example. However, in practice, women may choose to enjoy sexual liberation in significantly different ways than their male counterparts.
“The sooner we acknowledge that our sexuality is distinct and different, the more we can express ourselves in an empowered way,” Dr. Boehm said. “Women’s pleasure and arousal unfolds differently than men’s and by being educated and aware of this we claim our birthright, which is full-bodied pleasure.”
Moreover, a submissive role is not equivalent to meekness. “There is absolutely power in it,” said Dr. Boehm, who is also an expert in tantra. Lying back and surrendering to your partner, as the tantric tradition encourages, she said, can be enormously liberating.
Ultimately, Dr. Boehm said, the most empowering thing a woman can do is take control of her own sexual experiences — the good and the bad. “If we want the same freedoms as men, we have to take on the same duties,” she said.
The #MeToo movement has upended a number of old so-called rules that allowed powerful men to force their desire on women whose silence they could count on. Now we have new rules, and, when it comes to sexual harassment or workplace gender discrimination, this can only be a good thing.
However, the concept of prescriptive, universal guidelines is anathema to truly mind-bending sex. So is codifying it into a moral or political act. Doing so turns the bedroom into a court of public opinion — one in which, as our inscrutable desires inevitably lure us into untested territory, both parties will leave feeling shamed. We don’t need different rules; we need two empowered individuals liberated and secure enough to explore each other’s impulses, to listen to each other, and ask for what they want — even if that includes permission to not ask for what comes next.