Opinion | After Dobbs: What Is Feminist Sex?


speaker 1

I’m not obsessed with sex. I’m just can’t thinking about it, the performance of it.

speaker 2

I do think that as casual as relationships are becoming, because you can just Tinder someone and say, I’m down the street. Yeah, I’ll meet you out. There is no, like, gravitas to having and wooing a partner anymore.

speaker 3

Marriage is unpaid labor. It’s a free household slave for each man.

speaker 4

I’m just talking about two consenting adults, having some casual sex.

speaker 5

Intercourse can be wonderful, but it can also cause tremendous pain. And if you’re not careful, sex can destroy lives.

jane coaston

It’s “The Argument.” I’m Jane Coaston. And this is the last episode in our three-part series on where feminism goes next. Today, we’re wrestling with one of feminism’s longest standing divides, what is good sex? What kind of sex and romance is feminist and what’s not?

Is Tinder or hookup culture a sign that feminism is working or that the patriarchy is still in charge? And do your choices in the bedroom actually have an impact on the broader feminist movement?

My first guest has tackled all of this in her new book, “Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution.” Nona Willis-Aronowitz is a sex and love columnist at “Teen Vogue.” Her book is part memoir, part history. She writes about how she married her boyfriend in her 20s to help him get health insurance. It forced their casual relationship into a serious one.

And then, after years of bad sex — her words — she divorced him, and she started exploring casual sex, sex with women, and non-monogamy. And the whole time, she’s thinking about her mom. Her mom, Elon Willis, was one of the leaders of the pro-sex feminist movement of the late 1960s and after.

Through interviews and research, Nona tries to reconcile her mom’s version of feminism with her own desires. And she asks herself, is having casual sex the best way to pursue pleasure? And if it is, why doesn’t it always make her happy?

My other guest is Times Opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg. She’s been writing about feminism for decades and wrote a response to Nona’s book. Michelle’s argument is that the emotional part of a relationship can be just as liberating as the sexual part, even if that means your relationship ends up looking pretty vanilla.

[MUSIC] Hey, Michelle. Hey, Nona.

nona willis-aronowitz


michelle goldberg


jane coaston

So Michelle, you’ve been writing about feminism for a long time, but for listeners who might not know, can you tell me what shapes most how you think about feminism and where you come from?

michelle goldberg

Well, to be honest one person who really shaped how I think about feminism is Nona’s mother, Elon Willis, even though I think Elon Willis is much more radical than I am. I mean, I’ve always been a pretty bog standard liberal, not always, but for my later adult life.

But she had such a combination of radical idealism and common sense, there’s kind of never any “can’t” or unsupportable rhetoric. It just seems so true to my experience of the world, but I would say, look, I don’t know that I have big ideological touchstones.

I first became interested in feminism as a teenager, doing reproductive rights activism. And I guess I’ve been motivated just by, again, the liberal idea that women are human beings, deserving of equal rights and freedom and opportunities for human flourishing.

jane coaston

Nona, what shapes most how you think about feminism and where you come from?

nona willis-aronowitz

Well, it’s ironic because my mother’s feminism didn’t shape my feminism until much later, until after she died. I was a teenager in the late ‘90s and early aughts when a very flattened version of sex-positive feminism was rampant in the culture. And I’m not even sure I would call it quote, unquote, “feminism,” but sex positivity in general.

There was Samantha from “Sex and the City” who was having sex, quote, “like a man.” There was all of those “Cosmo” headlines about getting the most explosive orgasm of your life. There was Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim and this very impervious sexual confidence that seemed to be much preferable to what I saw as the only other option, which was being a prude.

And so now, of course, I have tried to reject those ideas, but it’s proven to be not as easy as I thought to do away with some of that socialization. Nowadays, I think my feminism is informed not only by my mother, but above all, by early radical feminists who were being honest in living rooms during consciousness-raising sessions. I think that is the concept that most appeals to me, that we have to have a very, sort of, non-judgmental but also interrogative forum for explaining our desires.

jane coaston

Right. You mentioned sex-positive feminism. So I want to take a minute to do some history and definitions. So sex-positive feminism is a political feminism of the 1970s, the argument that you can’t liberate women without empowering them to pursue sexual pleasure. But not everyone was on board with that idea. You had people like Andrea Dworkin, arguing that sex positivity can actually lead to the exploitation of women through things like sex work and pornography.

There’s a back and forth between these camps. It’s complicated. But basically, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we settled into a norm of what we now call pro-sex feminism, like, find what you like and don’t be ashamed of it. But here’s the thing that interests me.

Recently, there’s been a backlash to that pro-sex feminism, the feeling that just because women could do everything in the bedroom starts to feel like pressure that they should do everything in the bedroom.

nona willis-aronowitz


jane coaston

Nona, you write about that pressure. So I want to quote a passage from your book. “Couldn’t I just have the sex I wanted to have without feeling bad or guilty or like a shitty feminist? I felt grateful for the radical feminism that encouraged shame-free sexual exploration, but I resented its high bar too.” What do you think held you back from having the sex that you wanted to have?

nona willis-aronowitz

I think the original iteration of pro-sex feminism as we understand it didn’t have those shoulds. I think the shoulds came later, when there was so much critique of porn and B.D.S.M. and heterosexuality itself that I think the ‘90s version of sex positivity said that nobody should be judged for their desires, no matter what and that you should be having as much pleasure as humanly possible.

I’m not sure that any feminist would say that should be having as much sex as possible. I think it was more just like, you deserve pleasure, and you should go and get it. And I think it really fit into the “you go, girl” ethic of empowerment. The yas, queen method.

Yes. And for me, it created shame on the other side of not being able to admit that I was having sex that was less than unsatisfying and then even beyond that, there were some points where I didn’t care one way or the other whether I had an orgasm or that I didn’t particularly like getting oral sex. For instance, “Cosmo” readers would be disappointed in me.

And granted, I might be more neurotic about these things than the average woman. I think a lot of women are just unapologetically not concerned with being a perfect sexual being, but I think either stance shows sexual pressures that different parts of society put on us, right?

I think that if you have an ideology, a well-formed ideology — at this point, feminism is 40 or 50 years old in its current form — there’s going to be norms, and sometimes you don’t live up to those norms.

jane coaston

Michelle, you’ve written, “What does it say about popular feminism when it makes women feel bad about their desires?” It sounds to me, in some ways, that you think that pro-sex feminism has perhaps or — the norms established by pro-sex feminism has made some women feel embarrassed to have emotional desires. Do I have that right?

michelle goldberg

Yeah, I think that that’s right. Either embarrassed to have emotional desires or embarrassed not to be endlessly horny. And Nona’s book is one of several books that have come out about — just what she said, people feeling shamed by their desires.

And I think that the fact that shame and guilt come up so much in these narratives about people feeling like they’re not having enough sex or not having sex in the right kind of way is indicative of just how calcified this ideology has become.

I’m older than Nona, but this was something that I felt myself as a teenager in the ‘90s, even though I put it aside pretty quickly because it made me like really unhappy, trying to live up, however briefly, to that kind of ultra-liberated ideal.

And I do think that when we talk about desire, there’s sexual desire, but there’s also emotional desire, desires for security, desire for commitment, desire to be treated kindly and decently.

I think what you see now is this — some people call it it hetero-pessimism, but there’s clearly this gulf between a lot of young men and a lot of young women. Obviously, we’re talking about heterosexuals here, but where they just sort of cannot connect because their expectations are so radically divergent.

nona willis-aronowitz

Yeah, I think this is a really important point, but that we have to go further when we talk about how women are suppressing their emotional desires because if our sexual tastes aren’t just arbitrary, as my mother pointed out, decades ago, neither are our emotional desires, whether suppressed or not. There are cultural reasons for wanting commitment and monogamy.

Kindness is one thing. I mean, kindness, I think is low-hanging fruit that everyone can agree on, right? It’s a bit of a straw man or straw woman to say some people are advocating not being kind, but I do think that some people are advocating against commitment and monogamy. And there are a lot of women who secretly want commitment and monogamy. And I would never deny that, but I think we should interrogate those just as hard as we do rough sex or casual sex because —

michelle goldberg


nona willis-aronowitz

Well, because I think of my first marriage as partly a reaction to the letdown of the hookup culture. I was like, I don’t feel respected. I don’t feel like somebody has deemed me worthy of being with. And then I gave my then boyfriend an ultimatum of, you need to commit to me or else. And he sort of agreed, and then I was met with a lot of pressures and expectations on the other side.

My desire for exclusivity, which was, of course, enforced by society, muffled many of my other desires, including sexual ones for years. And it was really hard for me to get out of this relationship that was culturally endorsed.

And I think this was actually one of the original points of the early feminists of there are not only economic reasons, but also social reasons why women want to be committed to and why people want monogamy. And again, I think that you can authentically want monogamy without it necessarily being the default or a shortcut for somebody respecting you. It certainly wasn’t the case in my much-too-long marriage that I stayed in partly because of these societal rewards I got for being in a conventional relationship.

My mother talked a lot about sexual desire for B.D.S.M. and things like that as a coping mechanism for a misogynistic society. And I think it might be similar for this feeling of wanting to be committed to.

jane coaston

I want to jump in here first to say, Michelle, I’m glad you brought the idea of hetero-pessimism because on a personal note, I find hetero-pessimism extremely irritating. Typically, it tends to come towards me as a queer person as saying, oh, I wish I were queer. I really wish I didn’t like men. And it comes with this oh, men are awful, but I have to keep trudging around in the man mine.

It idealizes queer relationships in such a way that I think makes them seem non-real, but I want to also talk a little bit about — I think so much of this has to do with peer culture and who your peers are. Nona, you were experiencing your marriage in Chicago and New York, where I think the norms around sex and sexual culture might be different than they would have been if you would have gotten married and been living outside of Iowa City, Iowa. Communities matter. Michelle, what do you think?

michelle goldberg

Well, I want to go back to — I mean, look, I think that clearly when we talk about the kind of pressures of sex positivity, we’re talking about a rarefied demographic. Although I think with social media, it’s probably a lot more extensive. I mean, some of the young women you see decrying sex positivity on TikTok, for example, aren’t necessarily doing so from the center of New York City, right?

I think norms spread outwards, like when you throw a pebble in a lake. But the thing I want to say about monogamy — and this maybe gets to the difference between Nona and my politics is I just — I mean, certainly, there have always been people who are non-monogamous. There are people who desire this. They should pursue that.

But in terms of as a social norm, the societies that have non monogamy as a social norm, I mean there’s exceptions, but in general, those places have not historically been great for women. And I tend to think — I mean, this is something Louise Perry, who I have a lot of disagreements with, but one thing she writes in her book is that basically, that for a lot of people, monogamy is the worst system except for all the others.

And you see in Nona’s book, people who are extremely ideologically committed to free love having a very, very hard time pulling it off in practice. And I don’t think it’s practical or desirable for a lot of people. And I just think that it’s one thing to say, people find monogamy constraining and they have all of these desires that they’re not getting to act out, and they should be allowed to pursue those. Sure.

But I think what you see in some of these books reacting to pro-sex feminism is the opposite, people saying that this is their secret wish, but they’re ashamed of it or they feel like it makes them a kind of a quote, unquote, “bad feminist.” And again, I’ve written this in the past. What is a feminism that makes women feel so guilty about their desires?

nona willis-aronowitz

Absolutely. I mean, I would not disagree that as it stands now, non-monogamy is not practical or desirable for a lot of people. But I think the reason for that is similar to what you’ve said about the sexual revolution in general, is that you can’t really have a sexually liberated society when women aren’t liberated.

And I think it’s the same for our current society, where misogyny and a lot of toxic gender role elements get in the way of having a functional polyamorous relationship. I have to say that you’re focusing a lot on my angst with polyamory. I did feel a lot of jealousy which, by the way, I also feel like is a composite feeling that is partially influenced by society and what we deem what pride even means in society and what respect means.

But I also have felt a huge amount of relief being in a non-monogamous relationship because you’re allowed to express your desires in a way that you’re not necessarily allowed to express them in monogamous relationships.

And I prize a space to be honest above all else. And it’s been a huge relief for me to be able to acknowledge that I’m attracted to somebody or tell my partner that I flirted with somebody or even that I have feelings for somebody else. And my difficulty with it, I don’t really think is something intrinsic about monogamy so much as society is not ready for it. I think monogamy works for a lot of people.

And I think that I’ve had moments in my life where I feel good about monogamy. I just don’t think it should be this standard that’s somehow morally superior to trying out other ways of having families and things like that.

michelle goldberg

No, I don’t think it’s morally superior. I just think women should feel entitled to it if it’s what they want.

nona willis-aronowitz

Yes, of course. I mean, I would never disagree.


jane coaston

After the break, my argument for why feminism doesn’t owe you good sex.


I want to ask though — we’re talking about norms. And it seems like we’re having a disagreement on that point. My question is, how much of feminism’s wins are a result of personal choices? Do actions have to mean something for the movement? Michelle, how much do you think individual choices matter?

michelle goldberg

I do think that there’s been something of a warping of this idea of the kind of, quote, unquote, “the personal is political,” right? This idea, as I understand it, when it came up in second-wave feminism, was a way to basically say that your private miseries and shames and sorrows, maybe you’ve had to have a illegal abortion.

You have a boss who grabs your ass. You can’t take out your own credit card. Your husband is contemptuous or even abusive, all the sorts of ways that women were just stuck living a lesser life and that they were taught to see their unhappiness as basically a personal failing, that this wasn’t a personal failing, that this was a result of political structures, of legal structures, of social norms and that those things could be dismantled.

I don’t think it follows from that that every decision you make in your personal life should conform to a broader ideology. That’s not how human beings work, right? Human beings are complicated. You can devote your life to dismantling your own conditioning, but there’s also a lot of other politically productive things that you can do once you accept that not all personal decisions have to line up with your politics.

It would be a violation of progressive politics if you don’t pay, say, your babysitter a living wage. I don’t think that it is a violation of progressive politics if you as the woman are the one who makes your kids’ babysitting schedule, right? I think those are two different things

jane coaston

I think that for me, the question of sexual empowerment is a question of freedom versus happiness. So it seems like a goal of the pro-sexual freedom is so that people can have a sex life of their own making, which is freedom. And then there’s a separate idea, which I don’t think either of you are embracing, but I feel like it’s unspoken in our culture, which is that if you do all of these things, you’ll be happy.

But I actually think that your ability to do something is separate from your happiness doing it. Pro-sex feminism does not owe you good sex, just like marriage equality does not owe you a good marriage. Is it possible to divorce the two ideas from each other, that being able to do something is different from enjoying that thing? And Nona, is bad sex the price we pay for those choices?

nona willis-aronowitz

I mean, I think, you in any point in history, could be in a relationship with a god-awful person. In fact, it was probably much more likely that you would be in a relationship with a god-awful person 50 years ago, when women had far fewer options and were far more stigmatized for being single. So let’s just clear that up.

I don’t think that sex is getting worse. What I think is that there’s a bigger gap between our expectations for sex and relationships and the stubbornly bad sex and relationships that we’re still having. I think we have all this info, these resources, all this quote, unquote, “empowerment,” and yet, we’re still seeing some of the same patterns.

jane coaston

That makes me wonder, Nona, is feminism, and in some ways, pro-sex feminism a victim of its own success? We raised our consciousness in the bedroom, but then we became hyper aware of what’s quote, unquote, “right or wrong,” where it becomes that if you want to be dominated, maybe you don’t really want to be dominated. If you want to specifically dress in a very femme way, maybe you don’t really want to do that. Maybe that’s the patriarchy at work, and it maybe has paralyzed us in thinking about this, for the people who do think about it. I think you pointed out, you probably think about this a lot more than a lot of people do, but I’m curious as to your thoughts.

nona willis-aronowitz

Well, I think I’m going to go full circle and say that the key word is conscious. I think the chapter I feel most proud of of this book is about the concept of hetero-pessimism and the realization that I am pretty damn heterosexual.

jane coaston


nona willis-aronowitz

And the difference between me and a lot of people or even an earlier version of me is that I consciously, actively chose that desire. I did go through this active, deliberate process of discovering my desire for men in a way that was a default before.

And I think that the concept of consciousness is so incredibly important, even if we do land on desires that align with mainstream views of how we should be, but I think some people — and I see this in the letters I get for “Teen Vogue” — there are a lot of ostensibly heterosexual kids who are expressing a lot of doubt in, why am I supposed to be liking having sex with men? I’m not really enjoying this. I don’t really want to have sex with my boyfriend, ugh.

And it is very clear to me that they haven’t yet actively discovered their desire. They were working on a cultural default. And I think that is important. That is one of the aha moments in my book, when I’ve really discovered that not only am I heterosexual, but there are really specific and joyful reasons why I desire and am attracted to and love men, and that actually felt good.

jane coaston

Michelle, if we are seeing this push and pull happening in our culture and in ourselves and how we’re thinking about this, and if we can’t agree on communal values when it comes to feminist sex, how does feminism move forward on talking about sex, especially when we just had the Dobbs decision where the stakes of sex are even higher for some women? How do we move forward?

michelle goldberg

Well, I think we move forward in the political realm. I mean, I feel like we’ve taken the personal is political about as far as it can go. And sometimes it’s more important to focus on the political is political, right? I mean, organizing and reaction to the Dobbs decision doesn’t really have anything to do with, I don’t think, creating a consensus about the best way to organize your personal life or whether there exists a best way to organize your personal life.

I mean, I do think that your original distinction between could and should is really a good one, right? There is a difference between been saying, you can do this if you want and you should do this to be a fully realized feminist, a fully realized person.

I feel like something I took from Elon Willis’s writing was pushing back against the idea that your sex life should conform to a political program. And what I think has happened over time is that pro-sex feminism has turned into its own program that people felt like they needed to conform to or felt guilty about not conforming to.

And again, I mean, I think fundamentally, feminism shouldn’t be making women feel shame about their desires. I do think that the backlash to pro-sex feminism is part of a bigger backlash — and this might be opening up a whole new can of worms — but it’s part of a bigger backlash to what you might call neoliberalism, right, in which everybody is an autonomous figure, constantly seeking to maximize their own pleasure.

I think for some people, they would rather be enmeshed in obligations and even restraints because absolute freedom and constant choice can be overwhelming and even enervating for some people.

And so look, as I said before, I’m kind of a very classic, standard, vanilla liberal, but I do think that there is a reaction on both the left and the right to a classically liberal approach to our personal lives.

nona willis-aronowitz

That’s so interesting that you say that, Michelle, because I think when taken to the extreme of I must discover my desire above all else and I must go on this individual, isolating journey to find it, it can be very disheartening. But I think seeing another way is how all the different desires of women were expressed in these consciousness-raising sessions.

I actually wrote a piece for The New York Times that ended with a scene from the consciousness-raising groups where, there was a cacophony of voices. Some women were really what we probably now would call demisexual. They couldn’t enjoy sex unless they were in love. And then others felt the opposite way. They resented this expectation of marriage and commitment. And then some people felt like their sex drives were higher than their partner’s, and they were being rejected.

And then other people felt pressured by them. and there was just all these people who did not agree, and there wasn’t this kind of standard that emerged from what you might think the personal is political might produce.

And one woman, disheartened, was like, oh, I guess we’re not getting any conclusions. We’re all saying completely different things. And somebody said, maybe that’s what liberation really is. And I don’t mean to say that I have the answers, but I also don’t think that this journey of discovering your desires has to be along the lines of this cold, liberal in the classic sense, kind of way. I think it can also be in context of community.

jane coaston

Michelle, Nona, I really appreciate you guys talking about sex with me.

michelle goldberg

Thank you so much.

nona willis-aronowitz

Thanks, Jane. [MUSIC]

jane coaston

Michelle Goldberg is The Times opinion columnist. You can read her column about Nona’s book called “When Sexual Liberation is Oppressive.” We’ll link it in the show notes. And Nona Willis-Aronowitz. Her new book is “Bad Sex.” She also writes a sex and love advice column for “Teen Vogue.”

This is the final episode in our feminism series. You can hear our previous episodes about how some feminists are confronting the gender binary and whether big-tent feminism should exist on your favorite podcast app or go to

“The Argument” is the production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Vishakha Darbha and Derek Arthur. Edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon, with original music by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker; mixing by Pat McCusker. Fact checking by Kate Sinclair and Mary Marge Locker. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta, with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski.



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