What New York Magazine Gets Wrong About The Sexual Revolution

by Taia Handlin


The latest survey on the sex lives of college students, which apparently the entire world (myself included) will never get tired of fixating on, comes from New York Magazine. In the article “Heirs to the Sexual Revolution,” after having polled more than 700 college students from a wide range of schools they concluded that “the sexual revolution has been won” because students are having lots of sex within the bounds of all kinds of relationship frameworks and they are identifying across a wide and complicated spectrum of gender and sexual orientation.


The sexual revolution has not been won. For that matter, the precise definition of sexual revolution is ambiguous. Even if you define it as young people simply having more partners, that hasn’t changed in decades; according to Sandra L. Caron’s 25-year study on college students’ sexual activity, the average number of partners per student hasn’t changed. Either way, number of sex partners is not a good barometer for sexual liberation, nor, necessarily, is an increase in consensual sex. Far too often, the contemporary feminist sexual discussion, rightly reacting to centuries of sex negativity and sexual power imbalances, becomes what New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister, in her article “The Game Is Rigged,” calls a “neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex-positivity.” If it’s consensual sex, which in this universe is the only metric for sex-positivity, then the feminist response is “okay good, moving on.” But Traister is right; consensual sex can be bad sex, bad sex can be consensual sex.

 “Yes” is only one factor in the ocean of complexity that is the human sexual experience. Diluting it down to yes and no, consensual and not, prudish and liberated, does the people that enjoy sex (or want to) a great disservice. There must be a freedom for consensual sex to be mediocre and, more importantly, a freedom to talk explicitly about what makes it mediocre without placing the conversation within the framework of sexual assault. Talking about it in that way can make it good and great and, most importantly, as messy and nuanced as human sexuality actually is.

Kinks, fetishes, positions, quirks, body types, preferences, all get very little airtime and they should get the bulk of it. Sex is an insanely complicated, infinitely layered labyrinth. It can be good in a million different ways, mediocre in just as many, it can have bits of lame and bits of awesome, it can end in completely different places than it began (both literally and figuratively). The terrible feminism and “sex-positivity” of Cosmo and its ilk is all about “crazy hot sex moves!” and having “mind-blowing sex every time!” and whatnot. Well it’s not always crazy hot and it’s not all mind-blowing and that’s fine.

Not only is it fine, but the pressure to have earth-shattering sex every single time is counter to what sex-positivity should be: an embrace of open sexual dialogue and of the myriad of sexual possibilities. Cosmo-type sex-positivity communicates that if the consensual sex you’re having isn’t totally mind-blowingly hot and wild, with orgasms flying left and right, then you’re doing sex-positive feminism wrong. Which is just plain stupid. I like cake but that doesn’t mean every single cake I will ever eat is the most orgasmic cake experience and that, in turn, doesn’t mean the less mind-blowing cake isn’t worth it.

Part of the problem is how we define sex. Sex means penis-in-vagina or penis-in-butt where the erection is the star and the clitoris is the quirky side character; it’s entertaining but it’s not the plot. And yes, I am including same-sex sex because penetration, be it penis-in-butt, penis-in-vagina, or dildo-in-vagina, is still the default pinnacle of sex. The sexual script starts with making out, goes to some fingering and some oral, and ends in some penis-in-vagina/butt. Deviation from that script is weird; kinks and fetishes are a side thing that you shouldn’t need and are only for special, wild occasions. As a result of that script, ongoing sexual communication beyond “are you consenting to his?” is unnecessary and therefore not entirely welcome.


True sex-positive sex means not just saying yes at the outset and not just reaffirming consent throughout the act. It means communicating throughout about what you’re into and not into, that you like or don’t like this and that position, “move your hand to the left and rotate it counter-clockwise,” “let’s use lube,” “I require lube,” “I don’t require it but I want it,” “I require a vibrator,” “I don’t require a vibrator but I really like it and that should be enough,” etc. Those last two, lube and vibrators, are especially important for hetero sex.

There is a ridiculous expectation that if a woman is “actually” turned on, she doesn’t need lube; lube is only for gay anal sex. Which is ridiculous because some women’s vaginas just don’t lubricate as much as they need for penis-in-vagina to be comfortable and, shock of shocks, enjoyable. Some women just like using extra lube to make it even better. As for vibrators, there is an equally ridiculous notion that “your partner should be enough for you” and you “shouldn’t need” to use a vibrator in bed. Which, if they’re rolling around naked in bed with you, they’re pretty involved and the vibrator is just one part of that. Furthermore, the clitoris is a deeply variant monster with a million nooks and crannies and some women can’t get off without the force that a vibrator provides. Some can but they just really like vibrator orgasms. And since the sexual script is written around doing whatever is necessary to get the man off, it is absurd that the same is not true for women. Dan Savage, author of The Stranger’s sex advice column “Savage Love” and host of the podcast Savage Lovecast, is a fantastic resource on sexual interest-specific sex-positivity. He has a million fabulous things to say about lube, vibrators, kinks, sexual double-standards, and has been a critical voice in rewriting the archaic, phallic and heteronormative sexual script.

To be fair, “Heirs to the Sexual Revolution” does tiptoe into challenging this script. The students they profile have different expectations of their sexual relationships. One pair, Tyler and Sea, have an ongoing Dominant/Submissive sexual relationship with the less common dynamic of her, Sea, as his, Tyler’s, Dom. They talk openly and honestly about what they like about their DS relationship and the ways they navigate their dynamic. They are, however, in the minority. Most of the profiles focus on how much sex the students are having and the exclusive nature of their sexual relationships, which is a woefully narrow focus for a study supposedly profiling the kaleidoscope of sexual expression among college students. Then again, because of the general sexual script, it is entirely likely that the bulk of the sexual conversations the students are having center around the same focus. A true victory for the sexual revolution is an embrace of the revolutionary concept that sexual expression is more than the ridiculously easy categories of yes and no.


Images via New York Magazine (screenshot), Flickr Creative Commons, Wikimedia Commons

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