Jill Filipovic, author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, wants to reframe how we talk about feminism. Filipovic argues that equality is a fundamental right but she offers another route to achieving this goal: through women’s pursuit of pleasure and happiness.
While American society has framed men’s right to happy, fulfilling lives as a given––partly enabled by free labor and sacrifice by the women in their lives––the same cannot be applied to the lives American women have been raised to expect. Happiness “wasn’t meant for us,” Filipovic writes.
We should ask: What is it that would actually make women’s lives good?
Women, Filipovic argues, have too often been defined and judged in relation to men. While there have been great strides in women’s rights and, arguably, more choices for women than ever before in history, the modern pressures at work and home have reached an all time high, as well. Women, Filipovic writes, are “programmed to assume the best women can do is just get by.” And this, she argues, impedes women in their pursuit of happy, fulfilling lives.
So, how can American women flip the script and embrace their right to happiness? By enjoying sex.
As a society, Filipovic observes, “we have a problem with female pleasure,” that is “holding women back.” There are no "roadmaps” for female desire, she says and a scarcity of sex education on the benefits of healthy sexual activity. Women face immense pressure to look sexy but to not act sexual. And women’s rights to control their own bodies––in the form of access to birth control and abortion services––are aggressively threatened in the current political climate.
Not only is pleasurable sex a primary ingredient for women’s happiness and a public health imperative, Filipovic argues that it’s a fundamental right.
Filipovic herself is a 33-year-old award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Foreign Policy, among other publications. Her Twitter following is massive and extremely loyal. Before becoming a writer, Filipovic was a lawyer, and she writes about policy, gender, public health and beauty pageants. Filipovic has come to the conclusion that marriage is no longer off the table but says her wedding “won’t be the most important day…the most monumental, nor [my] greatest accomplishment.”
Here is our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
You write that happiness wasn’t meant for us as women. What did you mean by that?
In the founding of the United States, the framers wrote the Declaration of Independence and promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But those promises were only guaranteed for a very small proportion of the population who, at the time, were land-owning white men. Since then, many of the foundations of our society and culture have been built catering to that same group––financially prosperous white guys. Women and people of color certainly had a role within that system but it was primarily to hold up and view the kind of invisible and either unpaid or underpaid labor that’s made this system function. The idea that women should have the right to pursue our own happiness and pleasure and form our own identities and seek knowledge and adventure the same way as men has just not really been part of the American cultural ideology, nor is it the goal of our laws and policies.
You write that when we think about equality, we ask the wrong questions. What questions should we ask about the rights of women and women as full members of society?
We should ask: What is it that would actually make women’s lives good? What are the foundational underpinnings that women need to be able to form our own identities outside of just how we’re serving someone else? I’m obviously a feminist and big, big fan of the feminist movement. The point of the book is not necessarily critical of American feminism, which has been, by any measure, incredibly successful and beneficial to women. What I’m trying to say is that we are trying to make women equal in a system that has been foundationally created according to men’s interests and needs and trying to slot women in this system is a losing prospect––and not particularly good for men or for women.
I would like to start normalizing the idea that human beings do have a right to pursue sexual pleasure.
Women have still many hurdles to overcome before being considered as equals to men. Is “happiness” a luxury?
One of my fears of writing this book is that in this particular era when we have President Donald Trump who brags about sexually assaulting women and new assaults on women’s rights every day, is it going to feel frivolous to be writing about happiness?
The fact that this is my reaction, and a lot of people’s reaction, speaks to the problem. This hyper-individualism protestant work ethic doesn’t serve anybody very well. If we prioritize women’s happiness and pleasure, the long list of things we’ve been fighting for under the banner of women’s right’s will naturally follow. If we say that women have the right, in the pursuit of happiness, to form their own identities, to be free to make their own decisions, to chart their own course, then we won’t fight over things like birth control and abortion––because women can’t pursue their own lives if they don’t have these rights.
If we say that parenthood should be pleasurable, we should stop fighting over whether a parental need is necessary or not. It becomes a foregone conclusion, and then we’ll just be going, “Okay, what does this look like? What’s the best way to structure it?” The feminist movement’s broad goal of happiness doesn’t mean that every woman will feel happy every single day. It’s not like we give everybody an IUD and a kitten and then we’re all good.
Books like The Happiness Project and Eat, Pray, Love, center around individual quests to find fulfillment. How does your conception of happiness stand apart?
A lot of the ways in which happiness is packaged is extremely commercialized and corporatist and capitalist. It is this promise of—“If we can buy a thing or you go on this vacation or you eat right or you meditate or you’re mindful while you’re doing the dishes”—or whatever it is, happiness can be yours. There’s obviously nothing wrong with individuals trying to be happier in their life. I go to yoga and meditate. But I was more interested in happiness as a political project.
Part of living a happy and meaningful life is about the choices you make and where your internal happiness is set. A lot of it is external, from governments and public policy––all of that influences our individual happiness. In countries that are corrupt, where there’s low levels of public trust, people tend to be much less happier than in places where people think that their government is transparent and trustworthy. And American mothers are much less happy than women who don’t have kids. Having kids, according to a whole variety of studies, does tank women’s happiness––but that’s not true everywhere in the world. It’s definitely not true in our peer countries with better parental leave policies.
What does it means to be an American adult woman today, when it comes to sex?
Women do pursue pleasure. Women want pleasurable sex lives and many do have pleasurable sex lives and have sex for recreation. But that desire and that pursuit is very fraught. It is fraught both culturally and intellectually, where there’s a lot of mixed signals and guilt and confusion about female sexual pleasure–– how much we’re entitled to it, how we ask for it, and how we get it. It’s also fraught by the fact that the reality of living in a female body in the United States is that many of us are subject to some sort of violence or coercion in the sexual realm and a lot of us don’t necessarily define it as violence. A lot of what women experience sexually goes under the broad umbrella of “just bad shit,” and these two things coexist in most women’s lives.
This idea that it’s equally as good to wait to have penetrative sex with somebody who you’re planning to spend the rest of your life with is, at its heart, a mutual partnership suicide pact.
Would you say there’s a fear of female sexual desire?
Definitely. There’s not a very robust cultural vision for what that even looks like, so female desire and the way we talk about women’s sex lives and bodies is filtered through this male sexual norm. Right? The clitoris is basically like a little female penis. Well, it’s not exactly but that’s how we think of it. Or women’s desire is running somehow parallel to men’s. It’s like the way that men think about sex is just the way sex is, and then we’re trying to filter what women think and feel and experience through that same lens. I’m not sure that actually works.
You write that feminism and equality go hand-in-hand when it comes to better relationships and better sex lives. Can you explain how?
To me, it sounds obvious, right? There’s great literature on the fact that the more equal a relationship, the more both partners have better sex, and the happier they are. Romantic relationships are inherently about intimacy and having things in common with your partner. Not necessarily that you do the same job, but that you can talk about what you’ve done in the course of your day and it overlaps, or you read similar books and magazines and newspapers. You have the same kind of baseline for which to start a conversation. You don’t walk around all day feeling resentful because you’re doing all of the home labor and somebody then comes home and just puts his feet up. That creates festering wounds in relationships. The more you do have that intellectual intimacy as well as the physical intimacy in relationships, that makes them better. It makes for two people who don’t just sexually desire each other, but also seem to really know each other.
How do sexual politics play out in campus hookup culture?
The campus hookup culture thing is complicated. But ever since there have been young women, there have been people worried about young women’s sex lives, right?
Just because I think it looks different than our parents, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily terrible. There are a lot of women who are perfectly happy with the culture. Where they really focus on their studies and aren’t in serious relationships but also have a decent sized pool of sex partners. There are also a lot of women who are very unhappy with the fact that, like many other aspects of life, men do still seem to control the hookup norms. Men are the ones, at least anecdotally, who are dictating whether this is a hookup or whether it transitions into a relationship. Because young women are raised to be pleasing and to, again, see themselves as valuable insofar as they’re sexually appealing, it is fraught ground when men are doing the choosing and women are participating in it. They may like certain aspects of it but they are also less powerful.That said, when you actually look at a lot of research and stats on college-age women and sex, they’re having less sex than Gen Xers were and fewer sexual partners.
There are some women for whom the campus hookup landscape is really challenging and sucks in certain ways––that’s real. I’m not sure that these broad narratives that say all campuses are these dens of just anonymous sex.
How could structural policies help women pursue sex or enjoy sex in a way that they’re not doing right now?
We have a very disordered relationship with female sexuality. The fact that we are still debating things like abortion rights and even access to affordable birth control, that the GOP treats birth control as some sort of extra and not a fundamental part of women’s health care, reflects back this broader cultural value about how we see women having sex for fun. In terms of policy agenda, items one and two are easily accessible birth control and abortion and end to the fights over them which is not going to happen anytime soon. If I could run world, it would.
I would like to start normalizing the idea that human beings do have a right to pursue sexual pleasure. For example, when we’re talking about why people need paid personal days and vacation, the right wing of the country would feel sick if you said one of the reasons that people should have paid vacation is that they could have sex with their partner. It sounds like a really frivolous thing but we also know that the research on what makes for a stable and happier marriage is intimacy. That’s emotional and physical intimacy. We live in a country right now where people are working longer hours than ever before and people in the low-wage workforce have really unpredictable hours. That’s one of the leading reason that marriages split up––the economics, the financial stuff.
If you are the Republican party and you want to promote stable, traditional marriages, you have to give people time to have sex. I realize that sounds totally ridiculous, but it shouldn’t. This is a building block for how human beings structure their lives and for how we maintain our intimate relationships.
You make the case that preserving virginity until marriage, even though it’s rare, is poisonous. Why is that?
Like you said, almost nobody actually doesn’t have sex before marriage. Ninety-six percent of Americans have sex before they get married and a lot of people never even get married but we still have this value of the virginal bride. We teach kids to not have sex before marriage and abstinence only in sex education. And most of us are going to fail at it but there’s the idea that we should all still try it. It’s stupid. First off, virginity doesn’t even exist. There’s no medically agreed upon definition of what virginity is. Having a hymen does not equal being a virgin. I think you have a hard case to make that a lesbian who’s never had penis and vagina sex but has had sex with 200 women is a virgin.
This idea that it’s equally as good to wait to have penetrative sex with somebody who you’re planning to spend the rest of your life with is, at its heart, a mutual partnership suicide pact. The idea that we should wait to experience what is, for many married couples, a foundational part of being married, is a recipe for disaster. Sex is important in a romantic relationship. Not for every single person but for the majority of people, in the same way it would be slightly crazy to marry somebody without discussing whether or not you want kids, where you want to live, what your current financial status is. It’s also crazy not to figure out if you’re sexually compatible. We just dive in and fingers crossed, hope it works out.
There’s this ideal to preserving your virginity before marriage that speaks to this idea of sex as something that women have and that men have to make an effort to get. By putting a ring on it, a man has earned access to his wife’s body. Sex is a thing that both partners, hopefully, should have when they want it. Creating an arbitrary deadline of marriage where this is the night when it becomes “okay” undercuts the entire idea of female sexual agency and desire.
Even a step beyond that, you call pleasurable sex a basic health care right.
Yes. Because I think we do see sex as this greatly forbidden, extra “benefit” that we might get in our lives, the medical establishment treats people who have a diminished sex drive, or a totally dried-up sex drive, or sexual pain or discomfort as just a normal and acceptable side effect of a medical treatment or procedure. A whole host of different medications will really decrease somebody’s sex drive and, of course, it’s up to every individual to balance out whether that’s worth it for whatever benefit they’re getting––but there isn’t a lot of effort on behalf of the healthcare community to try and seek solutions that are better.
When it comes to childbirth, women have extraordinary long-term, often sexual, side effects––from disorders like a prolapsed uterus or incontinence or just a very diminished ability to orgasm. They end up going to their doctors for exam and are ashamed to bring this up––and when they bring it up, they’re told that “oh no, that can’t happen,” or “that’s normal.” Okay, well, cancer is normal but that doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything about it.
For women, something could impact sexual desire or their sexual function––and because it’s on the normal continuum of what happens when you take this medication or when you have a baby or whatever, we’re supposed to just accept it and be grateful for our health and the baby. As if sexual desire wasn’t an important part of our health and our life.
The president of the US campaigned on a platform of stripping women of their rights. And he was elected even after admitting to assaulting women. How can we overcome these huge hurdles?
The answer is that right now, we can’t. I wrote much of the book, frankly, under the assumption that Hillary Clinton, or somebody who’s not Donald Trump was going to be President of the United States. What’s next is how we react to this current political environment. Obviously, we need to recognize that what we are doing right now is going to be primarily reactive and it’s going to be pushing back on bad policies. It’s not going to be getting our own policies implemented. At least not for the next year and a half.
That said, as many of us are focused on resisting this administration and pushing back on the many terrible things that it’s doing, keeping a big picture of our ultimate goal is really valuable. Part of our job as the anti-Trump resistance is to paint a picture of what a good life is according to us. We see what Trump and the GOP are trying to do and we’re pushing back. But what are we offering instead? What would our vision be if we got into power?