Did women ‘win’ the sexual revolution?

A sex-positive feminist tried to ‘have sex like a man.’ It came at a cost

Victoria Rose, 17, enjoys a ride across the crowd, Woodstock 1994. She lost her clothes crowd-surfing. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Victoria Rose, 17, enjoys a ride across the crowd, Woodstock 1994. She lost her clothes crowd-surfing.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 When she was 15, Tracy Clark-Flory discovered her father’s pornography collection. She was using his computer and came across a website called Perfect10.com. She saw no part of her awkward teenage self reflected in the women onscreen, a collection of blonds with inflated breasts, heavy-handed blush and Barbie doll proportions.
She was horrified – not by the graphic acts depicted on the monitor but by the idea that this was what her father found attractive. Her dad was a Berkeley hippie who’d always preached, “High heels are crippling. Makeup is unnecessary. Plastic surgery is unfortunate. Shaving your legs is silly. A woman’s most attractive feature is her brain.”
The impact on her was massive and kick-started Clark-Flory’s inquiry into sexuality, a journey that would lead to jobs as a sex writer for Salon and Jezebel. Over the past 15 years, she has delved into some of the most exploratory areas of sexuality. But this week the 37-year-old turns the lens fully on herself in a debut memoir, Want Me: A Sex Writer’s Journey into the Heart of Desire.
The book is a candid, often unflinching portrayal of a young woman coming to terms with the connection between her desirability and her self-worth. In the process, she reckons with her identity as a sexually liberated feminist.
“I could pretty successfully cater to men’s desires and get that affirmation, but in the end, that affirmation never really felt like power,” Clark-Flory said via video call from the home she shares with her spouse and three-year-old son, a 10-minute drive from where she grew up in the Bay Area. “I really believed that a woman’s pleasure and desire were important, but it also felt like the satisfaction that I could get from sex was from being desired. I had a hard time even identifying what it was that I wanted.”
Clark-Flory’s journalism – call it post-third-wave feminism – has pushed back against writers like Susie Bright and Ariel Levy, who posited that women were presenting themselves as sex objects in order to advance in a male-dominated culture. It’s not that Clark-Flory disagreed with the assessment but, as an elder millennial who came of age as Oprah Winfrey was extolling the virtues of pole dancing, she was more empathetic to the struggle.
“She grew up in a time when there was a bacchanal in your eyeballs all the time, so of course that becomes a part of who you want to be,” said Sarah Hepola, who served as Clark-Flory’s editor at Salon and wrote the sobriety memoir Blackout. “I think women carry around this shame, like they should be above that.
But Tracy owns that contradiction. She says: ‘I know I want to be wanted.’ But that doesn’t take away from the fact that she has this intellectual life.”
If there’s a stereotypical idea of a sex writer – a flamboyant Carrie Bradshaw type who kisses and tells and relishes the attention – Clark-Flory does not fit it. At Salon, she would often show up in “cardigans buttoned all the way to the top,” said Hepola, describing her as a reserved listener who “had something in her fighting to get out.”
As Want Me reveals, Clark-Flory was privately using her 20s as a period to test her inhibitions. In search of some elusive state of female empowerment, she said she set out to “have sex like a man would have sex.” She wanted to be so sexually free – so “game for anything” – that nothing could be done against her will. It was, she said, a sort of self-perpetuating myth she created to reassure herself that she was in control.
“That warrior-like attitude necessarily comes with a lot of armor,” she said. “That armor comes with a lack of feeling and a sense of self-protection. And that’s not a critique of my younger self. I think that was a reasonable, adaptive response to the reality of the dating-and-sex landscape as I encountered it in my 20s. I think those were the compromises I made to be able to have sex freely in the world in which we live.”
The sex she had prior to her marriage was all consensual. But did she enjoy it, or did she just want to enjoy it? Recalling a fleeting affair with a man she met at a New York City photo shoot during this time, she writes: “Sometimes over the years, I would think: Man, wish I could do that again. But, looking back, I’ll never shake the feeling that I was barely even there to experience it for the first time, like it was a ghost of a girl who did it all for me.”
Peggy Orenstein, the New York Times bestselling author who explores modern sexuality in her own writing, began to pick up on these themes in Clark-Flory’s work. She said Clark-Flory captured that sexiness “had accelerated and been codified in a new Internet era when so much is visual… On top of that, the whole idea that as a woman, what proved your desirability and your sexuality was being able to ‘take it’ – whatever ‘it’ was.”
One discovery Clark-Flory came to while writing Want Me was that she was grieving the idea that the sexual revolution had been fought and won. She’d always wanted to believe in the “girl power message” she received as a girl — that if she played her cards right, everything she wanted would come to her.
“But that isn’t true,” she said. “We’re in this space of neoliberal, individualistic, commercial feminism that really emphasizes women seeing themselves, and I think that takes us away from the collective solution. And I want to acknowledge that unfairness.”
While Clark-Flory feels lucky to have found a loving partner – she’s been married since 2013 – there’s also a part of her that distrusts, even resents, that sense of relief. In other words: Why is the romantic landscape for women now so dire that ending up in a reciprocal, loving relationship feels like dodging a bullet? Clark-Flory makes no secret in her book about how much of her self-image was shaped through men: “I was never alone.
There was always a fantasy of some boy watching and warning me, making me better. Making me whole.”
In that sense, Want Me is her rallying cry for the generations of women coming up behind her.