I admit I haven’t read Mona Charen’s new book, but if the syndicated columnist’s appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Tuesday is an accurate indicator of the bullshit it’s hawking, I’m confident that both my fondness for masochism and my gastrointestinal fortitude would give out long before I came anywhere near the end of it.
Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense, which was released on June 26, apparently centers around several questions ― which “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski called “so good” ― including:
Did women’s full equality (which, for the record, still hasn’t happened) require a sexual revolution that would dismantle traditions of modesty, courtship and fidelity?
Have the strides of feminism made women happier in their home and work life?
According to Charen, the answer to both questions is no.
During the segment, the conservative author admitted that “all reasonable people, myself included, believe women are the full legal, moral, ethical, equals of men” and that feminism did “many good things.” But in the next breath, she stated that “feminism took some wrong turns by endorsing, first of all, the sexual revolution.”
“Have we had enough of crotch grabbers and penis tweeters in this society? Because all of that is what the sexual revolution has gifted us. That, the so-called rape culture on college campuses, hookup culture, the hostility between men and women ― feminism has to take some responsibility because they were cheerleaders for all of that. They thought it was part of women’s liberation to endorse that.”
Charen went on to argue that feminism championed “destroying the old standards about courtship, sexual continence, about dating ― that sex needed to be kept within its box” and lamented the fact that “the sexual revolution said there are no standards ― anything goes and if it’s sexual, great.”
“Watching Charen lay out her plans for getting America and its women back on track, I realized her approach to these issues is even more terrifying ― and insidious ― than if she had been running around the 'Morning Joe' studio banging pots and pans while openly pledging her allegiance to the patriarchy.”
Charen’s solution to all of these problems? A renewed focus on ― if not fetishization of ― the traditional family unit, marriage, courtship and modesty. She apparently believes that so many of the problems that plague our culture could be solved if women just slowly backed away from any kind of sexual (and I would argue, by logical extension, social and political) agency and then slowly backed themselves back into the kitchen, preferably after first getting knocked up by their husbands.
It was enough to make me think someone had changed the channel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” when I wasn’t looking.
Allusions to Margaret Atwood’s harrowing dystopian tale about a not-so-distant future where evangelicals rule our once-fair country and make everyone else’s lives a waking nightmare have become so common during the actual waking nightmare we’re collectively experiencing that they’re now downright cliche. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t apt or shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Watching Charen’s calm ― and, to use a word that’s being tossed around a lot lately, “civil” ― delivery of her plans for getting America and its women back on track, I realized her seemingly measured approach to discussing these issues is even more terrifying ― and insidious ― than if she had been running around the “Morning Joe” studio banging pots and pans while openly pledging her allegiance to the patriarchy.
The matter-of-fact, almost business-like dissemination of her message allows it ― and her ― to appear reasonable while she tries to convince women that she’s on their side. Wouldn’t things be better if you put these chains back on? They’re actually kind of pretty, they’d look great on you and, c’mon! They really don’t pinch that much.
The only problem is that the chains never really came off ― and that’s one of the biggest issues that I have with Charen’s thesis. The notion that the sexual revolution has already arrived and had its way with us is only true to an extent.
Yes, in the last century, women have gained more control over their bodies and their lives and what they do with them ― but we have a long way to go in terms of full liberation and equality for women (just look at the pay gap, sexual harassment and assault statistics and rate at which access to abortion is being restricted).
It’s nothing short of sick to blame men’s bad behavior, and the myriad ways it manifests itself, on the sexual revolution and women’s efforts to achieve more for themselves (where here, “more” means everything from not being raped to having an orgasm to having opportunities outside of wedlock and the home). Somewhere just outside of paradise, Eve is in a shallow grave spinning herself into applesauce.
The truth is, we’re still waiting for a real sexual revolution ― one in which women are actually considered fully equal, both inside and outside of the bedroom (or the kitchen or the BDSM dungeon) in all areas of their lives. And Charen is wrong when she claims that the sexual revolution that feminists want is one “without standards.”
In part, that’s how we know that the sexual revolution (at least the one that we feminists dream of) hasn’t fully arrived: The standards that we argue are crucial to its success ― namely, that women are able to approach sex and everything else in their lives just as men do without being demeaned, raped or otherwise punished ― haven’t been met, and in most instances, are considered laughable by our society.
“In order to avoid a future like the one in 'The Handmaid’s Tale,' we need to attune ourselves to even the subtlest of dog whistles and slickest of campaigns advocating for the disciplining and domination of women, and we need to call out toxic thinking like Charen’s whenever we encounter it.”
Feminists haven’t been “cheerleaders” for rape culture on campuses or the hostility between men and women or any of the other awful things that Charen is blaming feminism for. Rather, it was the panicked patriarchal response to feminism ― and men’s need to remain in control of women ― that birthed, bred and continues to nurture those things.
But what worries (and offends) me the most about Charen and her message is how innocent or even alluring it might seem in a chaotic world where people are desperate for solutions or scapegoats ― even people who might otherwise question her intentions. It is mind-boggling to me that Brzezinski and everyone else on the set of “Morning Joe” not only gave Charen a platform to peddle her dangerous ideas about women needing to embrace marriage and modesty and the traditional family ― coded (or not-so-coded) language for subjugation and submissiveness to men ― but also that they seemed to praise her for it.
To avoid a future like the one in The Handmaid’s Tale, we need to attune ourselves to even the subtlest of dog whistles and slickest of campaigns advocating for the disciplining and domination of women, and we need to call out toxic thinking like Charen’s whenever we encounter it ― on our TVs, on our smartphones, in our bookstores, at our churches or out of the mouths of family members, friends, neighbors or coworkers. Not doing so allows it to take root, grow and eventually flourish.
What might seem unthinkable one day ― like abortion becoming illegal in America ― can quickly come to pass the next day if good people sit by idly and allow their silence to co-sign perilous ideas that soon become perilous laws and have perilous consequences.
Women are still not fully equal in this country. Women are still not fully liberated in this country. Women are still not, to a large degree, safe in this country. And it’s not because they’ve spent decades fighting for their rights or because they refuse to be modest or to contort themselves into an outdated idea of what a marriage or family should look like. Ultimately, it isn’t feminism that has failed us ― it’s we who have failed feminism.
But it’s not over. We may not be able to convince people like Charen to join our fight, but at the very least, it’s up to us to make sure we don’t let them lead us sleepwalking toward the Republic of Gilead.