What Katie Roiphe Gets Wrong About Women, Work And Sex
11:30 am, April 16th | by Amy Tennery
Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek new cover story, “The Fantasy Life Of Working Women” (out today) suggests that career gals are suddenly craving ‘bedroom domination’ en masse. She claims this is due to our own inherent insecurity with disrupting men’s historical supremacy. She is wrong.
And yet, while a follow-up item from The Atlantic assures us this is just the latest in a series of “heavy-handed troll bait” from Newsweek (and they’re right, to an extent), Roiphe’s item is only the latest in an ongoing chain of freakouts over women’s climb to the top.
But first, let’s address Roiphe. In her piece, she suggests that women’s rise in the career world has set off a corresponding uptick in our need to be dominated in the bedroom:
It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace, when they make up almost 60 percent of college students, when they are close to surpassing men as breadwinners, with four in 10 working women now outearning their husbands, when the majority of women under 30 are having and supporting children on their own, a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before… We may then be especially drawn to this particular romanticized, erotically charged, semipornographic idea of female submission at a moment in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been.
Hmm. So we’ve made “male dominance shakier than it has ever been” by working and going to school. And we can’t deal with that. So we put on a pair of fuzzy handcuffs and hand our boyfriends a riding crop? Riiiiiight.
It’s difficult to put your finger on what’s most troubling about Roiphe’s piece, in particular. Is it that she claims male domination is en vogue at this particular moment in time — but can then point to just a handful of examples of recent female sexual submission in the zeitgeist (novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” and HBO show “Girls” being the key two) that would back up this alleged tidal wave? Is it that she lumps all “professional” women in together, implying that we all have the same bedroom mores? Is it that she’s apparently unaware of the existence of lesbians? Or is it her insistence that women’s ascension is tied to this sex submissive quote-unquote trend? Women are making strides in the workplace — so they’re freaking out and going soft (if you’ll pardon the Freudian pun) in the bedroom, so overwhelmed by trying to be dominant everywhere else?
Ironically, it’s Roiphe’s own detailed, multi-decade history of women and sadomasochism in her piece that undermines her notion that S&M is some hot new phenomenon. Or, more poignantly, that women’s climb to the top of the corporate ladder has turned all of us into meek, pain-seeking bedroom companions. (And let’s be clear — it’s not exactly like women are ‘taking over’ the workplace right now.) For example, she points to “an analysis of 20 studies published in Psychology Today [which] estimates that between 31 percent and 57 percent of women entertain fantasies where they are forced to have sex.” Yet a quick search of that figure shows those myriad surveys took place over the course of 35 years, between 1973 and 2008. Although I suppose “a portion of women have experienced sexual submission fantasies at some point over the last three or four decades” doesn’t make as snappy an anecdote, does it?
Roiphe also points out that “we still seem to want to debate or interrogate or voyeuristically absorb scenes of extreme sexual submission” — and this is true. Women’s sexuality at both ends of the “domination” spectrum is a common topic of debate (and how often do we see the female dominatrix played for laughs in movies). But to suggest that women’s complex sexual lives — from the seemingly banal to the seemingly bizarre (depending on your personal viewpoints) — are the product of a universal squeamishness in gender equality is actually nuts.
Ouch. And she’s right, of course.
Yet, as appalled as some of us might be at Roiphe’s work, hand-wringing over the state of “working women” is hardly new. Working mothers destroying their families is a common trope. Women are routinely told that their success — in their careers and in academia — is bizarre or odd. When women began outnumbering men in college, experts wondered whether this was the result of a men’s “crisis in education.” (Of course, when men were outnumbering women in college, it was just called “normal.”)
So is Roiphe’s argument the kickoff to yet another chapter in the “oh, crap, women are getting jobs?!” crisis? It pains me to wonder.