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Do Feminists Suffer From Penis Envy?
I’m no Freudian, but the intensity of feminist sex-hatred gives the idea credence
I recently came across an article about Sigmund Freud’s theory of female psycho-sexual development, in which Taylor Kubota described penis envy as follows: “Women become envious of penises at a young age, when they realize boys derive more sexual pleasure from their penises than girls do from their own sexual organs. Freud said this penis envy grows over time.” This idea, which I had long disregarded and which didn’t correspond to my own experience (as a child I never saw or thought of boys’ penises; as a young woman I had no sense of lack) makes sense now in light of feminism’s decades-long attack on male sexuality. The attack is based, as feminists’ own words and policies indicate, on a febrile mix of resentment, envy, and projection in which the belief that men enjoy sex more than women (and that the enjoyment hurts women, in the typical zero-sum thinking of feminism) has fueled ever-more frenzied attempts at male neutering.
Serious psychotherapists or students of Freud should probably stop reading right now, as I am not attempting a genuine psychoanalytic analysis of feminism or indeed of penis envy, which has been widely dismissed as sexist or justified as women’s accurate recognition of men’s power. My theory—if it deserves that name—stems from the recognition that anti-sex feminism, involving the continual projection onto men of female sexual anxieties and discontents, has a far more extensive pedigree than most people realize, and that much feminist discussion and activism today take for granted that law and public policy are rightly directed towards “equalizing” not only rights or opportunities but also sexual experience itself, by prioritizing female pleasure and diminishing male.
It’s no revelation that many feminist-influenced women are hyper-alert to male advantage while being willfully blind to male disadvantage. In the arena of sexuality, where male and female most intimately and yet mysteriously interact, the irrational ferocity of feminist grievance-mongering reveals itself tellingly. Unwilling and unable to extend sympathetic understanding to male sexual difference, feminist ideology authorizes an envy-fueled anger that far surpasses legitimate caution.
A word about that legitimate caution. Throughout history, well-functioning societies have recognized the threat to civil order—and to women’s safety in particular—of male lust, and have passed laws and constructed codes of behavior to contain and direct it. Fathers and husbands have always been interested in protecting their womenfolk from sexual violence. Feminists, however, while exalting female sexuality as benign and beautiful, have repeatedly refused to recognize any manifestation of male sexuality as good. A mere glance at prominent feminist claims and policy initiatives highlights their continual misrepresentations.
Coming to prominence in the 1970s, feminist fury at male sexual violence always went far beyond its ostensible target, smearing all men as harmful. Prominent feminist journalist Susan Brownmiller made the outrageous claim in her 1975 blockbuster Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, that “[Rape] is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (p. 15). Note her emphasis on the word conscious. Brownmiller was claiming that rapists purposefully act on behalf of their brother men to create terror so that men in general can more easily control women. Brownmiller drove the point home in a later chapter by comparing rapists to the Myrmidons of Greek legend, the “hired henchmen” who served their master Achilles in battle. Rapists did the “dirty work,” as she called it, to “benefit” all men (p. 209). Brownmiller’s completely undefended assumption—for which she was lavishly praised by book reviewers, though she offered not one jot of proof in the form of studies or surveys—was that the majority of men prefer to live in a world in which women are kept “in a constant state of intimidation” (p. 209). Many men found it nearly impossible to defend themselves against the assertion that all men vicariously participate in and approve of rape.
Brownmiller’s position was soon taken further to suggest that most sex was, from the woman’s point of view, not easy to distinguish from criminal sexual assault. In 1989, law professor Catherine MacKinnon summed up the radical viewpoint by declaring, in her article “Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: Pleasure under Patriarchy,” that “The major distinction between intercourse (normal) and rape (abnormal) is that the normal happens so often that one cannot get anyone to see anything wrong with it” (p. 336-337). Far from disavowing this absurd piece of hyperbole, feminist activists focused for decades on convincing women to see the “wrong” in “normal,” in part by dramatically expanding conceptions of sexual assault to include even harmless touching (such as patting or kissing) and introducing doctrines such as “affirmative consent” and “rape culture” to whip up paranoia.
What was it all for? Surely it was not to improve the average woman’s life by encouraging her to fear and dislike men, by telling her that the men she worked with and dated were admirers of rapists who exulted in the thought of a woman’s sexual terror, as Brownmiller alleged. How was it helpful to explain to women that dissatisfaction with their sex lives was due to male contempt, objectification, and exploitation, as MacKinnon asserted? Such ideas were designed not to help women live fuller lives but to create angry foot soldiers for feminism—and did.
Anger spread out into an ever-widening sphere of sex-grievance and resentment. Accelerating with the #MeToo movement, it extended to what feminists dubbed sexual harassment and coercion, as for example in the highly publicized case of Harvey Weinstein, in which hundreds of women, over the years, had agreed to sex with the movie mogul—whether enthusiastically or reluctantly, certainly knowingly—in exchange for coveted roles in Weinstein’s films, or merely to be close to the center of Hollywood power. Years later, with Weinstein no longer useful to them and their own sexual power on the wane, they were given permission to expend fury on a man they not only testified against but sought to sexually humiliate as thoroughly as possible, describing his deformed penis and disgusting body in gratuitous detail.
Because feminists had been so successful in equating male sexuality with harm to women, Weinstein’s guilt was overdetermined: he was powerful, he sought out many women, and he traded movie roles and other favors for sex. To the non-feminist observer, it seemed clear that the women had used Weinstein as much as he had used them, seeing him as little more than a career opportunity. But because their sexual need and satisfaction seemed to have been far less than his, they were victims according to the feminist paradigm, in which only male sexual desire causes harm. That Weinstein might not have experienced much pleasure from the encounters—that he was himself in any manner helpless in the thrall of his own dysfunctions and vulnerabilities—was impossible to consider.
With #MeToo, it became impossible to separate the male pursuit of sexual gratification from the exploitation of women, and outrage often extended to scenarios in which the man had no power and in which there was no force and no sex, but in which there was (at least an allegation of) desire: an awkward attempt to request a date, an unwanted compliment, an “inappropriate” joke, a somebody who stood too close or looked too intently or lingered too long at the water cooler. This man too, the shy nerd, the pale mouth-breather, the self-effacing friend, was targeted with fury—why, because he had desired a woman who had not desired him. It was not enough to reject him: he must be publicly exposed, reported to HR, forced to undergo re-education training, or (preferably) fired in disgrace. Male desire in itself, no matter how innocuously expressed, had been thoroughly contaminated by ideas of harm.
In cyberspace, feminists were furious too, hating that there was a manosphere in which men discussed women: the Pick-up Artists as well as the MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way), the so-called incels as well as Top-G Andrew Tate. Here were men who wanted to have sex with women and men who had had enough of sex with women; men who complained about not getting laid and men who boasted they could always get laid. Any discussion of sex and women outside the feminist framework was seen as a potential prelude to violence.
While male sexual desire in any manifestation was being thoroughly demonized, female sexual desire (or lack thereof) began to receive concerned feminist attention. It turned out that, notwithstanding Gloria Steinem’s confident prediction (“As we discover our free will and strength, we are also more likely to discover our own initiative and pleasure in sex,” Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, p. 249), sexual freedom had not made women happy . A new group of feminist critics began to complain about the sexual revolution, which had failed to deliver on its promise of equality, and had primarily been of benefit to men, who were allegedly more suited to sexual liberalism than women were.
These critics, led by conservative feminists such as Louise Perry and Mary Eberstadt, proposed a halt to its excesses, which saw women forced (or not exactly forced—but in some way propelled) by politeness or indecision or lack of confidence into having sex they didn’t want with men they didn’t care for. Notable in many of these discussions was the implication that something had been done to women that required redress from others, particularly men, who needed to be summoned from their mindless rutting to protect women from yet another patriarchal last-laugh. Jessica Bennett, the gender editor at The New York Times, wrote a famous op/ed in late 2017 (not coincidentally at the height of #MeToo) called “When Saying Yes is Easier Than Saying No,” ostensibly to suggest that women still lacked the power to consent fully, but in which what was most remarkable were the many varieties of unhappy, unsatisfying, even grossly unappealing sex the modern woman was alleged to be enduring.
Some of these counter-sexual revolution feminists now declared marriage the answer, extolling commitment and monogamy. Security and caring, it turned out, along with the sacrosanct nature of sex within marriage, were more important for women than freedom. But sex within marriage has been the focus of complaint too, with some feminists detailing the woes of male sexual expectations. One anonymous woman narrated in a Vox article the “impossible to discuss” indignity she endured and forced her husband to share in their marital bed, where she “read a book to distract [herself] for as long as [she] could while he did the thing he needed to do.” She explained that marriage, far from being a refuge from the brutality of casual encounters, was actually brutality’s culmination: “The institution of marriage […] gives a man years to accomplish the emotional manipulation that men on dates must squeeze into an evening. How can we consider such a persistent campaign for a woman’s compliance anything but assault?” The source of her furious dissatisfaction—and the contempt and lack of empathy for the rejected husband—were never satisfactorily explained.
Even feminist scholars of law have taken up the cause, with one, Robin L. West, professor of law and philosophy, writing a substantial treatise about the harms to women of what she has called “unwelcome” but consensual sex—sex consented to but not desired—which she compared, using a Marxist framework, to alienated labor. Though she stopped short of suggesting that unwelcome (consensual) sex should be criminalized, she concluded that far more public discussion and awareness were needed of the many forms of female sexual unhappiness.
Well into feminism’s Fourth Wave, when women are no longer shamed but instead celebrated for their sexual choices—with their Slut Walks and Pussyhats, their baring of breasts and shouting of abortions—we have the insistence by many feminist theorists and women’s advocates that women are deeply angry, unhappy, and disillusioned with every possible facet of female sexual experience; and always with the sneaking suspicion, or the outright declaration, that the only ones having a good time (as always) are men.
The idea that men take more pleasure than women from sex rankles deeply, I have come to believe, with women already conditioned, by nature and feminist culture, to believe themselves destined for the short end of the stick (no pun intended). Feminist ideology has taught women to be deeply offended by men’s interest in sex and pursuit of it, even when the interest doesn’t go beyond looking (now potentially a criminal offence). Some women are peeved by the unselfconscious manner in which men hold their bodies and move in space (ludicrously targeted in campaigns against “manspreading” and the like). Many even begrudge sexless men their longing for sex, which is at least authentic and owned by the men (at times in anguished and ugly terms), in distinction from women’s subterranean, often unconscious or repressed, desires and power machinations.
In the sexual arena, women’s desires are often tinged with fantasies of submission and the erotics of violence (think of the hordes of women who write love letters to convicted killers), a reality colliding awkwardly with public declarations of women’s preference for equality and respect. The difficulty of securing women’s sexual pleasure continues to roil public conversations. In contrast, men have little trouble knowing what they want and taking pleasure in what they get, and many feminist women, it seems, can’t forgive them for it.
Ever since women began agitating for women’s rights long ago, the now-familiar carping about male sexuality has been fundamental. Mid-19th century social reformer Josephine Butler was so angry about the fact of prostitution—in which she saw women unvaryingly as powerless victims of male lust—that she publicly denounced all men in Great Britain for tolerating “a wholly different standard of sexual purity from that existing generally among women” (Annual Address to the Ladies’ National Association , p. 32). Suffragette leader Christabel Pankhurst claimed in The Great Scourge and How to End It (1913) that up to 75% of British households were infected by syphilis or gonorrhea because of a “perverted and corrupted” male sexuality unsatisfied by “intercourse with virtuous women” and instead seeking “lewdness and obscenity” (p. 204).
The outrage at men became so widespread during these years that moderate feminist Wilma Meikle complained in Towards a Sane Feminism (1917) that too many of her fellow campaigners were driven by an obsessive repugnance towards sex that saw all men as depraved and “conscious and wilful oppressors” (p. 84).
Denunciations of male sexual depravity in the nineteenth century were often coupled with the assertion of female moral superiority. Author Frances Swiney, one of the leading prophets of a future female ascendency, commended women for their superiority to men in “self-denial” (The Awakening of Women; Or, Woman’s Part in Evolution , p. 32) and their ability to keep “bodily appetites […] in abeyance” (p. 38).
But it seems that such conviction of superiority—though frequently attested by both women and men, then and now—was ultimately a rather hollow boast. It is all very well to pat one’s sex on the back for dangerous pleasures foregone, but when one has little appetite for or familiarity with the pleasure to begin with, one is apt to resent that anyone should indulge it. Our era’s ever-multiplying policies, prohibitions and public denunciations of male sexuality often seem to represent little more than bitter revenge against the male potential for sexual satisfaction.
Penis envy is a metaphor for the manifold ways that feminist women envy men and make them stand-ins for their disgruntlement. In particular, such women have come to hate—through deliberate misunderstanding and misrepresentation—men’s sexual interest in women’s bodies and desire for sexual touch. Such women may not be conscious of the root of their boundless rage (and Freud had a thing or two to say about the unconscious), but once that root is glimpsed, it reveals itself with unnerving persistence.