Nona Willis Aronowitz's Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution was published in 2022 by Penguin Random House.
Feminist Idols and Generational Legacies
The Lie of a Finished Revolution
Bad Sex Reminds Us of the Power of the Radical
Bad Sex and the Search for Pleasure, Truth, and Revolution
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Feminist Idols and Generational Legacies
Elizabeth A. Armstrong
Bad Sex is not just about sex. It is also about the premature loss of a mother, about what one feminist generation can teach the next, and about what must be learned through sometimes-painful firsthand experience.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is the daughter of the brilliant pro-sex feminist Ellen Willis, who died at 64 of cancer in 2006, when Aronowitz was 22. Aronowitz mulls the meaning of this loss, revealing that, “just as I graduated college, the chance to know her as an adult evaporated. Reading her words was partly a way to remember her, but it was also a way to discover new versions of her as the questions she grappled with applied to me more and more.”
The poignancy of Aronowitz’s search for connection with her mother moved me. As a feminist coming of age in the 1980s, I placed Ellen Willis among my idols. Her writings were introduced to me by Alice Echols, author of Daring to Be Bad, in a life-changing course on women’s liberation that Echols taught at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s. The course gave me the tools to start asking myself the question that Aronowitz asks: “Are my sexual and romantic desires even possible amid the horrors and bribes of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy?” I’ve tangled with this question since, both in my personal life and in my scholarship.
As a fellow feminist libertine shaped by the same canon and sexual quandaries, the book resonated on multiple levels. The seamless integration of the sexual, the political, and the intellectual felt familiar—a way of thinking and living learned through lifelong immersion in feminism. I identified with Aronowitz’s sexual experiences – the struggles with disrespectful men, the temptations and difficulties of polyamory, the pull of conventional heterosexual marriage, even the recognition that, when having sex with men, the sense that one is in control can be an illusion, with the tables rudely flipped at any moment. I appreciated her contemplation of how a sudden absence of interest in sex can unmoor an identity grounded in sexual adventurousness.
I have yet to read elsewhere such a frank account of the frustrations of being resolutely heterosexual when acutely aware of its failures. Aronowitz tries hard not to be straight. After all, heterosexuality makes little sense, “especially because things between men and women were so plainly bad.” She describes her efforts to “stretch” herself: “I watched a bunch of porn featuring all genders; I sexted and flirted with all kinds of people; I had a couple of threesomes with another woman present. None of it made me any queerer.” She turns to early writings on political lesbianism and the work of contemporary queer theorist and sociologist Jane Ward for guidance. It is, of course, a lovely queer irony that Ward offers some hope for the salvation of heterosexuality via the concept of “deep heterosexuality," which Aronowitz finds helpful.Bad Sex is not just about sex. It is also about the premature loss of a mother, about what one feminist generation can teach the next, and about what must be learned through sometimes-painful firsthand experience. Click To Tweet
While many of her quandaries felt familiar, the notion of sluthood as an aspirational identity felt generationally distinct. Aronowitz, born in 1984, describes herself as a “teenager who came of age during the height of the superslut.” Throughout the text, Aronowitz reveals a pervasive worry that she will have failed feminism and her mother if she is insufficiently sexually liberated. She feels this despite her awareness that Willis herself had “never been the type to dole out lifestyle edicts” and was described by her friends as “the least judgmental person they’d ever met.” The pervasiveness of sexual expectations highlights the challenge of autonomy.
The memoir is brave and riveting, revealing Aronowitz to be every bit her mother’s daughter. And, at the same time, it is hard to imagine it being written by someone without her privileges. As she admits, she is a class-privileged, white, cis, still-young, conventionally attractive, expensively educated, heterosexual daughter of two intellectual giants. She tries to recognize the limitations of her intersectional location. A chapter focuses on the experience of a friend who identifies as queer and Black. Yet her efforts to reflect on her positionality only partially work. As a memoir, it is her sensibility, experiences, perspectives, and assumptions that engage us, and they are deeply conditioned by her location, as they are for all of us.
I wish our society were moving toward the conditions that would enable more women and femme-identified people to experience the entitlement to sexual pleasure and bodily autonomy that Aronowitz describes. But in the wake of the Dobbs decision, it feels instead that the conditions enabling sexual and bodily autonomy are narrowing rapidly. I hope Bad Sex is a step on our collective path toward good sex. I fear it may be an account from a woman of a unique generation who benefited from the ideas and legal freedoms of women’s and sexual liberation before the window closed. We have much collective work to do to protect and extend the space for autonomy and pleasure that feminists have struggled so hard for.
Elizabeth A. Armstrong is a feminist sociologist who studies sexuality and sexual violence in the United States. She is coauthor of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality and author of Forging Gay Identities: Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco, 1950-1994. She is the Sherry B. Ortner Collegiate Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan.
The Lie of a Finished Revolution
We’re in a moment of reckoning with the lie of sexual liberation—and what it means to labor under the illusions of that lie. Nona Willis Aronowitz’s memoir is the latest proof of this necessary reflection. She writes of a common experience of women, like herself, who have sex with men: sexual encounters that center men’s fantasies and pleasure, often at the expense of their own. At the same time, Willis Aronowitz—daughter of famed pro-sex feminist Ellen Willis—harbors uncertainty and suspicion about her own desires, which come into conflict with societal expectations, cultural influences, and her own political convictions. She feels guilty, too, for staying in a marriage despite an unsatisfying sex life. “What kind of self-sufficient feminist was petrified of being single?” she asks.
Is this fraught reality what our mothers—in her case, quite literally—fought for? Of course not. It’s an artifact of a stalled revolution. Women were liberated to have sex in a half-changed world. The concept of “sexual empowerment” was coopted by neoliberal and commercial forces that turned it into the kind of individualistic pursuit that leaves women feeling like they should be more free, liberated, and empowered than they are. Many of us are left feeling as guilty as Willis Aronowitz and wondering: What’s wrong with me?Reckoning with the lie of a finished revolution is just the most rudimentary step toward finishing it. It’s also a testament to how far we have to go.Click To Tweet
Now we’re seeing a welcome flood of books, Bad Sex included, that interrogate the fact of that stalled revolution, as well as the pressure to enact the fantasy of a finished fight.
Last year brought the publication of Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent, and my own memoir, Want Me: A Sex Writer’s Journey Into the Heart of Desire. All three reckon with the disappointments of heterosexual sex and the limitations of sexual freedom. In her 2021 memoir Girlhood, Melissa Febos probes the boundaries and meanings of sexual consent in a culture that alienates us from our own bodies and desires. A year earlier, Katherine Rowland’s The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution considered the erotic and romantic fallout of a revolution interrupted.
This isn’t even to mention a growing body of feminist scholarship, most notably by Laina Bay-Cheng, identifying cultural forces that have brought us away from the original feminist definition of sexual empowerment as a collective, as opposed to individualistic, act. What are we to do but return to those earlier feminist definitions, debates, and thinking?
That’s what Willis Aronowitz does, turning back to the writing of her own mother, as well as other feminist sex revolutionaries, and finding inspiration in the model of consciousness-raising groups. I found myself doing much of the same when writing my memoir (including tracking down a rare copy of Diary of a Conference on Sexuality, a zine arising from the legendary 1982 Barnard Conference). Meanwhile, Febos draws powerfully from Audre Lorde’s 1981 “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” and Srinivasan provocatively revisits Andrea Dworkin, Catharine Mackinnon, and Adrienne Rich. In the act of looking back, these books circle around a question that Willis Aronowitz poses: “What cultural forces interfere with our pleasure, desire, and relationship satisfaction”?
Beyond that exploration of interferences is the task of tackling the forces that create them. Reckoning with the lie of a finished revolution is just the most rudimentary step toward finishing it. It’s also a testament to how far we have to go.
Tracy Clark-Flory is a senior staff writer at Jezebel and the author of the book Want Me. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Elle, Esquire, Marie Claire, Salon, the Guardian, Women's Health, and the yearly Best Sex Writing anthology. Prior to Jezebel, she was a senior staff writer at Vocativ and Salon, where she owned and defined the sex beat for a decade. She has appeared on "20/20," MSNBC, and NPR. Tracy lives in San Francisco with her family.
Bad Sex Reminds Us of the Power of the Radical
In the first chapter of Bad Sex, Nona Willis Aronowitz shares a pros and cons list she wrote three years before she left her marriage. On the pro side, in favor of staying with her husband, she wrote words like “generous,” “sensitive,” and “affectionate.” On the cons side, in favor of ending the relationship, was “we sometimes have nothing to talk about,” “doesn’t read,” and - covered over with scribble so as to be barely perceptible - “bad place with sex.”
Aronowitz’s sexual dissatisfaction felt like a sign of a deeper disconnection in her marriage. The sex was hot on paper, at least some of the time, but most of the time she felt “some putrid combination of bored, irritable and disassociated.” But Aronowitz couldn’t admit these feelings, even to herself: “How would it look if I admitted I stayed with a person I didn’t like to fuck, despite my almost religious devotion to the fruits of the sexual revolution, especially the pockets focused on female pleasure?”
It’s a bold way to begin a book. For all our endless discourse around sex, the admission that one’s sex life is less than ideal is still burdened with taboo and shame. This is only more the case, Aronowitz points out, when the sex in question is with a long-term, committed partner, with someone who was supposed to be “different from those losers you dated when you were young and stupid.” In an era of both superficially candid conversations about sex and stable, divorce-hesitant “blue marriages” among the liberal-leaning and college-educated, to speak these dissatisfactions out loud is as radical as it was when Erica Jong published Fear of Flying in 1973.
Aronowitz is the daughter of two prominent intellectuals: sex-positive second-wave feminist Ellen Willis and socialist cultural critic Stanley Aronowitz, and both of their works (as well as the work of other intellectuals from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s) are weaved through Bad Sex.
Aronowitz deploys these writers, especially her mother, to help her make sense of her own sexual history and aspirations. But what I found most striking about the works she cites is how much more daring they are than many of the arguments Aronowitz’s and my generation have put forward over the last decade and a half of feminism’s digital resurgence.
This may be because so much has already been said, or because our generation’s most interesting intellectual contributions have been primarily in other arenas, like articulating the precise machinations of contemporary racism and white supremacy. But it is also, I think, a function of the playing field on which contemporary feminism takes place. Our arguments are too often tempered to cause the least offence on Twitter, or reduced to their lowest common denominator so as to attract maximum likes on Instagram. The result, among the professional feminist commentariat, is often a dull sameness of opinion.
Bad Sex has moments of the old-school daring of the writers it cites: in Aronowitz’s courage to leave an unsatisfying relationship and in her commitment to pleasure and sexual adventure as forms of liberation. In other places, it slips into the sameness of its contemporaries.Bad Sex has moments of the old-school daring of the writers it cites: in Aronowitz’s courage to leave an unsatisfying relationship and in her commitment to pleasure and sexual adventure as forms of liberation.Click To Tweet
For my part, I enjoyed Bad Sex most when its stakes were highest: when Aronowitz is choosing between the safety of her marriage and her desire for freedom, her loyalty to her partner or her sensual fulfillment. In Aronowitz’s willingness to allow herself to be messy, complex, and fully human, Bad Sex will open up new possibilities for other women to consider what would make them free and fulfilled when it comes to sex.
Rachel Hills is a feminist writer, producer, and movement maker whose work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, the Guardian, The Atlantic, Vogue, Buzzfeed, The Cut, and many more. She is the author of The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality and executive director of Break The Sex Myth, a play and social movement to rewrite the toxic stories our culture tells us about sex.
Bad Sex and the Search for Pleasure, Truth, and Revolution
When I start reading a new book, I flip to the end to see the citations. I channel Nancy Drew for clues to gauge the lineage and scaffolding of the book I’m about to read.
In Bad Sex, the lineage clearly starts with Ellen Willis, who passed down her feminist brilliance and wit to Nona Willis Aronowitz, her daughter and author of this book. Bad Sex is a beautiful homage to this feminist inheritance.
Bad Sex asks persistent questions that remain unresolved. Given the constraints of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy, what do we want in our most intimate longings? What would our hunger be were it not for these oppressions? What is the power and transformative potential of getting real and staying true to our sexual selves in a world that expects us to self-subjugate, sublimate, avoid?
We know from 1960s and 1970s feminists — a history that Willis Aronowitz gracefully weaves into her narrative — that sexual and political liberation are fused. These issues of sexual pleasure, danger, accountability, and repercussions are simultaneously personal and profoundly public. (I’m looking at you, SCOTUS.) We owe Carol Hanisch for gifting us the enduring mantra “the personal is political.” But what does this even mean in our social-media-saturated world? Has this phrase lost its political oomph thanks to corporate cooptation and the impulse to monetize and reveal our everyday lives?Willis Aronowitz’s disclosures invite us to expand our boundaries and imagination about the lives we are entitled to live. And what is more politically radical than that?Click To Tweet
This is where Willis Aronowitz shifts the alliteration for the twenty-first century. If the personal is political, then the private is even more political. Willis Aronowitz divulges her sexual adventures and personal betrayals, reflecting on the secrets we keep from each other and the truths we deny to ourselves. In doing so, she encourages us to do the same. This book isn’t about a gratuitous sharing for clicks and likes. I hated reading about her acts of intimate betrayal. No hearts here for infidelity. But I don’t have to like all her secrets to appreciate the value in sharing them. Willis Aronowitz’s disclosures invite us to expand our boundaries and imagination about the lives we are entitled to live. And what is more politically radical than that? We may have grown accustomed to (and tired of) seeing inside strangers’ living rooms and watching their hygiene routines or how they mix a green smoothie. But the thoughtful, intimate shares in Bad Sex (abortion, hookups, marriage, divorce, parental loss) remind me of the radical potential of truth telling. These are not monetized, curated insta-stories that encourage us to covet or emulate someone else but, rather, stories that reveal, challenge, and transform our assumptions about the potential political power of everyday life, including the erotic and the sexual.
These personal shares are nothing new, and Willis Aronowitz reminds us of that with stories from her mother’s archives and other historical markers. Earlier consciousness-raising groups were propelled by conversations about pregnancy, housework, sexual assault, loving women, and finding the clitoris — a treasure hunt that remains stunningly elusive for many despite Google or even some porn.
I liked reading this book so much that I made an eleventh-hour pivot: Three weeks before the start of a new semester, I scratched my original syllabus for a class on “money, sex, and power” and assigned Bad Sex. According to common review style, here is where the other shoe drops. But reader (and author), please know that it’s more of a ballet slipper.
I appreciate Willis Aronowitz’s attention to expanding our sense of normative sexuality in partnered, solo, or married relationships. She gives important attention to racial diversity and includes a smidge of geographic diversity. This is valuable and necessary, even while some passages read like cumbersome additions to signal care about intersectional issues. I expect that my Latinx and POC students, largely working class and living far beyond Brooklyn, will have plenty to say about the book’s analyses of race, class, and ethnicity. My hunch is that Bad Sex will both resonate and provoke, and I can’t wait to hear this conversation.
Shira Tarrant, PhD, is a political scientist and professor in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach. Her work has been featured and reviewed in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Playboy, and her commentary has appeared in global and local media, including NPR’s All Things Considered, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the New York Times, and ET Live. Among her eight books and numerous articles are The Pornography Industry, Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style, Gender, Sex, and Politics, and Men and Feminism.
Nona Willis Aronowitz
Thank you so much, Signs and these readers, for such thoughtful mini-pieces on my book! I really appreciate all this delicate consideration.
Writing this a few weeks after the release of Bad Sex, I’ve had a chance to read others’ responses besides these, and many of them echo Elizabeth Armstrong’s observation that, in my book, “the notion of sluthood as an aspirational identity felt generationally distinct.” A lot of Boomers and Gen Xers have seemed taken aback by the enormous amount of pressure I put on myself to be the perfect lusty feminist—while the people my age who read the book, like Tracy Clark-Flory (whose excellent book Want Me vividly described this phenomenon), intensely related to these expectations. “Many of us,” she writes, “are left feeling as guilty as Willis Aronowitz and wondering: What’s wrong with me?”
As the Teen Vogue sex advice columnist, I think this pressure has dissipated somewhat for Gen Z, leaving Millennials distinctly sandwiched between more conservative values and Girls Gone Wild–style “empowerment.” And as Armstrong points out, in the wake of Dobbs, Millennials might turn out to be “a unique generation who benefited from the ideas and legal freedoms of women’s and sexual liberation before the window closed.” I never really thought of my book as an artifact of a particular generational experience, but it may very well prove to be just that.I never really thought of my book as an artifact of a particular generational experience, but it may very well prove to be just that.Click To Tweet
I appreciate that Armstrong points out the narrowness of my perspective as a “cis a class-privileged, white, cis, still-young, conventionally attractive, expensively educated, heterosexual daughter of two intellectual giants.” Almost immediately in the process of writing this book, it became obvious that my identity matched up with many of the other women who’d benefited most from the sexual revolution and feminism. While I tried to go meta and acknowledge that with chapters about how different vulnerabilities, such as race and queerness, get in the way of sexual freedom, the inevitable result of sifting through feminist writing on sexual politics is that I ended up quoting a lot of other white women. My first draft was a lot more careful and sheepish about this, but I ultimately decided to write as confidently as I could, hoping that any success this book had would also make room for subsequent narratives—from all kinds of people—about the search for sexual freedom.
I feel heartened that Shira Tarrant noticed my sincere effort to be honest, even if it was ugly. “This book isn’t about a gratuitous sharing for clicks and likes,” she wrote. “I hated reading about her acts of intimate betrayal. No hearts here for infidelity.” Indeed, the chapter she refers to—about how an affair laid bare my unfulfilled desires—was the one I was most worried about receiving backlash for. (An unfounded fear, it turns out! The nonmonogamy chapter seems to be the one about which people feel most defensive.) Yet I also have to admit what Rachel Hills senses, that public feminist debates are “too often tempered to cause the least offence on Twitter” and that, at times, my book “slips into the sameness of its contemporaries.” As I was writing Bad Sex, the raging debate over cancel culture was at its absolute peak—and there was a place in the back of my mind that was worried I, too, would be canceled for saying the wrong thing. One of my editor’s early comments was “write to your readers, not your critics,” reminding me not to be preemptively apologetic and agreeable and just say my darkest, most controversial thoughts out loud. I think I mostly did that; in retrospect, I wish I had done even more of it.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is the sex and love columnist for Teen Vogue and the author of the book Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution. Her reporting and essays have been published in the New York Times, The Cut, Elle, Vice, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic, among many others. She is the coauthor of Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism. She is also the editor of an award-winning anthology of her mother Ellen Willis’s rock criticism, called Out of the Vinyl Deeps, as well as a comprehensive collection of Willis's work, The Essential Ellen Willis, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.