Who will buy a cow if the milk is free?” These are the words that a man (age 60+) spoke in my presence about the plans of a younger woman (age 20+) to live with her boyfriend without getting engaged or married. The words made me nauseous.
Women are not like cows. Sex is not like milk.
Viewed in an historic context, marriage has been the legally- and socially-sanctioned means by which women exchange access to their bodies for physical and/or economic security. As the cow analogy goes, then, a man has no interest in protecting (i.e., marrying) a woman from whom he receives “free” (i.e., non-marital) sex. This construction of sex as a bargained-for exchange is not only a relic of the past. It has its contemporary supporters, too. In Hard Bargains: The Politics of Sex (1998), self-identified feminists Linda Hirschman and Jane Larson suggest that “by forcing the stronger player to bargain with the weaker for an explicit consent, we begin to ensure mutuality as a condition for all adult sexual exchanges.” Viewed this way, sex is a commodity that may be more or less “mutual,” depending on the relative strength of the parties’ bargaining positions. Let the market do what it may.
Catharine MacKinnon has described women’s sexuality as “that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away.” On a macro level, MacKinnon has it right. When we we are bombarded by billboards and advertisements displaying women’s undressed and distressed bodies, women’s sexuality is expropriated from a human being into commerce and titillation. Even if a particular woman in an advertisement consents to such portrayal (or at least gets a “good deal” as the result of a bargained-for exchange), the woman’s undressed and distressed body becomes the (usually unrealistic) standard for what is arousing to men. Women try to emulate these bodies. We claim we “like” these bodies, too. We think they are “sexy,” too.
I make a tentative and contextual modification to MacKinnon’s analysis. In my view, in relationships of near-as-possible economic and emotional parity, sex can fall on any point on a continuum from unilateral giving to unilateral taking. For some of us, our experiences cluster in the middle. For some of us, our experiences do not. But in the relationships I describe, sex occurs rarely at one extreme, the precise midpoint or even a fixed point at all. It is something we give. It is something we take.
Sex is not like milk. Women are not like cows.