Lean In Sexuality and the Labor of Self-Discovery

September 2, 2021   •   By Sarah Stoller

YOU MIGHT HAVE HEARD about it from actress Emma Watson back in 2016. At a live event with the American feminist Gloria Steinem, Watson referenced a website called OMGyes, an online curriculum aimed at helping users perfect the female orgasm for a one-time-only access fee. OMGyes promises subscribers the opportunity to “make a great thing even better,” with “no blushing, no shame,” just the “distilled wisdom of 20,000 women.” Upon its release, The Times in London called it “nothing less than the next wave of an unfinished sexual revolution.” Watson appeared to agree, telling her audience with a wink, to chuckles from Steinem and the crowd, “I wish it had been around longer. Definitely check it out. It’s an expensive subscription, but worth it.”


You don’t have to look far in 2021 to come across the celebratory rhetoric of women’s sexual empowerment. Were it not for ongoing reports of sexual harassment and abuse in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it might appear at a glance that we now live in a fully liberated era of sexuality for women, the culmination of decades of feminist progress. In addition to popular new guides to women’s sexual pleasure like OMGyes, recent years have seen the mainstreaming of porn by and for women by figures like Erika Lust; the popularization of sex therapy; the rise of posh, ticketed, women’s-only sex parties; the ongoing proliferation of sex toys for women; and the diversification of sexual pleasure for lesbian, bi, and trans women — all accompanied by an insistence that closing the so-called “orgasm gap” is now within reach.


The declaration that women’s sexuality is no longer secret or shameful has arrived in tandem with the promise that women can, and therefore should, know their desires, declare them proudly, and go about fulfilling them. In a landscape of apparently unbounded opportunities for self-realization and pleasure, it can now seem as though the not-yet-transcendentally-satisfied woman has only herself to blame. And why not?


For one, a multitude of structural and cultural forces still work against women’s pursuit of pleasure. Women continue to be penalized for naming and owning their desires. Queer and trans women are still subject to prejudice and discrimination. Sexual violence is no thing of the past. Access to contraception and safe, legal abortion remains curtailed. More quotidian, but no less concerning, is that women continue to shoulder the disproportionate burden of caring work in society, including unpaid labor in families. The double shift is not an aphrodisiac.


Within this context, the market has served as a mediator of a wide array of new tools offering sexual opportunity for women. Though (some) women have accessed new kinds of sexual experiences, and perhaps even pleasure, through this process, the commercialization of self-discovery has rendered it a form of self-work and mastery. Women are directed to purchase their way to empowerment, crafting more confident and acceptable selves in the process. Steinem notwithstanding, this is not the sexual liberation that second-wave feminists imagined.


In the 1960s and ’70s, feminists demanded women’s sexual liberation as part of a transformative vision for social change. Their activism politicized a shift in sexual relations and mores already underway in the postwar West. The years after World War II saw growing accessibility of birth control, the liberalization of values around nudity and pre- and extra-marital sex, and the flooding of the media and visual landscape with sexual images, including a booming porn industry and more visible sex shops in urban areas. The feminisms of the 1960s and ’70s were intellectually and politically diverse, and they had varied perspectives on these changes. Pornography, sex shops, sex work, and consent all sparked contentious debates within second-wave feminism. And yet, feminists largely cohered around a basic agenda when it came to sex: accessible contraception, safe and legal abortion, and the hope for more equal opportunities for sexual exploration and fulfillment for women.


If demands for contraception and abortion were clear cut in theory, the broader hope for women’s sexual empowerment was more amorphous. Feminists of all intellectual stripes — liberal, socialist, radical, and everything in between — contributed distinct visions of sexual liberation, and in some cases sought to live them out in practice. What stands for feminism within “the female-orgasm industrial complex,” a term recently coined by Katharine Smyth, leaves out some of the richest and most interesting of these ideas.


Among them is the powerful analysis that sex had become like work for women, and the argument that true sexual liberation depended on the transformation of capitalism. In 1975, the socialist feminist Silvia Federici decried the intrusion of capitalist logics into the most intimate spaces of everyday life: “We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love and create what will be our sexuality which we have never known.” Federici was one of a number of influential socialist and radical feminists of the era who were preoccupied with sex as a form of unpaid labor, performed by women on men’s behalf. In Federici’s analysis, women’s sexuality had been reduced to little more than one more obligation at the end of the workday. As a group of lesbian activists put it succinctly: “From the time we are children our personalities, and therefore our sexuality, are molded to fit the unwaged work that capitalist society forces on women […] our sex lives are as ruled by capital as our ‘work lives’ […] our entire lives are made into work.” Sex had become rote, routinized, and detached from desire.


Feminists like Federici argued that only when women were freed from the expectations of unpaid labor of all kinds could they even begin to find themselves and identify their own true desires. Activists saw freeing sex from the strictures of work as part of a broader project to reinvent caring as an expression of self unmediated by obligation. In addition to giving free rein to sexual desires, this also meant building new communities and engaging in creative, even intentionally unproductive, activities. Feminists imagined that it would be within this community context that new, true self-knowledge could be generated. Accessible, grassroots education about women’s bodies and sexuality, women’s-only spaces for consciousness raising, and opportunities for sexual exploration — especially with other women — were part of a rich, relational feminist vision of sexual empowerment which has little to do with today’s atomized “Lean In” sexual politics.


In some ways, and to some feminists, recent market offerings promising sexual liberation do seem like the realization of the feminist project to make sex better for women. To a degree, products like OMGyes build on the work represented by the landmark 1970 book Our Bodies, Ourselves in normalizing women’s sexualities, generating knowledge of women’s sexual practices, and destigmatizing factual information about the body. And yet, Our Bodies, Ourselves was the outcome of the community activism of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, rather than the consumer product of venture capital. It sold, inflation adjusted, for less than $2 rather than the $118 OMGyes now charges for its comprehensive series. Our Bodies, Ourselves did not market itself as the final stage of the sexual revolution; in fact, it didn’t market itself at all.


The asynchronicity between feminist hopes of the past and today’s sexual politics extends beyond the questions of accessibility raised by the current — very high — market price of liberation. For all its talk of sexual revolution, OMGyes’s promise of pleasure is contained within an atomized project of self-making — it is not a function of exploration together with the feminist sisterhood. Its videos feature individual women — relatively diverse in age and race though not at all in gender presentation or level of conventional attractiveness — describing their techniques for self-pleasure. It is hard not to see these accounts as somewhat exclusionary success stories, the triumphant narratives of women who have figured it out and crafted confident, satisfied selves in the process. Viewers might think, “Oh cool, great tip,” but also, “Am I enough?” Self-knowledge in this model can feel overly aspirational and awfully close to work — the very thing feminists railed against when it came to remaking sex.


OMGyes is just one of many recent examples of tools for sexual self-improvement, offering women the promise of liberation alongside the quiet injunction to work at it. Another example is Skirt Club, a women’s-only sex club franchise that hosts private parties around the world aimed at straight and bisexual women. One-time finance executive Genevieve LeJeune founded the company in 2014 with an aim to create safe and empowering spaces designed by and for women only, where the curious could explore their desires away from the agendas of men. Since its founding, Skirt Club has grown astronomically. It now boasts tens of thousands of members, all of whom are required to apply before they’re allowed to purchase a ticket — currently priced upward of $150 — to a party.


In positioning itself primarily as a space for exploration without men, rather than for women who want to have sex with women, Skirt Club invokes something of the spirit of feminism’s second wave and a historical moment in which sexual exploration was not yet quite so closely tied to the politics of sexual identity. And yet, much like OMGyes, Skirt Club is a global brand which thrives on marketing itself as a path to successful selfhood — in this case selfhood without the complications of queerness. A curious browser of the Skirt Club website, perhaps contemplating attending a party where they might have sex with other women, is confronted with this zinger: “Confidence in the bedroom leads to confidence in the boardroom.” Sexual liberation figures here less as potential pleasure (orgasmic or otherwise) than as the next best career move for the upwardly mobile professional. In language that could only be said to evoke a tipsy Sheryl Sandberg, Skirt Club proclaims, “We know that confidence in the bedroom leads to confidence in the boardroom.” This is, quite literally, work. Have we all but forgotten that securing your next promotion is not the same as self-discovery, and that purchasing a ticket to an expensive party is an act far removed from joining a community?


Feminists of years past longed for something more. In her recent treatise on the rise of consent culture, Katherine Angel describes what she terms “contemporary confidence feminism” — “a form of self-work that each woman must undertake in order to succeed, and in order to respect herself for not having succumbed to the odds stacked against her.” Angel goes on to suggest that self-knowledge and the ability to speak it, the basis of so much contemporary discourse about better sex for women, is “not a reliable feature of female sexuality, nor of sexuality in general; in fact, it is not a reliable feature of being a person.” In the neoliberal era, we have come to celebrate the sexual entrepreneur of the self who cracks the code of satisfaction through goal-oriented self-knowledge and the mastery of new skills and practices. But confidence feminism, I fear, is not liberating anyone.


Perhaps feminisms past can help us return to a notion of sexual liberation not as the promise of the ultimate expression of the successful self, but rather of freedom from the confines of self. Weirdly, the pandemic might help. Over the last year, the exacerbation of the crisis of women and work driven by COVID-19 has sparked new interest in the history of feminist thought. Figures like Silvia Federici, best known as the architect of the Wages for Housework movement, who were largely forgotten outside of academic circles, are now receiving long-overdue attention in the mainstream. As Federici’s work reminds us, the politics of recognizing women’s unpaid labor and the politics of freeing women to enjoy sex on their own terms are one in the same. The question that contemporary feminism must now tackle is whether capitalism — and the diverse offerings of the marketplace for women’s sexual pleasure — can deliver a kind of liberation, or whether neoliberal capitalism itself needs to be reimagined for women to have the freedom to truly explore their desires.


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Sarah Stoller is a writer and historian of women, work, and feminism. She completed her PhD on the history of working parenthood at UC Berkeley.