f we needed more evidence that feminism has gone off the rails, Jill Filipovic’s new book takes care of it. In The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, the contributing writer for the New York Times and columnist for Cosmopolitan (which have a surprisingly similar outlook on these issues) merges two major strains of modern feminist thought—the notion that women should throw off the chains of repression to achieve sexual pleasure, and the idea that the government is the best means for achieving sexual equality. Her conclusion is blindingly obvious when you think about it: taxpayer-funded orgasms. Seriously: Filipovic worries that “many heterosexual women lack . . . a sense of orgasm entitlement” and concludes that “pleasurable sex should also be considered a basic health care right.”
The H-Spot starts with the premise that this whole “pursuit of happiness” thing in the Declaration of Independence was really a ruse because it applied only to the kind of happiness that property-owning white men wanted, the kind of happiness that was built on the backs of women. And Filipovic is off to the races. What follows is an extended and highly selective history of legal and cultural female oppression in the United States.
The highlights are no surprise. There’s Sally Hemings, of course, but there’s also the Industrial Revolution, which according to Filipovic was responsible for creating a separate women’s sphere, thus making it easier for women to be oppressed. There’s the 1950s, which despite the colossal surge in personal and family income, were no panacea, at least if you didn’t enjoy domestic drudgery and child-rearing. The 1980s were a disaster for women because conservatives insisted on cutting welfare payments, thus making life more difficult for single mothers. And now we are living through a Trump era during which women’s rights may well be sent back to the Stone Age.
The story of Filipovic’s own family informs this history. She writes of her grandmother, a mother of five who was beaten by her husband. She left the abuser and had to find a way to make a living despite having no discernible skills, almost nothing in child support, and a community and church that turned their backs on her. Filipovic works to expose the dirty underbelly of the 1950s. Her aunt says of her grandmother: “She was not June Cleaver. They never showed June washing sh—y diapers, or June with five kids a year and a half apart, and June as a single parent who couldn’t afford a babysitter even if she could find one.”
Her grandmother’s misery, in Filipovic’s telling, was symbolic of an entire era, “which was less about what actually made women happy and more about money—and men being able to make it without competing with women and men’s ability to ‘have it all.’” These kind of generalizations are everywhere in The H-Spot. Filipovic finds a Cosmo-ready story about the abuse/repression/rape of a woman, searches for a few statistics on the prevalence of such events, and then concludes that society was essentially constructed with the plan of such abuse in mind.
If there is one consistent villain in all of this, it is traditional religion. The first problem, of course, is any church’s attitude toward sex. Filipovic interviewed one young woman who, because of her religious beliefs, waited until she was married to have carnal relations. The results, she reports, were disastrous and ended in PTSD and subsequently divorce. “Samantha’s husband was warm and generous,” Filipovic writes. “But the narrative that sex was bad was impossible to shake just because she was married.” Filipovic comes to the obvious conclusion that “the very concept of preserving your virginity until marriage is poisonous.”
It’s not enough to say that different people will make different choices about when to have sex. Such a notion is insufficiently feminist. Rather, we must conclude that “every single reason in favor of preserving virginity until marriage is sexist.”
Not only are churches largely to blame for America’s “sex-negative culture,” they are also the problem when it comes to birth control and abortion: “The discourse around abortion tells us less about American reverence for fetal life than it does about our shaky relationship with female sexuality and pleasure.” Filipovic can find women who have experienced trauma and divorce as a result of waiting until their wedding night to have sex, but she can’t find a single pro-life woman who genuinely believes that life begins at conception.
Like many on the left, Filipovic is not satisfied with a country in which some people think abortion is fine and some people don’t. Or in which some people use birth control and others don’t. She wants to ensure that every employer will pay for these and every doctor and hospital will provide them. She cannot conceive why “notoriously backward” Catholic hospitals would weigh the life of a fetus against the life of a woman in deciding on certain medical procedures. On the other hand, she goes on at length about the pain and life-altering depression that women feel when they have a miscarriage, and then complains our society doesn’t do enough to recognize these events and give women time to heal. If abortion is basically a glorified appendectomy, why would losing a fetus require such accommodation?
But such inconsistencies do not concern Filipovic—or let us say, she wants someone else to deal with them. “What’s missing in American politics today,” she writes, “is a left-of-center moral argument for sexual pleasure.” The reason that she seems to have it in for traditional religion is a kind of jealousy—she is envious of the moral arguments religious leaders feel free to make while liberals have simply been reduced to arguing that different people want different things. For Filipovic, that is wrong because some of those things are not “empowering.”
So here is her moral argument, as best as I can discern: Pleasure is the highest good. Women should have sex early and often with whoever brings them the most pleasure. They should have children, but only so long as those children bring them unfettered pleasure and don’t interfere with the pleasure that comes from a career. Women should end pregnancies and prevent pregnancies and use artificial means of getting pregnant as long as those things bring them pleasure. Filipovic even complains that it’s unfair that women experience pain in childbirth. She thinks that medical professionals simply “disregard women’s happiness and well-being.”
It is the responsibility of government to make sure that all of these choices are available and equally feasible from a financial perspective. Marriage should not be preferred over being single, even when children are involved. Two-person relationships should not be preferred over polyamory or communal living. Women should be paid regardless of whether they are home with children or in the workplace. And the federal government is ultimately responsible for making all of this happen because it ostensibly guarantees the pursuit of happiness.
Alas, we live in an imperfect world. And despite Filipovic’s pleas, the world she describes is not the world in which she lives. Which puts her in a bind. As an unmarried woman in her 30s, she uses this book to explore what she should do. She is ambivalent about marriage and ambivalent about children. She finds someone she loves, but should she enter into the antiquated institution of marriage? The tentative answer is yes, because she doesn’t want to call him her boyfriend forever. As for kids, well, she wants to make sure that she has a partner who will do “more than half” of the work caring for them. And she’s still not sure whether those kids are going to just make her miserable in the end.
Filipovic seems almost paralyzed by the choices she faces. On the one hand, she likes cooking, but on the other hand, she worries about the message it sends if she (as opposed to her boyfriend) cooks when they have dinner parties. She likes wearing high heels and makeup, but she worries that she is contributing to society’s unfair expectations of women when she spends too much time on her appearance.
If the unexamined life is not worth living, The H-Spot makes one wonder whether the overexamined life might create a similar problem. Women’s self-reported levels of happiness have declined in recent years, and while some have noted that a kind of paradox of choice may be at work here, Filipovic dismisses the notion. But if you are like Filipovic and split your days between reading mommy blogs and feminist rants about women’s fulfillment, you might spend too much time wondering whether you’re happy and not enough time actually doing things that will make you happy or appreciating the things that have already brought you fulfillment.
Maybe it’s high time you stop dreaming of feminist utopias and start taking responsibility for your own damn orgasms.