When Friedan asked housewives what they did with their time when they were not doing chores, or asked them about their interests or ambitions, the subject usually came around to sex. Women were eager to talk about their sexual adventures but, when they spoke, Friedan noted that they sounded “unsexual.”
The women’s “eager” but unerotic tone suggested that sex was merely another thing to do to pass the time. Their association of sex with Friedan’s question of interests further attested to their complete identification with their gender role.
Women talked about having sex to “feel alive.” One woman had affairs to enjoy the feeling of giving herself over to someone completely. She had first felt that feeling with her husband when they married, but then he became too preoccupied with his work. She then experienced the feeling again after her children were born. The feeling only occurred when she was in love. So, she went to Mexico to have an affair with a man with whom she was not in love, but who had inspired the feeling that she desired. She returned six months later, having failed to recover “her phantom feeling,” and resume her marriage.
The feminine mystique had convinced women that they could feel most fulfilled through the expression of their sex function, which either meant that they should have sex or have children, or both. Their sense of being “other-directed” made it more difficult for them to achieve stimulation through individual activities. Their desperation led them to take risks that compromised their marriages. Danger also stimulated them.
The suburban “sex-seekers” could not expand housework or community work to fill the time available, so they turned to sex to feel fulfilled. Sex was “the only frontier,” available to women living according to the feminine mystique. American women, according to Friedan, had been reduced to sex creatures as a result. The culture, too, had become “sex-glutted,” but it had not resulted in fulfillment for women. Worse, their “aggressive pursuit of sexual fulfillment” caused sexual disinterest in American men and bred hostility toward women.
Friedan’s description of sex as a “frontier” suggests that sexual exploration was the only form of exploration available to many women. To avoid their feelings of boredom due to a lack of creative outlets, women pursued sex more vigorously than they would have if they had other things to do. Men, feeling more pressure to perform, resented this.
According to Alfred Kinsey, there was an enormous increase in sexual preoccupation in the postwar era, but no “outlet.” There were constant references to sex in media and an increase in the publication and sales of lascivious best-selling novels marketed to women. Women seemed to be more preoccupied with sex than men and this avidity played out in films and novels in the late-1950s and early-1960s, including La Dolce Vita—an Italian film that drew American audiences for “its much-advertised sexual titillation”—and novels, like Peyton Place and The Chapman Report, which also drew on the image of the “over-lusting female.”
The preoccupation with sex in the Eisenhower era was often superficial. In American films, or in films in which American women were depicted, actresses appeared in roles that exaggerated their sexual characteristics and presented them as “over-lusting,” or excessively desirous with no context for the hypersexual behavior. The effect on the culture was the that people developed the impression that women were always available for or desirous of sex.
Suburban women were usually “sex-seekers,” not “sex-finders” due to needing to look after their children, trying to avoid being the subject of gossip, and the fact that men were usually absent and less preoccupied with sex as a result of having other things to do and think about.
Though housewives sometimes used sex to avoid feelings of boredom, the pursuit of an affair often took more time than the affair itself due to her need to find a man and to plan carefully in order to be discreet.
Many housewives staked their identities on their sex role, using sex to feel “alive” and thus, placing impossible demands on their “femaleness” and their husbands’ “maleness” to make up for their failure “to achieve goals and satisfactions in the wider community.” Kinsey found, based on a survey of 5,940 women, that the sexual appetites of wives seemed to increase while those of their husbands waned. More disturbingly, sexual anxieties were causing reproductive dysfunction.
Housewives wanted to feel and make themselves appear more desirable. Instead of using sex to learn more about themselves and their responses to pleasure, they retreated further into the sex role and expected their husbands to do the same. The increased appetites of wives resulted in husbands becoming more distant, probably as a response to their wives’ excessive dependency.
Obstetricians observed that women who had dedicated their lives to having babies were usually the ones who had the most trouble—backaches, bleeding, and difficult pregnancies and deliveries—while, those who had other interests had easier pregnancies and deliveries.
Friedan suggests that the physical ailments women experienced in childbirth may have resulted from the anxiety that is more common in women who connect their sense of self-worth to childbearing.
A gynecologist spoke of women who had not attained fulfillment from having babies or sexual intercourse. They continued to have babies for a lack of anything else to do. Other patients were college girls for whom “going to bed [meant] nothing.” It was merely something to do for a lack of anything better to do.
The reliance on sex to relieve boredom, as well as the excessive attention given to sex in the culture, had desensitized women. They offered themselves sexually because they believed it was what they were supposed to do.
Friedan wonders if the high incidence of “cramps with menstruation,” “depression with childbirth,” and other “female troubles” are natural to women or if they are related to the “choice between femininity and human growth.”
Friedan tries to connect menstrual symptoms with anxiety, but she overlooks the real incidences of women having uterine problems such as endometriosis and painful periods.
Friedan reports on an island where attractive young housewives spent their summers. There, they enjoyed the company of “sexless boys right out of the world of Tennessee Williams,” while their husbands were working in the city.
Friedan’s description suggests that the “boys” were homosexuals whom the women sought out for company. She suggests this with the reference to Tennessee Williams, who was gay himself and wrote gay male characters into his plays.
Women demanded too much satisfaction from their husbands—not only sexual satisfaction, but also the status-seeking that they could only realize vicariously through their husbands. Young men began to feel trapped by their wives who had turned men into “the sex-instrument” or the “man around the house.” Those husbands began to seek divorces and felt growing hostility, not only toward their wives, but also toward their mothers, female co-workers, and women in general.
Women’s excessive demands, both for sexual pleasure and for a sense of achievement through their husband’s accomplishments, made men feel inadequate. Their feeling of not being enough manifested as anger. Furthermore, men assumed that their wives’ behavior was typical of the female sex (instead of a byproduct of an oppressive society), which only fostered greater misogyny.
Alfred Kinsey found that “the majority of middle-class” American men stopped having sex with their wives after fifteen years of marriage. They had affairs instead—office romances, casual or intense affairs—in an attempt to escape from the devouring wife. Some chose to have affairs with Lolita types, either in fantasy or in fact, to escape from the grown-up woman at home and “her aggressive energies.”
Male hostility toward women was particularly evident in postwar literature, which was full of “images of the predatory female.” The male outrage, according to Friedan, was the result of “parasitic women” who stunted their sons’ and husbands’ development.
Friedan uses the phrase “parasitic women” to suggest that the feminine mystique had encouraged excessive co-dependency which conflicted with cultural messages that told boys to be self-reliant.
Friedan wonders if the increase in “overt male homosexuality” is attached to the feminine mystique. She thinks that there is a correlation, due to the tendency of women to live through their sons, rendering them “child-like” and hateful toward all women as a reaction to the one woman who prevented them from achieving manhood. Friedan writes that, like the daughters of the feminine mystique who raised them, homosexual men often live in sexual fantasy, and were characterized by immaturity and promiscuity. They lacked commitments “in life outside of sex.”
Friedan reiterates the prejudices of her time in regard to homosexual men, whom she seems to discuss as though there were no homosexual women. She seems not to realize that the illegality of homosexual acts, as well as the belief that it was a mental illness, made it very difficult for homosexuals to build stable, long-term relationships. Here, she is guilty of the mistake of misapplying Freudian analysis to explain complex social phenomena.
Friedan found a correlation between education and the postponement of sexual activity. Better-educated people usually waited to have sex. Young women who continued their education into college and graduate school also reported more sexual satisfaction.
People who had their own interests were less “other-directed” and tended to focus on their own needs. When they did become sexually active, they took an interest in their own pleasure.
Psychiatrists believed that compulsive sexual activity, whether homosexual or heterosexual, was a sign of low self-esteem. College girls, for instance, sometimes sought security through sexual relationships with boys to assuage "feelings of inadequacy.”
Having sex could make one feel attractive or desirable. If a girl was unsure about herself in other areas of life, she could still rely on the culture’s message that her sex function gave her value.
Friedan voices concern over the prevalence of “sex without self,” or using sex to evade the responsibilities of enduring discomfort, which was a part of growing up. The “pursuit of pleasure and things” merely shielded young people from their complex reality.
The pursuit of objects and fleeting pleasures could not replace the necessity of constructing a sense of self. Young people used objects and sexual attraction to feel good about themselves instead of developing self-understanding.