In the absence of valuable work or a sense of personal achievement, women often turned to sex to feel “alive” again. Friedan strongly objected to the notion that women could find a sense of identity through sex, believing it to be foolhardy. Many women reported gaining little pleasure from being with their husbands, while others sought sex outside of their marriages. As more and more women realized that having a marriage and a family did not guarantee happiness, men too realized that having a wife at home at all times did not always make their lives easier. In this way, Friedan shows that the feminine mystique had created a model of marriage that left both men and women unhappy.
For women who had pursued marriage instead of an education, sexual fulfilment (which Friedan defines largely by the ability to orgasm) and marital bliss were more elusive than they were for women who had attended graduate school. Female professionals reported more sexual and marital satisfaction than their peers who had accomplished less academically and professionally. This finding revealed that personal satisfaction correlated with the ability to find satisfaction in sexual union. Women who had achieved less before marriage often pursued a feeling of completeness through extramarital affairs. The woman who had embraced the feminine mystique at the expense of all else had a view of love that was antithetical to any real type of individuality. This woman accepted the culture’s message that love required her to forfeit her distinct sense of self. On the other hand, the woman who had known independence before marriage was more often able to find a love based on desire, not need, and used it to strengthen her individuality. Friedan argues that the “emancipated” woman’s independence and strong sense of identity not only increased her ability to reach orgasm, but also made her better suited to marriage, as she did not marry to achieve selfhood, but rather to share the self she had already constructed with someone who loved her.
Less “emancipated” women reported being very interested in sex, but they did not experience it with the same degree of pleasure as more accomplished married women. When Friedan asked her subjects what they did when they were not busy with domestic concerns, they chose to talk about sex. They were eager to talk about the topic and some reported having affairs. However, Friedan noted how “unsexual” they sounded when introducing the subject. They were not really interested in sex, but instead wanted to recover a “feeling” they had lost—a “feeling of identity,” or the feeling of happiness they experienced when they married—through performing the act.
While women had affairs to achieve a sense of identity, men often had them to escape from “the devouring wife.” Both men and women were looking to escape from the strictures of domesticity, which had resulted in the devolution of the “human relationship.” Both, as a result of their mutual discontents, had eliminated the relational aspect from sex. According to the Kinsey report, most American men’s sexual outlets were not with their wives. Though their wives were clearly very sexual, and popular culture exploited the stereotype of the American woman’s large sexual appetite, many men took little interest in their wives. Instead, they sought office romances, both casual and intense affairs, or a sexual relationship “totally divorced from any human relationship.” Others preferred relationships with “Lolita” types—girlish women who would not be aggressive like their grown wives and would not seek to live vicariously through them. Girlish women such as these would make no demands on men at all. Rather, they would assume the states of passivity and compliance that men had originally hoped to find and foster in their housewives. The feminine mystique had made it more difficult to view wives as lovers. Instead, they became, for their husbands, a source of frustration. The suburban housewife’s status-seeking, which resulted in always wanting to buy more products, and her dominance as the manager of the household, bred hostility between her and her husband. Her role, even as expressed toward her husband, was maternal. This resulted in the juxtaposition of “the devouring wife” with “the devouring mother”—a stock character in Tennessee Williams’s plays—in the popular imagination. Both types were aggressive in their femininity and dominated their husbands through a strong assertion of their domestic roles.
The feminine mystique had contributed to turning marriage into a state of disunion and alienation between husbands and wives. Women pursued feminine ideals to obtain a husband and, in that pursuit, garnered men’s hostile resentment, which men then directed toward other women. Men wanted wives whose sole pursuits were domestic, then recoiled when those seemingly passive women became aggressive taskmasters. Thus, sex became a means for both men and women to escape the “mystique.”
Sex and Marriage ThemeTracker
Sex and Marriage Quotes in The Feminine Mystique
The feminine mystique permits, even encourages, women to ignore the question of their identity. The mystique says they can answer the question “Who am I?” by saying “Tom’s wife...Mary’s mother.” But I don’t think the mystique would have such power over American women if they did not fear to face this terrifying blank which makes them unable to see themselves after twenty-one. The truth is—and how long it has been true, I’m not sure, but it was true in my generation and it is true of girls growing up today—an American woman no longer has a private image to tell her who she is, or can be, or wants to be.
Only men had the freedom to love, and enjoy love, and decide for themselves in the eyes of their God the problems of right and wrong. Did women want these freedoms because they wanted to be men? Or did they want them because they were also human?
In the foxholes, the GI’s had pinned up pictures of Betty Grable, but the songs they asked to hear were lullabies. And when they got out of the army they were too old to go home to their mothers. The needs of sex and love are undeniably real in men and women, boys and girls, but why at this time did they seem to so many the only needs?
But what happens when a woman bases her whole identity on her sexual role; when sex is necessary to make her “feel alive?” To state it quite simply, she puts impossible demands on her own body, her “femaleness,” as well as on her husband and his “maleness.” A marriage counselor told me that many of the young suburban wives he dealt with make “such heavy demands on love and marriage, but there is no excitement, no mystery, sometimes almost literally nothing happens.”
According to Kinsey, the majority of American middle-class males’ sexual outlets are not in relations with their wives after the fifteenth year of marriage; at fifty-five, one out of two American men is engaging in extramarital sex. His male sex-seeking—the office romance, the casual or intense affair, even the depersonalized sex-for-sex’s sake…is, as often as not, motivated by the need to escape from the devouring wife. Sometimes the man seeks the human relationship that got lost when he became an appendage to his wife’s aggressive “home career.” Sometimes his aversion to his wife finally makes him seek in sex an object totally divorced from any human relationship. Sometimes, in phantasy more often than in fact, he seeks a girl-child, a Lolita, as sexual object—to escape that grownup woman who is devoting all her aggressive energies, as well as her sexual energies, to living through him.
And so progressive dehumanization has carried the American mind in the last fifteen years from youth worship to that sick “love affair” with our own children; from preoccupation with the physical details of sex, divorced from a human framework, to a love affair between man and animal.
We have gone on too long blaming or pitying the mothers who devour their children, who sow the seeds of progressive dehumanization, because they have never grown to full humanity themselves. If the mother is at fault, why isn’t it time to break the pattern by urging all these Sleeping Beauties to grow up and live their own lives? There will never be enough Prince Charmings, or enough therapists to break that pattern now. It is society’s job, and finally that of each woman alone. For it is not the strength of the mothers that is at fault but their weakness, their passive childlike dependency and immaturity that is mistaken for “femininity.”
In our society, love has customarily been defined, at least for women, as a complete merging of egos and a loss of separateness— “togetherness,” a giving up of individuality rather than a strengthening of it.
A woman today who has no goal, no purpose, no ambition patterning her days into the future, making her stretch and grow beyond that small score of years in which her body can fill its biological function, is committing a kind of suicide.
It seemed to me that men weren’t really the enemy—they were fellow victims, suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill.