Brutal in the Bedroom

Casual sex is increasingly violent. Wasn't #MeToo supposed to improve matters?

These days, many of the men—ordinary men—whom I meet through dating apps try at least a little feint at strangulation if things progress to the bedroom. I’ve become adept at removing their hands when they move throatwards. A number of them also try a little painful pinching; some ask outright how I like slapping. The answer is not at all. Last week, a young man said he’d like to press my face against a window while performing sexual deeds. I asked if he thought any women really wanted to have their faces pressed against glass during sex. He said, “A lot do, yes,” revising this to, “Well, a lot say they do.”

It seems that I have become something of an outlier in finding these rituals of violence repellent. Pain and degradation—once fringe—have become part of mainstream sex. And not just by porn-addled men egging on women. Women are themselves keen participants in this new culture of painful, violent sex. Some are shaping it.

Millions (including me) sang along to the lyrics of the smash-hit song “WAP” [Wet Ass P***y] by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, released in August: “Give me everything you got…beat it up…park that big Mack truck right in this little garage…I don’t want to spit, I want to gulp, I want to gag.” Most critics praised “WAP” as a triumph of confident female sexuality. The Los Angeles Times billed it as “sex positive.” Anybody who flinched, critics suggested, must have been a Republican. 

Women’s embrace of violent, porn-inspired sex isn’t new, but it has accelerated in the past few years. What’s startling is the timing of this acceleration, which has coincided with the #MeToo movement.

After October 2017, when revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults on women unleashed a tidal wave of pent-up anger and allegations, women the world over became highly attuned to the nuances of sexual power and its abuses by men. Behavior that women had ignored or assumed was acceptable before—from lecherous comments in the workplace to men bypassing strong negative cues during sex—became matters of public concern. The overriding impression—one I criticized at the time—was that men are fundamentally sexual predators, whose brutality must be constantly monitored by relatively passive, vulnerable women.

#MeToo launched a new era of preoccupation with consent, revising the former definition of a simple verbal “yes” or failure to say “no” into a requirement for “enthusiastic consent.” When the comedian Aziz Ansari was revealed to have attempted various sex acts on his date despite what she said was her evident desire for him to stop, he became a case study of how repeated enthusiastic consent had become necessary.

But there is a loophole. In pornified violent sex, the woman is meant to plead for her strangling and slapping and choking—that is, the scenario includes enthusiastic consent as part of the role play. (But in private—at least among the men I have been intimate with—space for enthusiastic consent is hardly guaranteed. One has to veto things loudly.)

Cardi B herself is a #MeToo-er, and has invoked the movement to end sexual harassment. Somehow, #MeToo feminism and the command to “beat it up...I want to gag” have become plausible bedfellows.

How did this come about? The new taste originated in liberating ideas about sex: that female pleasure is just as expansive and important as men’s—perhaps more so. Yet this got mixed with a more regressive notion, that women’s equality means adopting the same callous bedroom behavior shown by some men.

The question of what “equality” looks like in sex has long been a matter of debate, one that intensified under the burgeoning hookup culture and the era of app dominance. Investigative reports have suggested that emotionless sex takes a toll on many young women, and that women are consenting to acts they don’t really want because these suit a male-centric sexual culture.

But women’s complicity in this new brutal sex is not just a bid to catch up with the men. Since Fifty Shades of Grey, violent sex attained glamour, associated with Audis, penthouses and ice-cold white Burgundy. S&M—whips, cuffs, restraints, spanking—was parceled up and marketed as a luxury lifestyle. 

Slapping and choking stopped being the domain of seedy or extreme porn, and began to look consumable—cool, empowered, edgy. For some, bondage is all about the sexy and expensive gear. In April, online retailers reported an 83% surge in searches for such items, particularly handcuffs and whips, compared with the year before. Lockdown-induced boredom and stress are one explanation, but it is also clear that a new set of sexual norms is afoot. 

Feminists have long observed how the market cannibalizes everything from politics to emotion to sex. Contemporary heterosexual casual sex, with its strange mix of political vigilance, emotional control and pornographic flourish, has become a combination of all three—and is sold back to us as such.

The marketing of emotional coldness in sexuality as feminism is not new. In The Commercialization of Intimate Life (2003), the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild noted that relationship experts in the 1980s and 1990s circulated the idea that women should develop “an instrumental detachment,” enabling them to face men as non-needy equals, conversant in the emotional “coolness” required of the self-aware, self-protecting and balanced partner.

One reading of the new painful, aggressive, hostile sex is as an ultimate manifestation of that “instrumental detachment” that began to be packaged in the late 20th century. Presumably, some women also enjoy it. But today, all this means that intimacy must work hard to stay sexy, while sexy has never been further from intimate.

Zoe Strimpel, author of Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single,’ is an academic, journalist and cultural commentator based in London.