Monday, January 18, 2016

Notes Toward a New Liberated Woman

Susan L. Edelman, MD, Be Your Own Brand of Sexy: A New Sexual Revolution for Women

Second-wave feminism has been a mixed bag, we can probably all agree. Sure, it freed women from stultifying Eisenhower-era housewife roles, mandatory motherhood, and terminal niceness. But many women I know feel trapped by relationship and sexual roles as restrictive as what they escaped. Dr. Susan Edelman pitches her ideas for a third-wave remedy to these conditions. I like her premise, but I have distinctly conflicted feelings about her execution.

Edelman, a psychiatrist in private practice, as counseled successful career women as they’ve struggled to reconcile their professional accomplishments with relationship disasters. She’s seen identical problems crop up often enough to recognize patterns. Too many women think that to be truly “liberated,” they must acquiesce to casual sex; or they commit too early; or they accept ill treatment from men. Otherwise successful women just don’t assert their own needs.

Though Edelman notes that patterns women create in work environments often repeat themselves elsewhere in life, her proposed “new sexual revolution” focuses preponderantly on romantic and sexual relationships. “We can redefine ‘sexy’,” she writes, “so that it's not just about the outside. It's about inner strength, self-knowledge, and self-confidence.” Okay, this bromide has the comforting familiarity of an After School Special, but that doesn’t make it less true.

So Edelman’s principles intrigue me. She mixes lightly fictionalized stories from her practice with solid research, psychological insight, and hard-won experience. Some women can safely have casual flings; others can’t. Some women can await the correct man; others need to take a more assertive posture, just to be themselves. In short, Edelman writes, “Real power is knowing what works for you and having the courage to stand up for yourself.”

Dr. Susan L. Edelman
Okay, in theory, most people would agree with Edelman’s maxims. But “knowing what works for you” also means knowing which of Edelman’s applied recommendations actually speak to you. Some of Edelman’s suggestions sound reasonable, like “Turn down what you don’t want with grace and dignity.” But others worry me. Precepts like “Play the field: after you’ve weeded it!” are so broad that, without professional guidance, you’re priming yourself for blowback.

And some suggestions frankly make my skin crawl. At one point, if a guy’s too cheap to pay, Edelman counsels women to “enjoy your conversation, letting the check sit there until he pays it, never offering. You want to give him a chance to impress you.” That sounds less like empowerment, more like duelling passive aggressions. If you don’t communicate clearly from the first date, you probably never will.

So. We’re faced with the common problem with professional psychological treatment, that broad guidelines make perfect sense, but the more specific those guidelines become, the more likely they’ll conflict with our lives. What sounds good in the abstract requires profound self-awareness before we can apply it to ourselves. All self-help is predicated on self-knowledge, which, Edelman repeatedly concedes throughout this book, is pretty rare. How to reconcile this gap?

In one chapter, Edelman resorts to that self-help writer’s favorite Hail Mary, the self-scored quiz. Here we hit something frustrating. As Benedict Carey demonstrates, tests have definite learning value. But when we anticipate our own likely reactions to future situations, Dan Ariely proves, mental and emotional states matter. Our answers while coolly reading at home almost definitely differ from how we’ll respond in the heat of passion, bliss, or anger.

How about taking Edelman’s quiz multiple times, then? Take it calmly, then after something that makes you angry, like watching the opposite party’s primary debates? And again after reading a steamy novel? Changing your psychological state will change your answers. And comparing your different answers once you return to a calm state will tell you what areas of self-knowledge and self-control most require your continuing attention.

Edelman’s final chapter, on planning for what comes next, comes the closest to pushing a message of global self-knowledge. It’s here that Edelman most explicitly demands women better know themselves, not just as women, or sexual beings, or half a relationship, but as human individuals. Here Edelman most directly calls women to complete self-awareness. I only wish this were better distributed throughout the book.

I actually do recommend this book, if you possess self-knowledge enough to evaluate Edelman’s applications. Both the arch-conservative housewife model and the hedonistic “liberated woman” are conformist behavior patterns which women must escape. And men can benefit from reading to better understand the conflicting pressures women face in today’s relationship minefield. I only insist that you take the opportunity to better know your whole self.

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