The long read: While promising liberation and endless possibility, the culture of the decade drove us relentlessly in pursuit of perfection
I have been at that door so many times. The one you walk through into his apartment, or let him through into yours, and something shifts. Its as quick as the click when the optometrist slides a new lens into the eye-test machine: a clear, almost weightless little sliver of a thing, but with the power to make the world resolve into clarity or blur out, leaving you nauseous and unbalanced.
Once, it was the door to the celebrated journalists apartment that I stumbled through, aged 21. Id taken a train to New York to meet him for career advice and, unexpectedly, he had suggested we meet at a bar, then bought me several martinis. But then again, I drank them. Whose fault was the sex that ensued? And then there was the door to an AirBnB I rented in Uruguay in 2014, with a pushy local journalist I had just met trailing behind me. As I fumbled with my keys, I remember thinking: how did I get here?
Me too. Isnt that frightening? That almost every woman today can say these words? Finally, we are having a conversation about the sexual harassment and the sexual encounters that have left us feeling damaged. And yet theres a kind of uncertainty still hovering around the unfolding conversation something still tucked into the shadows. Some people have said women are being inconsistent, re-remembering encounters they hadnt had a problem with at the time. Others wonder why women particularly young women are feeling so fragile, acting as if they have been terribly wounded by something as apparently minor as a leer.
Complaints about boorish behaviour or lame one-night stands, this critique goes, have the potential not only to delegitimise real accusations of rape, but #MeToos whole message. When a writer recently accused the novelist Junot Daz of forcibly kissing her (which he denied) and other women came forward to say Daz had acted aggressively towards them in public, a friend of mine in her 40s a feminist who writes with empathy about women who kill their abusive partners worried that Diaz was being pilloried for assholery, not legally actionable crimes. Just after saying that, though, this friend began to recount her own first kiss. The boy had shoved her hard up against a fence. She started to laugh, as if to pass it off as a wacky youthful memory, like a zit popping during a job interview. But it was clear something in her still wanted to cry.
The problem is, its this ill-defined area between assholery and attempted rape that troubles many women. This is hard to talk about, and increasingly so, as we perceive the damage that just remembering can apparently wreak. When I asked if it was the right time to write about my experience with the New York journalist, another male writer said to me, Hell, no!, telling me that careers are being ruined. But I dont want to ruin anybodys career.
We are having these conversations at last, but we are not talking much about the historical context. I think this is the key to understanding how women are feeling now. For me, born in 1983, the context was the 90s a peculiar era, caught between the confidence that there had been fabulous progress in the relationship between the sexes, and the smouldering remnants of a past in which bold women were feared and ridiculed.
In the 1990s, the pressure on young people to succeed was intense. Womens bodies and their sexual choices became the focus of ever-harsher scrutiny, and the expectation was that they would be perfect.
I remember leaving my childhood home for college in 2001. Among the items I packed were a pair of what everybody then was calling fuck-me boots: knee-high black leather boots with a four-inch heel. Like my textbooks, I felt the fuck-me boots were preparing me for adulthood for a decisive step out of the self-doubt of my teens. It wasnt that I associated adulthood with fucking. It was more that I was determined to become the kind of woman who was fuckable in just the right way. I still remember the look I gave myself in the mirror Id pasted on the back of my dorm-room door the first night I put the boots on, to wear to a frat party, along with a slash of lipstick in berry pink. It was a look of wonder and hope: it felt like a magic mirror, and with those boots on I could stare myself into what I wanted to become.
The hopes of the end of the millennium were the mirror in which I saw myself. But the young woman there was only a picture. In flesh and blood, by the time I became a woman, I had already been singed by those smouldering embers of the past. And thus, I entered adulthood as two people: the image my era wanted me to be, and the other woman, the hidden one, the one with a body.
Its 1993. Im almost 10. In apartments across the US, Madonnas new book, Sex, graces coffee tables, the cover depicting her in the throes of an orgasm. My family has just moved from the city to a house in the suburbs. My parents gave me the child the master bedroom. It had a wall-length closet covered in mirrored doors. I woke up every day staring at myself.
It was a narcissistic decade, but it was a strange narcissism, premised on the idea we could remake ourselves any way we liked, virtually from scratch. People came home from vacations in Germany with pieces of the Berlin Wall; the feeling was not that theyd got a memento of German reunification, but a piece of the ultimate wall, some figurative wall whose crumbling represented the tumbling-down of a whole world. My father, a former Reagan administration official, filled up our house with kitsch he found on trips to Moscow. Muddling around for the house keys, Id touch medallions of Stalin and Lenin in the bowl in the hall.
The message I got from these objects was that enmity, conflict, maybe even pain all the kinds of things my parents told me theyd had to fear as kids in the early 60s, when their schoolteachers made them hide under their desks in case of a Soviet nuke were all some kind of big joke. We could keep Stalin in our house as an amusement, like those 19th-century Europeans who displayed the shrunken heads of conquered Polynesian tribes.
Unmanageable male lust was one of those things we hoped would become a kind of relic that we didnt take all that seriously. Men in that decades pop culture tended to be harmless think the goofs of Seinfeld and Friends. One of the bestselling American books of the early 90s, You Just Dont Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, reassured readers that resolving miscommunications between the sexes was actually easy, if we just understood how to do it. Solutions were big then. A couples therapist named Harville Hendrix sold hundreds of thousands of copies of a guide called Getting the Love You Want, which unravelled the mystery of romantic attraction and answered humanitys yearning in just 384 pages.
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