Books · Media · Women

Forget Hugh Hefner: Helen Gurley Brown and Erica Jong Were the Real Feminist Sexual Revolutionaries

Or, Whatever Happened to the Cosmo Girl and the Zipless F*ck?

Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.

What you have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.

You can have your titular recognition. I’ll take money and power.

One of the paramount reasons for staying attractive is so you can have somebody to go to bed with.

Helen Gurley Brown

The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving”. No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)

I’ve been sickened by the response to Playboy Hugh Hefner’s death this week. He’s been hailed as a feminist, a liberator of women, a liberal icon. The man was none of those things. He exploited, drugged, abused, raped, manipulated, degraded, and publicly humiliated women, and much more. If anything, the embrace of Hefner’s “philosophy” of treating women as objects and prostitutes set the women’s movement back. He was anything but sex positive for women. Hefner controlled the women in his orbit with little concern for their health or well-being, much less their sexual pleasure.

There is nothing in the Playboy lifestyle that encourages a woman to be herself, learn about her own sexuality, take control of her own sex life, and seek out her own sexual pleasure. For that, we have to look to the female authors of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, starting with Helen Gurley Brown and her book Sex and the Single Girl. Her work and other sources from the mid 20th century might seem dated or misogynist to us now, but they were important steps in the context of their era.

Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962, a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It was the beginning of the Sexual Revolution, when the introduction of the Pill and other reliable methods of birth control had suddenly given women the opportunity to wait until they were older to get married.* Women now had several, sometimes many, years as a single adult to go to college, work, live on their own away from their parents, and enjoy a youthful lifestyle that wasn’t centered around taking care of others.

This was something entirely new. Playboy was most certainly not a guide for these young women. Betty Friedan’s book was aimed at older adult women, the ones who were already trapped in the role of housewives and caregivers. It was Sex and the Single Girl, and later Cosmopolitan magazine, that served as the guides to creating a vibrant single lifestyle that didn’t revolve around the man in a woman’s life.

Helen Gurley Brown gave young women permission to put themselves, their careers, and their own sexual desires first, and to put off marriage and caregiving for as long as they wanted. What is the role of women in Hugh Hefner’s world, if not another form of caregiver, this time as the ever-enthusiastic and willing sexual partner who fulfills the man’s every need with no thought to her own? That’s not Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmo Girl, who takes care of herself and doesn’t depend on men. She loves to date men and look great when she goes out, but they don’t control or own her. This subtle difference gets missed a lot.

Helen Gurley Brown was one of the single girls she wrote about. She came from an impoverished childhood, went to business school, and worked her way to the top, taking over Cosmopolitan in 1965, when she was 43. She had married her husband, producer David Brown, in 1959 at the age of 37. They stayed married until his death in 2010 at the age of 93. She had no children, preferring to live her single girl lifestyle forever. She ran Cosmopolitan until she was “gently” forced out in 1997, then moved on to editing the international editions until her death in 2012 at age 90. Like many an icon, she failed to change with the times, but that doesn’t negate the significance of her achievements.

I was a child and young woman during the height of the Sexual Revolution, the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Video pornography simply wasn’t available to us in the way it is now. VCRs weren’t widely used in homes until the mid80s, and, even then, you’d have to buy porn tapes out in public in order to watch them at home. Pay Per View wasn’t available until the late 80s. The only video option before the mid80s was to go to an Xrated theatre to watch porn, filled with men masturbating to the movies. Not something women typically did, especially young women.

We were left with magazines and books to teach us about sex and the human body. Porn magazines were almost exclusively aimed at men, with the exception of Playgirl. Most of our mothers didn’t read Playgirl, so it wasn’t particularly available to any teenagers I knew.

What was available were books. Libraries carry books. Paperback books were cheap and readily available to buy anywhere from the drugstore to one of the bookstores that still existed in those days, no ID required. In 1966, the US Supreme Court ruled that “to be declared obscene a work of literature had to be proven by censors to: 1) appeal to prurient interest, 2) be patently offensive, and 3) have no redeeming social value.”** Almost any novel or supposedly educational book can be deemed to have some redeeming social value, so this opened the door for erotic literature and sex manuals to become mainstream.

Starting in junior high, when I became interested in such things, my mother’s and older sister’s books and magazines were available to me, and I could use my babysitting money and library card to get more. Most of the magazines aimed at women were still meant to help make you a better housewife, even in the 70s and 80s. Teen magazines talked about hair, makeup, clothes, and boys in superficial ways. Cosmo was the place to go to get real, grown up information in magazine form.

You can look at those old, sexy cover photos as sexist, or you can remind yourself that only a few years earlier, women who dressed like that would be seen as prostitutes and shunned by respectable society. All of the gossips would decree that they would never be able to marry a decent man. Now, we could aspire to the sexy, bad girl look at night, still go to work in the office the next day, and have our white wedding in a few years, if we wanted one.

The books that were available ranged from the educational and pseudo educational, like Our Bodies Ourselves, The Joy of Sex, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask, to Romance Novels and Erotica. The tone and content of women’s novels has always changed with the times, and it did in this era as well.

Romance novels included the heroines’ lovemaking, as well as their romantic moments. Women’s sexual fantasies were spelled out on the page from the woman’s point of view, from the first meeting with her soulmate, to their first sexual encounter, to the happily ever after, with several more sexual encounters typically graphically described along the way. You can bet the sex was satisfying for her. It was often even initiated by her (unheard of in those days), which was enthusiastically welcomed by her man.

The women in modern romance novels always have a purpose in life, a goal beyond finding a man, whether it’s solving a mystery, saving the family home or business, or running their own corporate empire. The love interest comes into her life as she is pursuing her goals and living her own life, even if that pursuit involves her entering his world, as in the case of a mail order bride. After she meets the man, the story continues to be her story, even as it becomes their story. Where else does that consistently happen for women, even today?

In other words, romance novel heroines are Cosmo Girls. Which leads us to Erica Jong, Fear of Flying, and the Zipless F*ck. Helen Gurley Brown opened up sex and the work world for single young women. Betty Friedan let married women out of the kitchen and into the work world. It was Erica Jong who gave them their sexual freedom, and let them take part in the sexual revolution as well.

Fear of Flying, an erotic novel published in 1973, tells the story of Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, an American poet on a trip to Vienna. She’s in an unfulfilling second marriage, suffocating under the strict expectations women were still under at the time.*** Isadora tells her story in the first person, contemplating her life, trying to make sense of it and find a way to move forward that won’t ultimately bring her back to the exact same place. This involves sex, thinking about sex, graphic depictions of sex, and frank talk about relationships between men and women in general. It was shocking and bold language in 1973.

Isadora is obsessed with her idea of the Zipless F*ck, sex that is pure pleasure with no strings attached, something that had previously only been allowed for men. Even her restlessness and lack of sexual satisfaction within her marriage was something that was normally never admitted publicly. The idea that these feelings might be commonly felt by other women energized the women’s movement, and probably helped feed the rapidly growing divorce rate of the 70s, as well. Women were no longer willing to pretend that they were satisfied with their dull lives. Betty Friedan and Erica Jong had given them permission to leave home, get jobs, and find men who would be more satisfying partners.

As a teenager, reading Fear of Flying and the books that preceded and followed it, I was told that I could have my own sexual needs and desires, and my own sexual agency. I didn’t need to wait for a man to figure out how to please me, if he felt like it. I didn’t have to “lay back and think of England,” as a passive nonparticipant in the experience. It also gave me some starter knowledge about the male anatomy and what men like, from a female-positive point of view, rather than the negative porn environment many women seem to learn from today.

As with the work of Helen Gurley Brown, Fear of Flying is based in the attitudes of its time, and needs to be read with a sense of context and history. But, there are many timeless ideas to be found within, that still resonate today, and its impact on women in the 70s and 80s was far more important and positive than the impact of Hugh Hefner and Playboy.

 


From the Penguin Book Club Reading Guide, interview questions with Erica Jong:

You went on to write two more books about Isadora Wing. What makes a character someone you want to revisit?

Jong: Isadora became an icon for women searching for freedom. I wanted to show how she dealt with motherhood, divorce, addiction, new relationships. Because she was so important to so many readers, I felt her story had to go on.

Some readers think Isadora has a casual approach to marriage. How does her marriage reflect your own views?

Jong: The generation that came of age in the sixties married too young and without much of an idea of the burdens of marriage. Then we discovered how tough marriage is, how much compromise is required. Often we divorced our first spouses. Now our kids, who often grew up with divorced parents, are more realistic about marriage, more cautious about commitments. In general, that’s a good thing. They see marriage more realistically than we did. I think their chances of successful marriages are greater than ours were.

Did it bother you that Fear of Flying was seen by some as a scandalous book?

Jong: Initially I was troubled by some people’s emphasis on sex in the novel. I never thought it was a book about sex. I thought it was a book about freedom. As time went on I came to see that Isadora’s fierce honesty about her sexual feelings had so impacted readers that conservatives felt they had to denounce herand me. There’s less fornication in the book than there is fantasy. Perhaps it’s as threatening to have a woman talk and think freely about sex as to actually do it. At any rate, Isadora’s openness did change the way both women and men thought, talked, and wrote about sex.

You said somewhere that when you were writing Fear of Flying, you thought of killing off Isadora but were determined that she not die for her sins. Why?

Jong: So many novelsAnna Karenina and Madame Bovary are but two examplespunish female sexuality with death. I found myself fantasizing that Isadora’s answer to her dilemma would be suicide. I think I was influenced by the cultural archetype in which women die for sexual passion. But then I realized I had to transform that archetype. I thought it was important to grant women the possibility of passion without draconian punishment. Not that passion is easy or without conflict. But death seems an excessive punishment.

Women seem much freer today than they were in 1973. Why do you think Isadora’s dilemmas still have relevance?

Jong: We are still in the midst of an unfinished revolution. Outwardly women seem to have more freedom but it is still difficult to combine love and work, still difficult to find happiness with the opposite sex, still difficult to find emotional freedom. Isadora poses questions that women still pose to themselves. Women still feel that they need a man to verify their identity. Many things have changed in society but women are still conflicted about achieving fulfillment.

What do people ask you most about Fear of Flying?

Jong: People always ask how I got the guts to write such an intimate book. I don’t really know the answer. I was driven to write it. I wanted to document all the things that go on in a woman’s mind. I wanted to get the female psyche down on paper. And I must because the most frequent comment I get about the book is: You read my mind.

What is the harshest criticism you have received?

Jong: The harshest criticism has always been that Isadora is self-absorbed. I think our culture says that women who wonder about their own fulfillment aren’t doing what women should dowhich is take care of everyone else. We don’t seem to criticize male protagonists for probing their own psyches. But women are held to a different standard. We are supposed to be caregivers both emotionally and psychically. It’s very hard to break out of that mindset. But how can women become important writers if they are thought to be unfeminine when they look into the female mind?

 

 

*Between 1960 and 2010, the median age at which women first marry has risen from 20.3 years old to 26.5, according to Pew Research Center.

**Wikipedia.org, Memoirs V. Massachussetts

***And still affect us now. Take care of everyone in your life, work at a fabulous job that makes lots of money, have interesting hobbies, and always look good while doing it. Women of the 60s and 70s actually had fewer expectations placed on them, but the rules were more strictly enforced.

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