Panic Over Young Women Having Sex Isn’t New

Reading between the lines.
June 2 2012 12:06 AM

Kill Me Maybe

1975’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar and the never-ending panic over young women and casual sex.

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Rossner must have had a sense of the story’s mythic resonance while reporting her Esquire piece. But when her piece was killed, and she fictionalized it, she had substantially more room to enhance the story. Which she did, in epic fashion.

At the time, Rossner was a divorced, well-praised, and poorly-compensated literary novelist; she worked as a secretary. She described her working conditions for Goodbar as follows: “I had just had a car accident and burned my leg and I was all depressed.” And so, she sat down and wrote the saddest (and most surprisingly well-reviewed ) potboiler imaginable. Although the basics of Quinn’s life—a slight limp caused by childhood polio, being murdered, the fact that she had been to bars—are adhered to, Theresa Dunn stands well apart from Roseann Quinn. First, because Rossner goes out of her way to establish a complex, tormented inner life for Theresa. Second, because her complex and tormented inner life is extremely goofy.

Rossner presents Theresa’s sex life as a process of slow soul death. Because she is shy and self-conscious about her limp, she must therefore have an affair with a married professor, who says things like, “You may write me a special essay for Friday—How I Lost My Virginity. Work from your imagination, if necessary.” Because that professor dumps her, she must stay with her sister, who is a married swinger. Because she has a one-night stand at her sister’s house, she must have others. Because she has one-night stands, she’s revolted when James falls in love with her, and rebels by screwing half of Manhattan.

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Poor guy, Theresa’s boyfriend. He’s saddled with representing both the conservative promise of marriage and the inadequacies of the sensitive liberal man. He’s endlessly understanding, patient, and interested in this “women’s movement” he’s been hearing about; for all these reasons, he’s virulently unsexy. He’s sexually inexperienced; his explanation, that in college he “had a homosexual affair with a Jesuit priest,” remarkably fails to increase his allure. (It’s never mentioned again.) And then, there’s what happens when they do have sex:

[Theresa] touched the base of his penis, slowly began to run her finger up along it but felt something strange which at first she couldn’t—

Oh, Jesus, no!

He was wearing a condom! She’d never even seen one before and it threw her.

Yep: In this novel about the social conditions that create promiscuous women, birth control isn’t one of those conditions. Theresa doesn’t use it, relying on “her deep certainty that she would never become pregnant.” None of the other men in the book insist on it. Her sister has two illegal abortions. Theresa doesn’t approve of those, either.

What does cause Theresa’s moral decline? Rossner provides a litany: divorces, open marriages, hippies (“two males and one female, although it was hard to tell, for they were less sexually differentiated than the homosexuals downstairs”), “the homosexuals downstairs,” singles bars, women’s lib, Theresa’s own self-loathing. Of all the explanations for Theresa’s lifestyle, the explanation Rossner never offers is the simplest one: She does it because she can. It is possible to have sex without getting married or pregnant, so she has casual sex. Because when sexual freedom is an option, people will take it. Even girls.

The reason Roseann Quinn’s death terrified people wasn’t that she was a freak or a hippie. It was that she was steadily employed, modestly dressed, well-liked. She was normal. But she was a new normal—one that, decades later, we’re still trying to deny or scare away.

What is the moral of Little Red Riding Hood’s tale? “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf,” Perrault concluded. They may. But they often don’t. Women go to work, go out, and meet people to have sex with. Complications, we know, ensue. Corpses, usually, do not. The fact that Goodbar still haunts us—it’s been used as an argument against everything from 50 Shades of Grey to Craigslist—may point to a deeper fear than we’re willing to admit. Maybe what scares us isn’t that girls are putting themselves in danger. Maybe what scares us is simply the fact that they’re putting themselves out in the world at all.

There are many absurd things in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. But what’s most absurd is how relevant it still is. It’s valuable simply because—like all good horror stories, and all fairy tales—it boils a common fear down to its bare outline. A young woman has sex. She likes it. Because she likes it, none of the rewards we offer for good behavior—marriage, or children, or love—matter anymore. She goes out into the woods alone and does not heed her mother’s warnings. She finds a monster in her bed. And he eats her up.

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Sady Doyle is a writer and feminist living in New York. She founded Tiger Beatdown, and writes for Rookie, In These Times, and the Internet in general.

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