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.

"Looking for Mr. Goodbar" Richard Gere, Diane Keaton
A still from the film adaptation of Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

© 1977 Paramount

Your level of enjoyment, when it comes to Judith Rossner’s 1975 best-seller Looking for Mr. Goodbar, may very well depend on whether you’re willing to read an entire book for the sake of being sarcastic. I bought it from a used bookstore when I was in my mid-20s. I had heard that it was about a desperate single woman in New York. I was young; I was hip; I was a woman in New York. I bought the book as a defiant feminist gesture, a statement on all I would never be.

Then I read it. Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a book about misery—a claustrophobic, paranoid misery that seeps into you. It made me feel spooked by my own psyche, like a campfire tale that reveals the Hook Hand Killer was never found because he’s … right … here

But before we get there, let us pause, and appreciate the charm of the jacket copy that pulled me in, and the specific female despair it delineates: “Judith Rossner writes with haunting intensity of the temptations and problems of a young woman of today alone in a big city where there are opportunities for a different kind of life—a life that relieves the boredom of work or dispels the chill of solitude, a life”—wait for it—“where you can have sex with strangers.”

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The plot of Goodbar is probably familiar to many readers, either from the book itself or from its 1977 film adaptation. A young woman named Theresa Dunn lives a double life. By day, she’s a clean-living schoolteacher, in a serious relationship with a kind but unexciting lawyer named James. By night, she frequents singles bars, where she wantonly tempts men into bed, with working-class sexual dynamo Tony her most common hook-up. A grisly fate, of course, awaits, as we’ve known from the beginning. Theresa rejects Tony for slapping her, rejects James for proposing to her, then takes home a drifter, who bashes her head in and rapes her corpse. Pleasant dreams!

Just because it’s no longer 1975 doesn’t mean that the temptations and problems of a young woman alone in a big city—especially the problems of who she’s having sex with and how—don’t still take up quite a lot of cultural space. And to some, it’s still a horror story.

Consider the reaction to HBO’s Girls, which features several young women of today alone in the big city. In its premiere, protagonist Hannah submits to cheesy dirty talk and doggie-style sex with an inconsiderate woodworker. “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” Frank Bruni moaned in the pages of the New York Times. Or look to Rush Limbaugh’s reaction to Sandra Fluke, who attempted to testify before a congressional committee about the health benefits of the pill. You recall that Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” but do you remember he also described her with language—“She wants all the sex in the world whenever she wants it, all the time, no consequences”—you could imagine Theresa Dunn’s neighbors using?

Bruni argues that young women are forcing themselves to have too much casual sex, and making themselves miserable. Limbaugh argues that women are gleefully having too much casual sex, and making everyone else miserable. But the basic story they’re telling is surprisingly similar: Young women plus sex equals excess, and excess equals misery. Something is out of joint with the girls today; they’ve gotten out of control, and it has to end badly. But this fear has been with us since before the sexual revolution. Maybe since the seduction novel, in which sheltered girls were invariably impregnated and left to die by handsome rakes. Or since Anna Karenina taught us that sexual awakening was the first step to being crushed by a train. Or maybe it’s older still: Maybe it’s been with us ever since we started warning little girls to be careful when they go through the woods alone, don’t talk to wolves on the road, don’t get into bed with anything they don’t recognize, because it might have teeth.

Of course, Goodbar is, itself, a copy of an earlier story; it fits the framework of moral panic because it’s based on one. Rossner began the novel as a reported piece for Esquire on the 1973 death of Roseann Quinn.

Quinn was 28. She lived alone in Manhattan, near a bar named W.M. Tweedy’s. After work, she would often go to a bar and read. When she didn’t come in to work, a friend went to her apartment and found her body. She had been beaten, and stabbed 18 times, and a candle had been inserted into her vagina. She had picked up the killer, John Wayne Wilson, at a bar.

The story was a media sensation, dominating headlines for weeks. Feminist Susan Brownmiller decried the heated, sexualized coverage. Much of the public discussion centered on Quinn’s private life. Wilson wasn’t the first man she’d brought home! Neighbors had heard fighting in her apartment before! Was this rough sex gone wrong? Was she suicidal? Had she wanted all the sex in the world with no consequences? Was she what Gloria Steinem was going to the barricades for? The answer was never only about Quinn. The day after her body was found, the Daily News ran the headline “Once more, bachelor girls ask: Who's Next?” From Roseann Quinn to “bachelor girls,” from one woman’s death to a warning about single womanhood: It only took one day.

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