Like many young, straight female writers in the early aughts, I had my share of high-heeled boots and pencil skirts, purchased at deep discount, in my closet. My handbag hid away a tube of red lipstick alongside a reporter’s notebook. My bookshelves held worn copies of midcentury essays by Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick. And my calendar could always be rescheduled to accommodate plus-one invitations to book parties, or better yet, celebrations like the quarterly ones The Paris Review hosted in its Tribeca loft offices each time a new issue came out.
Most of the people at these parties had not contributed to whatever printed work was being feted. Such work was the aspiration. And so was a lifestyle that often accompanied it: an open bar of whiskey and wine fueling desired flirtations that might lead to something more.
That something more might have been the excitement of a night spent in someone else’s bed; maybe even a series of nights that might deepen into a romance between two people with similar literary tastes, or tastes that diverged with a thrilling tension. That something more might have been an assignment to write a feature or a book review, or a meeting with an agent, or maybe even a book contract.
This was New York, after all. The New York so many had thirsted for alone in their high school bedrooms, or over kegs of pale beer at similarly pale college parties. This was the New York that McCarthy and so many other had promised us, in all its thorny complications, a New York where sex and discourse and publication were never disentangled, where desire was prismatic, reflecting and refracting the whole self, and the selves so many wished to become.
The women invited to these parties were often on the list for their intelligence, charm and wit, the ability to hold their own in a certain type of conversation. They were also often on the list for how they looked in those pencil skirts. They were what all those men ― some young, some long past young ― had been promised by books that lined their own shelves. Books that we’d read as well. Some of these women had even slept with some of those revered authors, writers who had graduated from such overly lit rooms and open bars swarming with interns and editorial assistants.
Some of those young men ascended to such positions in the literary firmament themselves ― and some women, too, but mainly men. Some of the men found themselves listed this fall on a certain spreadsheet; some didn’t, but belonged there as much as those who did.
Antagoniste Katie Roiphe would sometimes attend these parties with her friends, several of whom we counted in common. This week, in her shrug of a Harper’s essay, some of those “professional women” friends anonymously voiced doubt about how unwanted the sex really was with a number of men named on that infamous spreadsheet, at The Paris Review and in the culture beyond.
That doubt echoed what Roiphe has been saying for 25 years now. While I reject Roiphe’s villainous straw man of Twitter Feminism as an overwhelming force of oppression, the fact is that plenty of women have consented to sleep with plenty of the men on that list, plus many more spreadsheets that my own “professional women” friends could populate.
Whether it was good or bad, their sex was certainly consensual. The conversation about sex and power in the workplace has, until now, largely focused on the question of consent, and rightly so. But I want to shift it elsewhere, to the economics of consent within one’s professional field. I’m talking about cases of true mutual carnal interest, sometimes with mutual deep commitment, whether that desire is for a man of far greater power in a shared field, or just a notch up.
Desire, pleasure, the experience of being wanted by someone you want in turn ― this is often the best this corporeal life offers us. I do not say that cynically; what could be more ecstatic? To be clear: I’m talking about intimacy, not abuse or assault. Not an encounter or a relationship that could warrant a hashtag in its aftermath, but one between two adults who want each other, even if for different reasons, for a night or for life. I’m talking about going to bed with someone in power, or someone who may one day become powerful, because you want to sleep with him. Maybe that power, or its promise, is the allure. Maybe it’s not.
I doubt that we’ll ever disentangle sex from power, any more than we can imagine a world where aesthetics play no role in attraction. Either way, if in our long-overdue effort to hold men accountable for their abuses of power, we begin to police the preferences of women who are attracted to that power, we will have strangled our sexual freedom in the process.
The issue here is not the sex itself. The issue is a marketplace that values women for what they offer with their bodies, and how they flatter men with their bodies, before their minds. Women are a threat or a promise, because of these bodies, because of how they make men feel about themselves. In some cases, that leads to abuse. It also leads to consent. Either path shapes the life of the woman in question. And to never be the woman in question shapes a life as well.
The economics of consent is a vast and unspoken issue, whether attraction is reciprocated or not. Your liaison could close doors to you, via age-old madonna-whore sex shaming, and how men in power spin stories to their own advantage, destroying careers and decimating reputations along the way. But it could also open them, offering you access to people in power you’d only dream of knowing otherwise. Those doors open because of how you have made someone currently or potentially powerful feel about themselves through your desire, through the thrill of flirtation, of sex, of intimacy. Through those doors, the lighting is better, the drinks are better, the deals are better. You’ve been escorted up to the firmament.
I watched some of the brightest minds of my generation develop brilliant careers ― represented by the most powerful literary agents, cashing checks from massive book advances, sought out for their commentary, offered masthead jobs and extraordinary reporting assignments. Many of them deserved it by dint of their own minds and efforts. And, their desires compelled men to hold such doors open for them with a gracious, enthusiastic welcome into the world across the threshold.
And I watched others trace very different career trajectories; women whose bodies were either not on offer in the marketplace of ideas, or whose bodies may not have been the ones powerful men wanted.
This is of course true not just for women, but for anyone seen as being a conquest first and a colleague second. Nor is it true that only men get to be the subject in such objectification. Just look at the art world, where corollaries of these parties exist in neat parallel; it’s populated by many more women of power who desire women, and men looking to launch their careers who are desired by men. Nor is this true just in privileged sectors: Anyone who has ever worked in hospitality can tell you who is most likely to get the best shifts, the best tips, and the quickest promotions.
The world of journalism, dominated by straight white men, is the one I know best. That’s where I’ve been a participant and a witness. But every corner of society knows its own version of this economy, of who gets to pursue pleasure and adventure without feeling like it will shape their futures, their access, their finances, for better or for worse.
Many people don’t even get an opportunity to participate in the economics of consent, of desired sex that comes with career-changing benefits. Bank account-changing benefits, life-changing benefits. Let’s say you’re overweight. Or your tits are too small, or too big. Or you have acne. Or you’re not attracted to the sex that wields power. You’re invisible to the entire system. And thus your gifts, the value you could add to your field, to our world, can be limited simply because you’re not even invited to the party.
These days, the boots have lower heels, the lipstick a sheer gloss, and Roxane Gay’s essays are often nestled beside the new edition of Elizabeth Hardwick’s. I haven’t been to one of those parties in ages. Indeed, some of their most storied hosts no longer attend. Some things have changed. But until we talk about the power of a woman’s true consent to determine her trajectory, and not just what powers attempt to force it, this unequal system of access will be perpetuated. Men rarely have their careers determined by their intimacies, and until women can have the same privilege, our value will continue to be determined by the norms of another century.
Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.