Science Isn't Golden

Matters of the mind and heart

Sex and the Myth of Women’s Masochism

Helen Gurley Brown: More than sex and the single girl

Back in 1985, what I knew about Helen Gurley Brown was that she had written the daring book, Sex and the Single Girl, and helmed Cosmopolitan magazine, which featured seductively-dressed women and headlines about advice about sex on its covers. Scheduled for publication that year was my book, The Myth of Women’s Masochism, which was about the fact that women were often described as enjoying suffering and bringing it on themselves, when in fact that was an absurd and misogynist claim. I also explained that the entire concept of masochism, of enjoyment from pain, was absurd, because pain is by definition not pleasurable, and to claim that it is, is to attribute bizarre feelings to people. Women were especially likely to be described as masochists, because they had (still have) been more likely than men to be taught to put other people’s needs ahead of their own, they were discriminated against in the workforce and thus were often underpaid and denied deserved promotions, and they were more likely than men to be battered by their partners. Describing them as masochistic, as presumably bringing suffering on themselves and actually enjoying it, needing it, was a dangerous way to mask these various forms of bias and oppression, to engage in victim-blaming.

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I knew that book publishers asked magazine editors if they wanted to publish book excerpts right around the time of a book’s publication, but I was stunned to learn that Cosmopolitan was going to publish an excerpt of The Myth of Women’s Masochism. My heart was in my mouth. I was terrified that they would somehow choose bits from the book and present them in a distorted way to make it look like women enjoyed suffering, especially in sexual situations. When that issue of the magazine arrived, I turned to the excerpt from my book, fearing the worst. But I need not have worried. The portions of the book had been chosen to represent accurately my main points, and they had been seamlessly combined. I was delighted.

I stopped and considered how to put that together with what I had already known about Helen Gurley Brown. The Second Wave of the Women’s Movement had brought women a strange combination of liberation and disturbing pressures with regard to sex. On the one hand was the principle— advocated by Helen Gurley Brown, among others—that women should be as free as men to enjoy sex, and those who did so ought not to be demeaned as a result. On the other hand, the advent of more available forms of birth control combined with such advocacy to result in greater pressures on women and even very young women: “You won’t get pregnant, and you’re supposed to be free to enjoy sex, so you have absolutely no reason to refuse,” came the argument from many men. I remember many discussions about this combination of factors during the 1970s and 1980s.

In the 1990s, when my children were in their early teens, I remember hearing that a girl they knew, who was probably 13 or 14 at the time, refused to let a particular boy (whom she liked) kiss her, because “She wasn’t ready.” I stopped in my tracks. She wasn’t ready. I could not recall from all those discussions during the earlier decades ever hearing such a simple and eloquent statement of a woman’s or girl’s right to make a decision about sex that was based solely on how she felt.

When in 1985 I heard that Helen Gurley Brown had decided to publish excerpts from my book, I thought about how to put that together with what had made her most famous, and it suggested to me that she understood the importance of combining her advocacy about women and sexual freedom with the necessity of showing respect to women and taking care not to pathologize them, not to attribute weird feelings to them in order to cover up the misogyny in the world.

I phoned the offices of Cosmopolitan and asked to speak with Ms. Brown. Her assistant sounded guarded, asking me why I was calling. No doubt, she got many phone calls from people who were upset about what the magazine published. I said that my book had just been excerpted in the magazine and that I wanted to express my appreciation. She put the call right through. I told Ms. Brown that I was thrilled by the portions they had chosen to publish and by the way they had beautifully put them together and that I thought it was wonderful that, combined with advocating for women’s sexual freedom, she considered it important to insist that women be respected and that the societal sources of women’s suffering be recognized. Her response was gracious.

Helen Gurley Brown took huge risks to help women achieve sexual liberation, and whether or not one agreed with everything she did, it is important to acknowledge her courage.

As for the myth that women suffer because they enjoy pain and misery, I wish that Helen Gurley Brown had lived to see that myth disappear.

©Copyright 2012 by Paula J. Caplan                    

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Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an Associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former Fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program. more...

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