If statistics can accurately measure happiness, there’s a convincing case to be made that American women are increasingly unhappy. A new book out this month makes just that case, using social-science data to argue that women in the U.S. are dissatisfied with their lives and their options, trapped and limited by the very fact that they are female.
The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, written by columnist and attorney Jill Filipovic, is a roadmap for anyone who wants to understand modern feminism, valuable for its insight into both the inherent selfishness of the feminist agenda and the profound role that feminists want government to play in securing their happiness.
She’s correct that these problems are significant and demand a national conversation, but her explanation for their existence is based on fundamentally flawed premises about government, freedom, and happiness. As a result, her remedies are largely useless, except as a means of understanding why modern feminism can never provide effective answers to this crisis.
The crux of the book’s deficiency is twofold. First, Filipovic incorrectly defines happiness as pleasure, found in pursuing and abandoning in turn the various desires one feels at any given moment — in short, near-complete autonomy. The book’s obsessive focus on sexual fulfillment reveals that Filipovic believes women’s most complete happiness is found in the pursuit and attainment of consequence-free sex.
This mistaken thesis is evident early on, when Filipovic insists that the unhappiness of American women is caused by the very structure of the U.S. government, which was built to make men happy at the expense of women. As she puts it, the Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness” is a “political promise” made only to white men.
Instead of the structurally unsound Declaration and Constitution, then, she proposes a “pleasure-centered policy landscape,” and though she attempts to pass this off as more than a campaign for unlimited irresponsible sex, the rest of the book betrays her efforts. The goal of public policy should be about “enabling and promoting the pleasurable experiences of women,” she writes in the introduction. And in her conclusion she reiterates the notion: “Supporting healthy, pleasurable sex lives should be a public policy goal.”
Rather than examining the underlying causes of unhappiness, Filipovic repeatedly turns to the government, chronicling the stories of women whose pleasure hasn’t been sufficiently enabled by Uncle Sam. Take, for example, single motherhood, which she rightly laments as placing untold pressure on rising numbers of women. But she scoffs at the value of stable families and permanent marriages, instead suggesting that the government fill in the financial gaps created by the disintegration of the American family, as if federal money could ever compensate for the loneliness and pain that sexual autonomy often brings about.
In nearly every chapter, abortion appears as a simple escape for women with pregnancies “that just couldn’t be.” Though Filipovic is passionate about the entire feminist movement, its crowning jewel in her eyes is the government-sanctioned right to abortion on demand, without which women would be hopelessly lost, trapped, incapable of reaching true happiness.
Again and again, she depicts abortion as an absolutely necessary choice that gives women the right “to decide for themselves whether to bring life into the world or not.” Completely disregarded is the basic biological fact that in every abortion, life has already been brought into the world, and that life is mercilessly ended.
The idea that abortion is a rejection of responsibility, she says, “only works if you think sex for pleasure and pleasure alone is by definition irresponsible.” This is the heart of pro-abortion feminism: that the taking of an innocent life isn’t irresponsible if it facilitates individual pleasure. And in this view, the government exists to protect the right to unrestricted pleasure, rather than the right to life.
Feminists have achieved most of their policy goals, but the results don’t appear as rosy as they hoped.
Though much of the book is confused and confusing, it has one clear fatal flaw. Filipovic never once considers that perhaps the pain she depicts has in fact been caused by sexual autonomy, spiraling out of control in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, when feminists made consequence-free pleasure the pinnacle of their quest. It’s impossible to deny that they’ve achieved most of their policy goals, but the results don’t appear as rosy as they hoped, and the answer, according to Filipovic, is not to question the value of autonomy but to demand more.
The result is a culture of “me,” ignoring that real happiness isn’t found in pursuit of self but in pursuit of the good of others. Filipovic casually dismisses as misogynistic both the value of sacrifice and the eudaimonic tradition, a Greek school of thought that understood happiness as authentic human flourishing, found by pursuing virtue in accord with human nature.
In contrast to this conception, pleasure is always fleeting and sends us scurrying from one diversion to the next as momentary gratification fades, distracting us from the fact that the constant chase leaves us unfulfilled. Flourishing requires accountability for our choices, as well as accepting that suffering is unavoidable and can lead to growth in character and in the ability to love.
Despite the many flaws in her book, Filipovic must be praised for her honesty. That openness makes her entirely unlike her allies, who rarely are sincere enough to acknowledge that consequence-free sex is their true goal, instead hiding their true purpose in empty rhetoric about choice and misogyny. Until modern feminists acknowledge that Filipovic has written today’s fullest testament to their cause, our debates over policy and culture will be obscured.
– Alexandra DeSanctis is a National Review Institute William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.