Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- In the midst of heated political campaigns and real wars abroad, it is noteworthy that two columnists writing for the most consequential newspaper in the world, The New York Times, took a different tack on Sunday and ended up in the same place: A discussion of sexual nihilism and the modern woman. They are on to something.
Maureen Dowd's column, titled "She's Fit to Be Tied," looks at E.L James's "Fifty Shades of Grey," a trilogy of erotic, bondage-themed fiction. Dowd expressed surprise over the popularity of the books in which a 21-year-old innocent girl becomes a sexual "submissive" of a rich, powerful 27-year-old businessman.
While we're steeped in a so-called "war on women," Dowd wonders "why women are thronging to the story of an innocent who jumps into the arms of a Seattle sadist with a 'Red Room of Pain' full of chains, clamps, whips, canes, flogs and cuffs, falling in love to the soundtrack of the Police's 'King of Pain.'"
Dowd cites the remarkable success of the trilogy among Generation X women -- the contemporaries, allies and beneficiaries of the modern feminist movement. And yet, the narrative flies in the face of women's progress. For example, a contract that the girl signs with the man stipulates that "the Dominant may flog, spank, whip or corporally punish the Submissive as he sees fit, for purposes of discipline, for his own personal enjoyment or for any other reason, which he is not obliged to provide." If this is progress for women, what would regression look like?
Dowd's colleague, Frank Bruni, reflected on a similar subject in his column, "The Bleaker Sex," on Lena Dunham's new HBO series "Girls." In this unglamorous, dull version of "Sex in the City," Dunham stars as a contemporary, twenty-something woman playing second fiddle to the bizarre, dominating sexual fantasies of her boyfriend. Her first sex scene opens with her back to her boyfriend, inertly and joylessly submitting to his commands.
Bruni recoils at the idea of this. He writes, "You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of 'Girls' engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?"
Bruni goes on to grapple with Dunham's loveless sex scenes and wonders whether today's onslaught of pornography and easy sex has desensitized men to the point where they view women, to recall the words of an earlier day, only as objects. Even the act of sex itself is boring to some men unless it is ratcheted up in some strange, deviant fashion -- all at the expense of the thoroughly humiliated and debased woman.
In the act of degrading women, men are also degrading themselves. And the voyeurism, inspired by such entertainment, debases men and women even more. This is a parlous, dreadful outcome for both sexes. (As I have written previously, men in our time, particularly young men, are having trouble in many ways.)
As Bruni asked: Is this what feminism fought for? In the 1970s we were told to respect women, treat them as more than sexual objects and treat their humanity the same as ours. Is any of this still true today?
The insightful Hanna Rosin, author of the forthcoming book, "The End of Men," wrote in The Wall Street Journal recently, "Studies do indeed show that women are no more happy than they were in the 1970s." Wharton School economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers confirmed this in a 2009 study that argues women's happiness appeared to be in decline despite advances in education and the workforce. Well, how could women be happy with what is described in "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Girls"?
Take note that this disheartening and dismal tableau of modern liberated sex comes not from pro-family conservatives, who have been condemning this turn in our culture for some time, but from two stars of the liberal commentariat. Dowd and Bruni leave us wondering the same thing Peggy Lee did a generation ago in her song, "Is That All There Is?" Is there no alternative to the "Red Room of Pain" and Dunham's demoralizing sexual encounters?
Yes, there is. Consider one of the most well regarded writers of the Victorian era, Mary Ann Evans, better known to us by her pen name, George Eliot. In her novel, "Daniel Deronda," she says of love, "For what is love itself, for the one we love best? -- an enfolding of immeasurable cares which yet are better than any joys outside our love." In an enfoldment of immeasurable cares in a real and true love, there is immeasurable intimacy too, including a richly satisfying sexual intimacy that finds no equal or parallel in a callous and casual hookup culture.
It is worth pointing out that this desideratum -- deep sexual satisfaction -- is found most often, as has been empirically verified over and over again, in what is often called, derisively, traditional marriage.
Given the possibilities and fantasies presented in "Fifty Shades of Grey" or "Girls," some of which have been so graphically laid out and laid bare in our oversaturated TV and Internet culture, can it not be argued that what Eliot described is the option most worth considering again, at least once everything else has been tried and found so painfully wanting?
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.