Opinion | Men Fear Me, Society Shames Me, and I Love My Life

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I was once told that the challenge of making successful feminist porn is that the thing women desire most is freedom.

If that’s the case, one might consider my life over the past few years to be extremely pornographic — even without all the actual sex that occurred. It definitely has the makings of a fantasy, if we allowed for fantasies starring single, childless women on the brink of turning 50.

It’s not just in enjoying my age that I’m defying expectations. It’s that I’ve exempted myself from the central things we’re told gives a woman’s life meaning — partnership and parenting. I’ve discovered that despite all the warnings, I regret none of those choices.

Indeed, I am enjoying them immensely. Instead of my prospects diminishing, as nearly every message that gets sent my way promises they will — fewer relationships, less excitement, less sex, less visibility — I find them widening. The world is more available to me than it’s ever been.

Saying so should not be radical in 2024, and yet, somehow it feels that way. We live in a world whose power structures continue to benefit from women staying in place. In fact, we’re currently experiencing the latest backlash against the meager feminist gains of the past half-century. My story — and those of the other women in similar shoes — shows that there are other, fulfilling ways to live.

It is disconcerting to enjoy oneself so much when there is so much to assure you to expect the opposite, just as it is strange to feel so good against a backdrop of so much terribleness in the world. But with age (hopefully) comes clarity.

Fifty is a milestone. And the fact my 50th birthday lands on or around some other significant 50ths has brought some things into focus. Last year was the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This year is the 50th of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which may be less well known but remains significant: It allowed women for the first time to have bank accounts and credit cards in their own name, not needing a male signature.

That my birth date landed between the passing of these two landmark laws makes it easier for me to see that the life I’m living is a result of women having authority over both their bodies and their finances. I represent a cohort of women who lead lives that do not require us to ask permission, nor seek approval. I have availed myself of all the choices available to me, and while the results come with their own set of risks, they have been enormously satisfying.

The timing of my birthday also helps me see the violent rollback of women’s rights happening right now as a response to the independence these legal rights afforded women. Forget about the horror of being alone and middle-aged — there is nothing more terrifying to a patriarchal society than a woman who is free. That she might be having a better time without permission or supervision is downright insufferable.

My entry into middle age certainly had the makings of an unpleasant story.

Like many, I spent the early months of the pandemic by myself. It was the type of solitary confinement that popular science, and certain men with platforms, enjoy reminding us will be the terrible future that awaits a woman who remains single for too long. I went untouched by anyone. Unsmelled, too, which you might think is a strange thing to note, but it’s an even stranger thing to experience. Unseen except by the building exterminator and the remaining doormen of the Upper West Side who gave distant friendly greetings on my evening walks around Covid-empty New York.

Alone, unmarried, childless, past my so-called prime. A caricature, culture would have it, a fringe identity; a tragedy or a punchline, depending on your preference. At the very least a cautionary tale.

By August 2021, I was desperate — not for partnership but for connection. I bought a ticket to Paris, a place where I’d spent much of my free time before the pandemic and where I had a group of friends.

Paris, I reminded myself, prioritizes pleasure. I dove in. Cheese, wine, friendships, sex — and repeat.

At first it was shocking. I was ill prepared to get what I wanted, what it seemed I had summoned. There were moments when I wondered whether I should be ashamed. I had also never felt so free and so fully myself. I felt no shame or guilt, only the thrill that came with the knowledge I was exercising my freedom.

These days, generally speaking, there is little in cinema or literature, let alone the online world, to suggest that when you are a woman alone (forget about a middle-aged woman), things will go your way, as I have often experienced.

There have been better times. In the 1980s, sitcoms were stacked with starring women for whom men were a minor-character concern — “Designing Women,” “Murphy Brown,” “The Golden Girls” — all of which, if they premiered today (and that’s a big if), would feel radical. Later there was Girlfriends. Even “Sex and the City,” with its often regressive marriage plotting, remains surprisingly modern in its depictions of adult friendship and sexual mores. In each case, just as it looked as if these narratives might begin to fully take root in the real world, the women largely went back inside (or into body bags, in the case of many “Law & Order” plotlines). By the early aughts we were housewives again, real and imagined.

I suspect that a lot of this backlash is connected to the terror that men experienced at discovering that they are less necessary to women’s fulfillment than centuries of laws and stories have allowed them to believe. That terror is abundantly apparent today: From Harrison Butker’s commencement speech suggesting that women may find more fulfillment in marriage and children than in having a career, to the Supreme Court once again debating access to abortion to the push to rollback no-fault divorce laws: All are efforts to return women to a place where others can manage their access to … well, just about everything.

It’s in this light that my enjoyment begins to feel radical. Come fly with me. There’s no fear here.

Glynnis MacNicol is a writer, podcast host, and author of the forthcoming memoir “I’m Mostly Here to Enjoy Myself.”

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