How Feminism Got Drunk and Hooked Up With a Loser

March 1, 2010

Rachel Simmons set the under-40 femosphere back on its heels last week with a column on her blog:

Is Hooking Up Good For Girls? (click here)

Ms. Simmons is an interesting hybrid – she is the advice columnist for Teen Vogue, but she is also a scholar (Rhodes) on the subject of female aggression and has strong feminist cred. In her post she expressed strong concern about the way young women are experiencing mating norms, especially in college. She relies heavily on Kathleen Bogle’s book Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus, just as I did when I decided to begin blogging about relationships in the Hookup Era. From her post (emphasis mine):

“As a relationship advice columnist for Teen Vogue, I get a lot of mail from girls in “no strings attached” relationships. The girls describe themselves as “kind of” with a guy, “sort of” seeing him, or “hanging out” with him. The guy may be noncommittal, or worse, in another no-strings relationship. In the meantime, the girls have “fallen” for him or plead with me for advice on how to make him come around and be a real boyfriend.

…So what’s the deal here? Is a world in which guys rule the result of the so-called man shortage on campus? Fat chance. More likely, we’re enjoying some unintended spoils of the sexual revolution. As authors like Ariel Levy and Jean Kilbourne and Diane Levin have shown, the sexualization of girls and young women has been repackaged as girl power. Sexual freedom was supposed to be good for women, but somewhere along the way, the right to be responsible for your own orgasm became the privilege of being responsible for someone else’s.

…Does that make me a right-winger? Can I still be a feminist and say that I’m against this brand of sexual freedom? I fear feminism has been backed into a corner here. What, and who, are we losing to the new sexual freedom? Is this progress? Or did feminism get really drunk, go home with the wrong person, wake up in a strange bed and gasp, “Oh, God?”

…These letters worry me. They signify a growing trend in girls’ sexual lives where they are giving themselves to guys on guys’ terms. They hook up first and ask later. The girls are expected to “be cool” about not formalizing the relationship. They repress their needs and feelings in order to maintain the connection. And they’re letting guys call the shots about when it gets serious.”

I cannot overemphasize how significant a development this is. Not only because Ms. Simmons has stepped on the third rail of female empowerment, but because the feminist response to her, while mostly negative, is far more thoughtful and measured than it would have been just a year ago. I’ve tussled with sex-positive feminists before, most notably in these posts:

Why Do Feminists Find Abstinence Intolerable?

Have Women Been Screwed By the Sexual Revolution?

Can Hooking Up Empower You?

In fact, it was exactly a year ago that Jessica Valenti of claimed that hookup culture doesn’t even exist: Speechifying: So-called hook up culture and the anti-feminists who love it:

I actually don’t believe that hook [sic] culture exists. What I do think is cause for worry is the way that conservative and anti-women organizations, writers, and media makers are using this myth of a hook up culture to promote regressive values surrounding gender and to roll back women’s rights.

And in August, 2008, after Donna Frietas’ book Sex and the Soul was published, Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon wrote In Defense of Casual Sex:

Perhaps young women are putting feminist ideals of equality into sex by refusing shame and claiming the traditionally male side of the stud/slut double standard.

Ms. Clark-Flory, who attended a women’s college and admittedly never hooked up while there, plants herself firmly in the I can have sex like a man! school of sex-positive feminism. Aside from the fact that I don’t think women can or do have sex like men, mostly I just don’t understand why we would want to. What’s in it for us? Quite a bit of heartache, it would seem.

Now a whole year has passed, and the cry of miserable college-aged (and beyond) women is being heard by the mainstream media. Claiming that hookup culture doesn’t exist puts you in the world is flat camp. Responses to Simmons’ coming out against no-strings sex as the only viable or acceptable relationship model are more varied, and temperate this time around. Let’s have a look:

Jessica Valenti of Feministing has apparently been too busy to weigh in, but did write a quick sentence saying that Simmons has some super valid points! This served as sort of a smoke signal to other feminist bloggers that Simmons should not be dismissed out of hand.

First out of the box was Kate Harding at Salon:

From where I’m sitting, the problem that needs solving isn’t hook-up culture, but the intense pressure on girls and women to focus on getting and keeping a guy, rather than on getting and keeping whatever they want. Media aimed at the female of the species from adolescence on up hammers on a few simple messages. 1) If you’re not heterosexual — or for some other reason don’t see landing a boyfriend as your primary purpose in life — you don’t exist. 2) Landing a boyfriend is about understanding What Guys Want and doing whatever it takes to become that. 3) Keeping a boyfriend is about continuing to be What Guys Want, and if your relationship fails, it’s probably because you did something Guys Hate.

Newsflash: Most girls and women want guys. They want sex and relationships. They don’t always want both at the same time, it’s true. The problem is that there is a giant sex dispenser on every college campus, but the relationship dispenser is OUT OF ORDER. And if a relationship is what a woman wants, then she’s SOL. Furthermore, for the record, let’s just leave gay folks out of this discussion. Gay men have always had to deal with hookup culture, and they always will, due to the male preference for sexual variety. Gay women don’t have to deal with it because they prefer relationships, for the most part. There are times when issues are heteronormative. Deal with it.

If we encouraged girls and women to place real value on their own desires, then instead of hand-waving about kids these days, we could trust them to seek out what they want and need, and to end relationships, casual or serious, that are unsatisfying or damaging to them, regardless of whether they’d work for anyone else. (While acknowledging, of course, that to some extent, heartbreak and romantic regrets are an inevitable part of growing up.)

Feminists’ knee-jerk response to concerns about rampant casual sex is to claim that a bunch of old fogeys (like me) are waving our hands in the air saying, “Something is wrong with kids these days!” They believe that we want to roll back the calendar and turn all of our young women into Betty Draper. Instead, what I see going on is real concern on the part of parents and educators (like Simmons) observing and responding to the pain that young women are feeling. That was certainly what motivated me to jump into the fray.

The thing is, if only one kind of dating “culture” is acceptable at any given time — whether it’s hooking up or old-fashioned courtship — then anyone whose desires don’t fit the mold will be left out. But if we teach all kids that there’s a wide range of potentially healthy sexual and emotional relationships, and the only real trick (granted, it’s a doozy) is finding partners who are enthusiastic about the same things you want, then there’s room for a lot more people to pursue something personally satisfying at no one else’s expense.

A doozy indeed! What might that trick be? As we know, guys having sex in college want multiple sexual partners. Guys not having sex in college are disenfranchised, shut out, virtually invisible to women. Women having sex in college are all gunning for Alpha, bemoaning his unwillingness to commit. Women not having sex in college are shut out, virtually invisible to men.

As Simmons said so well, we are enjoying the unintended spoils of the Sexual Revolution.

Next Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon weighs in:

I reject the sex-obsessed interpretation of how this struggle came to be. When I see such a large scale power struggle between men and women, I tend to think the reason is rarely biology, and usually socially constructed sexism.  Experimenting with this starting point, I think I have a much better explanation for what’s going on: Boys have power over girls in the “hook-up culture” because boys have power over girls in a male-dominated society.

Patriarchy is not the problem here! Women are outpacing men in school and at work. Boys have power over girls in the hookup culture because they dangle the carrot of a relationship as they hammer away with their sticks.

Men’s social status comes from men, and women’s social status comes from men. As someone who does remember college pretty well as it drifted into this hook-up culture, I can say firmly that getting a capital-B boyfriend was a huge source of social validation and status. But for men doing the validating, there’s not actually much value in monogamy (outside of Twu Wuv). They give something—validation—and instead of getting anything for it, they end up having to pay the price of not having their options open. Who wants that?

What Marcotte says about the derivation of social status is true. What has changed is the way men define status. What she fails to see is that two generations ago, a guy derived social status by having a steady girlfriend. That meant he was a guy with a regular supply of sex, and that was really the only way he could get it. Today, a regular supply with one woman just doesn’t cut it. Today’s male mantra is “I want multiple!”

Critics of the “hook-up culture” quietly tend to accept that while these dynamics dominate the college years, even most of them accept that something shifts when people hit their 20s, and suddenly dating and commitment become the norm. As women mature, we gain jobs and homes of our own, and become more sure in our tastes and our friendships.  For women, this is an enormous power grab.  The amount of our social value derived from male attention shrinks as more of our social value comes from our jobs and the image we project in the world. And as soon as one guy abandons the immature “girls and dating are GROSS” thing, the stigma loses its grip and they start to fall like dominoes.

Fall like dominoes? Everything I’m hearing tells me that hooking up is continuing as the norm well into the mid to late 20s. As kids weaned on hookup culture graduate from college, they export it directly into the professional and dating world they enter. This trend will continue and be magnified in coming years.

The girls are lurching in the right direction, but what needs to happen now is more attention paid to the boys.  How can we discourage young men from validating each other based on displays of misogyny?  How can we get boys to appreciate girls more as human beings?  How can we dismantle a system where social status in youth cultures is controlled strictly by young men?

Blaming men is 100% ineffective. Men are responding to hard-wired cues that give them an advantage in the reproduction sweepstakes. You might as well suggest that we tame lions into house cats. It is not in their nature, and it does not mean they are misogynist. “Lurching” doesn’t sound like a recipe for success, either.

Nona Willis Aronowitz writes on GirlDrive:

“I knew how it felt to agonize over a text message. I knew how much it hurt to hear that the guy I’d been hooking up with “didn’t do relationships.” And I knew what it was like to use sexuality to coax a guy into being with me, only to have it fail miserably.

Feminist or not, that shit sucks. And it happens a lot, to women and girls everywhere. And yet, if you consider me and the vast majority of America who eventually couple up, it seems to end up okay. What to make of all this?

…We need to admit as a culture that teens are sexual beings, and that more often than not, sexual maturity has a completely different timeline than emotional maturity. This is, to be sure, skewed by sexism and restrictive gender roles to make sexual coming-of-age worse for girls. But beyond that, maybe discovering what you want sexually and emotionally is just part of growing up–and that’s okay.

…For that matter, what’s with this still-dominant narrative that all teen girls should want a monogamous, snuggly, worshipping boyfriend? I wanted relationships from fantastic fucks all through high school and college, but something tells me that I repeatedly confused lust for love and convinced myself that I wanted a boyfriend, when really I just wanted a screwfest (although I can’t be sure).

Hmmm, just a bit of backwards rationalization going on here…

We never consider the power of cultural messages amid the mysterious phenomenon of girls wanting relationships more often than boys. I don’t think it’s biological–there are societal patterns at work here. If we’re told that casual sex is unfulfilling and that we’re going to want relationships, chances are we’ll end up wanting them.

Nona, meet Helen Fisher, noted biological anthropologist. Helen can tell you, citing dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies, and with absolutely no political agenda whatsoever, that it is indeed biological.

The stubborn insistence on the part of feminists that the sexes do not differ biologically has done much to repress women and make them miserable, as the recent Wharton study on the gender happiness gap illustrates. We wanted to have sex like men and that’s just what we got. It turns out we don’t like it much, and we probably need to make some changes.

The women’s movement ushered in today’s sexual norms. The pendulum will swing back when women fight back by making sexual choices that coincide with their long-term interests.

This is not about going back to the 1950s, or any other time when women did not enjoy equal rights.

As women, we do have a choice. And sometimes, it probably ought to involve keeping our legs together.