A Flurry of Flustered Feminists, Finally

March 5, 2010

I am a post-baby boomer who has been handed a sort of Spice Girls’ version of feminism. We’re supposed to be wearing half-shirts and jumping around. And, you know, maybe that’s not panning out.

Tina Fey, Vogue, March 2010


Recently I wrote about feminist Rachel Simmons’ criticism of hookup culture, and how it produced a flurry of flustered feminists. I believe this may be a watershed moment, the point at which feminists begin to question (finally!) the full impact of the Sexual Revolution on the sociosexual marketplace. I hope this marks the beginning of a conversation that sex-positive feminists have been previously unwilling to have.

(For the record, Naomi Wolf has been voicing concern about the impact of hooking up on young women for years, but as an alum of a prior “wave” of feminism she was considered too old, uncool, and irrelevant to engage. Those who didn’t ignore her just said PFFFFT.)

Jessica Grose of Slate has weighed in with The Shame Cycle: The new backlash against casual sex. She’s surprised and puzzled by this new criticism of the random hookup. She begins by quoting Julie Klausner, author of the recently published book I Don’t Care About Your Band:

When you cry about things not working out, you’re crying not only because a guy you slept with now doesn’t seem to care you’re alive, but also because you’re ashamed of yourself for crying.

Life coach and psychoanalyst Stuart Schneiderman, who writes a blog called Had Enough Therapy? (Welcome him to the Blogroll!) writes helpfully about the nature, and purpose, of shame. He observes that [Grose] is really surprised that this woman can feel shame.  Grose’s friend feels badly for having had sex with a man who: “now doesn’t seem to care you’re alive.” Does Grose feel that her friend should feel good or indifferent about what she did with the man who doesn’t care about whether or not she is still breathing?

He continues about the nature of shame:

Shame, of course, concerns how you look to others, how others see you. The salient term that was invented for the aftermath of hook ups was “the walk of shame.” When a women is making the walk of shame the fact that she does not think that she did anything wrong is not likely to be a great consolation.

But what happens when your shame is telling you one thing and your feminism is telling you something else? Grose seems agitated that young women would listen to what their shame, that is, their own feelings, is telling them and ignoring what their feminism is saying.

If you have made a mistake your shame is telling you not to repeat the experience. It is telling you to mend your ways and to esteem yourself sufficiently to refrain from having sex with men who do not care if you are alive the next morning.

Grose, oblivious to the significance of shame, continues:

From whence this confusing, shame-feedback loop? Compelling research shows that hooking up is not psychologically damaging.

I’m so glad she brought that up. Let’s talk about the compelling research in question. I want to address this constantly touted recent finding that hooking up is not psychologically damaging. This has been trumpeted by the casual sex crowd ceaselessly, so naturally I spent some time looking over the study by researchers at the University of Minnesota when it came out late last year. Here are the facts:

  • The sample size was 1311, 44% male, 56% female.
  • The age range was 18-24, with a mean age of 20.5.
  • The survey asked about the respondent’s most recent sexual ENCOUNTER, and who it was with:

Fiancee/spouse/life partner: 55%

Exclusive dating partner: 25%

Close but not exclusive: 12%

Casual acquaintance: 8%

  • The researchers evaluated the self-esteem of each of the respondents, considering the bottom two categories as representative of casual sex.
  • There were twice as many males as females in the casual groups.

I’m no scientist, but I have designed surveys and projects. Here are my reservations about the study:

  • It makes no sense to include marrieds in a study on the impact of hookup culture. These long-terms monogamists represent over half the sample. The relevant comparison would be between singles hooking up and singles not hooking up.
  • The study asks only about the single most recent encounter. In the casual groups, we have no way of knowing if the respondent just had sex with an ex, their first random encounter, a drunken hookup they can’t remember or their best friend. We don’t know if they’ve been hooking up for years with 50 people, or one month with one person.
  • The study did not differentiate between the self-esteem levels of males and females. Although the sample was 56% female, the casual groups were only 33% female. It is hardly surprising that males would not suffer a loss of self-esteem after a casual sexual encounter. In fact, they were probably downright elated in their responses!
  • The findings were extrapolated from a study on nutrition, not the result of a study designed to ask this question.

I mean, come on! Case closed, Ms. Grose. In her defense, every media outlet has reported this as proof that hooking up is not psychologically harmful.

Back to Grose:

There seems to be something else at play in the culture that’s making Klausner and [others] regretful, some new wave of anti-orgasmic sexual conservatism that makes you hate yourself for what you did last night.

Cue the spinster panic articles…At the start of this decade, we have thoroughly internalized these recent conservative cultural messages about the importance of marriage: “73 percent of women born between 1977 and 1989 place a high priority on marriage,” writes Hannah Seligson in the Wall Street Journal.

Actually, 73% strikes me as a rather low number. I believe that number has been considerably higher in the past.

Schneiderman concludes:

Grose seems to be suggesting that feminism favors hook ups. If that is so, the reason must be that feminism is pathologically repelled by the notion that male and female sexuality are fundamentally different. If so, feminism must believe that if men can engage in hook ups without feeling any shame or guilt, then women should be able to do so too.

Shame is telling women that the feminist view is a bunch of bunk. Women who hook up feel shame because their actions belie their being as women. A woman who is forcing herself to behave as though she were a man does not know who or what she is. Her shame is trying to remind her.

Casual sex fan Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon, apparently alarmed at this turn of events in the femosphere, fired back at Grose with Sexual Shame is So Hot Right Now.

The casual sex backlash is here. Even so-called sex-positive feminists are starting to express their shame and regret over past one-night stands, says Jessica Grose in Slate. This is sure to cause many conservatives to rejoice, but I suspect the report of hookup culture’s death has been greatly exaggerated.

Rest assured ladies, there will be plenty more opportunities for you walk that walk of shame, and many years yet before you may succumb to spinster panic!

As I see it, young women have fully proved that we can have one-night stands, hear us roar —

Did she really just say that? Now I’m filled with shame and embarrassment on her behalf.

…and maybe we’re beginning to also allow ourselves more nuanced feelings about our hookups. …We can now acknowledge regret over a one-night stand, without being considered, or seeing ourselves as, forever ruined women; if there’s been a recent change in my generation’s relationship to casual sex, I suspect it’s that we’re relaxing our defensive posturing.

Maybe instead of signaling a backlash, these are actually signs that we’re slowly inching toward a world where a woman isn’t either good or bad, a wife or whore, a virgin or slut.

Now I’m pissed. I just kicked a chair and scared the dog.

The world we’re living in? It’s not about whether women are good or bad, virgins or sluts. Good girls, bad girls, celibate girls, promiscuous girls? All of them are affected by this miserable wackness. Where are the happy girls? Where are the girls filled with pride instead of shame? And what about the guys? Who’s doing a survey of the guys who are not sexually active and taking note of their self-esteem levels? Because that’s also a direct result of our casual sex culture.

Still, I’ll take it. I’ll take this discussion as a sign that within the fortress of feminism, some women are looking within and acknowledging their unhappiness and shame. They’re looking out and acknowledging the pain of the women around them. It’s a start.