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“Yes, I want sex, but don’t fuck my shit up” or Why Women Aren’t Feeling Guilty About Not Having a Boyfriend

December 5, 2012

Or so goes the lightly given warning by some of my more ambitious friends to would-be lovers.  It was clear, these women didn’t want a relationship mucking up their professional life.  Strange as this may seem to some, it’s not uncommon.  I decided to write about this today after reading a HuffPost recommended article: “Boys on the Side.”  I seem to remember that there was a movie with this title, too, about lesbian relationships, and maybe had the unlikely combination of Drew Barrymore and Whoopi Goldberg?  Ha! It does exist: Boys on the Side, the movie.

In the article, published in the Atlantic, the author recounts how she interviewed women on college campus hangouts, surely the bastion of all female sexual activity (as opposed to, maybe, soccer moms??) and asked about hooking up, or more specifically, the culture of hooking up.  For those of you who are not in the know, hooking up refers to having a sexual encounter, and the said culture of hooking up refers mainly to college rendezvous behavior that seems not to include any women above the age of 25.  While said sex experts, a.k.a. college women, were said to bitch about male behavior, they seemingly were not interested in turning back the clock to the female needs protecting era that also demonized women who had sex.

The author, who seems to find college-aged women’s sex lives the center of female sexual behavior both neglects older women and seems to view the hookup as yet another case in which women having sex are women who are victimized because they are not having sex with someone to whom they are married. She doesn’t come right out and say this when discussing a “scientific” study on the subject, but she says things like:” Most important,  hookups haven’t wrecked the capacity for intimacy”, which would mean the alternate assumption that intimacy and hookups are mutually exclusive and might result in a sad ending for Cinderella instead of the whole marriage bit and kissing the dad on head until he blushes.  Then again, in Cinderella, is marriage a way of just avoiding work and the bullshit of dealing with female abuse, or is it about the man who will look for you high and low and in your mother’s house because you are so worth it?   The Atlantic article sounds more like a researcher and writer issue of vocabulary rather than sexual commentary implied.

For example, the author assumes that women who hookup will be “weepy” or somehow otherwise appear injured according to a stereotype:

When they do hook up, the weepy-­woman stereotype doesn’t hold. Equal numbers of men and women—about half—report to England that they enjoyed their latest hookup “very much.” About 66 percent of women say they wanted their most recent hookup to turn into something more, but 58 percent of men say the same—not a vast difference, considering the cultural panic about the demise of chivalry and its consequences for women. And in fact, the broad inference that young people are having more sex—and not just coarser sex—is just wrong; teenagers today, for instance, are far less likely than their parents were to have sex or get pregnant. Between 1988 and 2010, the percentage of teenage girls having sex dropped from 37 to 27, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What the author neglects to do here is interrogate why women who are sexually active would automatically be wounded.  She neglects to question why sexual activity would equal the stereotype she assigned: the injured party based on gender.  And then, she discusses the age of women having sex, as though that is illustrative of a developmental strata of female sexual development without elaborating on it. Earlier in the article, the author does a slightly better job of at least alluding to the fact that the hookup culture, or what others might call experimentation, might be a part of female sexual development, or maybe just trying something new and moving on if it doesn’t seem to fit or impedes a woman’s development.  For this tiny bit of insight, even for young women, the researchers give great credit to sexual mores changing as opposed to a developmental sequence that might be part of an ordinary development. (But there is that rub that everyone may want to know how sexual development takes place, because it is after all…sex…)

Women in the dorm complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic,” Armstrong writes, because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career. “If I want to maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with,” one woman told Armstrong, “I have to work. I just don’t see myself being someone who marries young and lives off of some boy’s money.” Or from another woman: “I want to get secure in a city and in a job … I’m not in any hurry at all. As long as I’m married by 30, I’m good.”

The women still had to deal with the old-fashioned burden of protecting their personal reputations, but in the long view, what they really wanted to protect was their future professional reputations. “Rather than struggling to get into relationships,” Armstrong reported, women “had to work to avoid them.” (One woman lied to an interested guy, portraying herself as “extremely conservative” to avoid dating him.) Many did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.

Armstrong and Hamilton had come looking for sexual victims. Instead, at this university, and even more so at other, more prestigious universities they studied, they found the opposite: women who were managing their romantic lives like savvy headhunters. “The ambitious women calculate that having a relationship would be like a four-credit class, and they don’t always have time for it, so instead they opt for a lighter hookup,” Armstrong told me.

The women described boyfriends as “too greedy” and relation­ships as “too involved.” One woman “with no shortage of admirers” explained, “I know this sounds really pathetic and you probably think I am lying, but there are so many other things going on right now that it’s really not something high up on my list … I know that’s such a lame-ass excuse, but it’s true.” The women wanted to study or hang out with friends or just be “100 percent selfish,” as one said. “I have the rest of my life to devote to a husband or kids or my job.” Some even purposely had what one might think of as fake boyfriends, whom they considered sub–marriage quality, and weren’t genuinely attached to. “He fits my needs now, because I don’t want to get married now,” one said. “I don’t want anyone else to influence what I do after I graduate.”

The most revealing parts of the study emerge from the interviews with the less privileged women. They came to college mostly with boyfriends back home and the expectation of living a life similar to their parents’, piloting toward an early marriage. They were still fairly conservative and found the hookup culture initially alienating (“Those rich bitches are way slutty” is how Armstrong summarizes their attitude). They felt trapped between the choice of marrying the kind of disastrous hometown guy who never gets off the couch, and will steal their credit card—or joining a sexual culture that made them uncomfortable. The ones who chose the first option were considered the dorm tragedies, women who had succumbed to some Victorian-style delusion. “She would always talk about how she couldn’t wait to get married and have babies,” one woman said about her working-class friend. “It was just like, Whoa. I’m 18 … Slow down. You know? Then she just crazy dropped out of school and wouldn’t contact any of us … The way I see it is that she’s from a really small town, and that’s what everyone in her town does … [they] get married and have babies.”

Most of the women considered success stories by their dormmates had a revelation and revised their plan, setting themselves on what was universally considered the path to success. “Now I’m like, I don’t even need to be getting married yet [or] have kids,” one of the less privileged women told the researchers in her senior year. “All of [my brother’s] friends, 17-to-20-year-old girls, have their … babies, and I’m like, Oh my God … Now I’ll be able to do something else for a couple years before I settle down … before I worry about kids.” The hookup culture opened her horizons. She could study and work and date, and live on temporary intimacy. She could find her way to professional success, and then get married.

Notice how the author couldn’t help but attach that ending: “…and then get married.”  There still is no alternate ending for women with either the researchers or the writer of the article.  That’s a bit galling in and of itself, because certainly lots of people will get married, but getting married isn’t the only instance of women moving on in their sexual development.  In fact, plenty of women who are over the age of 24, out of college and so on continue to develop sexually even when they are not married.  Sexual development’s portrayal as the culminating factor of marriage is just plain disheartening.

The author goes on to end the piece with the same old marriage bit, that the women who may have gloriously sexually experimented in college, in what she quaintly refers to as the “hookup culture” will just, in fact, have more to hide from future husbands:

There is no retreating from the hookup culture to an earlier age, when a young man showed up at the front door with a box of chocolates for his sweetheart, and her father eyed him warily. Even the women most frustrated by the hookup culture don’t really want that. The hookup culture is too bound up with everything that’s fabulous about being a young woman in 2012—the freedom, the confidence, the knowledge that you can always depend on yourself. The only option is what Hannah’s friends always tell her—stop doing what feels awful, and figure out what doesn’t.

Young men and women have discovered a sexual freedom unbridled by the conventions of marriage, or any conventions. But that’s not how the story ends. They will need time, as one young woman at Yale told me, to figure out what they want and how to ask for it. Ultimately, the desire for a deeper human connection always wins out, for both men and women. Even for those business-school women, their hookup years are likely to end up as a series of photographs, buried somewhere on their Facebook page, that they do or don’t share with their husband—a memory that they recall fondly or sourly, but that hardly defines them.

The whole article feels like one repressingly simple theme: what sexual exploits young women will experiment with before marriage and will losing their hymen in a crude sex act make them any less whole.  How sad.  What else the author and researchers might have included could range from women’s development in the sexual arena by age– is hooking up a stage or symptom? Do older women just want to know if younger women feel guilty about having multiple sexual partners?  Do younger women feel guilty for not taking on needy boyfriends, because married women with needy husbands sure complain about them.  Please see my other post, the most famous post on my site: Women Don’t Want to Get Married and Have Children

Why the fascination with hooking up or young women’s sexual escapade?  Why frame the discussion as either hooking up or feeling repressed?  Why still the fear that women have changed because sex is more available to them?  So many ways to frame it, but this one was just plain disappointing.

Cover of "Boys on the Side"

Cover of Boys on the Side

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