This week, everyone is talking about young women's sex lives. Sure, that's pretty much always the case -- but this week saw the birth of an interesting debate about whether young sex-positive women are shunning the drunken one-night stands of yesteryear and reconsidering (whispers) abstinence.
It started up two weeks ago with a conference at Harvard called "Rethinking Virginity." Women bloggers from all corners of the Web gathered (in person!) to brainstorm about new and enlightened ways to think about female sexuality. The idea was to do away with the shaming and judgement. Slate's Jessica Grose attended the conference and felt that reality fell far short of that aim. Earlier this week on Double X, she wrote:
The conference-goers didn't exhibit much tolerance for unusual or hedonistic behavior. I asked the panel called 'The Feminist Response to Slut-Shaming & Sexual Scare Tactics' what they thought of adults having nonmonogamous unprotected sex, and the response was uniformly, well, shaming. 'They're doing something damaging, and careless, and it's not a choice I personally approve of,' said one panelist.
To her mind, this is part of a broader cultural trend led by "a handful of women bloggers" who, after being ripped to shreds for divulging "their youthful indiscretions" online, are "sobering up quickly." She says "it's as if young women are going through the cycle of rebellion and regret much faster than other generations -- because it's all being publicly chronicled as it unfolds." The visibility provided by the Internet has given the pendulum one big push in the opposite direction. Now, she says, some of the very women who epitomized the hookup generation are pointing out the merits of not having sex.
Grose used Harvard junior Lena Chen, who organized the "Rethinking Virginity" event, as her main example. A couple years back, the 22-year-old gained infamy for writing explicitly about her sex life. Then her ex-boyfriend leaked naked photos of her and she followed by electing to post an image of herself after a facial (not the kind you get at a spa). The backlash from fellow students led to panic attacks for Chen and, ultimately, caused her to become a much more guarded writer. Grose points out that Chen also got a live-in boyfriend and a dog. In other words: The wild mare has been tamed!
Only, in response to the Slate article, Chen took to her blog to explain that "this is just NOT AT ALL what happened." She took a break from blogging about her sex life, "because I realized that I go to school with some incredibly fucked-up people who have absolutely no qualms about making my existence at Harvard miserable." Chen doesn't consider herself to be domesticated or reformed; she just isn't broadcasting every detail of her personal life to the world anymore. As for the "Rethinking Virginity" conference, she explains that the quoted panelist "was speaking specifically about the public health consequences and not wagging her finger at promiscuity."
Slate wasn't the only publication to get in on the no-sex talk this week. The New York Post declared that women were saying to hell with casual sex and going the celibacy route (celibacy, in the case of one interview subject, meaning a two-week-long self-imposed dry spell). A handful of temporarily celibate celebrities are given as examples: Ashley Dupre, Lady Gaga and Courtney Love. I can also credit the piece with introducing me to the term "celibacy cleanse," which kind of makes it sound like abstaining from sex is a spa treatment for the vagina and the soul.
Even Caitlin Flanagan joined in this week with a piece for the Atlantic -- although, predictably enough, she sees girls and young women as still being firmly in the grips of hookup culture. They aren't contemplating a real alternative, she says, but rather escaping reality with entertainment -- like "Twilight" and "High School Musical" -- that relies on "the Boyfriend Story." As they prepare for and endure sexual "acts and experiences that are frightening, embarrassing, uncomfortable at best, painful at worst," they cling desperately to these fictional happily-ever-after love stories (as though that is a phenomenon unique to today's teen girls).
What's often lost in the never-ending stream of stories about the latest trend in female sexual culture is the nuance and diversity of individual experience; young women are treated as symbols of the culture at large and spokespeople for their entire generation. Not only does that tend to cheat others of their unique voice, but women like Chen inevitably end up feeling terribly misrepresented and misunderstood.