Finally! A nuanced look at hookup culture

A new book explores the wildly, infuriatingly contradictory messages young women face

Published March 3, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

This hookup book is not like the others. Want to see either casual sex or committed relationships portrayed as inherently good or bad? You will be sorely disappointed. The same goes for if you expect young men or young women to be chastised for abandoning traditional values. Instead, Leslie C. Bell's "Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom" argues that despite being the most liberated generation of women to date, today's 20-somethings face wildly contradictory cultural messages about love and sex that can make it extremely difficult to freely and fully realize their desires.

I have two questions: Who allowed this nuanced and reasonable treatise about my generation to be published? And more important: Why has it taken so goddamned long?

That isn't to say that it's an easy read for someone like myself who five years ago, at the age of 24, proudly defended hookup culture against a new outpouring of pro-chastity books. In fact, reading it feels a whole lot like being put on the couch by a really perceptive shrink, which is appropriate, considering that Bell is a practicing psychotherapist (as well as a sociologist). The book is a combination of psychological analysis and supporting qualitative interviews with young women (an admittedly skewed and small sample of 20 college-educated 20-something women in the San Francisco Bay Area -- although it's a refreshingly diverse group in terms of race and sexual orientation).

Bell's main argument is that these women are bombarded with "vying cultural" messages: "Be assertive, but not aggressive. Be feminine, but not too passive. Be sexually adventurous, but don't alienate men with your sexual prowess" -- and so on. At the same time that they are encouraged to "live it up," they "spend their twenties hearing gloomy forecasts about their chances of marriage if they don't marry before thirty, and their chances of conceiving a baby if they don't get pregnant before thirty-five."

As a result of this, many young women seek to "resolve the internal conflicts they feel about their desires," Bell argues, by developing a black-and-white, all-or-nothing view of sex and relationships. If a woman feels conflicted about her sexual desires, that typically manifests in a committed but perhaps sexually neutered relationship, she says: "They felt conflicted about having and expressing sexual desire and so gave it up." If a woman feels more conflicted about her desire for a relationship, she's likely to focus on no-strings sex over relationships: These twenty-somethings "feared losing their identities and independence through being in an intimate relationship," writes Bell.

But she also observed a middle-of-the-road approach in which women "used their conflicts to inform how they could pursue their desires; they were comfortable with and expressed their desires for sex and a relationship" -- as well as an education and career. Many young women start out in either one of the first scenarios but grow into the third, which is how I've come to see my growing impatience with hookup culture. (Of course, this sort of framework only makes sense for those who do desire relationships. For those who don't, that would actually be a regression.)

I spoke with Bell by phone about everything from the so-called end of men to how the wife-whore dichotomy is still alive and well.

You argue that many young women today don’t even know what they want when it comes to sex and relationships. Why is that?

Well, they have a few different messages coming in, like "your 20s should be a decade that’s all about having as many sexual experiences as possible, diverse sexual experiences with diverse partners; in fact, that’s the way you figure yourself out, but at the same time you better temper that by making sure that it doesn’t go over a certain number." At the same time, in terms of relationships, they’re getting messages like, “You really shouldn’t settle down. This is not a time to be in a committed relationship because you need to really put your efforts into education and career advancement and a relationship is gonna take time from that, but you better make sure you’re married by the time you’re 30 because your biological clock is ticking and the pool of men is gonna decrease.” So there’s just a huge range of messages out there. It’s also an unprecedented time, historically, to have this decade for highly educated young women who aren’t necessarily expected to be getting married and having children.

You also argue that “splitting” is a common reaction to the sort of conflicts these women experience over their sexual and relational desires. Can you explain that?

So splitting is a concept psychologists use to describe the way that we’ll think in black-and-white terms. This is a way we organize a lot of our experience, and a lot of this is normal and healthy: "you and I," "here and there." But it can also be used defensively, and that shows up in times of great uncertainty and complexity, and it can be a way to try and organize all these concepts, experiences and messages in a way that makes it feel more manageable and certain. So I argue that the 20s, in particular for women, is such a time of uncertainty and complexity and splitting shows up a lot. I saw it a lot in terms of women’s feelings and the way they made sense of both sex and love.

So, for example, some of the most common splits that I saw were young women thinking, “Well, I can’t have both a career and a relationship at the same time. They’re literally incommensurate with one another.” For others, it would be a split between good sex and committed love. “Well, if I’m in a committed relationship, I can’t be having good sex. Good sex is something that happens in casual, more free flings.” These are very tempting and relatively easy to fall into, but what I argue is that -- as it probably sounds -- it deprives women of knowing the full range of their desires, because most people want lots of different things that may be contradictory. And it’s hard to acknowledge that in ourselves, but when we can, we’re actually more likely to get what we want, and go for things that either our culture or our minds may tell us is impossible.

That’s so interesting, this idea that you can’t have good sex in a relationship. Where does that come from?

I think it comes partly from the culture, certainly -- there’s a way that relationships get characterized as dull and boring and settled, but I also think it comes from our own temptation when in a relationship to assume that we know everything about our partner. Being actually intimate with someone and knowing them super-well can, on the one hand, be very staid and stable, but on the other hand, that’s a person whom you actually depend upon and it’s actually more risky, in many ways, than sex with a complete stranger with whom you have no investment.

We sometimes don’t let ourselves know how frightening it is, and how potentially exciting it is, to be intimate and exposed with someone who does actually know us that well.

This conflict between sex and relationships is so often painted as one of male versus female, that men want sex and women want commitment. And there have been arguments in recent years that straight young men on college campuses are calling the shots relationally, and that that explains the rise of hookup culture, since they’re so outnumbered by women and are therefore scarce and in demand. What do you think of that argument?

I can understand where it comes from. I don’t necessarily see it borne out completely in the experience of the women I’ve been speaking with. I think many of them feel very much in control, and in charge of whom they’re having sex with and the terms. I certainly understand the frustration – I can hear that in both the women that I spoke with and just in the culture of young women who may want relationships and can’t find a partner, but I wouldn’t characterize it so starkly. I’m not going to be able to quote the statistics, but I’ve read things about young men’s interest in relationships, and when you look at good survey data, it’s not that different than young women’s interest in relationships. Then there's Hanna Rosin’s book, "The End of Men," where she’s trying to argue for women being very much in control -- I don’t think it’s either one. I think there’s certainly young women who feel they’re not getting what they want because men are not available, but I’ve also been with young men who feel that way. They sort of feel intimidated by young women who, in a young man’s mind, have all this sexual prowess and are actually not all that interested in relationships.

This conflict between sex and committed relationships seems reminiscent of the wife/whore dichotomy, that we’re not able to conceive of a woman being desirous within a relationship.

Absolutely. I think we’ve not come a great distance from that dichotomy. It still is very easy to fall into. I think people feel on the one hand, you’re supposed to have lots of sexual experience, and you really have to be sure to rein that in before the specter of "the whore" comes in. I think that happens less in – among the women I spoke with, they felt that much more intensely in their late adolescence, early college years. I think the 20s are a moment where people do feel a little freer to have first experiences, but again it’s sort of punctuated by this date by which they’re supposed to become wives. It’s psychologically difficult for people to think about themselves as sexually agentic and enjoying sex and being a wife or a partner at the same time. Those are not very easy ideas to hold on to.

What about women who are truly only interested in casual sex? Women don’t experience desire for a vulnerable, committed relationship?

I certainly believe that exists, and I think women often go through periods of -- at least among the women I’ve spoken with -- they would go through periods of feeling that way, and I think it can be really exciting and feel like a very subjectively satisfying time, feeling like you’re completely in charge of what you’re doing, you’re not dependent on anyone else. It can, for people for whom that is a genuine desire, feel great, and I think it helps build a sense of self and confidence. I absolutely think that exists.

So you studied a pretty privileged and educated population of young women; do you think that these theories apply to the average American 20-something woman?

That is a great question. It’s a very small sample; I interviewed 20 women in what I call “clinical interviews,” so I interviewed them three times over the course of one to two months. It’s obviously not a huge representative sample but it’s such an understudied and not well understood topic and time in people’s lives, and I really wanted to get in-depth. I really wanted to build trust with people. So, it’s a small sample, but I did interview half women of color and half white women, half queer, lesbian and bisexual women and half straight women. And while they all had gone to college, they came from a pretty big range of class backgrounds and where they grew up in the country, so again, given the size of the sample is small, I certainly can’t make any claims about representativeness. But given what I heard from them and given from what I see in my practice, I would say that these kinds of conflicts are not uncommon among women who have this time in their 20s that is free from the kind of demands and social expectations of marriage or children.

So how can young women move beyond this "splitting"? What does a more integrated approach look like?

It looks like a kind of full acknowledgment of desires, which can be a really vulnerable experience, and one of the things I argue in the book is that so much of the training that young women and young men have had in terms of how to be successful and get what you want and go out and get a degree and get a career, are all very much about being agentic in the world, and they’re not necessarily about knowing desires that make you feel vulnerable. Although, arguably, striving for success is a vulnerable thing too, it’s exposing -- but we don’t really have a way of describing ambition or desire as something that is vulnerable. I’d sort of like the term "vulnerability" to come to be one that people understand as showing strength, as opposed to weakness.

One of the things I talk about in the book is how hungry the women were that I spoke with for conversation about these topics. I was about five to 10 years older than the women I interviewed at the time, and they wanted to know how I was managing to have a relationship and have a career at the same time -- what did I think? How could they manage this? How do other people do this? And I think there’s not a lot of honest and frank conversation between women who are a little bit ahead with these young women, and the women themselves in their 20s, and the conflicts get glossed over or it's assumed that, “Oh, they’ll figure it out,” as opposed to, “Right, these are really hard things to wrestle with and they’re not easily solved and just glossed over by, 'Well, when you get married by the time you’re 30 and you’ll figure it out.'” It’s not that simple.

Those are all of my questions. Is there anything else that you want to add to all of this?

I have one finding that I really like to talk about: There certainly were women that I spoke with who did manage to kind of express and feel the full range of their desires, for relationships, for sex, and for all kinds of things, and it was much more like my queer, lesbian and bisexual respondents had comfort with the range of desires than it was with my straight respondents. I asked everybody I spoke with, “What would it be like to have sex or have relationships with a partner who’s differently gendered than your usual partner?” I was really surprised about the degree to which straight women had very elaborated responses about what it would be like to be with women, and they all thought it would be much easier to kind of be the full range of themselves. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but it’s fascinating. In some ways it’s an idealization, I think: Lesbian relationships are not easy and they’re complicated in their own way. So one suggestion I have for straight women is that I think part of what we fall into in this pattern of splitting is also splitting men and women, and it's assuming this kind of a radical difference. What I hear my queer respondents saying is, their partners are human in a way that some of my straight female respondents did not express. One thing that I would just challenge straight women to do is to think of their male partners, or the men in their lives who may become partners, as more like them than different.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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