Hanna Rosin: Hookup culture is changing

The "End of Men" author talks to Salon about women, work, and the "third kind of relationship" we're inventing

Published September 1, 2013 5:00PM (EDT)

Hanna Rosin    (Nina Subin)
Hanna Rosin (Nina Subin)

"Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind," Hanna Rosin wrote in an Atlantic cover story in 2010. "But for the first time in human history, that is changing — and with shocking speed." Her thesis sparked a lot of controversy, but her 2012 book "The End of Men: And the Rise of Women" answered some of her critics (though not all) with extensive reporting on breadwinner women across the class spectrum -- and with one of the most nuanced examinations of so-called hookup culture to date. The book's upcoming paperback release comes in the midst of continued debate over women's role at work, in the family and in bed -- some of it productive, some of it less so. Rosin spoke with Salon about the response to her book, the backlash against Sheryl Sandberg, and whether we could all just work less.

One of the parts of your book that I found most interesting was your piece about hookup culture. Do you feel like the debate about hookup culture has evolved at all in the past year, or do you feel like it’s stuck?

I think it actually did develop.

I had an interesting experience, after the Atlantic story [on hookup culture]. A lot of women in college wrote me. Basically, what I took in full force from their letters was, "OK, you got a little bit right, you got the diagnosis right, we’re not looking to get married. But it’s not true that our choices are looking to get married and one-night stands."

What is true – and I wish I had the letter in front of me, ‘cause I think it’s so good – is that we’ve invented this third kind of relationship which is sexually satisfying, emotionally satisfying, has a lot of intimacy and isn’t on the road to marriage. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s a different kind of thing.

I have to say when I read about it, thinking of my kids, I was like, “Well, that’s all right.” Sometimes you read about the hookup culture and think, “Do I really want my kids to be in all that?” but this one is, like, fine. I don't think when I was in college, I was explicitly thinking, “Ooh, is this man gonna be my husband?” but that’s sort of implicitly what you’re doing. It’s understood, “OK, maybe you’ll marry this person in your mid- to late 20s.” But now it’s just not like that. The relationship can just exist as this independent, great thing without that question hanging over them.

It’s been not quite a year since "The End of Men" came out in hardcover, but a lot has happened in that time. What do you feel like you've learned since then about our country's gender landscape?

One of the things that surprised me in the nine months I talked about the book were the different reactions of men and women, which were not entirely what I expected. Men, I thought, reacted more favorably than I expected them to, and I have a theory about that: men, I think, sense that things are changing. There’s a sense that [there are now] kind of different ways you’re supposed to behave, and whether it’s still Neanderthal or not Neanderthal to do this or that, or whether it’s too girly to behave a certain way in your family. So actually I found men almost used me as a sounding board in a way I didn’t expect. And women were more hostile than I expected them to be with the thesis. 

Since I published the book, the conversation goes on and on and on. Anne-Marie [Slaughter]'s book isn’t even out yet, so that’ll be the next wave, but then there was Sheryl Sandberg’s book, and [discussion of] women at the top, and it continues. It feels like we never get tired of trying to figure out that slice of the question. We get tired of other parts of the question, but that’s the question we never get tired of.

You mentioned Sheryl Sandberg -- what have your thoughts been on “Lean In” and all the controversy swirling around it in the past six months or so? 

My research is not that different from Sheryl’s. She and I talked about these things. I think in my chapter on [women at] the top, I have a similar kind of idea that women can only behave in kind of a limited range. We’re still in this moment where certain kinds of aggressive behavior are not acceptable. And I’ve edited such pieces by Amanda Hess, about the confusing advice in “Lean In,” and I sympathize with Amanda, that the younger reader reading this advice is, like, “What the hell?” You can’t be too tough, you can’t be too kind. But in fact I’ve read all the research, and it is pretty confusing! It does say you have to walk this really fine line where you can only be demanding in a very particular way, like communal-demanding, where you bring in other people.

It’s a confusing moment for women, so I sympathize with that. But more broadly speaking, it’s a question of emphasis. I continue to have trouble seeing this as a tremendous tragedy, which might be my failing as a feminist. I still think the big problem of men falling off the face of the map and losing their purpose in this big swath of America feels like a bigger problem to me than what happens at the very top.

I do think women want different things than men, and I’m not sure that there’s ever going to be, at the top of the finance industry, a majority of women. I’m not really sure about that, because what the finance industry requires may not be what women ultimately want to do, so I think part of it is shifting your understanding of what power means.

What I became interested in when I was reporting the book is less the political/economic questions and more the family dynamic questions, like what happens between men and women with sex and dating and that kind of stuff. That stuff seemed a lot more profound to me, whereas the bigger stuff – it’s elusive, these big historical trends. I don’t think we’ve reached the natural resting point of the number of women in power. There’s still a huge number of unnecessary barriers, and we’ll have to deal with maternity leave and we’re all stuck around those questions, but it’s not as pressing to me as the other stuff.

Maternity leave is not as pressing?

No, that's really pressing, because that has to do with how you structure a family. I guess I mean dealing with – I guess I feel like there’s going to be a natural evolution in the number of women in high positions of power. There’s no absolute barriers to that, there’s no legal barriers to that, it seems like a function of time. More women enter leadership as there are more models of women in leadership and we work that out. But no, the maternity question is an embarrassing travesty.

Part of the reason I wrote the book was because, in the year that I started doing research on women in the workforce, it seemed really weird to me that we were still functioning like a 1961 workforce. We’re the only workforce in the world that does that. [There's] the assumption that the American workforce is 1) like someone’s always at home, and 2) a human being only works [and doesn't care for family]. We are shocked any time an American worker has priorities or needs that are not work-related. We are unusual that way, in our vision of the human being as a perfect functioning work machine. That’s not the norm.  

Do you feel like these issues dovetail at all? If we did have paid maternity leave, if we did have more support for working parents, do you think the kinds of crises for men that you talk about in your book would be resolved? Do you think men would be more comfortable in domestic roles? 

So I used to have a really simple answer to that, until I was out there talking and thinking about these things more, and I realized that, again, it’s a walking-a-fine-line problem. Where I think we would have to be careful is there’s been, since I published my book, research on the consequences of the Swedish/Norwegian model -- particularly the Norwegian model, which doesn’t emphasize paternity leave but is mostly maternity leave. We walk around wanting to be Norway and Sweden and wishing we had maternity leave, but it turns out their economies are more gender-segregated than ours, that places where women are pushed to stay home for years and take care of their kids, it basically becomes a cultural requirement that you breast-feed for a year and stay home for a year, and the result is, the employer sees women as people who are going to take years off, and women end up doing what is traditionally seen as women’s work and end up in lower-paid jobs more than we do.

So if it were up to me, I’d skip the [policies] that are all about the moms, and head over to the ones that are gender-neutral like childcare, and set up a system where the leave is totally neutral, where you’re actively encouraged – Sweden did this with a lot of success, actually – it becomes stupid for you not to take paternity leave. Not just that it exists – because when it just exists, men don’t do it – but that you actually take penalties if you don't take paternity leave.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about male feminism, what it means to be a male feminist and a male ally. Did you talk to a lot of men who consider themselves feminists? And do you feel like it makes sense for men to consider themselves feminists? 

The male feminist discussion, it seems to me, is divided between the political, the philosophical and the instrumental, and I think mostly what I tuned into when I was reporting is the instrumental, because so many people didn’t identify as feminists that I kind of gave up on asking about the political at some point. I just didn’t hear the term very much, and it was more like, what can I get out of this, are there benefits I can gain from these changes? And the answer was completely yes, in most cases – that if you didn’t have a defensive attitude about it, you can imagine that just as there are probably a certain percentage of women who would naturally be much more ball-busting and aggressive if that were socially acceptable, there is a certain percentage of men that would probably be more – name your adjective. Nurturing, domestic, lazy, crafty – whatever things used to be reserved for women. It’s just about having a vaster range of self-expression in my mind.

And there were men you talked to who were interested in expressing more traditionally feminine traits?

I did a piece for Slate on breadwinner wives, and I did this huge survey and ended up doing a ton of interviews, which ended up turning into a chapter, on situations where the wife made more money or was the primary breadwinner. I didn’t find – and this is where I was criticized in the book, maybe it was just the people I interviewed – that many people who were just like, rah-rah feminist.  Although people did complain about that in my book. This was the complaint men had: You didn’t show enough men who were in support of this new world, you just showed agony. And I think that’s a fair criticism.

If you’re a journalist and you’re just looking for the place of tension in a moment of change, maybe you gravitate to those things. But I didn’t end up representing that “this is awesome, I’m a male feminist” view. I really didn’t. Even the 20-year-old – like the young guy I picked from Toronto -- is kind of tortured. And I met him, he’s just like the Canadian equivalent of a Brooklyn hipster, he’s a young guy, and he was all tortured. Maybe I just found that more interesting, but I feel like it does exist: “This is awesome, my wife makes more money than me, I’m happy.”  

In the wake of your book and "Lean In," there’s been a lot of discussion about women balancing work and family, but not much discussion (with some exceptions) about women actually working less, or actually having more time to spend with your family -- or just yourself. 

Yeah. That’s really funny. This happened to me as a lightning bolt on the stage. I think I was talking about the wage gap – the problem with the way that we talk about the wage gap, the 77 cents on the dollar, is that some portion of that is due to the fact that women work fewer hours. So I was thinking, OK, in order to close that wage gap -- some of the wage gap, not all of it -- you could just work more. And then it occurred to me -- well, that's stupid.

Instead of saying we want to close the wage gap, we want to work as hard as men and be eligible for all those jobs, something deep within me suddenly rebelled. Maybe it's because I’m 40, and I was like, I don’t actually want to. I don’t want to. I would rather that you remade – again, this sounds gaga idealistic – but I’d rather you remade the economy so we had six weeks of vacation and everybody worked a little bit less.

You sometimes read studies that are like “young millennial boys in their 20s have the same expectations of the workplace as a 42-year-old woman with three children. They want more flexible hours, and they want more time.” It’s what we’re after -- and that’s kind of why I’m happy that Anne-Marie Slaughter has framed it not just as another woman’s issue, but a kind of care-taking as a part of the human experience and something that makes us who we are.

Now, care-taking is still being cautious and safe. It doesn’t allow for a young person who doesn’t want to care-take, who wants to do something else with their time. But it’s a little step in the right direction. It’s a little step in recognizing that we are not working machines. Even these discussions that Arianna Huffington has about rest, if you actually read the language of that, it’s like “rest in order to perfect the machine.” We use all these battery metaphors, like “recharge yourself” and “rest so when you go back to work you can be more productive and efficient.” It doesn’t allow for the fact that you might not want to be successful at all, that you don’t want to be thinking of that as your ultimate goal.

So that’s where I am in life, in my year between start and finish. Maybe I was just tired of being on the book tour too long, but that definitely hit me one day. I was like, “I don’t want that.” But I’m really not alone. A lot of women say that on surveys and it drives people crazy – like I edited a great story for XX once about Dutch women in Holland and how the Dutch government is desperately trying to get women in Holland to work full-time, and unlike other places, they add incentives, they’ll do anything to get women to work full-time, and they don’t want to. And it’s not just women with children – like the answers they give on forms are like, “I want to go to a yoga class,” “I want to go to coffee with a friend.” And we laugh at that, but there are worse things. There are worse things than being a Dutch woman at a yoga class at 3:00 on a Thursday.

By Anna North

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