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Finally, a Nuanced Look at Hookup Culture and the Sex Lives of Modern Women in Their 20s

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

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.

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