Friday, August 27, 2010

"Hookup culture" and judging women

A recent post by Jaclyn Friedman about how embracing a "slutty" lifestyle in the midst of searching for a monogamous relationship has been healing for her has sparked several debates in the blogosphere about "hookup culture" and young women's role in it.

Jaclyn's piece is a personal narrative about how, after a particularly rough breakup, she turns to casual sex to ease her loneliness while searching for that "perfect" monogamous relationship that she still hopes to have:

Last summer, I suffered the breakup of a relationship that I had thought would be permanent. Now, I’ve been through my share of break-ups, even of quite serious relationships, but nothing ever broke me like this one.

Since then, I’ve had sexual interactions of the orgasmic kind with 9 different people, none of which I was at any time in a committed relationship with.

I’m not telling you this to shock (though I am specifying the number because we all need to get over the whole “OMG! Be ashamed of your NUMBER! It’s either too big or too small!” thing). I’m telling you this because of something else that’s also true about me: I’d really like to be in a long-term, probably monogamous relationship. That’s right, folks, I’m a slut who craves a stable, loving, committed relationship. File me under “Lookin’ fer luv: ur doin it wrong.”

I agree with Jaclyn. Casual sex and a desire for a monogamous relationship are not mutually exclusive, and should stop being treated as such. Susan Walsh, who blogs about hook up culture and the dangers that this seeming cultural mandate poses for young women, responded to Jaclyn's post:

Thing is: Relationship science is hard science. Oxytocin is not some disinformation cooked up by the evil patriarchy. It’s a chemical that floods your body after sex, during breastfeeding, and through the early months of motherhood. Men also experience it, though its effect is tamped down somewhat by testosterone. The effects of sex hormones are bound to reside on a spectrum. Some women may produce less, which leads to less emotional attachment. Some men are suckers for oxytocin, and love spooning after sex. Anyone who regularly dismisses a large body of peer-reviewed academic studies in this area is as ridiculous as a member of the Flat Earth Society.

As for self-esteem, the answer to her question is yes. One may love, and pity, a person with low self-esteem. But a healthy, robust, falling in love experience with such a person is surely impossible. How can we fall in love with someone who is wearing a big virtual sandwich board that says “I’m a lemon! Damaged goods! Everything in this bin is 50 cents!”

I was with Walsh until the second paragraph. I'm not just sympathetic to the idea that we shouldn't discuss women's worth as though it is inherently tied to their sexuality; I'm adamantly opposed to it, and completely disgusted whenever I hear someone do it. That said, if you feel similarly, I recommend not reading the comments on her post. A few of the commenters there are maddeningly ignorant, judgmental, and mean simply for the sake of it. Not to mention unabashedly sexist.

It's disgusting to discuss a woman like this because it reduces a person to the status of a commodity that literally loses value after each "use." And while I don't believe it's okay to reduce any person to such a status, I find it particularly infuriating that this conversation is constantly centered around women's sexuality. We're the only ones being told we're not going to be "pure" enough for a man to love us, with all of our self-worth being tied into our preferred method of sexual expression.

And, while biological differences between most males and most females undeniably affect our behavior and other parts of who we are in significant ways, biology does not turn women into valueless things as a result of engaging in certain, or too many, sexual encounters. Oxytocin may be powerful, but it isn't a magical substance that literally turns us rotten after being used too many times, with the "wrong" people, or under the wrong circumstances.

Meanwhile, Friedman continues her piece explaining how she got to the point of the "healing" casual sexual encounters. She decided, after a series of failed dating attempts, that she'd try Craigslist Casual Encounters, and describes meeting someone who seems to be pretty dreamy:

And then B. responded. He was smart and charming. His picture looked cute. He seemed like a grown-up, and not like a psycho. He knew how to banter. He made a funny joke about punctuation. And, after a few emails were exchanged, he wanted to know if I’d like to meet him for a drink. That night. Then. And, to my great shock and terror and excitement, I found that I did. (What writer can resist a good punctuation joke?)
we spent a lovely hour chatting over a couple of glasses of wine, he used the phrase “male hegemony” critically in a sentence (entirely unprompted by me), and then he asked me if I wanted to go back to his place, which was nearby. And once again, to my shock and terror and excitement, I found that I did. Though not before asking him for his address, calling my roommate with it in front of him, and letting him know I had extensive self-defense training.

Reader, I fucked him. Three rounds worth that night. And it was awesome.

This sounds pretty fantastic. Everything worked out well, and they had a great time in the sack. But, as she shares with us, it didn't work out:

In other ways, too, sluthood isn’t always pretty, and I’m not always good at it. Whether from years of habit or something more intrinsic to my personality, my heart seems to want to attach, and after a couple months of playing together casually, and having long, rangey talks naked in bed together between rolls in the hay, it started to with B. Neither of us handled it particularly well. There were tears; there were accusations. But even that was an education: somehow, the conflict that erupted demonstrated so clearly the ways we wouldn’t work together in a more serious arrangement, leaving us free to pick up where we’d left off as lovers. A thread in a needle in a haystack, I suppose.

Friedman also shares that she's been sexually assaulted in the past, and that she is, historically, a "serial monogamist" who would find herself sleeping with someone one night, and waking up in a long-term relationship with them the next morning. She displays a great deal of vulnerability to her considerable readership when she describes the heartache she felt after a breakup, and during long periods of time spent without a romantic and/or sexual partner. While I agree with Walsh's overall assessment that Friedman's post gives a pretty clear picture of an emotionally fragile and vulnerable woman who lacks a healthy amount of self-confidence, I think the answer to this problem is somewhere in between Friedman's and Walsh's points of view. Amanda Marcotte interviewed Friedman about her blog post, which made the rounds amongst the feminist blogosphere quickly. In a concluding statement, Friedman says,

...there is an entirely other way to look at sex that I think more and more people are turning on to and understanding, which is that it really is just a collaborative performance between two or more people. And it doesn’t matter what your gender is. It doesn’t matter how many people are there. It doesn’t matter if it’s anonymous. What matters is: are you both having a good time?

I can get behind parts of this "other way" of looking at sex; it is certainly possible for both women and men to have casual or otherwise non-committed sexual experiences that are enjoyable for all parties and do not cause emotional conflict. But not as the only option. And while Friedman pays lip service to the idea that traditional views on sex and relationships can have value, she really seems to be painting a picture of what she wants to believe is the ideal for all human sexuality. And she, and many others in the "sex-positive" camp, are making it seem like this is the only way that we should strive to engage with each other sexually, that anything more than casual, nonchalant sex is passe or repressed. That's not the official stance of the movement, but it comes out sounding like it in popular culture, and that can be dangerous for a young woman to read, believe, and attempt if she isn't really going to enjoy a sex life of that nature.

It seems to me that the arguments forming over this idea that women can engage in casual sex, or "hook up culture," are missing the point. The point isn't that women are by nature incapable of enjoying or benefiting from casual sexual relationships. It's not that casual sexual relationships are always (or ever) healing or healthy. It's not that men all want sex and women all want (monogamous) relationships (with men).

What's really important, and what's been missing all along from this dialogue, is the importance of each person being completely sure, ready, and enthusiastic about the sexual encounter; it's about honesty and communication between partners, and ensuring that the people involved have the same goals. Of course a sexual relationship will end in heartache and pain for a woman if she's having sex in order to form a monogamous relationship with a person who isn't interested in the same thing. This isn't rocket science, and need not be debated so ferociously. And if it turns out that, after having done some soul-searching and getting to know oneself means that, ultimately, fewer women will be engaging in non-committed sexual relationships, then, so what? The goal shouldn't be to have as much sex as we think men are having, or in the same ways, or for the same reasons. We don't negate our goals for equality between genders or sexes by saying "no" to casual sex if we don't want to engage in it. The goal is to make sure that when we are having sex, we are doing so because it makes us happy, because we enjoy the experience, because it's something that we want. Walsh agrees with this in later comments on her post responding to Marcotte and Friedman's interview:

I do not have a negative view of sex without commitment – which is how I’ll define casual sex. In truth, I think it’s very, very difficult for women to get commitment first, and I don’t want to encourage women to embrace a strategy that will work 10% of the time. Although my discussing the sexual marketplace drives these women crazy, the truth is that there just aren’t many guys around who will commit without knowing that the hooking up is good. I also have sat around my kitchen table with girls who had positive, and sometimes hilarious, casual experiences. The ones that work best, IMO, are those where the woman has ZERO expectations for further contact, either because she doesn’t even know the guy, the geography is impossible, or she has no desire to interact with him on any other level.

That is the kind of casual sex I had in my own youth, and I never once felt badly about myself afterwards.

While I'd disagree with the broad generalizations of men's intentions that Walsh employs, I agree wholeheartedly that a casual sexual encounter between two (or more) people who have the same goals and the same desires is not doomed to end in heartbreak. I also believe, though, that there are many, many men who don't want casual hookups, and are more interested in committed relationships. In my experience, which I don't consider to be particularly unusual, the majority of men I have dated in the past and know now are only interested in committed relationships.

It's not about policing anyone's sexuality or expression; there is not an objective good or bad way to express sexuality. There is no universal sexual behavior or desire that we should all strive to achieve. It's about learning how to identify what you, as a person, want and need, and acting accordingly. We shouldn't be arguing about how, when, and with whom other women should be expressing their sexuality; this is pointless. We should be focusing on how to ensure that young women are equipped with the tools needed to make sound decisions about her own sexuality, for herself.