Saturday, March 03, 2007

"Unfettered years of casual sex?"

Yesterday, in an attempt to procrastinate, I read the New York Times' review of Session Stepp's new book, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both. Ms. Stepp reports that "hooking up" has largely replaced dating among high school and college aged women. The phenonmenon of "hooking up" has harmful emotional and physical effects on young women, perhaps even leaving them unable to "forge meaningful relationships."

The article continues on to focus the article on a debate about feminism. It may be a "throw back" to envision or idealize young women in committed relationships as the healthiest form of sexual play; however, it seems clear Ms. Stepp conceptualized her intentions as feminist, rather than anti-feminist. Frankly, I don't think it is feminism's job to tell me with whom I can have sex, and how--but Ms. Stepp seems to want to engage in an act of demystification (that casual sex is harmful more often that it is not) rather than strong-arming women to acquiesce to a particular type of femininity.

I want to make it clear that I have not read her book, and thus, my criticisms and observation sare based soley off the aforementioned article.

Her critique appears to be gendered, and as such, perpetuates, rather than dismantles, an unfortunately gendered power dynamic in sexual relationships. The article all but ignores that men, too, feel pressures in the casual hook-up culture: pressure to perform, long and hard, to call, not to call, to care, not to care, to brag, etc. Their experiences can be just as alienating as women's--and to ignore that fact is to accept a vision of sexuality defined on male terms. The problem is not that I am sitting here waiting for "Mr. One Night Only" to call; it is that I am sitting here, and he there and we don't have the vocabularly to communicate, to say: I like you, or I don't, or let's do that again, or let's be friends, or maybe we should get to know you better, maybe we could be something, someday, when we're both ready...

These are chicken-and-egg arguments, hard to pin down, impossible to understand causality, because culture is nebulous and ever-changing and different from place to place. Rather than blame "casual sex" for emotional disconnectedness and misplaced desire, I think that the rhetoric of ease around casual sex constitutes a huge problem, rather than the existence of "unfettered years" of casual sex. Sex is hard, be it casual or not -- albeit hard in different ways--and the expectation that casual sex will be easy should go out with the bathwater. And of course, we should all assess our own levels and limits of comfort, not engage in actions that seem to us repulsive merely for social acceptance, and engage in whatever type of sexual activity we see fit.

If we talk about "hooking up" more, as a society, a community, or amongst friends, we can develop a vocabularly, an understanding that it is deep and profound and complex and murky for all parties involved--but can also be enjoyable, and safe, and even, dare I suggest, beautiful.

The article even quotes Ms. Stepp as saying: “This is what I love about the bloggers . . . They haven’t been out there interviewing young people for 10 years. They’re talking about their own college experience. Everyone’s had some sort of sexual experience and they all think they’re experts on it.” Perhaps I have fallen victim to the sin of hubris, as I am, undoubtedly, talking about my college experience, and have not spent 10 years interviewing young people. Indeed, I would probably even defer to expertise that young women (and men?) find casual sex more harmful than they had expected; that being said, I firmly, firmly believe that the answer is to understand the phenomenon and engage with it more intelligently, rather than advocate another, oftentimes equally pernicious and detrimental, form of sexual interaction. Is it really worse for us to sit by the phone waiting for "Mr. One Night Only" than to pin our hopes and dreams on one person at a young age, before having experienced more, before pursuing goals for ourselves? I really don't think I can ascertain any normatively desirable course of actionfor anyone save myself, but I do think grappling with the difficulty of relationships, casual or serious, together will do us good.

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