Friday, February 26, 2010

In which Rachel Simmons fucks up but good.

For a piece that actually has a lot going for it, this still manages to fail pretty epically.

Simmons's primary point is that college "hookup culture" puts a lot of young women in tough spots, because men are given the power to decide whether a hookup is going to lead to a relationship, and women often have to have the sex and then hold their breath for the date. And there's some truth to that.

But throughout the piece, she just takes for granted the fact that what young women want is relationships (with men), and what young men want is sex (with women). By relying on essentialized conceptions of male and female roles in straight sexuality, she not only does damage directly, but also prevents her primary point from being as deep as it could be.

Part of what's really troubling about hookup culture is that it's juxtaposed with the broader trend of slut-shaming throughout patriarchal culture. The background of this is that expectations are constructed that normal, nice young women should want nothing but long-term, monogamous relationships, and should confine their sexuality to that context (Simmons's piece, incidentally, is a great example of how those expectations get constructed). These norms are reinforced by the economic reality that women make less money than men -- and that when relationships do break down, they're saddled with the kids.

It's this context that makes straight hookup culture so fraught, because it denies women the option of securing a commitment before sex -- and the withholding of sex was one of the few bargaining chips women had in securing that commitment (remember that hideous old slogan, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?").

But these aren't problems with sexual liberation -- just like the troubles of army moms aren't the result of women being allowed into the army. The stories Simmons tells aren't stories about liberation -- they're stories about coercion. This is a tale of how patriarchal culture (or, perhaps, a patriarchal subculture) accepts the trappings of feminism by picking up the word "empowered," then conflates "empowered sex" with "lots of sex," and pressures women to have lots of sex. It's a story about how you can't have straight sexual empowerment -- how you can't have straight sex on equal footing -- unless you also equally distribute the consequences of that sex.

Women are put into the awkward place where they're supposed to want to have sex only with men in stable relationships (and this conditioned desire is reinforced by economic coercion), but they have to have sex with men outside of stable relationships to get that -- and this is used to justify shaming their "irresponsible" decisions, and saddling them with a disproportionate share of the consequences of those decisions -- which feeds back into the whole "economic coercion" thing.

Add to this the "men ask, women swoon" dynamic, which I haven't even started to get into here.

So yeah, hookup culture is fucked up. But it's not fucked up for its promiscuity -- there's nothing wrong with promiscuity in principle. It's fucked up in its coerced promiscuity, and its unequal distribution of the consequences of promiscuity.

That said, my favorite part of the Simmons piece was a little parenthetical near the end: "(and I, like Bogle, am not discussing the lives of GLTBQ students here)."

Oh, okay. Because not talking about GLBTQ students isn't, you know, a problem or anything. It's not like anyone's, say, invented a word to describe what's wrong with that. No, it's probably fine to use "hookup culture" to mean "straight hookup culture," and assume that everyone knows what you mean.

UPDATE: Other writing on this Simmons piece here, from Amanda Marcotte, and here, from Kate Harding (and more linked from the original post). And a follow-up from me, after reading Marcotte, here.


  1. Okay, you do make some good points, but...wasn't Simmons' whole point that she hears again and again from women who DO want committed relationships but have accepted the hookup norm, and that the current state of things has them believing that this is the way to GET that lasting relationship they want, or think they want? It doesn't say anything about women who are happy with this state of affairs, true--but maybe those women aren't writing to her at Teen Vogue. She's addressing a particular segment of the population, and just because she addresses them doesn't mean she thinks they represent the whole population.

    "fucks up but good" is nice and inflammatory and will doubtless drive lots of traffic here, but I think "misses the mark somewhat" might have been a little more on target.

  2. As Jenn points out...FAIL

  3. #Jenn - But she's not just talking about her readership at Teen Vogue. Those are the people writing to her, but she and other authors she mentions not only extrapolate this into a representative sample of all American womankind, they propose an awful solution. Instead of suggesting that we teach girls and boys (the future women and men) to communicate their needs, respect the needs of others, and not settle for less than the same respect, she waxes romantic about the days when unmarried (upper class, white) women required chaperones. Because the way to fix this is to make women more like children, instead of treating us like adults.

  4. @Jenn,

    In the context of the rest of what I wrote, I think acting as though the problem is promiscuity -- and reproducing stereotypes about gender roles in relationships is kind of a big deal.

    And extending a few letters from readers of Teen Vogue (she quotes exactly one) to a statement as broad as she seems to be making about what girls want is pretty severely problematic (especially since there's definitely a selection bias when you look at who asks for advice about these things).

  5. I thought it was fairly clear that in her eyes the problem was not promiscuity, it was girls engaging in sexual behavior not because they want to but because they think that's the only way they can eventually get into a relationship. I did not see her taking for granted that all young women want relationships with young men and that all young men want sex with young women; I saw her saying that clearly in her experience ENOUGH young women want those relationships and thus relinquish any position of power they might have had in order to get them, that this is something maybe we need to pay attention to. And repeating the oft-heard otherwingfeminist lament of "just because we don't want to be stereotyped doesn't mean all of a sudden there will be no women left standing where the stereotype was and please don't call relationship-seekers antifeminists"...I'm getting tired of that one, but your post does make me realize maybe the lament still needs to be repeated a few more times, because a lot of people still don't get it. And I don't hear her waxing romantic about the good old days, I hear her taking a good look at how it was (which needed to change), and how things are now (which also need to change), and see if there's anything we had then that we maybe shouldn't have let go of so quickly.

    I do think she missed the mark, and that any article of this nature, if it didn't contain a really good representation of the "other" side and of what we've GAINED, was setting itself up for the kind of lambasting you've given her. And that the comment she clearly made trying to NOT dismiss GLBTQ students and assume that they fit into the category she's describing was made with *facepalm* clumsiness and sounded offensive and dismissive...and merits a big old apology.

    The good news is that she read and responded to comments by readers and shifted her perspective a lot. But "fucks up but good," again, is such an over the top overstatement that it makes me inclined to not take you seriously and to dismiss you as someone looking to get angry at anything you possibly can.

  6. @Jenn,

    Maybe you're right, and I did overstate it a bit.

    It's true that she mostly phrases the problem as being about control, rather than promiscuity. But it's always phrased in terms of men's ability to delay women's desire to get into long-term monogamous relationships, already! Mostly it's implicit -- "friends with benefits" and "booty calls" are assumed to be "relationship categories determined by guys" -- but occasionally it's explicit -- "wasn’t there something about that framework that made more space for a young woman’s feelings and needs?"

    And you're right, of course, that some women still do want relationships -- and it needs to be okay to talk about them, and to talk about the ways patriarchal hook-up culture makes it difficult for them to seek those relationships. But that doesn't make it okay to act like those are the only women who need to be included.

    In retrospect, maybe I was more inflammatory than I needed to be -- I think Kate Harding said a lot of the same things in a much more levelheaded tone.

    A lot of what I was reacting to was Simmons's tone in the comments: "I should be able to talk about women’s powerlessness in a sexual culture without being told that I’m reproducing sexist assumptions." The "why's everyone picking on me?" sort of handwringing vibe there got to me -- it's a way-too-easy response to a feminist critique. As you note, she's dropped that and has started taking these criticisms seriously, which I appreciate.

  7. I disagree with you wholeheartedly. This hook up culture even pervades high school now, and rapidly is infecting middle schools. So you are beginning to see middle school girls giving hand jobs and blow jobs to boys who are not their boyfriends. I am only 40 but this sort of activity would have been unthinkable when I was in my early teens -- even with a serious "boyfriend" -- if such a thing can exist when you are 12. This sexual intimacy in a complete vacuum of emotion, commitment or responsibility bodes ill for both the boys and the girls. If this is how both boys and girls are first experiencing intimate relationships with the opposite sex, how on earth can they be expected to have healthy ones as adults?

    It is not anti-feminist to suggest that men and women are different and want different things from a relationship. Since the human race started dragging its hairy knuckled, men have been the sexual aggressors. But in the short space between Monica's presidential blowjob and now, we seem to have overturned thousands of years of human development. And although there may be some women out there that just want to hook up, time and time again, with no desire to enter into any sort of intimate, emotional relationship (I wanted to say "meaningful relationship" but figured you would jump all over that language), they are probably very rare.

    As the mother of three young boys, I am preoccupied with how to raise them to respect women and value their relationships with them when they are bombarded with images of (as Simmons puts it) sexualization masquerading as girl power. As a result of this, now girls are more sexually aggressive, which certainly will make things "easy" for them as adolescent boys and very tough for me as their mother.

    It is a sad situation all around.

    Although I have a real problem with "slut-shaming" in our culture (there is a complete absebce of an equivalent for men, no?) I have to say...I can't think of a single instance where being promiscuous has really left a woman feeling empowered, improved her self-esteem, or otherwise enhanced her life. Because there is always a man involved. I believe this is why they invented vibrators!

  8. @the March 10th Anonymous commenter,

    Physical sex and emotional connection do not necessarily have to correlate in the fashion that you expect them to. No offense to you personally, but upon reviewing the sexual-emotional dynamics of your generation as a whole, I am not compelled to put much stock in your popular conservative opinion. The history of how screwed up relationships have been due to sexual repression is a long, sad, and mainstream history.

    Naturally, I agree with you that sexual acts should not just be cold and callous, but who says that adolescents shouldn't experiment sexually with each other?

    Human relationships have a great deal of potential. Clearly this potential has not been reached yet. Therefore, something must be wrong with old-school traditional conservative values. Furthermore, extreme "free-love" ideals haven't gotten us there either. A great change in thinking must be needed.



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