Posted at 1:09 PM Feb 26, 2010
By Andrea Grimes
The evil spectre of hook-up culture rears its ugly head yet again, this time in an essay from Teen Vogue relationship columnist Rachel Simmons, who seems to really need to know whether hooking up is Definitely Good or Definitely Bad for All Girls, Everywhere. You know, not that that's an impossible, stupid, and unrealistic desire or anything.
It's almost not even worth reading, because it brings up every yawn-inducing scare tactic favored by people who can't seem to picture women as anything but relationship-desiring, fragile things which must either be taken care of by Men or Feminism, nuances of being an actual human be damned. It's as if everyone who writes about hook-up culture can't believe that there are a diversity of people, loves and lives out there that make blanket answers to questions raised by shifting relationship standards hard to find. Anyway, here's the big, sad gist:
As a relationship advice columnist for Teen Vogue, I get a lot of mail from girls in "no strings attached" relationships. The girls describe themselves as "kind of" with a guy, "sort of" seeing him, or "hanging out" with him. The guy may be noncommittal, or worse, in another no-strings relationship. In the meantime, the girls have "fallen" for him or plead with me for advice on how to make him come around and be a real boyfriend.
These letters worry me. They signify a growing trend in girls' sexual lives where they are giving themselves to guys on guys' terms. They hook up first and ask later. The girls are expected to "be cool" about not formalizing the relationship. They repress their needs and feelings in order to maintain the connection. And they're letting guys call the shots about when it gets serious.
Well, you don't fucking say, Rachel! These girls are writing into a Teen Vogue relationship column because they have problems in their relationships. Of course it's going to seem like there's some vast terrible cry-fest going on among teen girls who are being taken advantage of by the mass crowd of hateful boys in the world, because the girls who are happy in their hook-ups, or relationships, or singledom, aren't going to be writing in to Teen Vogue for advice, now are they?
Now, just to be clear, I'm all for the freedom to hook up. But let's face it: despite our desire to give women the freedom to plunder the bar scene and flex their sexual appetites, it would appear a whole lot of them are pretty happy playing by old school rules, thank you very much. Incidentally, one of the women smart enough to figure this out just sold her 5 billionth book, or something like that.
Does that make me a right-winger? Can I still be a feminist and say that I'm against this brand of sexual freedom? I fear feminism has been backed into a corner here. It's become antifeminist to want a guy to buy you dinner and hold the door for you. Yet - picture me ducking behind bullet proof glass as I type this -- wasn't there something about that framework that made more space for a young woman's feelings and needs?
Anyone who wonders if she can be a feminist and be against sexual (or any other) freedom probably has such a limited understanding of actual feminism that even asking the question is pointless. It has not "become antifeminist to want a guy to buy you dinner and hold the door for you." It has become antifeminist to believe that deep down, that is what every girl wants--which is what Simmons is more or less arguing, based on the fact that much of her interactions with teens are with sad girls who want relationship advice, which is basically like an employee of Taco Bell saying everyone in the world loves tacos because that's all she ever sells to people. Rachel, feminism is about choice. And somebody's choice might be to have a dude buy her dinner. Or to fuck him without having to commit to him. Welcome to the third wave, lady.
(As a perhaps obvious aside: is it any wonder people get their drawers in a wad over teenage girls and sex when pretty much no one has thought to ask teenage boys if hooking up makes them feel bad sometimes, too? It doesn't even occur to people. As a girl who was once a teen, and who once had teen boy friends, I can say for certain that boys can and do feel taken advantage of--emotionally and sexually--by girls.)
Of course, one could be forgiven (well, if one were not, say, supposed to be a person to be asked advice of and respected) for thinking hooking up is bad for girls and contrary to what they really want in their heart of hearts. Take, for example, one of the most dominant narratives in American culture: bad boy meets good girl, treats her badly, then realizes his mistake, changes his life, and ends up all kittens and rainbows with her forever.
It's basically the plot of every romantic comedy made in the last 25 years. It's in Twilight. It's Garden State. It's in The O.C. and it's in Grey's Anatomy. It's Carrie and Big in Sex and the City. Almost all of our modern love stories revolve around some magical realization on the part of one man, who had only but to meet the right woman, and he was forever changed. Is it any wonder many guys feel like they have free reign to poke away until they meet that "right" girl, and that many girls will continue to allow said poking hoping that they have the magical vagina--even if, given some critical freedom and divergent narratives, girls might realize that that's not even what they really want? That, if shown even a few examples of alternative storylines, they might pick something different? You shove enough crud down peoples' throats, and they're eventually going to learn to swallow, and then like, it. I mean, the magic of hegemony is that you can't see it working. Hence desires that are, in fact, culturally constructed are allowed to be seen as natural and naturally gendered.
The answer to the so-called disservice that hook-up culture does to girls is not, as Simmons and many conservatives suggest, to lament some magical time when people only went steady and got married at the first opportunity (seriously?), but to educate young men to be emotionally sensitive and mature, and to reward that sensitivity culturally and socially, and to stop pressuring girls to believe that the only good or real relationship is filled with magical lifetime commitment.
As it is now, we are teaching our kids two very different life models: adolescent boys are encouraged to be players, to be tough, to keep their emotions at bay (or only to express them in rock music, after which they are allowed to go screw a bunch of groupies they shouldn't care about). And the messages sent to adolescent girls are extremely complicated: on the one hand, love rules all and finding The One True Boy (and changing yourself to be with him) is the goal of all life--yet on the other hand, one should be sexy (on men's terms), but not promiscuous, a willing receptacle for whatever men want, but also to be "her own" woman (again, as long as "her own" really means adhering to specific hetero-normative ideas).
The hook-up panic just plain never rings true for me, mostly because out of my own personal experiences, I simply do not see a pattern among men doing one thing and women doing another thing. I have counseled many, many male friends through times when they felt they were being taken advantage of by girls. I have stopped dating guys who really wanted to be in relationships with me, and I didn't want one at all. I have dated guys who expressly wanted to be married to me. I have dated guys who never wanted to fuck the same thing twice--and I have ladyfriends who also love to bed-hop, and it doesn't bother them at all.
Fact is, if you're lazy and ignorant, it's easier to default to watered-down explanations for very complicated behaviors than to think critically about how complicated human relationships really are. After all, once you start thinking critically, you become responsible for your own actions. Terrifying. If we stopped listening to mass generalizations and really thought hard about all the diverse people and friendships and relationships we had, people would see very quickly that cultural narratives often obscure and oversimplify the truth rather than explain it.