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.
…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.)