It’s not the sex, it’s the sexism
Rachel Simmons wrote yet another piece expressing concern that “hook-up culture” is damaging to girls, and this time, it’s actually getting taken seriously by feminist bloggers. The reason is that, unlike someone like Laura Sessions Stepp who is clearly acting out of prudery and a general disdain for the intelligence of young women, Simmons is responding to the pain she sees in the letters she gets from college aged women as an advice columnist for Teen Vogue. Simmons also has feminist values, and struggles with what she perceives as a genuine gap between her feminist ideal that states that men and women are both sexual and emotional creatures, and a torrent of mail from young women who are having sex with guys in an attempt to win them over, only to find themselves kept on a string. And more in sorrow than in anger, she concludes that commitment does happen for young women because they withhold sexual favors and only dole them out in exchange for this commitment, and that “old ways”—while completely sexist, because they purported that men want sex and women want commitment, and there’s a tense exchange between the two, and that love is functionally transactional—at least gave girls a card to play.
I enjoyed Kate Harding’s impassioned response, but I’m going to attack the power struggle issue that Simmons identifies with a different tactic, by talking about power itself and what creates it. I fully accept that Simmons might be perceiving a real struggle on college campuses, where many young women want boyfriends, but most young men want to keep their options open while still getting laid, and this is causing a lot of pain for young women, because they don’t get what they want, but guys get what they want. But I reject the sex-obsessed interpretation of how this struggle came to be. (Which is that young women are not sexually motivated, so they can use sex as a weapon to force commitment.) When I see such a large scale power struggle between men and women, I tend to think the reason is rarely biology, and usually socially constructed sexism. Experimenting with this starting point, I think I have a much better explanation for what’s going on: Boys have power over girls in the “hook-up culture” because boys have power over girls in a male-dominated society. And that this is true in any sexual milieu, and that Simmons commits the error of nostalgia, even when she’s trying not to, when she thinks women had more power over men in the past because they withheld sex (under duress).
Let’s start with the past and work up to the present. She leans on Kathleen Bogle, who wrote a book that is more scientific than other hook-up panic books, and much more calm, and so has been given a pass by feminists. She quotes Bogle:
Bogle opens with some downright cool history: In the first decade of the twentieth century, a young man could only see a woman of interest if she and her mother permitted him to “call” on them together. In other words, the women controlled the event.
Cut to a hundred years later: in today’s hook up culture, physical appearance, status and gender conformity determine who gets called on, and Jack, a sophomore, tells Bogle about party life at school: “Well, talking amongst my friends, we decided that girls travel in threes: there’s the hot one, there’s the fat one, and there’s the one that’s just there.” Er, we’ve come a long way, baby.
Actually, women did not control the event, as anyone who has read even a single piece of literature from the actual era of calling could tell you. The woman still had the symbolic power women have always had, which is the technical right to say no, but they had no initiation power. And men didn’t spread around courting in some socialist fashion. Just as now, back then men had the sole power to determine how much social status a single woman had by choosing whether or not to court her. Not every woman was Scarlett O’Hara, with a dozen suitors hanging off the front porch. Even then, there were “fat” ones, “hot” ones, and ones that are “just there”, and the hot ones got all the social status and all the suitors. Men controlled the social validation of women then, in a way that’s far more complete than now, because back then, being unchosen long enough meant you were left a spinster, which was even more toxic than it is now. So really, the only women with the full right to say no where the ones pre-chosen by men to have lots of options. Nowadays, women at least have the right to turn their nose up to men who have no charms, because we’re not forced to marry men we don’t like to avoid spinsterhood.
But courtship then faded into dating.
According to Bogle, in the “dating era” (just the use of the word “era” tells you where college dating has gone), men asked women on dates with the hope that something sexual might happen at the end.
This is where we start to see the strand that connects these eras. In the dating era, women were able to dangle the promise of sex to get what they needed from men, which was, say it with me now, social validation. If you read original sources, it seems in some social circles, getting dates was basically the end-all, be-all of a woman’s social life. Certainly, for my generation that was already moving into the casual column, there were remnants of this old order, such as school dances you couldn’t attend without a date. (A rule that people with mixed-gender friends have always subverted by having platonic “dates”.) Men therefore controlled women’s social value completely, yet again. A woman who couldn’t get dates was a common and tragic circumstances, as her social life was severely limited. As usual, there were the “fat” ones, the “hot” ones, and the ones that are “just there”, and your status in your community depended largely on how much attention and validation you got from men.
Cue the “hook-up culture”. The strand continues—men’s social status comes from men, and women’s social status comes from men. When people concern troll the hook-up culture, they rarely talk about how young women might want a commitment for reasons outside of Twu Wuv, but as someone who does remember college pretty well as it drifted into this hook-up culture, I can say firmly that getting a capital-B boyfriend was a huge source of social validation and status. But for men doing the validating, there’s not actually much value in monogamy (outside of Twu Wuv). They give something—validation—and instead of getting anything for it, they end up having to pay the price of not having their options open. Who wants that? Plus, power corrupts, as I can tell you from my own ugly college dating experiences and the ones I saw around me. The aching need that women have for validation can make them easy to manipulate, and sadly, quite a few men enjoy doing that. But I submit to you, dear reader, that as sexist as all this is, it’s still better than in the past. At least nowadays young women are able to leave their houses without male accompaniment. Parties and dances not only don’t require dates, according to the hand-wringers, dates are almost verboten. So you can be the “fat” one, the “hot” one”, or the one that’s “just there”, and you still get to have fun. We have a long way to go, but feminism did achieve that quiet, small victory.
Critics of the “hook-up culture” quietly tend to accept that while these dynamics dominate the college years, even most of them accept that something shifts when people hit their 20s, and suddenly dating and commitment become the norm. Of course, the fact that it all evens out in the end isn’t going to stop the critics—those from the religious right figure that since women aren’t virgins, they’re spoiled, and the less conservative (but still pretty conservative) ones like Laura Sessions Stepp have some vague concerns that you don’t know how to date if your career in monogamy starts at 21 instead of 17. But while I think those concerns are silly, I have to wonder why no one stops to think about what kind of changes bring these other changes. If you think the power imbalance is due to women selling out sex, this power imbalance should continue into infinity, right? It’s not like single women quit fucking when they turn 21. So what changes?
If you look at it from my perspective, however, the change is really obvious—as you drift from adolescence to adulthood, the severe power imbalance on the social scene between men and women evens out more. As we mature, we gain jobs and homes of our own, and become more sure in our tastes and our friendships. For women, this is an enormous power grab. The amount of our social value derived from male attention shrinks as more of our social value comes from our jobs and the image we project in the world. You can see this just from the difference in how women dress, honestly—very few women over 21 are going to stand around in microminis, shivering in the cold in order to grab some of that precious male attention. Even as the world continues to be sexist, women start to learn to self-validate more, and they need less from men.
In the meantime, men lose a lot of their homosocial support system. Even men who are the best at maintaining friendships outside of college, where you have roommates and endless hours to sit around drinking and playing video games, still find that they have less time to devote to each other. Misogynist displays of power over women start to lose their allure with maturity; men who come into themselves have less need to dominate women to get that buzz of self-esteem. Getting a girlfriend starts to look more appealing as that would both replenish emotional support, and because the stigma of being “pussy whipped” by the mere fact of showing enough esteem for a woman to socially validate her fades away. And as soon as one guy abandons the immature “girls and dating are GROSS” thing, the stigma loses its grip and they start to fall like dominoes. The possibility of cohabitation and marriage adds to women’s value to men, as well. (Even if men did half the housework, the benefits of living with someone usually outweigh the drawbacks enough to keep that value in place, except for loners.) Men also start to find more validation from career and interests, and need less support from other men, which reduces the incentives to engage in homosocial misogynist joking and displays.
And once the dynamic starts to shift, it creates a feedback loop. As both men and women get better at internally-directed self-esteem, they become legitimately more attractive, and real love between partners becomes more of a possibility. Dating and falling in love for its own sake becomes more attractive, and so that becomes more of a priority for both men and women.
Of course, that doesn’t do much for young women in the here and now who are suffering from their extreme need for male validation that young men are exploiting. What do we do for them? I’m not really sure that telling them to quit fucking is going to get the job done, because it doesn’t address the underlying issue. If you’re the sole individual, you get no benefit from that, since the guys will just take their validating attention to others who are willing to play ball. If women come together collectively to withhold sex, I still don’t think that’s going to work out, because the underlying issue—that men get to define women in these youth cultures—hasn’t been addressed at all, and you’re still going to have women sobbing into their pillows because lack of male validation is leaving them as social pariahs.
Honestly, I think we’re already on the right path, if we’re not at the destination. We’re moving towards giving girls ways to define themselves outside of male attention—sports, academics, non-sexual friendships, even their LiveJournals. That they can go out in groups and then perhaps hook up is already better than a system where they have to be selected by a man to even go out. The girls are lurching in the right direction, but what needs to happen now is more attention paid to the boys. How can we discourage young men from validating each other based on displays of misogyny? How can we get boys to appreciate girls more as human beings? How can we dismantle a system where social status in youth cultures is controlled strictly by young men? These are the questions we need to be asking.