False dichotomies

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, May 14, 2010 23:07 EDT
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I didn’t initially think I had much to add to Tracy Clark-Flory refuting yet another round of trend stories suggesting that young women are suddenly embracing chastity (I’m going to pitch a story one day about young men suddenly renouncing their slutty ways and see if anyone bites), the most audacious of which was written by Caitlin Flanagan, who went as far as to suggest that young women want boyfriends because they really don’t like sex. (One would think if you don’t like sex, having a very good friend would be a preferable option.) Clark-Flory rounds it off with a great paragraph:

What’s often lost in the never-ending stream of stories about the latest trend in female sexual culture is the nuance and diversity of individual experience; young women are treated as symbols of the culture at large and spokespeople for their entire generation. Not only does that tend to cheat others of their unique voice, but women like Chen inevitably end up feeling terribly misrepresented and misunderstood.

But seriously, read the whole post.

I do have something to add that bugs me, and I hate to sound like a broken record on this, but I have to point this out. These stories rely on a couple of major fallacies. One is the old-fashioned false dichotomy, and one is the assumption that people are static and never-changing. The latter is one of the ones that throws me for a loop. It’s assumed that a 13-year-old girl who has fantasies about ever-loyal vampires from the Twilight series will be a 25-year-old woman who feels the same, when of course a 25-year-old woman might actually see those fantasies as the last thing she could ever want. That in turn implies that learning from experience is automatically a horrible thing. It’s not surprising that a bunch of college freshmen—an age that’s marked by feelings of naivete and insecurity—might report being desperate to be validated by a boyfriend, any boyfriend. But it doesn’t follow that a college senior who is choosing mostly casual hook-ups is deceiving herself. She might have learned a thing or two, and may have realized that it’s better to wait for the right guy to commit instead of clinging to anyone who looks at you twice.

And that leads me to the other fallacy: the false dichotomy. The virgin/whore dilemma is never far away from these discussions, no matter how much any individual writer avoids those terms. The main one in play here is the idea that either you “hook up” (i.e. have casual sex) or you have a boyfriend, but you can’t do both. And sure, perhaps not at any single moment in time, at least not without cheating or polyamory being in play, but in reality many women do both. In fact, I’d say the majority of women who engage in casual sex also have committed relationships, when they meet the right guy. We all know it, but somehow this knowledge never seems to penetrate the skulls of people worrying about the “hook-up culture”.

Of course, when false dichotomies about female behavior are in play, look for an agenda. The notion that women who hook up are a discrete group from those who have boyfriends reminds me of the anti-choice myth that posits that women who have abortions are a separate group from women who have children. In fact, most women who have abortions already have children, and most of the rest will one day. Same story with the hook-up false dichotomy. Whenever it pops up, look out. The person pushing it is trying to imply to women that there is no such thing as a man who can love a woman with sexual experience—and that this can never change, so you have to live with it. Both assertions are wrong.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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