News bulletin: men have hearts that break

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, June 15, 2010 13:37 EDT
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Conservative hand-wringing over young women having sex isn’t due to the double standard, we’re always being told. Oh no!, they say. We’d be totally indifferent to women having sex outside of our narrow confines if it wasn’t so harmful. But girls so badly want boyfriends! And of course, boys couldn’t possibly want girlfriends—that would imply that it’s possible for men to appreciate women for anything but sexual release—so the only way for girls to get what they want is to use sex as a bargaining chip. (It’s not like women like sex, anyway, at least according to Caitlin Flanagan.) Plus, girls are so tender-hearted that a single rejection usually kills them, so it’s best to keep them locked up until they get married, because we know no relationship has ever gone sour after the ring was in place.

The notion that the patriarchal double standard is there to protect women should be laughable to anyone who knows a thing about history, but it also fails the common sense standard of today. The belief that there’s some fancy new “hook-up culture” that lets young men off the hook for pretending to love women defies the evidence before our own eyes that both sexes are capable of infatuation, as well as of craving sexual adventures. (It also presumes that young women are so stupid that they’ll be satisfied with fake love, despite their supposed obsession with the real deal. And it has to be fake—if you assume that the only difference between men committing and not committing is whether or not women hold out on the sex, then you have to believe men are just pretending to be in love to get to the sex.) To believe this myth, you also have to overlook reams of statistical evidence that show that sexual health outcomes are improving, and that most young people lose their virginity in the context of a monogamous relationship. You also have to pretend that having a boyfriend doesn’t come with its own set of risks, many which are more severe than the risks you run in a casual hook-up. (The notion that having a boyfriend is a rape shield doesn’t take in to account the fact that boyfriends are perfectly capable of raping. I’ll add that rapists don’t really care if you have a boyfriend before they rape you, and I suspect many of them target women who have boyfriends. After all, you can dismiss her rape accusations after the fact by saying she’s trying to cover the fact that she cheated.) But above all, you have to swallow the notion that men are indifferent to hostile to committed relationships as a rule, especially when they’re young. You know, as compared to young women, who live and breathe to be in a relationship.

What then to make of the new study showing men 18-23 are actually more torn up by the end of relationships than women of that age group? Even the researchers seemed surprised by this result; that’s how strong the stereotype that young men don’t get invested in intimacy is. The reason isn’t that men are more tender-hearted than women. Both sexes are, gasp, human beings and therefore are sad when they lose a relationship. The reason that men have trouble bouncing back is that our culture doesn’t create enough room for men to heal. Men are discouraged from having close friendships where they can talk this stuff out (at least when they’re younger), and they’re encouraged to put on a stoic face and bury pain deep inside. It’s no surprise to many of us here, I’m sure, that a little crying it out can aid recovery. That men aren’t given that space is just another example of how Patriarchy Hurts Men Too (PHMT).

But this study also lays waste to the hardened belief that “hook-up culture” is a big con that men are running on women to get out of having to get involved in relationships. We all knew that the fundamental underlying assumption of the hysteria—which is that men are lovable but women aren’t, so women are forever falling in love while men are running away—was false. But it’s good to rack up some studies to fling in the faces of the people that go on and on about this.

As an aside, one of the funniest things I’ve noticed when arguing with folks who are believers in the Big Con being run on young women is that they’ve built it up in their heads that this is a brand new thing, somehow different from all previous generations and the way they engage in sexual adventures between relationships. But even in the most lurid, hysterical descriptions of the “hook-up culture”, I see basically the same behavior that was going on when I was in college, and in the years after. I can’t say that I ever hooked up with a guy when I was young and had my heart crushed because I was too stupid to know the score. In my experience and what I saw going on with friends, it was more mundane. Hook-ups happen because young people have a lot of hormones and a lot of sexual options, but they don’t have an easy time finding someone that really does it for them in a long term kind of way. This shouldn’t be surprising—even when you’re an adult and the people you date are more likely to be mature and responsible, you find that you have to kiss a lot of frogs. What should seem obvious is that casual sex is a perfectly logical response to this set of circumstances. In addition, the people I’ve known who slept around more than average usually had another reason to avoid deeper entanglements, often because they had an on-again, off-again relationship that they weren’t completely over, and it seemed unfair to drag a third party into this. So, they kept it casual. Point being, overly simplistic explanations for why people do what they do lead to this sort of hysteria. If you actually know what goes in to the decision to have casual sex, it often becomes way easier to understand.

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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