Twenty(-something) Questions

Leslie C. Bell
Hard to Get: 20-Something Women
and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom

(University of California Press, 2013)

Boxes of chocolates and red paper hearts are unavoidable fixtures of Valentine’s Day. But this year, the Hallmark holiday also inspired a different kind of display: a collective handwringing over the sex and dating lives of 20-something women.

The New York Times’s Alex Williams—whose trendspotting scoops have documented stay-at-home dads and Brooklynites who moved to Westchester—wondered whether texting and “group dates” had facilitated the “end of courtship.” Meanwhile, the Atlantic—whose micro-industry of how-we-live-now journalism has examined hookup culture, 30-something single women and the impossibility of work-life balance—aimed its crosshairs at Internet dating services, particularly OkCupid, and its potential to bankrupt monogamy with the promise of a never-ending supply of first dates. Also preoccupied with OkCupid was the Wall Street Journal, which published a book excerpt from Amy Webb, who found her husband on the site after designing a statistically knockout dating profile. (Good: straight hair, brevity. Bad: jobs, hobbies, a sense of humor.)

Add to the heap, Leslie C. Bell’s Hard to Get: 20-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom, a volume of case studies that dissects the confusion young women face when it comes to sex and love. Bell, a sociologist and psychotherapist with a private practice in Berkeley, California, has a relatively straightforward thesis: the generation of women born since the mid-1970s has been groomed for higher education and high-powered careers, to the detriment of their ability to build successful romantic relationships.

These women—the first to grow up with laws allowing abortion and banning gender discrimination—embody an unprecedented phenomenon, a “group of people trying to be autonomous and successful at work, and to have love and sex lives in which they express their vulnerability, need, and desire,” Bell writes. 

If the average woman loses her virginity at 17 and marries at 27, she spends a decade experimenting with different partners, while still facing internal and external pressures to marry before 30. Bell claims this is a recipe for “splitting,” a psychoanalytic term that describes “either/or” thought patterns and the insistence that one cannot feel two opposing desires at the same time.

“Today’s young women,” she writes, “are supposed to be liberated from old edicts about sex and love. Their twenties ought to be a decade of freedom and exploration. But in interviews and in my psychotherapy practice with young women, I have found them to be more confused than ever about not only how to get what they want, but what they want.”

Bell relies on multiple interviews with 20 women, all of them childless college graduates between 24 and 29 years old, who live in Northern California. The women come from varying racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, and a good chunk are queer, though her sample is admittedly not representative.

For most of these women, according to Bell, a focus on career and independence has rendered them ill-equipped to embrace the vulnerability needed for healthy couplings. Freedom and commitment, sexual satisfaction and purity, power and dependence are opposing, rather than overlapping, experiences.

Bell, who is about 5 to 10 years older than her subjects, divides them into three types: the sexual woman, who turns to casual sex to avoid losing her identity or autonomy in relationships; the relational woman, who sees fulfilling sex and stable relationships as mutually exclusive; and the less common desiring woman, who has managed to balance sex and love, often with the aid of helpful partners or healthy parental role models.

Some of Bell’s subjects are compelling. Jayanthi rebels against her traditional Indian upbringing with a series of harrowing sexual exploits. Phoebe, an outgoing 26-year-old, decides to settle with a man for whom she feels little passion. And a hardy Maria, traumatized as a young teen, accepts her sexuality after a boyfriend lovingly counsels her to masturbate.

But Bell is no storyteller, and her accounts of these women are often repetitive and overly clinical. An example: “When, in her early twenties, [Jayanthi] confronted her father about his withdrawal from her, he replied he did not know how to relate to an adult daughter who was sexually mature. She challenged him to try, and their relationship subsequently became closer.”

And aside from the obvious methodological flaws of extrapolating these tales to an entire generation, Bell is curiously silent on a major piece of the puzzle: men. For many of her subjects, the “splitting” resolves itself when they date other women. Indeed, more than three-quarters of her respondents who got what they wanted from relationships were lesbian, bisexual, or queer, suggesting that the “paradox of sexual freedom” has less to do with interior strife and more to do with men’s struggles to navigate a new frontier in gender relations.

That’s not to say that none of Bell’s material rings true. Among my 20-something female friends, a taboo on favoring relationships over career goals coexists with a (barely whispered) fear of spinsterhood. And the rules of dating seem both more egalitarian and more impenetrable than ever. But chalking up the pitfalls and pratfalls of relationships to some mass psychoanalytic failing? Well, that’s hard to get.

Contributor

Leigh Kamping-Carder

A Brooklyn-based journalist, Leigh Kamping-Carder has covered real estate, law, and the arts. She is the Web Editor of The Real Deal magazine.

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