Hard to Get is a powerful and intimate examination of the sex and love lives of the most liberated women in history—twenty-something American women who have had more opportunities, more positive role models, and more information than any previous generation. Drawing from her years of experience as a researcher and a psychotherapist, Leslie C. Bell takes us directly into the lives of young women who struggle to negotiate the complexities of sexual desire and pleasure, and to make sense of their historically unique but contradictory constellation of opportunities and challenges. In candid interviews, Bell’s subjects reveal that, despite having more choices than ever, they face great uncertainty about desire, sexuality, and relationships. Ground-breaking and highly readable, Hard to Get offers fascinating insights into the many ways that sex, love, and satisfying relationships prove surprisingly elusive to these young women as they navigate the new emotional landscape of the 21st century.
1. The Paradox of Sexual Freedom
Part I. The Sexual Woman
2. The New Taboo: Katie
3. The Bad Girl: Jayanthi
4. A Pill to Kill Desire: Claudia
Part II. The Relational Woman
5. The Good Girl: Alicia
6. On Not Having It All: Phoebe
Part III. The Desiring Woman
7. How Does She Do It? Maria and Susan
8. Maybe She’s Born with It: Sophia and Jeanette
9. Conclusion: What’s a Modern Woman to Do?
Appendix I. Splitting
Appendix II. Clinical Interviewing
Appendix III. Demographic Information about Respondents
Leslie C. Bell is a sociologist and psychotherapist who specializes in women's development and sexuality. She maintains a private practice in Berkeley, California.
“In this moving book, Leslie Bell gives us insight into the hearts and minds of 20-something women confronted with the emotional challenges of a culture that says they can have it all. Through poignant, rich individual narratives, Bell shows how professionally successful and sexually experienced young women wrestle with feelings of vulnerability and confusion about relationships and desire. 20-somethings will find relief and self-understanding through reading this book, and it will be of great help to those who treat and those who wish to understand them.”—Nancy J. Chodorow, author of Individualizing Gender and Sexuality: Theory and Practice
"Women should be assertive but not aggressive, feminine but not passive, honest but not overwhelming. But how? Especially for women between ages 17 (the average age for first sex) and 27 (the average age of marriage) the rules for how to be a woman are highly unclear. In this deeply wise, very lucid, and highly illuminating book Bell, a sociologist and psychotherapist, describes how women sometimes “split” their desires for connection, sex and professional success. And she points to ways of moving beyond the split. An important book for women – and men."—Arlie Hochschild, Author of The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times
“Leslie Bell introduces us to a new developmental period for 20 something women in which they are focused on sexual and relationship satisfaction. By sharing these women's stories Bell helps us to explore complex issues of ambivalence, subjectivity, and identity that are at the core of personal, relational and sexual fulfillment.”—C.J. Pascoe, author of Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School
“While popular portrayals of women and sex are glossy, voyeuristic, simplified, unemotional, or trite, Hard to Get offers rarely heard detailed stories that are told with emotional resonance and connection to women’s full lives and selves. Bell has made a superb contribution to our understanding about how women navigate sexuality in young adulthood in an era when they no longer must be married, and thus she has enlightened our understanding of women’s social, sexual, and psychological lives.”—Karin A. Martin, author of Puberty, Sexuality, and the Self: Boys and Girls at Adolescence
"Hard to Get shows us why, in the 21st Century, sex is easy but relationships are not. Every 20something woman who is having sex, but feels that something is amiss, should read this book."—Meg Jay, Ph.D., author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now
"Can today’s young women be independent and sexually agentic while also satisfying their relational needs for intimacy? Bell believes that they can, and insightfully uses women’s stories to reveal the inner and outer barriers to having it all."—Paula England, New York University
“Bell offers a profoundly original and important argument about why – despite gains in education and employment -- young women in America continue to be short-changed in sex and intimacy. And she gives us a new, compelling vision of what it would mean for them to attain true sexual liberation.”—Amy Schalet, author of Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex
“Female sexuality provides endless fascination; but how do actual young women find happiness in sex and love? Leslie Bell gives us an up-close look at twenty-something women at a cultural moment when they have more freedom than ever before, but their desires – sexual and relational – continue to confound. Bell navigates this complex terrain with compassion, keen insight, and an eye to social change.”—Daphne de Marneffe, PhD, author of Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life
Podcast interview with Leslie C. Bell, author of Hard to Get
The Paradox of Sexual Freedom
Excited yet embarrassed, Claudia, a twenty-eight-year-old postdoctoral researcher, told me about a one-night stand she'd had the night before our interview. I listened as she told me about the encounter: the fun of flirting with the man at a concert, the excitement and nervousness when it was still unclear what would happen, and the pleasure of being touched by someone she found so attractive. But I noticed that her pleasure gave way to worry that her strong sexual desires might get her into trouble. "I wish I weren't so horny, so I didn't need to go out and get it so much. I wish I could take a pill to kill my desire," she confided. Claudia felt some shame about her sexual desires and feared others might label her a "ho" for acting on them. She imagined that her Mexican Catholic family would be horrified if they knew about the number of sexual partners she'd had, that they would be devastated and disappointed that their daughter had not become the woman they raised her to be: a good girl who would marry her first boyfriend. At the same time, the strength of her sexual desires sometimes frightened her, and she feared that men might find them overwhelming. Claudia also worried that being in a relationship would mean a loss of her identity, as she had witnessed her mother sacrifice her dreams and adventurous spirit to be a wife and parent. Consequently, Claudia had not settled down, and she felt baffled at how difficult it had been to develop successful relationships with men. She had doggedly pursued her career goals as an academic and felt accomplished in that arena, but wondered why she hadn't had as much success in relationships.
At every turn and from every angle, Claudia was uncomfortable with the dimensions of her sexuality. Claudia, like many twenty-something women, was not playing hard to get. But good sex and relationships were proving elusive.
This is not the outcome Claudia's feminist foremothers dreamed for her. Today's young women were 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.
Did Claudia want a relationship? Maybe, but not too serious a relationship; she didn't want to be held back from pursuing her goals. Did she want casual sex? Maybe, but only if she could feel safe enough. Did she want to have regular orgasms? Yes, but she was afraid of losing too much control.
In this book, I explore what is going on with highly educated twenty-something women when they're not busy advancing their careers and professional lives in the twenty-first century. Freed from economic, social, and biological pressure to marry and reproduce in their twenties, I explore what's happening in their love and sex lives. A glance at young women in the media-see, for example, Natalie Portman's portrayal of the emotionally detached and high-achieving Emma in the 2011 film No Strings Attached, stories of twenty-something women outearning men, and reports of women outnumbering men on college campuses-might lead one to think that they're happily playing the field, sowing their wild oats, loving their independence and freedom, and building their careers before they settle down in their thirties. But this new developmental period is more complicated than simplified media representations would have us believe. Marriage and motherhood used to mark the transition to adulthood for women-highly educated or not. No longer is this the case. The black box of the twenties for contemporary women, the beneficiaries of so many gains for women in education, work, and sex, needs to be opened and understood.
Young women who are college-educated and childless are part of a new generation that has a longer time for self-exploration than did earlier generations of women. For many women, the twenties are no longer a time principally devoted to either partnership or children. They have more freedom than women a few generations ago would have imagined possible. This period would seem to be ripe with possibilities for sexual and relationship satisfaction.
I take a look at this new in-between period of early adulthood for twenty-somethings and how it offers women a mixed bag: opportunities, to be sure, but also retrograde messages about their identities as sexual beings, partners, and future mothers. And while they have plenty of training in how to be successful and in control of their careers, young women have little help or training, apart from the self-help aisle in their local bookstore, in how to manage these freedoms, mixed messages, and their own desires to get what they want from sex and love.
The absence of such useful training, combined with the new freedoms and mixed messages that characterize their twenties, contribute to a paradox of sexual freedom. Young women may appear to have more choices than ever before, but the opening up of cultural notions of what is acceptable for women generates great confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety. Some women then find shelter in the process of splitting-a defense that involves seeing the world in black-and-white terms-to resolve the internal conflicts they feel about their desires. Through the series of case studies in the chapters that follow, I tease out various strands of the internal conflicts that some women feel as they attempt to navigate early adulthood without, in many cases, being conscious of their panoply of mixed desires and motivations.
The Paradox of Sexual Freedom
This in-between period of early adulthood provides a window into the social, cultural, and economic changes that have been afoot for the past five decades. And twenty-something women bear the imprint of those changes. For these resourceful women, sex and relationships really can occur independent of marriage and reproduction in their twenties. The current average age of first sexual intercourse for girls is seventeen, leaving ten years of sexual and relationship activity before the current average age of marriage at twenty-seven. These women don't think twice about cohabiting with a partner, or about delaying marriage until their own careers are on track.
In formulating this study, I thought that these women would describe this time in their lives as one in which they were relatively free from social restrictions and proscriptions on sexuality and relationships, but through my research and my psychotherapy practice, I discovered a different story. Instead of feeling free, twenty-something women are weighed down by vying cultural notions about the kind of sex and relationships they should be having in their twenties. Be assertive, but not aggressive. Be feminine, but not too passive. Be sexually adventurous, but don't alienate men with your sexual prowess. Be honest and open, but don't overwhelm someone with too much personal information. They are taught to seek out a companionate relationship of equals. But at the same time they are instructed by increasingly popular arguments from the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology about irreconcilable differences between men and women. Meanwhile, 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. Given the discordant nature of these prescriptions, it isn't any wonder that the women I interviewed and counsel struggle to square these contradictory messages with their own individual experiences.
With relationships, women hear that they ought to use their twenties to "live it up" and not necessarily to be serious about relationships. In fact, they ought not care very much about relationships, and shouldn't be devastated when relationships don't work out. Hearing advice across the self-help spectrum-from The Rules, which admonishes them to pretend to be independent to get into a relationship, to He's Just Not That into You, which entreats them to stop being so needy and get on with their lives after a breakup-young women often struggle to admit that they need anyone, but it's particularly difficult to say that they need a man. At the same time, they are enjoined to remember that partnership and marriage are just around the corner, when they turn thirty, so the dating and experimentation of their twenties must result in a relationship, and must come to an end. At that point, books such as Marry Him advise that they find someone who is "good enough" and hold on to him for dear life.
This is a confusing set of messages with high stakes. If the goal is still marriage, what should young women do with all of their training in not needing anyone? What kind of a marriage should they hope for? It's difficult to square their experiences in their twenties with marriage, which inevitably involves need, compromise, dependence, and vulnerability.
When it comes to sex, women hear that they ought to spend their twenties being sexually experimental, but only to a point. There is a fine line between being experimental and being a slut. Their peers, television shows such as Sex and the City, and moviesseem to encourage sexual experimentation. And they may find advice about sexual positions to try in Glamour or Cosmopolitan magazines. But at the same time books, such as Unhooked and A Return to Modesty advise them to return to courtship practices from the early 1900s. And real women, not those in magazines, books, and movies, often contend with messages from their families, religions, and partners that they ought not to be sexually assertive, or sexually active at all.
These contradictory directives leave young women in a bind, and without much help in figuring out what they actually want. Every piece of "modern" advice about maintaining independence and using their twenties to explore and experiment sexually is layered over a piece of "old-fashioned" advice about getting married before it's "too late," not being too assertive or passionate in sex, and not being too sexually experienced.
These confusing messages are in contrast to the clear and helpful direction young women in the twenty-first century receive about how to succeed academically and professionally. Parents, educational institutions, workplaces, companies, and countless nonprofit organizations have focused on empowering girls and women to get ahead in fields and endeavors where they had lagged behind for generations. This training has often focused on developing a sense of control and mastery, and these efforts have largely succeeded. Today more women attend college than do men, and women make up close to half of all law and medical school graduates, although their entry into the highest echelons of these professions is still limited. But the skills twenty-something women have developed in getting ahead educationally and professionally have not translated well into getting what they want and need in sex and relationships.
When I began this project, I was a feminist sociologist starting my training as a psychotherapist. In my practice, I found that I was seeing a number of high-achieving twenty-something women who had trouble letting down their guard, who had difficulty being vulnerable and expressing needs, and who, despite their professed desire for satisfying sex and relationships, put a great deal of energy into protecting themselves from getting hurt. I wanted to understand what was going on with my patients and, more importantly, how I could use that understanding to help them get more of what they wanted. For reasons of confidentiality, I do not discuss patients in this book, but their experiences certainly inform my thinking about twenty-something women. The women described in detail in this book are those whom I interviewed. As a sociologist, feminist, and psychotherapist, I bring multiple perspectives to my analysis.
Freedom in Context
It is not coincidental that women born after 1972, a turning point in U.S. history for women in gaining formal equality with men, are the subject of this book. Title IX, which protects people from discrimination based on sex in educational programs that receive federal funding, passed in 1972 and has had a tremendous impact on girls' access to academics and athletics. By 1971, President Johnson's Executive Order 11375, which prohibits federal contractors from discrimination in employment on the basis of sex and mandates "affirmative" measures to eliminate job segregation by gender, had been fully implemented by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And in 1973, Roe v. Wade made restrictions on abortion illegal throughout the country. The early 1970s also saw a dramatic decline in the proportion of families that lived with a father who earned a "family wage," one able to support his entire family without income generated by another parent; the proportion had held steady for the previous two decades. Women born after 1972 were among the first in the late twentieth century to have been born into a country without formal discrimination in the workforce and educational institutions and with affirmative action and the legal right to abortion. With these formal rights came great changes in their family experiences in childhood, and in their opportunities in the workforce in adulthood.
These women's experiences anticipate the social changes and trends that will characterize the lives of young women to come. Their entire lives have been marked by unprecedented sexual, educational, and professional freedoms. At the same time, some of these freedoms have had contradictory and paradoxical consequences. Not everything turned out exactly as hoped and planned by the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As a feminist who advocates for greater social, educational, economic, and sexual freedom for women, I feel a sense of urgency to understand which versions of freedom are truly liberating for women and which versions come with their own, new limitations.
For readers versed in the progress of the feminist movement and its central and guiding ideals, the next few pages include material that may be well known. But for readers unfamiliar with this history, they provide a historical context for understanding twenty-something women today. In earlier days of the feminist movement, freedom was a clear and important goal, one whose accomplishment seemed unambiguously positive. With the 1963 publication of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan helped to spark a movement that challenged roles confining women to roles as passive wives, mothers who derived their sense of meaning and self solely from domestic work, or sex objects. Feminists at the time critiqued these domestic ideals and fought for women's equality in educational institutions and the workplace, and for the control of their reproductive and personal lives. Important achievements included legal protection from employment discrimination, inclusion in affirmative action, and increased representation in the media. Other feminist activists fought for and won reforms of the law's traditionally punitive stance toward victims of rape and domestic violence. Feminist scholars in the social sciences targeted the traditional nuclear family and its division of labor between the public sector of work and the private sector of home as the cause of much of women's oppression; since the 1960s, what constitutes a family and how it operates have changed dramatically.
As a consequence of these achievements, many women born after 1972 had childhoods characterized by fathers (and sometimes mothers) coaching their soccer teams and encouraging them in sports and school. They grew up prior to the rise of the princess culture for young girls, which began in 2000 when Disney created and marketed a wildly successful line of princess products that promotes regressive versions of femininity. Girls in the 1970s and 1980s could do anything boys could do in the classroom and on the field, and, many argued at the time, they could even do it better than boys. "Girl power," with its emphasis on self-reliance, ambition, and assertiveness, had its ascendance in the 1990s, when these women were in high school. With girlhood characterized by an "anything you can do, I can do better" attitude, and adolescence replete with a girl-power stance, women born after 1972 would seem to be poised for agency and independence in adulthood.
Yet at the same time that schools proclaimed that girls could do and be anything, they still encouraged particular versions of femininity for girls and masculinity for boys, and dissuaded girls from being as competitive or aggressive as boys. Sociologists of education have documented the ways that schools in the 1970s and 1980s subtly, and not so subtly, reinforced differences between boys and girls. Even after the passage of Title IX, researchers in the field of education found that girls were instructed with less focus and precision than boys-regardless of their behavior, boys got more time and attention from teachers. At the same time that birth control became more accessible to adolescent girls than it had been to earlier generations, abstinence-only sex education curricula in schools made using birth control increasingly confusing for girls whose parents didn't speak openly and frankly with them about sex. And even as services increased for survivors of sexual assault, and some legislation was passed to protect survivors' rights and safety, sexual violence against women remained persistent, widespread, and, at least tacitly, socially acceptable. Women born after 1972, then, had formal freedom to be and do as they wished, but constraints regarding sex and gender persisted.
In their family lives, women born after 1972 grew up very differently than had previous generations of women, as a consequence of the freedoms their mothers enjoyed. Their mothers were more likely to work outside the home than were mothers of earlier generations, and their fathers were more likely to be involved in their care than were fathers of earlier generations. At the same time, they were among the first generation of children widely affected by divorce, and were less likely to grow up in a "traditional" nuclear family, composed of a married biological father and mother and biological children living together, than were girls of earlier generations. During the 1970s and 1980s, "nontraditional" families including stepparents, stepsiblings, gay and lesbian parents, grandparents, and extended family members became increasingly common.
These changes in family life have had both positive and negative effects. Possibilities for community and connection increase as family forms change dramatically to include stepfamilies, gay and lesbian families, and families that include multiple members not related by blood. At the same time, as two wages have become essential for many families' economic survival, men have been hesitant to share the labor at home, and workplaces have been slow to respond to the needs of families in which both parents work. These changes in family formation and roles within families have been important in establishing young women's new expectations for relationships and family life.
Alongside the feminist movement, movements for gay and lesbian liberation in the 1970s challenged and expanded social understandings of "normal" sexuality to include gay and lesbian sexual orientations and relationships. The Stonewall riots of 1969, in which a group of gay male, lesbian, and transvestite patrons of a bar in New York City resisted a police raid, provided a rallying point for the movement. The movement succeeded in helping lesbians and gay men to begin to counter shame over their sexual orientation with gay pride. An important achievement was the removal, in 1973, of homosexuality as a psychiatric diagnosis from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Later iterations of social movements for gay and lesbian rights have fought for legal same-sex sexual activity (effective nationally as of 2003 due to the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas), protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace (in place in twenty states but not at the federal level as of this writing in 2012), same-sex civil unions (legal in thirteen states) and marriage (legal in six states and the District of Columbia), and the right to serve as openly gay or lesbian in the military (in effect since 2011). These expanded rights and acceptance of gay and lesbian people have dramatically affected young women's hopes for and expectations of diverse sexual lives.
As schools, families, and workplaces have absorbed and responded to these profound social and economic changes, the goals of the feminist movement have become less unifying, and the notion of freedom less clear. In the 1990s and 2000s, various feminists bristled at the notion that there is one way to be a feminist, a modern woman, or a liberated woman. Many argued that the early feminist movement confined women to being androgynous, not diversely gendered. During this same period, queer theorists emerged and critiqued the feminist movement for depicting women in an essentialist way, equating female bodies with only particular versions of femininity and not seeing possibilities for more fluid versions of gender. Arguing that the movement had neglected the experiences of poor women and women of color, whose experiences of gender have been complicated by the particular experiences of class and race oppression throughout history, writers of color critiqued the movement's goals for assuming the privileges of white middle-class women: not having to work or face racial discrimination. Sex-positive writers argued that earlier theorists' focus on the oppressive nature of sex for women deprived women (including sex workers and women involved in pornography) of an important arena of potential empowerment and pleasure.
In recent years, then, it has become unclear what it means to be a woman, especially a liberated woman. Freedom and liberation have become full of gaps and contradictions. Is work a liberating experience? Or does it constitute participation in patriarchal institutions? Is sex an empowering experience? If so, under which conditions? With whom? Is it restrictive to dress and act in traditionally feminine ways? Or are such women merely playing with one of many versions of gender? Is a relationship an important part of a woman's life? Or should relationships take a backseat to work? This confusion about both freedom and what it is to be a woman lays the feminist groundwork for the in-between period I discuss in this book.
In addition to uncertainty about the meaning and consequences of freedom, new economic pressures have come to play a role in women's decision-making about the timing of marriage and childbearing. Young families today often require greater income than did previous generations in order to afford to buy a home and pay for childcare. From 1970 to 2008, housing costs rose disproportionately to income growth. Childcare costs in major metropolitan areas can approach twenty-five hundred dollars per month for full-time care for one child. The return on a college degree continues to be significant, but a graduate degree is often considered necessary to earn a sustainable salary in an urban area. High-powered and high-paying jobs often require well over forty-hour work weeks. And with very few social supports for working women, the ideal of being a working parent often clashes with the overwhelming financial and logistical realities of doing so.
As a result of these freedoms and economic realities, women are developing relationships and families at a different pace than did previous generations of women. College-educated women now marry, on average, at twenty-seven, and women in general have their first child at age twenty-five, in contrast to 1970, when they did both, on average, at twenty-one. Particularly striking are the findings that from 1970 to 2009, the proportion of women ages twenty-five to twenty-nine who had never married quadrupled from 11 percent to 47 percent, and between 2000 and 2006, 69 percent of college-educated women ages twenty-five to twenty-nine had never borne a child. These trends have only accelerated over the past few years. In 2009, an astounding 23 percent of adult women had never been married, the largest percentage in the past sixty years. These demographic shifts, the result of the many social and economic forces outlined above, have profound implications for women's lives.
In seeking to understand how women respond to the freedoms, opportunities, and accompanying confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety of their twenties, I turned to psychoanalytic theory. From my viewpoint as a psychotherapist, I found that psychoanalytic insights could help us to understand how people respond to anxiety, and how and why people may report wanting something and yet seem to thwart themselves in their efforts to get that thing. Freud and other early psychoanalytic theorists have been rightly critiqued for their phallocentrism,their assumption of heterosexuality, their depriving mothers of subjectivity, and their biological determinist bent. At the same time, I (and many other feminists) have found psychoanalytic theory to be one of the most effective tools we possess to account for how women and men, sometimes unwittingly, perpetuate gender inequality. Psychoanalytic theories help us to understand why women, with the best and clearest of intentions, may unconsciously undermine their ability to reach their goals.
The contradictions and uncertainties that characterize today's young women's lives lead many of them to systematically employ certain unconscious defenses to resolve their internal conflicts and anxiety, often to their detriment. I contend that splitting-a tendency to think in either/or patterns and to insist that one cannot feel two seemingly contradictory desires at once-has become a widespread sociological phenomenon among young women. This process has become a means for women to reconcile the disconcertingly uneven progress of their psychological, economic, and emotional lives in the twenty-first century.
While the notion of splitting, sometimes referred to as dualities or binaries, has ceased to be as useful as it once was in the field of cultural anthropology, where it is associated with the structuralism of Claude LΘvi-Strauss, psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists employ it widely in their work with patients. Splitting continues to be a helpful concept in clinical work because it describes the defensive processes of so many patients, and of the women with whom I spoke. These are neither total nor absolute splits in the grand narrative sense of the term-splits between black and white or masculine and feminine that undergird the foundations of society-but multiple splits that people invoke at different times and in various situations to manage anxiety and to defend against uncertainty. I therefore discuss multiple and shifting psychological and social splits as a way to make sense of the lived experiences of twenty-something women as they navigate sex and relationships. For an expanded discussion of the concept of splitting and its use by psychoanalytic, queer, and poststructuralist theorists, please see appendix I.
I argue that splitting came to predominate among many of the women with whom I spoke, not because they were in any way pathological, but because of the unsettled nature, and the uncertainty and anxiety that accompany it, of this new in-between period of early adulthood for women. Confused about freedom and what it is to be a woman today, young women often split their social and psychological options-into independence, strength, safety, and control versus relatedness, vulnerability, need, and desire-as though they're mutually exclusive and not equally important to human development. Despite all the advances of women over the past fifty years, these experiences are frequently split into masculine and feminine ones, with the masculine being overvalued socially and psychologically. In modern western culture, autonomy and all that accompany it are much more highly valued than are interdependence and all that accompany it. Splitting leads some women to assume that they cannot be strong and autonomous when they are interdependent with others, vulnerable, and intimate. Vulnerability, needs, desires, and intimacy, then, often become new taboos for young women-experiences to be avoided rather than embraced.
It's no wonder that splitting is often young women's preferred method to make sense of the dizzying array of freedoms before them. 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, is groundbreaking and historically unprecedented. This new in-between developmental period brings these two life spheres together at a time when neither is yet firmly established. But splitting makes young women feel that their options are limited as opposed to expansive.
Strategies of Desire
I argue that the women I spoke with employed strategies of desire to solve the problems at hand-problems of desire, autonomy, agency, intimacy, and safety-in a new in-between developmental period in which the rules aren't clear. These strategies of desire were sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious, and women developed varying ones based on the cultural tools available to them, their psychological tendencies, their family backgrounds, and their relationship experiences. They were after-albeit with different degrees of internal conflict-sexual experiences, relationship experiences, safety, and control. This notion of a strategy helps describe the ways in which these women both had agency and were limited by the cultural notions available to them.
In my research and clinical practice, I've found that the women to whom I've spoken have tended to employ strategies of desire clustered in three types. These strategies are based on the degree of conflict over sexual and relational desires that women are able to tolerate. My three archetypes-those of the Sexual Woman, the Relational Woman, and the Desiring Woman-are ways to interpret broad sets of behavior. Of course, they flatten out individual experiences to a degree, but they provide a broad paradigm for understanding how contemporary women cope with a confusing and sometimes conflicting set of beliefs and behaviors.
Women mobilized defensive strategies of the Sexual Woman and the Relational Woman when they were unable to tolerate the degree of internal conflict and anxiety that they felt over sexual and relational desires. Both archetypes defensively split their desires, leaving them frustrated in their ability to get what they want.
Women who had little conflict over sexual desire and a high degree of conflict over relational desire made use of the strategies of desire of the Sexual Woman. These women had benefited from the increased sexual freedom that characterized their childhood, adolescence, and twenties, and they succeeded in developing comfort with their sexual desires. Revealing sexual desire did not fill them with fear and dread and did not threaten their identity or sense of self. However, they feared losing their identities and independence through being in an intimate relationship. So they felt conflicted about having and letting somebody in on their relational desire. For many women, these strategies reflected a split between a strong and independent identity and a relationship. They used strategies that allowed the expression of sexual desire but preserved their identities and independence from the perceived threat of relationships.
For example, one of my informants, twenty-nine-year-old Jayanthi, delighted in defying her Indian parents' expectations by sleeping with as many men as she could in her early twenties. She enjoyed sex a great deal, and over the course of her twenties learned how to regularly have an orgasm. But Jayanthi also derived pleasure from being able to attract men and turn them on, and from the control that she felt in not getting emotionally attached to men even when they may have felt attached to her. As she moved into her late twenties, though, she was left with a nagging desire for something more intimate and lasting than a mere sexual encounter. But she worried about losing control, and losing herself, in intimate relationships with men. Women such as Jayanthi represent a new take on the dilemma of female desire: at ease with sexual desire, but ill at ease with desire for a relationship.
Women who had little conflict over relational desire but a high degree of conflict over sexual desire gravitated toward the strategies of desire of the Relational Woman. These women were comfortable feeling and expressing their desire for relationships but feared that either a man or a relationship couldn't withstand their strong sexual desire. They felt conflicted about having and expressing sexual desire and so gave it up. Unlike good girls of yesteryear, women who employed strategies of the Relational Woman had felt and understood the power of sexual desire. It was for this reason that they avoided it. They worried that asserting their sexual desires might overwhelm the men (or women, although this was more rare) with whom they wanted to be in relationships. Or they worried that their strong sexual desire might be incompatible with a stable relationship. These women then developed strategies of desire that inhibited their desires for sex. They illustrate the problem of splitting sexual desire from safety and stability in relationships.
For example, twenty-eight-year-old Alicia might, at first glance, have looked like a good girl of old. She delayed sex until after college, acted demurely, and was only subtly flirtatious with men, and she wanted more than anything to be part of a traditional family. Alicia also felt inhibited from expressing her sexual desires to men and was more comfortable with being passive in sex than she was with initiating sex. But Alicia, unlike a prototypical good girl, knew what she wanted from sex and actively fantasized about it. She didn't, however, share those desires with the men with whom she was in relationships. She worried that her sexual desires would be incompatible with the kind of committed relationship that she wanted, so she held herself back from expressing them.
Women who could tolerate the conflicts they felt over sexual and relational desire made use of the productive strategies of desire of the Desiring Woman. These 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.
For example, twenty-eight-year-old Maria managed to tolerate a reasonable amount of internal conflict between her desires and could acknowledge desires for both sex and relationships without defensively splitting. She then sought out intimate relationships with men who were interested in satisfying sex and who worked to sustain a good sex life, and she received such interest and efforts nondefensively.
For all the talk of sex and relationships in American culture, it turns out we know very little about the sex and love lives of "ordinary" women. Much of what we know about these topics comes from cultural products, memoirs by writers with a particular agenda, writings by therapists about their patients, and anecdotal knowledge from friends and acquaintances, who are not always completely forthcoming about the conflicts and inhibitions that they feel. In-depth knowledge about the lives of ordinary women is difficult to come by. So I recruited and interviewed ordinary women, many of whom commented on how surprised they were at how much they told me.
At the time of the interviews, my respondents were between twenty-four and twenty-nine years old and lived in Northern California. They had all graduated from college, and none had children. Some were in relationships, some were not, and a few were married. Half of them were women of color and half were white. Half were lesbian, bisexual, or queer, and half were straight.
In some ways, they were not strictly ordinary. College-educated women currently compose 35 percent of the population of women ages twenty-five to twenty-nine in the United States. And Northern California, particularly the San Francisco Bay Area, is known for its progressive sexual values and culture, in contrast to some other regions of the county. When it comes to religion and degree of religiosity, the women I spoke with were less religious (35 percent came from nonreligious families, in contrast with 21 percent in California and 15 percent in the United States as a whole) and less Protestant (15 percent came from Protestant families, compared with 36 percent in California and 51 percent in the United States as a whole), on average, than the population as a whole. They represent a range of class backgrounds, but, like most college graduates, they come disproportionately from upper-middle-class families: 55 percent from upper-middle-class families, which compose only 20 percent of the U.S. population as a whole. Current numbers on the proportion of women in the United States who identify as lesbian, bisexual, or queer hover between 3.5 and 7 percent. However, I chose to oversample lesbian/bisexual/queer women because of my frustration with studies on female sexuality that included predominantly straight women and drew conclusions about all women based on the experiences of women belonging only to socially dominant groups. While the women I spoke with might not have been representative of all twenty-something women in the United States, they were representative of those most likely to have benefited from the increased freedoms discussed above, and so give us a window into what many women will experience if national social trends toward more progressive sexual values continue.
In other respects, however, the women I spoke with were in fact ordinary. Although they lived in California at the time of the interviews, only half of them had grown up there. Half came from families in which their parents were still married, half from families in which their parents were divorced. Of those families of divorce, family formations ranged from blended families, to extended families involving grandparents, aunts, and uncles, to gay and lesbian families. And the race and ethnicity of the women to whom I spoke came close to mirroring those of the California population, which in 2010 included only 40 percent non-Hispanic whites. More detailed information about the women I interviewed and the interview process can be found in appendix II.
I conducted a total of sixty interviews, interviewing twenty women three times in a process called clinical interviewing. This technique, which involves conducting multiple interviews over the course of one to two months, was particularly appropriate in this study due to the feelings of shame, inadequacy, fear, competition, and exposure frequently affiliated with sex and love. Furthermore, because women's experiences of sexuality are often complicated by violence and coercion, building trust and safety over the course of a series of interviews was important to gain a full picture of young women's lives. And the women with whom I spoke were able to develop increasing levels of comfort with me and with the topic over the course of the three interviews, discussing increasingly vulnerable and revelatory material as the interviews went on. They and I could also notice ways in which they sometimes contradicted themselves, concluding one thing about a specific experience in one interview, and another thing about the same experience in a different interview.
People have asked how I managed to get my participants to speak with me about the very private matters of sex and love. The truth is that while many of the women I spoke with found it anxiety-provoking to discuss their feelings about sex and love, they also found it to be a great relief to explore a topic on which there are so many internal and external prohibitions and proscriptions. They were relieved to feel understood, to hear their experiences reflected in those of other twenty-something women, and to feel that someone was attending to the particulars of their experiences as women in their twenties in the early twenty-first century. I heard women ask over and over again whether their experiences and feelings were normal, whether the contradictory feelings they had about sex and love were true for other women, whether their ambivalence about sexual and relational desire and pleasure was shared by other women, and whether there was hope for them to feel more comfortable with their desires for sex and relationships.
In my interviews and in my experiences with patients, I heard a lot of rumblings, a lot of discontent, and a lot of angst. While some women with whom I spoke were getting exactly what they wanted and felt comfortable with their desires for both sex and relationships, a little over half of the women were not getting what they wanted from sex and love, and they felt very confused about what was getting in the way, and what to do about it. These young women didn't feel empowered or like they lived on top of the world. Instead they felt lost.
The Structure of the Book
The book unfolds in three parts in which I examine how nine women grappled with sexual liaisons and relationships with varying degrees of internal conflict, anxiety, and uncertainty. The chapters progress from a focus on splits reflecting an inhibition of relational desire (between relationships and career, relationships and identity, and relationships and sexual desire) to a focus on splits reflecting an inhibition of sexual desire (between sexual desire and safety and between sexual passion and stability), and finally to the experiences and strategies that made it possible for some women not to split.
Part I: The Sexual Woman
In part I, I tease out the experiences of three women struggling with their desires for relationships, successful careers, strong identities, and independence. Katie, Jayanthi, and Claudia split relationships from various aspects of independence, leading them to develop strategies of desire of the Sexual Woman. In chapter 2, I profile Katie and introduce one of the fundamental splits that I saw in the women I interviewed: between relationships and career. Katie's sexual desires felt straightforward to her, but she felt a taboo on desiring a relationship as a successful woman. Chapter 3 highlights Jayanthi and another important split: between relationships and a strong identity. Jayanthi enjoyed being a bad girl who "played" men and could control them sexually, but she worried that being in a relationship would mean the loss of her identity. Chapter 4 concerns Claudia and the split between relationships and strong sexual desire. Claudia was surprised at how difficult it had been to develop a relationship in her twenties, and her sexual desires sometimes felt so strong that she wishes she could "take a pill to kill" them.
Part II: The Relational Woman
In part II, I investigate the experiences of two women who grappled with their desires for sex, passion, safety, and stability. Alicia and Phoebe split sexual desire and passion from various aspects of security in relationships, leading them to develop strategies of desire of the Relational Woman. In chapter 5, I explore the experiences of Alicia and introduce the split between sexual desire and safety. Alicia was a good girl who tried to create safety and security in her relationships, but kept getting hurt by her partners. Chapter 6 focuses on Phoebe and the split between sexual passion and stability. Phoebe was on the cusp of getting engaged to someone stable with whom she didn't have passionate and intimate sex, despite her history of good relationships with good sex.
Part III: The Desiring Woman
In part III, I explore the experiences of four women who developed productive strategies of desire that allowed them to have satisfying sex and relationships. In chapters 7 and 8, Maria, Susan, Sophia, and Jeanette demonstrate various ways of getting what they want and need. They did so by resisting the temptation to split either a strong identity and independence from relationships, or strong sexual desire from stability and safety in relationships. I uncover how they managed to develop comfort with their sexual desires and desires for a relationship, becoming the Desiring Woman.In chapter 7, Maria and Susan illustrate different paths to developing comfort with complicated desires for sex and relationships. These paths followed periods of struggle in their teens and early twenties during which they succumbed to splitting-relational desire from independence in Maria's case, and sexual desire from safety in Susan's case. Sophia's and Jeanette's experiences, in chapter 8, show how strong identities and a capacity for independence and vulnerability, crucial qualities in obtaining what they wanted from sex and relationships, can be facilitated in childhood. Because of their comfort with all of their desires, neither Jeanette nor Sophia resorted to splitting.
The women I interviewed who did get what they wanted and needed did so through sexual and relationship experiences in which they acknowledged their contradictory feelings, desires, and fears, but took risks anyway. They didn't work to ensure their safety above all else and sometimes they got hurt. But they survived the hurt and learned from it that they could continue to take risks, rather than learning that they needed to protect themselves from all future vulnerability.
In chapter 9, I argue for the kind of useful training that young women need to help them stop splitting, start resolving their internal conflicts about their desires for sex and relationships, and begin to have satisfying sex and relationships. The training that I advocate includes the acknowledgment that the desire for seemingly contradictory things-independence and dependence, passionate sex and stability, a strong identity and intimacy-is normal. Internal conflict about the things that matter most in life-love and work and sex-is natural and can be acknowledged as such. Of course, we have mixed feelings about the things that are important to us. Our internal conflict is, in part, what lets us know what really matters to us. Instead of being encouraged to split and disavow their desires, women who can acknowledge their desires and the conflicts that they feel about them can use such knowledge to pursue their desires in all of their complexity. This training can take place in relationships of various kinds: mentorships, romantic relationships, therapeutic relationships, and friendships. Of course, societal changes would help, too, such as changes in social representations of women, changes in the family, changes in the ways we learn about sex in schools, and changes in the ways work is structured.
In this historical moment of freer sexual mores for women, when traditional institutions no longer hold as much sway and no longer provide as much coherence as in the past, young women are left alone to do the cultural and psychological work necessary to navigate the murky waters of sex and love. Old ideals of sexual submissiveness and inhibition don't cohere with the new black box of the twenties for women. But neither do ideals of radical independence, safety, and control help women to develop satisfying relationships and sex lives characterized by mutuality.
I argue that it is possible to want and to get love and good sex, a career and a relationship, sex and relatedness-to integrate previously split desires. Young women can have it all, not in a glib sense or according to some checklist from a magazine, but in a real sense: by not cutting themselves off from their desires. But this involves giving up some control and entails some expression of vulnerability. Because of this paradox, for women such as Katie, love and sex and work have never felt so hard to get.
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