by Leslie C. Bell, Ph.D., LCSW
Excited yet embarrassed, Claudia, a twenty-eight-year-old I interviewed for my book, Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom, 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 also worried that being in a relationship would mean a loss of her identity. 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 and felt accomplished in that arena, but wondered why she hadn’t had as much success in relationships.
Today’s 20-something women have more freedom than their grandmothers could have imagined – educational, professional, and personal. But while this freedom has engendered a great deal of opportunity, it hasn’t necessarily resulted in women having good sex and satisfying relationships in their twenties. In fact, the training and skills that have served young women so well in their educational and professional pursuits have failed them when it comes to sex and love in the 21st century.
Educationally and professionally, they’re quite successful in comparison with their grandmothers and mothers. They’re now disproportionately represented among college and professional school graduates. They have access to every profession, although their entry into the highest echelons of power is still limited but not because of any legal barriers. And they have the freedom to choose whom to have sex with, whom and when to marry, whether and when to have children.
Today’s young women seem primed then to succeed both professionally and personally. And they have this period of their twenties when many remain unmarried and childless – the average age at first marriage is now 27 – to be agents of their own desires and get exactly what they want.
But while their educational and professional freedoms have come with a great deal of training and support – countless institutions are focused on facilitating women’s access to educational institutions, athletics, and professions – their personal freedoms have been bestowed on them without the same training and support. Many have been left largely alone to navigate this new territory of their twenties in terms of sex and love. Their mothers were more likely to have married earlier and had very different experiences in their twenties, so often can’t serve as role models to them. And there’s very little honest conversation between today’s young women and women who have successfully navigated this period.
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.
Leslie C. Bell is a sociologist and psychotherapist who specializes in women’s development and sexuality. She is the author of Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom, now available in paperback.