Contemplating hook-up culture and female empowerment

If women are so powerful now, why is there so much angst about their power?

This is the first thing I thought about when I read the article adapted from Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men, which I thought I wanted to read at one point. In the Atlantic’s September issue, she writes about the rise of successful women and ways in which women now have the agency – financial and otherwise – to plan for temporary intimacy in lieu of waiting around for love. The article is called “Boys on the Side” and here are some passages that jumped out at me:

Single young women in their sexual prime—that is, their 20s and early 30s, the same age as the women at the business-­school party—are for the first time in history more success­ful, on average, than the single young men around them. They are more likely to have a college degree and, in aggregate, they make more money. What makes this remarkable development possible is not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom—the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career. To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.

It’s important to note a couple of things here. Rosin is specifically writing about the white middle class and upper middle class experience.

This is one of the things that riles me about writing and popular culture about single women, generally – in order for a case to be made for a strong story pitch, these stories are only considered universal (like the HBO show Girls, which is referenced in the story later) if they center around the white middle-class and upper middle-class experience. The reason that’s important is that it leaves out huge swaths of women of color who, culturally and sometimes out of necessity and cultural allegiance, make totally different decisions. I don’t know any women of color who could be described as cannily manipulating hook-up culture on college campuses to make space for their success. I don’t know any working class or poor women of any race or cultural background who would do that, either. There is, too, the underlying idea that hook-up culture is a white thing, not unlike marriage, ironically.

This article made me think a SPIN article published in 1998 while I was a sophomore at Vassar. The story, “Sex Ed,” featured at least one black male classmate I was friends with at the time, but it was essentially a story about the fact that for men on campus, “hooking up was as easy as ordering a pizza.” The reason hooking up was so easy, as explained by SPIN, was the fact that women outnumbered men on campus (the ratio was reportedly 60:40) and a large percentage of the men and women on campus were gay, which meant that heterosexual women had to be more aggressive if they wanted to hook up with men on campus.

I bring that story up because it points to an old idea: that for women to participate in the full secular college experience and have a little fun, they have always had to do more work than men. I was the exact opposite of the college girls that are characterized as dismissing overly serious suitors to make space for my success, so maybe I have a hard time understanding the sentiment. This strikes me as a dangerous corollary to the Having it All debate – where the narratives of women who suddenly act like men have traditionally acted are a new sociological puzzle.

Cultural, racial and class differences are key here, too, to say nothing of people who fall into non-gender conforming categories; the narrative that has been bought and sold to black women in particular is that we cannot afford to let go even of casual relationships with our black male peers if we seek marriage because they are so rarefied in academic and corporate spaces that if we act like some of the women Rosin highlights in Boys on the Side, we will be Forever Alone.

Here, Rosin goes into more detail about a 2004 study on sexual abuse on college campuses:

Women in the dorm complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic,” Armstrong writes, because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career. “If I want to maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with,” one woman told Armstrong, “I have to work. I just don’t see myself being someone who marries young and lives off of some boy’s money.” Or from another woman: “I want to get secure in a city and in a job … I’m not in any hurry at all. As long as I’m married by 30, I’m good.”

The women still had to deal with the old-fashioned burden of protecting their personal reputations, but in the long view, what they really wanted to protect was their future professional reputations. “Rather than struggling to get into relationships,” Armstrong reported, women “had to work to avoid them.” (One woman lied to an interested guy, portraying herself as “extremely conservative” to avoid dating him.) Many did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.

In that research, by the way, two-thirds of the subjects of sociologists’ research came from “more privileged” backgrounds. This idea of cultivating a “sexual career” is one that would offer a variety of side-eye glances from women of color, full stop. I understand the need to frame a story around existing data, but this is one example of just one side of the story.

The absence of women of color and people who are not so privileged from stories like this speaks loudly. It infers that the overarching narrative of white female sexual agency is the dominant story for all women everywhere, which is less true now than it ever has been, considering the growing diversity of our country. The absence of our narrative from discussions about women’s sexual liberation, too, shows that feminists still haven’t found a way to bridge the racial and class gaps that inform our discourse on everything from politics and business to love and relationships.

Teenage boys are waiting longer to have sex because they’re more romantic

Speaking of unexpected things that made me happy this weekend:

Why are boys behaving more “like girls” in terms of when they lose their virginity? In contrast to longstanding cultural tropes, there is reason to believe that teenage boys are becoming more careful and more romantic about their first sexual experiences.

That’s how sociologist Amy Schalet begins her sweet editorial about the new cultural tropes being rewritten by teen boys.  I learned about it over at Sociological Images. More from Schalet:

Today, though more than half of unmarried 18- and 19-year-olds have had sexual intercourse, fewer than 30 percent of 15- to 17-year-old boys and girls have, down from 50 percent of boys and 37 percent of girls in 1988. And there are virtually no gender differences in the timing of sexual initiation.

What happened in those two decades?

Fear seems to have played a role. In interviewing 10th graders for my book on teenage sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands, I found that American boys often said sex could end their life as they knew it. After a condom broke, one worried: “I could be screwed for the rest of my life.” Another boy said he did not want to have sex yet for fear of becoming a father before his time.

The rest of the editorial just made me beam with pride. I think each generation assumes that the one after it is going to hell in a handbasket. But to see that American boys, like Dutch boys, were not only afraid of the consequences of having sex before they might be ready but that they also were using really strong romantic language to discuss love was so refreshing. Maybe the kids are really alright.

The new anti-man movement

Critiquing men and manhood is not declaring war, but since there are millions of single women — more than single men — in America, I have been turning this over in my head for a little while now.

Nicole Jonson wrote a few months ago at The Good Men Project that women should stop declaring war on men:

There is not a war between men and women. From my vantage point, there are not battles, bombings, or bloodshed between the sexes. Men and women are not plotting carnage against each other. Furthermore, men are too smart to declare war on women.
Most men understand they can not survive without women. Ladies, can you say the same about men? I hope so. The truth is we would die without each other.
If there is any type of “war” going on it’s the new anti-men movement. To the ladies waging this campaign against men, I’m begging you, please: drop your weapons. You are fighting a losing battle, and ultimately, you are harming yourself and the female gender. Regardless of your sexual orientation, you need men; you can’t live without men. Moreover, I believe a portion of your disdain for men stems from internal strife and discontent.
Labels are limiting and lugubrious. We label people as a way to contain them, as well as to create a consistent, pre-determined expectation. This is tremendously unfair…
Degrees of inequalities will always exist between the sexes. Ladies, stop fighting this truth. Concentrate on your strengths, and address the internal battle with yourself before declaring men the enemy.

Because there has been a lot of talk about the Republican War on Women, in Texas and elsewhere, I wondered what others thought about the idea that there is a new strain of anti-man writing in our society. I think that patriarchy as we have always known it is starting to flatten like other hierarchies (the economy, corporations, education) in part because of deindustrialization. As that has happened, the definition of manhood has shifted, so that it cannot solely depend on women, children and job status as a man’s sole indicator of how manly he is.

In this transition, it seems that men have become vulnerable to being categorized as good men and bad men in most media coverage, with little room for the average guy. Does it seem that way to you?

Mancession or He-Covery?

I really did intend to get to this sooner, but it’s the kind of news that doesn’t get old.

I wonder what other people make of the words we make up to describe economic trends: Mancession. The End of Men. He-Covery.

This Jezebel blog had me cracking up:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, 2/3 of new hires by American companies were men. A total of 1.6 million dudes joined the workforce compared to just 600,000 women, re-widening the gap between men and women in the workforce, which means that everyone lamenting the death of the American man can just go right on ahead and shut up.
In October 2009, women comprised 49.99% of the workforce, a breath of a hair of an itty bitty thread away from being half of Americans in the workforce. Part of this illusory equality was brought on by the gendered nature of the industries overwhelmingly affected by the recession in the first place. As the recession plodded along, the jobs in traditionally male industries like construction didn’t return, and unemployment benefits started to run out. And we now appear to be moving away from gender parity once again; threatened with impending expiration of any form of aid or income, some men did the unthinkable— debase themselves enough to work women’s jobs like- gasp!- retail.

What I find fascinating about discussions around masculinity now, seriously, is that there are few stories focusing on older men and women — past well into their 40s and 50s, but not yet old enough to qualify for retirement benefits — who have to take any kind of job to make ends meet.

The way we’ve talked about the economy up to this point has been focused on the way work has become more feminine or woman-focused, despite the fact that men still make more money and hold more of the decision-making positions in society. I feel like that has to fuel some of the resentment that men have about single women. The only thing I really have to go on is the snowballing number of articles about women as breadwinners and men as stay-at-home dads or irritated jobless jerks.

I wonder if the War on Women here in Texas and across the country is related to women’s success during America’s economic downturn. Something about women being free to make decisions about their own bodies, whether they actually have money or not, tends to really piss off wealthy white dudes, I’ve noticed. “Those broads have too much independence, while the bros are struggling,” I can hear one of these guys muttering.

Troubled Hearts and Silent Pain: A Guest Post at the Good Men Project

One of my favorite writer friends sent me a link to The Good Men Project over a year ago, and I’ve been wanting to blog there for some time. I was recently included in a series on mental health in a personal piece about black men and mental health:

Before my father, Victor, hung himself in his garage in April 2010, it meant very little to me that 7 percent of black men struggle with depression during their lifetimes. When the suicide rate for African-American male youth rose 146 percent between 1980 and 1995, it seemed like another sad statistic to add to many others.

In an abstract way, I knew it was difficult to be a black man and to be beyond sad. I could hear it in all of Donny Hathaway’s music, even before I knew he had been depressed and learned his story. I felt a wave of compassion for Don Cornelius when he killed himself earlier this year.

As someone who tried to commit suicide when I was younger, I understand the despair. There comes a point in the blues when one feels beyond any kind of redemption or reach. Recognizing that darkness and isolation has given me a well of empathy for how hard it must be for black men to reveal their pain.

Black men like my father, like Hathaway and Cornelius, carry the weight of an intricate layer of stressors on their heads. Racism. Indignities. Bills. Police. Prison. All these are factors before a man even grows up and possibly even after he graduates from college.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

The New York Times & births outside of marriage

I cannot abide people who blame the media for society’s ills. I worked as a newspaper reporter for a decade & I mostly kept my temper under control against waves of ignorant commenters, racist readers and the like. I would almost always go off on people who talked mess about the media, though. This is a disclaimer, because I am irritated by this New York Times piece about births outside of marriage. It reinforces stereotypes about black women while essentially underscoring that while “middle America” — meaning middle class white people — is starting to live more like how people of color in working class and poor communities have been living for generations now. Instead of them becoming ostracized (like in the good old days?) as they do so, they are creating ” a new normal.” The piece  reaches back to the 1965 Moynihan Report that referred to the dysfunctional, matriarchal black family (shaped so by slavery, I might add) as one that had produced “a tangle of pathology”:

It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.

Once largely limited to poor women and minorities, motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America. The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group that analyzed government data.
Among mothers of all ages, a majority — 59 percent in 2009 — are married when they have children. But the surge of births outside marriage among younger women — nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 — is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.
One group still largely resists the trend: college graduates, who overwhelmingly marry before having children. That is turning family structure into a new class divide, with the economic and social rewards of marriage increasingly reserved for people with the most education.
“Marriage has become a luxury good,” said Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

OK, so that’s all fairly innocuous. It takes a little while before we are reminded just what, exactly, is inferred by illegitimacy. Also, there is a coded mancession/masculinity-crisis swipe that I’ll let you find for yourself. Only educated men seem normal in this piece, and there aren’t that many of them. I find it interesting that the piece focuses on Lorain, Ohio, the birthplace of Toni Morrison, who I believe is a divorced single mother. This was published on her birthday, ironically.

Anyway, the piece goes on to say, women went to work, single motherhood lost its stigma and in the meantime, people stopped getting married and children happened. So, what’s my problem? The juicy stuff is here:

The recent rise in single motherhood has set off few alarms, unlike in past eras…
By the mid-1990s, such figures looked quaint: a third of Americans were born outside marriage. Congress, largely blaming welfare, imposed tough restrictions. Now the figure is 41 percent — and 53 percent for children born to women under 30, according to Child Trends, which analyzed 2009 data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
Still, the issue received little attention until the publication last month of “Coming Apart,” a book by Charles Murray, a longtime critic of non-marital births.
Large racial differences remain: 73 percent of black children are born outside marriage, compared with 53 percent of Latinos and 29 percent of whites. And educational differences are growing. About 92 percent of college-educated women are married when they give birth, compared with 62 percent of women with some post-secondary schooling and 43 percent of women with a high school diploma or less, according to Child Trends.

Almost all of the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together. While in some countries such relationships endure at rates that resemble marriages, in the United States they are more than twice as likely to dissolve than marriages. In a summary of research, Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland, both of the University of Michigan, reported that two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned 10.

I don’t argue with hard numbers, but I am annoyed at the lack of any kind of alternative family structure attempt in the analysis here. No same sex families, no single fathers, just single black moms and other ethnic groups that are too much like them. The story essentially reinforces stereotypes it seeks to disprove through reminding us — though those of us who are “illegitimate” might disagree — that pretty much anything that happens outside of marriage is bad news.  Instead of posing more questions about cultural preferences, or even mentioning Ralph Richard Banks’ book about marriage (which more delicately reinforces some of the statistical data here) this piece aims at painting a portrait of women who are content to damage themselves for the “luxury good” that is marriage and alter their children’s futures in the process.

Do black women raise their daughters & love their sons?



I have given a lot of thought to the idea recently that mothers raise their daughters and love their sons. This Madame Noire piece made me reflect on it again. It’s a phrase I must have heard in my twenties at some point, somewhere. I thought of it talking to a friend about her boyfriend and some of their ups and downs related to compromise in their relationship. He never learned compromise because the main woman in his life, a single black woman, let him do whatever he wanted. He was THE man in her life.

As hard as some people try, I believe it is really hard for a woman to raise a man and teach him how to be a man — whatever that looks like. I can’t pretend to know, as a woman who is just starting to build successful and stable platonic male friendships. Single fathers, too, probably struggle with teaching women how to be women. But at the heart of what is being discussed as a masculinity crisis in our culture is this idea that someone can be both mother and father to a child. Not only does that sound incredibly hard, it also sounds pretty impossible.

My mother tried this, God bless her. Every time Father’s Day rolled around, I would get a call from her days in advance. “Remember to call me and wish me a Happy Father’s Day since I was both your mother and your father.” In truth, she had failed at both roles, despite her best efforts, but I reflect on her efforts fondly. It’s the effort that matters in the end.

Who are men, anyway?

I read this piece by Ken Solin at The Good Men Project and it got me thinking:

The only rites most men in our culture experience are religious rituals like confirmation and bar mitzvah that many of us in the audience had undergone as intended introductions to manhood. But they paled in comparison. For me—and I suspect for many others—they were empty gestures, rote recitation of ancient Latin or Hebrew that required no comprehension, commitment to principles, or courage. We hadn’t overcome any physical or emotional challenge that would change our lives forever. No wonder guys are so fucked up, I realized. No one’s teaching us to behave like men. And how can we become men if we have no idea what that means?


When I was a little girl, boys wore blue. They played football and played with G.I. Joe dolls. In the invisible legion of girls I rolled with, we were supposed to be dainty and wear dresses and they were supposed to be bossing us around on the playground, preparing for a life that would involve them being the boss of a wife and children.
I never liked this arrangement. I respected that boys were physically stronger than me, but I would not let them sass me with that “I’m the boss of you” attitude. I turned down my first opportunity to ride a bike when my foster mother told me that if I wanted a bike it’d better be pink and not blue. At the time, I hated pink with a passion so I crossed my arms like the brats I’d seen on TV and refused.
Speaking of TV: Movies, music and popular culture were my main frames of reference for what manhood was and should be. Men, in general, were heroes or deadbeats. The reality of their inner lives or complexities were foreign. Older men who became my mentors showed me some of the nuances, that men could be intelligent and giving and as sensitive (if not more) to a range of emotions as women.
Beyond that, I thought their main purpose was to rescue me or be rescued by me. From what? It didn’t matter.
The question of who men are has fascinated me since college, when I went to a liberal arts school that was primarily female. There, men were defined by their sexual conquests, which was strange, considering the odds were stacked in their favor — socially and statistically. We were 60 percent women and 40 percent men. The men were athletes or drama majors, they were sometimes leaders, editors at the school newspaper and class presidents.

But who were men in relation to single women? They were supposed to be smooth conquerors of my heart, I thought. Chivalrous protectors, mysteriously simple. Brute and honest. Distant and stoic.

Which means, I never came up with a good answer.
As I grew older and my conception of men as full beings grew less dependent on female chauvinism, I became acutely aware of how being a man could grow complicated. They were expected to be providers, to repress any female-like tendencies lest they be booted out of the man club. I could relate, since I had been a provider on my own for years, and I repressed my emotions for years, too. By virtue of anatomy and growing up in a world of women, though, I was not a man and could not know what it was like to be one. But this kind of essentialism is dangerous. It means that the us vs. them mentality continues in the mancession, he-covery landscape in which we find ourselves. If no one knows what a man really should be or can be, how can women know how to connect with them and relate to them inside of relationships and outside of them?


Thoughts on the word Mancession

Maybe you guessed this because I’m a writer, but I love words. I’m of two minds about the word “mancession” though, since I think it’s catchy and interesting as a word and concept on one hand, but overly simplistic on the other. The ladies over at The Frisky think the word is as stupid as Adorkable, which I’ve never heard.

But that didn’t stop Bloomberg, US News & World Report and Forbes from writing about how the Mancession started and how, depending on who you ask, it might possibly kind of be over. What do you think? Dumb way of saying a lot of men are unemployed (or were) or perfect description?

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