On Being Mary Jane and the intimacies of single black women

I love the idea of Being Mary Jane, but I’m annoyed, too.

There are about 4 million viewers of the show. BET is boasting that it’s the #1 show on Tuesday nights — surprise! — among my demographic: All the single black ladies. If you haven’t been watching because you’re not one of the 55 percent of African-American  unmarried women in America, #BeingMaryJane trends globally on Twitter during every new episode.

Like a lot of scripted (and unscripted) dramas featuring single black women, while the show’s creators point out that Mary Jane doesn’t represent all of the single women mentioned above, there’s such a dearth of single black female characters on television whose love lives are a significant part of their narratives that it’s refreshing to see a show offer that.

I really miss the other one, Olivia Pope. Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is the lead in Scandal. The ABC hit show is based on a real-life problem solver inside the Beltway. Her power and stylishness is what makes Pope iconic, but her Achilles heel is the small problem of the fact that she’s in love with the very married President of the United States and his dreamy compadre. (Please read: Is Olivia Pope the New Sally Hemings? for a little insight into why this seems a little far-fetched and hard to digest for black women.)

Anyway, ‘Scandal’ isn’t back until late February. I figured I’d check out Being Mary Jane to fill in the big gaping void.

I don’t think it’s working.

So, both characters offer uncommon and refreshingly humane portraits of unmarried black women who are generally stereotyped as martyrs or hood rats and very rarely viewed as anything in between. Good on you, television, for trying to give us life.  Enuma Okoro writes at the Atlantic, “Comparing Being Mary Jane to Scandal obscures one of the great strengths of Gabrielle Union’s new series: the relatability of its protagonist. Part of the brilliance behind Brock Akil’s work is that she uses a black lead character and a primarily black cast to appeal to women of all races.”

Does this about sum it up?

It’s a good effort. Better than good. I’m not optimistic about a wildly diverse audience for the show, though.

I watched the movie before the premiere earlier this month because I was intrigued by all the trailers showing Gabrielle Union submerging in a sea/bathtub littered with quotes on Post-Its, which I am fond of writing inspirational quotes on myself. The movie was good. For Gabrielle Union, who hasn’t had roles with the most, um…gravitas…in the past, it’s fantastic.

In the movie, we first meet Mary Jane baking at two in the morning. We rarely view black women doing domestic work for personal comfort in popular culture (looking at you, The Help), so as unlikely as it might be, it’s still nice to see. Her drunk boo, Andre (the excessively fine Omari Hardwick) arrives unexpectedly and cajoles her convincingly enough that she sweeps all her single lady things under her bed, empty wine glass and all.

She discovers Andre is married when she steps on his wedding ring accidentally. She responds by assaulting him with a steady stream of garden hose water. I don’t know if I squealed from pain watching this or glee? I couldn’t imagine this ending well in real life, I guess, so maybe it was a mixture of both.

Things with her family and at work are not any less messy. Mary Jane’s mother calls her all the time to vent, usually when MJ is at work. This is reminiscent of Whitney Houston’s character in Waiting to Exhale in almost every way, but in MJ’s case, the whole family follows suit. Her older brother seems to show up in every scene asking for money. Her little brother flips signs and sells weed for cash. Her niece is pregnant. She tries to get some retail therapy by buying incredibly expensive and fugly shoes, only to run into Andre and his wife, whom she later confronts at the pet store.

Yes, that’s what I wrote. Mary Jane goes to the pet store where Andre’s wife is buying kitty litter for her bereft friend and corners her. Since the one unmarried black woman everyone on the planet knows is Oprah, it’s not surprising that her name comes up. Andre’s wife immediately recognizes MJ from TV and tells her that she’s brought her so much comfort, especially after the talk show queen’s show went off the air. Mary Jane responds by saying, “Did you know I’m sleeping with your husband?”

Oh. Is *that* how that works?

Fast forward to MJ having an emotional night — she was baking a cake for her niece’s baby shower and had a nervous breakdown over a cute baby commercial. She has successfully delivered a story about women stealing sperm in what she calls the “rapey Africa story.” Mary Jane proceeds to steal and store the sperm of David, an ex that she has been labeled “Never Answer” in her iPhone.

Look, if she can’t bother to change the man’s name in her phone or actually meet him for dinner right after she said she would, does she really care enough about him to keep his sperm in a baking soda box in her freezer?

Proof there is a God.

At a party at her house where there are strippers (just because) when everyone is drunkenly confessing their dirt, she busts out the frozen sperm she stole instead of confessing that she’s been doing it with a married man. When she texts him later in what must have been the thirstiest string of texts in modern television, he doesn’t answer because after having an explicit conversation with his wife about why they’re divorcing — along the lines of: “No one likes to put a dick in their mouth first thing in the morning” — these two end up having make up sex.

Anyway, it’s nice that Mary Jane leans away from the Tyler Perry-model of shrill, psychotic and materialistic black women with standards that are too high and unrealistic, but she’s not that far away from that archetype. When she’s working, for instance, and tells David “Never Answer” she can’t go out, she calls him back two hours later to see if he can come over now that she’s finished working. She has a nonsensical hissy fit when she learns that he’s headed out on a date with someone else and she lies to him about Andre.

It’s the desperation that irritates me. That in every other area of a black woman character’s life she is together and in control and measured, but when it comes to intimacy, romance and love, she loses will power and totally becomes undone. [For a better and fuller explanation of popular culture narratives about single black women and how they are damaging in real life, I recommend Ralph Richard Banks' book, Is Marriage for White People? I wrote a review of it here. You can buy it here.]

At least with Pope, we see her make an effort to date a man who is available, she just backslides (like all the way back through history) regularly. With Mary Jane, we continue to see the message that black women are content to be sloppy seconds no matter how successful we are — because our loneliness is so deep and broad that it makes us morally corrupt and reckless like nothing else.

On one hand, this resonates. On the other, I don’t watch TV for a mirror or a reminder as much as for fantasy and inspiration. So to see Mary Jane as eviscerating and judgmental with everyone but herself is painful, even if it’s glossy and there’s lots of eye candy.

I might just wait for Scandal to come back on. Have you been watching Being Mary Jane? What do you think?

Fascinating stories about singles from 2013

I really meant to post this list a little earlier but I moved across country, celebrated that and the holidays with friends and family and as my birthday approaches, a big ‘ol snowstorm has arrived. You guys are my Internet-equivalent of a #winterboo, so I thought I’d say a merry/happy belated Goodbye-to-All-That, 2013 with this mini-list.

Anne Lamott on her year at Match.com: “You could say that my year on Match was not successful, since I’m still single, have been reduced to recycling my Starbucks companions, and am pleased with ‘pleasant.’ To have gone out so many times took almost everything I had, and then I didn’t even meet the right man. You start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you. Nah.”

One of the best reported and most illuminating stories was written by the founders of Onely.org at the Atlantic on the high costs of being single.

I just watched this wonderful video Op-Ed from The New York Times via Upworthy (h/t Natalie Tindall).

If you love videos, this sweet one I first saw at Love, InshAllah is great.

It’s also almost the anniversary of the publication of my ebook, Single & Happy. I had a feeling eventually someone would ask me about the white lady legs on the cover, but I thought I was just being neurotic and should let it go. Then, I wrote this.

And this commenter (as commenters sometimes will) wrote the question that I had been waiting a year for:

On the book cover the photographed legs look like those of a white woman? Why would you do that? Black woman are so beautiful!!

Yes. We are. We are so beautiful!

And whenever we write something that connects what happens to us to broader womanhood or humanity, it is categorized on the African American shelf or in the ethnic studies category. Nothing wrong with that. But I wanted to reach single people generally. Even so, I, too, winced a little when I got the design back and wondered who would ask me about the white lady legs (my brother said it just the way I thought it months ago.) I hoped that the main point of the book — which is only partly about race and a rhetorical, sustained assault on single black women from a particular era (that thankfully seems to have slowed) but mostly about fighting a stigma that impacts women of all races — wouldn’t get missed by picking a pair of legs that looked just like mine. It is my story, too, but it’s also the story of a lot of single men and women.

At least that’s what I was trying for. I might not have been successful. But 2014 is a new year. I’m working on some other books. I’ll keep you posted. Happy New Year!

On Single Parents and Respect

The season of parental celebrations is coming.

After a crazy March, I glanced up from my car to see that Mother’s Day was coming.

I wrote last year about my first season without parents and what it felt like to be without my Mom and my Dad for the first time. My loved ones told me that anniversaries would be hard and oddly enough, that helped. The twinge I get now isn’t really about what I’m missing — it was before, when they were alive. Now I feel something more like…love. Respect. Honor.

I stay out of discussions about single mothers and parents. I actively chose not to be a single teenage parent, which I write about in Get Out of My Crotch. This is not because I felt ashamed, per se, of growing up the way I did and mistaking sex for love or a way to feel worthy, but because I watched how hard my mother’s life was as a single parent, and I knew that I wasn’t up for the task.

There was also the fear, of course, of being a statistic. This is both the artist in me, the creative, who wants to be fully seen and acknowledged as unique and the black woman intellectual in me, who understands that what and who I am on the outside is always judged first as the total of what I am on the inside — even if it is incomplete or flat-out wrong.

But underneath the fear of being a statistic, which I am as a single, professional woman anyway, is the desire to belong to a community. To be single, parent or no, is often to be cast aside and cast away, the stubborn avatar of independence, failure to launch by failure to merge, somehow. And for women, this failure is always depicted as our own problem, our defect.

My Mom, some time in the 1970s. Working it.

My Mom, some time in the 1970s. Working it.

If you’re a single mother, especially if you’re not white, this shaming can be relentless and unceasing. Even though it makes perfect economic sense that fewer women are getting married because there are diminishing returns for many of us on that front.

My friend, the lovely writer and Beyond Baby Mamas founder Stacia L. Brown, wrote recently at The Atlantic about how unwed mothers feel about being unwed, noting that when statistics come out about single mothers, people tend to talk around them instead of to them about their feelings.

As the child of a single mother, I remember this acutely. No one ever asked my mother about her feelings. If they had, they’d have found nuances that didn’t match their disrespectful portraits: she had internalized enough heart breaks that she hid her deepest self, even from me. She was a registered Republican in New York State (!) during the Reagan era, even while we were in the cross hairs of Reagan’s draconian policies related to the poor.

What I wish I had known then, when I was internalizing messages that I was a part of a larger social problem because I had a single mother who worked and went to school all the time, trying to be better, was that pretty much everyone grows up in one form of dysfunction or another. Steven Spielberg spoke powerfully about this on 60 Minutes, memoirist Mary Karr writes extensively about this in The Liar’s Club, which I just finished, and the list goes on. Pathology is not just a single black woman’s thing.

Except, when people start talking about women who are mothers who aren’t married, they are inferring that these are unfit women. They don’t respect them. They suggest that it is somehow, defying reason, the easiest thing in the world to raise a child alone, when in fact, it appears to be the hardest job on the planet.

Consternation over our parenting of our children, it has to be said, is a coded way (in the same way that arguments about single black women is) of saying that without “proper course-correcting” we don’t have the instincts God gave us to be good women, caregivers or anything else without the help of the state, the government, smart people and, basically, men. Jim Rigby, an eloquent pastor,  writing about the death of Chinua Achebe, notes that we are all victims of the narrative of the American Empire:

It is not our fault that we were born in a vast and brutal military empire, but it is our responsibility to do what we can to lessen the violence of empire against our sisters and brothers of the earth. It begins when we can recognize their humanity. We may not have the answer on how to undo the violence of empire but, at the very least, we can get our minds and hearts free.

We are all always just doing the best that we can. My deep affection and longing for my mother, in spite of our history together, is entrenched in honor. I honor her for what she had to give, even when it wasn’t exactly all that I needed, or even close.

It’s very rare that someone is just mailing it in when it comes to their children, in particular, I’ve noticed. Even my own mother, who was divorced by the time she had me, had a lot of flaws, but all things considered, I turned out pretty great, albeit with a few bruises and existential identity issues.

How is it possible that the world keeps spinning and children somehow magically grow up to unwed mothers without being maladjusted soul-sucking malcontents?

Well, single parents are incredibly resourceful human beings — the children they love and adore require that. What my mother, the most resourceful person I ever met in the pre-Internet era and since, didn’t know how to give me she found someone who could. The village raised me, even in places completely unfriendly, if not downright hostile, to kids, like New York City. This was a coalition of friends, relatives and mentors. A multiracial cast of people who provided much more to me than my biological father would ever be able to offer me.

Beyond that, what I find fascinating about discussions about single mothers, particularly those who aren’t necessarily highly educated or high earners, is that few writers and reporters interrogate their own assumptions about “the right way” to raise children, whether they have them or not. In Daring Greatly, another book I just finished, by Brene Brown, she writes that one of the most harmful things parents can do is judge other parents for how they raise their children.

It seems to me that the last thing single mothers and single fathers (the latter of which are almost entirely invisible in any debate — do they not exist?) need is hand wringing over the economic ramifications of their personal choices or the insinuation, essentially, that the rest of us have to pay for what we also insinuate are their careless mistakes. I was made intentionally, loved with a greater intensity than most kids can ever hope for and while I could have had more stability, and life would have been different with a father in the home, there’s no telling if it would have been better. Conjecture that promises a narrative that isn’t true isn’t an answer, and it doesn’t change the course of personal lives.

Singles in the News: Online dating is ruining our lives and…Are we all sluts now?

The Atlantic makes my life seem hard, but it’s all math and not personal.

“While us men have been taking a browbeating for the past several decades, things are looking up! Those of us who have “made it” have our pick of the litter.” — a commenter on the article, The Worst Cities for College-Educated Women Trying to Find a Decent Date.

Runner up for my favorite comment: “So non college educated men are indecent?”

*Paging Olivia Pope*

“Ashley Madison—the website bearing the tagline “Life is Short. Have an Affair”—has released its ranking of the top 10 US cities for cheaters. It drew its conclusions from its own subscriber base, looking at which cities had the most registered users and, based on its population, the highest per capita membership. The, er, winner? Washington, DC, is king when it comes to would-be adulterers, with some 37,943 registered users and the highest per capita stats—and 30 new subscribers per day, reports the Post.” — The Best City for Cheaters is…Washington, D.C.

There are two Texas cities on this list, but thankfully, Austin is not in the top 10.

But 93% of us would marry for love.

“What are the advantages of marriage? According to the public, it is easier for a married person than a single person to raise a family (77% say so). But in other realms of life asked about in the 2010 Pew Research survey, most people do not think either married or single people have an easier time of it. In fact, about half or more think there is no difference between being married or single in the ease of having a fulfilling sex life, being financially secure, finding happiness, getting ahead in a career or having social status.” – Love and Marriage, Pew Social & Demographic Trends 

In other words, there is no rest for the weary.

So many choices nobody dates in real life anymore.

“The positive aspects of online dating are clear: the Internet makes it easier for single people to meet other single people with whom they might be compatible, raising the bar for what they consider a good relationship. But what if online dating makes it too easy to meet someone new? What if it raises the bar for a good relationship too high? What if the prospect of finding an ever-more-compatible mate with the click of a mouse means a future of relationship instability, in which we keep chasing the elusive rabbit around the dating track?” A Million First Dates: How online romance is threatening monogamy, by Dan Slater at the Atlantic

You have read some of my thoughts on my own personal disaster with online dating. I think it’s important to mention here, as I have elsewhere, that online dating for black women sucks the hardest and is the biggest waste of time. There is research to back up my personal claims: UC Berkeley found that black women had the hardest time finding a mate online, since men essentially exclude black women from their choices, regardless of their race. OKCupid changed my life with their data showing that black women are often ignored, basically, in online dating.

I mention these links, facts and statistics mostly to point out that I have never found it “too easy” to meet someone new. And I think most women would agree with me. I know a dozen black women who would also agree with me. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, black people who want to date online aren’t necessarily going to OKCupid anyway — it’s just us interracial inclined women, apparently.

Anyway, I think that there’s some truth in this article, and I’m curious about Dan Slater’s book. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

“Have I been using that word (slut) wrong this whole time?”

“Not that I’m a prude, I’ve got enough Cinemax-quality bedtime stories to keep me warm well into my dotage, but is there really no difference between being a self-aware woman making healthy sexual decisions on her own terms and being a big slutty slut?” – So We’re All Sluts Now? by my dear After Plumcake

I can’t even find the best smarty pants thing to say about her post, because it’s fantastic.

Singles in the News: China’s New Bachelor Class, online coparenting dating and loving Valentine’s Day when you’re single

And…Happy New Year, btw!

“These young males are known as “bare branches,” trees without leaves, involuntary bachelors demographically destined to a life without a wife or child. An estimated 40 to 50 million bare branches are scattered around the nation, and according to Quanbao Jiang and Jesús Sánchez-Barricarte, authors of the article “Bride Price in China: The Obstacle to ‘Bare Branches’ Seeking Marriage,” they tend to be concentrated in rural or poverty-stricken areas…Now, an estimated 12 to 15 percent of Chinese men — a population nearly the size of Texas — will be unable to find a mate within the next seven years.” – China’s New Bachelor Class, via The Atlantic

Online dating for single parents who want to co-parent…

“While some people have chosen to be a single parent, many more people look at scheduling and the financial pressures and the lack of an emotional partner and decide that single parenting is too daunting and wouldn’t be good for them or the child,” said Darren Spedale, 38, the founder of Family by Design, a free parenting partnership site officially introduced in early January. “If you can share the support and the ups and downs with someone, it makes it a much more interesting parenting option.” – New York Times, Seeking to Reproduce Without a Romantic Partnership

I will not do the dance that looks like someone is dancing with me. (You KNOW the one.)

“What happens this time of year is just a manifestation of all the couple-focused things that happen year-round. Single women are left out of the narrative of romantic love, discarded like half-eaten chocolate. But we don’t have to leave ourselves out of the story, and we don’t have to internalize any of the bull that suggests that we are less than worthy just because we’re not in relationships – either because it’s not time yet, or we’re not ready, or the ones we hope to find and love one day are not yet ready for us. It is always possible to write another story, another romantic narrative, one about loving yourself deeply and truly and in a way that only you can.” – My guest post at the Indie Chicks, Learning to Love Valentine’s Day When You’re Single.

(The party is Valentine’s Day night — see you after the weekend! https://www.facebook.com/events/475502379153522/)

Top posts in January: Single life is expensive, Jodie Foster might still be single and some tough things about being single

I spent most of the month working on the  book party on Valentine’s Day/ Singles Appreciation Day. The great thing is that a number of my single and coupled friends are coming! The not-so-great-thing is that February is a bit of a hectic month, so posting may be erratic.

Here were the most popular posts last month:

The costs of being single vs. married. I had always suspected that being single was more expensive than getting hitched, but I didn’t know just how expensive. Now I’m working on my taxes and I can’t even think about this anymore without getting sad.

Jodie Foster’s single, y’all. I know, everyone only cares about if she came out or didn’t, and why she rambled. But y’all missed the whole point!

Good answer on Quora question: What is the hardest thing about being single?

The comments have some zingers, too. What a relief to know that I’m not the only single woman in America who has these things happen to her. Yes, our married friends are hanging out without us.

The Atlantic: Everlasting Love is a Myth*

On Barbara Fredrickson’s Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become and whether you can love a friend as deeply (or even more deeply) than a romantic partner.

The Atlantic: Everlasting Love is a Myth*

OK, I’m paraphrasing just a tad.

In her new book, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson writes that love is not the tie that binds, the spark and trumpets that some romantics like me think it is. Rather it’s:

a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.” She means that love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day. You can experience these micro-moments with your romantic partner, child, or close friend. But you can also fall in love, however momentarily, with less likely candidates, like a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, or an attendant at a grocery store.

What a relief. I have totally fallen in love with baristas and books. Actually, I fall in love with books all the time. I guess maybe she’s talking about sentient beings, though, huh? I love a lot of my close friends, and not like play cousins. So there might be something to this Love 2.0 situation.

I thought the story was going to be all gloom and doom for singles, since it essentially says that half of the people globally polled are love-starved and searching for a partner. Loneliness! Depression! Eat all the chocolate!

But that article and presumably the book actually end on a positive note, one that I try to live by. Frederickson says, “If you don’t have a Valentine, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have love. It puts love much more in our reach everyday regardless of our relationship status.” That’s more like it.

The costs of being single vs. being married

As you might know firsthand, it ain’t pretty.

Today at the Atlantic, Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell, (who run Onely, which I just found out about and I love!) break down the costs of being a single woman, compared to that of a married woman. The article says that unmarried women pay as much as a million dollars more than their married counterparts for taxes, healthcare and more.

Bella DePaulo, author of Singlism and singles expert and I agree that if someone had told me the cost of being a single woman compared to a married one was this high, I would have thought it was too much.

Which is incredible and not at all surprising, but sad. Because it’s one thing to think that singles are deformed in some way if they’re not in relationships past the age of 21, but it’s quite another to have had those opinions legislated into the tax code and Social Security laws of our nation – and a nation that supposedly loves individualism at that!

Lest one think that legalizing same sex marriage would solve the problem, Arnold and Campbell point out that it would only be a solution for a few:

U.S. Federal Code Title 5 Part III says: The President may prescribe rules which shall prohibit… discrimination because of marital status. Yet more than 1,000 laws provide overt legal or financial benefits to married couples. Marital privileging marginalizes the 50 percent of Americans who are single. The U.S. government is the main perpetrator, but private companies follow its lead. Thus marital privilege pervades nearly every facet of our lives. Insurance policies—ranging from health, to life, to home, to car—cost more, on average, for unmarried people compared to those who are married. It is not a federal crime for landlords to discriminate against potential renters based on their marital status. And so on.

What I love is about this is that it is objective data and reporting, not subjective storytelling about single life. Arnold and Campbell make the point that marriage is promoted as a social good, despite the fact that Dr. DePaulo and others have made the case that there is little difference qualitatively in terms of health or families that there is much difference between the lives of singles and married folks.

The other important point that they raise here, among many others is that with subjective writing – this blog, my book and other relationship/dating blogs – there is often the sense that we are just bitter. (I have heard that word leveled against me and this blog more than once, actually.) But I love how they put this:

“As two straight women with no desire to get married, we are not against marriage per se. We’re not callous and repressed man-haters. We’re not bitter about ex-boyfriends who cheated or tried to teach us the correct way to pour laundry detergent (ok, well maybe a little bitter about that last one). We’re not even necessarily uncomfortable with the institution’s arguable gender expectations and socio-political history. We just don’t much care whether we’re married, or not. But governments and corporations do.”

If you drink, you might want to get out the good liquor for this one. Not to spoil the ending, but it is a sobering and sad bit of news. It’s ironic, too, because I was just starting to think about my taxes again and the cost of being a self-employed single writer. Oh, look, it’s already wine-o’clock…

Hanna Rosin clarifies a vision of alternative romantic narratives

Since I was annoyed at the lack of diversity in the hook-up culture story, I thought I’d follow up because I liked how Rosin responded to letters to the editor in November. The simplicity and articulation of what I’ve heard a lot of singles say about what they’re looking for made me smile:

Here is how one woman I interviewed explained what both men and women want:

“We want a relationship of freedom—the freedom to be there for each other and available sexually when it suits the both of us, and also emotionally when it suits the both of us. We want it to be fun and maybe involve some dates and long talks over coffee. But we certainly don’t want these ‘relationships’ to be entered into with an expectation of long-term, or to get in the way of the other important things in our lives. Compatibility isn’t even all that important. Amusement, affection, affirming attention, sexual fulfillment, the ever-elusive ‘fun’: that’s what we’re after. We are putting ourselves first. Some might call that selfish; we call it smart and independent and secure.”

Seems pretty respectable to me. Even fun.

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.

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