Friday, March 02, 2007

All You Need Is... What?

Finally, somebody gets it.

I have often referred to myself as a "reformed slut." When I was in my twenties, I slept with more men than some of my friends had ever met. I could count them for you, but I grew some shame over the years. Although I will say that I'm pretty sure the number of forgotten faces is less than ten.

It's true, I had a great deal of much fun in my twenties, but it's also true that I was lonely and miserable in my twenties as well. I wasn't a happy slut. There were a few one-night stands and casual relationships that I was able to keep in perspective, especially since I usually was juggling two at a time, occasionally three. Most of those guys were "friends with benefits," or quasi-nameless one-nighters that I used like anaesthetic, figuring for a few hours the heightened sensations in my body would take my mind off the seemingly never-ending hurricane in my mind. It worked pretty much just like that, and in the morning, I never expected them to call, and I was fine with it, because there were others I knew who would call. And they always did.

From today's Times, a review and article about the book "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both," by Laura Sessions Stepp:

Ms. Sessions Stepp said she agrees that some women are able to hop out of bed the morning after a hookup, feel great about themselves and think, “That was cool, now I’m going off to chemistry.” And if that is so, she said, that is fine with her.

Every now and than, that was me.

But, according to her research, most young women do not happily untangle themselves from the sheets and hightail it to class, she said. Instead they obsessively check their cellphones to see if Mr. One Night Only called. They feel bad about themselves and lose the opportunity to learn how to build a relationship. That they are high achieving is not the point, she said.

The majority of the the time, that was me.

Ms. Sessions Stepp said, in the quest to get ahead, women have put their hearts on hold. “But at what cost?” she asks. “Do you want to harden your heart to the point where you don’t know how to feel when you’re ready to get into a relationship?”

Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. My self esteem was sufficiently low that I believed I would never find a man to really, truly love me for who I was, who wouldn't abuse me, who would just be a decent boyfriend and eventual husband, like my girlfriends seemed to have. I was convinced at a young age that this just wasn't in my cards.

I felt this way because of the way my peers treated me. Nice, normal boys never gave me the time of day when I was in high school. I was either ignored completely or actively made fun of by various crowds of kids. Every now and then a boy would show interest in me, and it was one of two types.

The first type you can figure out. Often they were a few years older than me, and pretty good looking. They were confident, and I was always surprised and thrilled that they were even noticing me, never mind liking me and wanting to take me out. We'd always go to either a private party, with plenty of dark, private rooms, or to the movies, after which we'd park somewhere. After a few dates - or if I was lucky, a few weeks - he'd get bored with me and stop calling. Then when I'd call him to ask what the silent treatment was about, he'd get rude, tell me to quit bothering him, and hang up. This happened for the first time when I was thirteen and refused to put out. It happened several times when I was in high school, but then it seemed normal. When I was in college, and I actually put out, I had no illusions, but the emptiness of allowing myself to be used wasn't assuaged by the awareness that I was using them too.

The second type of guy who'd date me was trying to convince everyone (including himself) that he wan't gay. Often these guys would be firtatious and suggestive as hell in public, but in private would kiss me a few times and take me home. This was always the dead giveaway - straight boys want sex, and gay boys don't. He'd take me to a few movies and parties, and then after a few weeks I'd get a very sweet, apologetic story about how he'd met the male love of his life at the mall or backstage at the community theatre or some such place. I was never angry about it, but I did wind up being dateless again afteward. These sweet guys never stayed my friends once they came out. They just vanished from my life. In retrospect, that may have been the worst part of all, because the one thing I wanted most was someone to go places with, feel like part of the world. But those guys had a new world now, and I wasn't part of it.

I imagine their vanishing acts kept me from being labelled a "fag hag." I never endured that leering title, until I moved to New York and suddenly it was cool. I suppose that's something to be glad of. Life was rough enough for me in Illinois.

Ms. Sessions Stepp said her goal is to retool, not reject, feminism. “Really, when you look at it, hookup culture is gravy for guys,” she said. “So how much are we winning?”

I knew that, in college, my prime slut years, I was walking a very fine line. True sluts were admired and respected. They were revered by other girls as being in control of their sexuality, for not being afraid to pursue pleasure with the same adventurous abandonment that boys did. There were, however, these mid-level sluts, who were not respected. They didn't have any friends. Guys didn't brag about bagging them, since they knew everyone else had. The famous slut of our department, who I'll call Dawn, gave the impression that she could be selective of her partners, that she didn't really "need" them. Men did brag about sleeping with her - as though they had experienced something fabulous. Nobody bragged about sleeping with Eileen, or Randi, or, let's be honest, me.

I chose to emulate Dawn. I figured that was the best I could do. I held my head up high and responded to catcalls in the hallway with a wink and a shake of my ass. It worked. I didn't get much shit from people after that, and I did make more female friends. I did choose my lovers, and was seldom turned down. I was in control of my sexuality... but not my heart.

This was a role I played, and at the end of the night, when I went home and took off my makeup, I was a lonely, love-starved 21-year old. I knew what a fake I was, what a liar and cheater I was, and I hated myself for it.

The aggressive, sexually free female is a feminist ideal that simply glosses over the complexities of relationships. It was a giant step from the guilt-enforced stereotype of virgin-until-marriage or slut-for-life that infested society until the 1960's. It is, however, hopelessly outdated. It doesn't accurately map the vast territory between prude and slut, between sex and love. In the 1990's, on my college campus nobody knew how to talk about this, and ten years later, apparently it's still a problem. In spite of everything the feminist movement has done for women, we still have a long way to go when it comes to empowering young adult women.

Let's start with accepting the fact that no set of rules applies to absolutely everybody, and that's a GOOD thing. That it's ok to want to fall in love, get married, have kids, and it's equally ok to want to be a CEO and enjoy your sex in your own fashion. Or to want to get married but not have kids. Or to want kids but not a partner. Your choices are YOURS.

And as far as sex, it's ok to say yes when you want to, AND no when you want to - you can go back and forth as much as you feel you need to. This is your body, and you don't OWE it to anyone.

Most importantly of all, don't decide who to sleep with, or when, based on your desire to be identified with a certain socio-political camp. Young women are still simply not able to listen to their hearts. And how could they, with everyone around them screaming in their ears?

Thank God for New York. Thank God for a fresh start. I've told the story a million times, about how that glorious summer in 1995 I got off that plane, dumped all my hangers-on, took a three-day-long shower and started completely clean. It's an old story, but damn, it was great. And now here I am twelve years later, in a happy monogamous three-year relationship, planning my wedding. Eight years worth of therapy and a great deal of bourbon later, of course.

That said, there are plenty of criticisms about this book. Some say that the author is trying to re-instill the notion of sexual shame. She is a bit harsh in condemning young people for dirty dancing. But the point she makes is an important one - that the hookup culture is no healthier than the abstinence one, or the "I'll sleep with him because I think he loves me" victimology of bartering your body for good behavior. The way to avoid being sexually exploited is not to become an exploiter - it's to outsmart them, and refuse to have any part in the game. Believe me, that's a great deal harder, but it works.

Do I wish I'd figured that out by 21 instead of 25? Of course. Am I kicking myself that I didn't? Absolutely not. I - and Eileen, and Randi, and Dawn - did the best we could. I do, however, wish someone could have framed the ideas as clearly as Ms. Sessions-Stepp. I take the things I can use from what I read, and I trust the next generation to be smart enough to do the same. And as every generation of feminists before me has said, maybe, just maybe, my daughters and grandaughters will have it just the teeniest bit easier.

It's worth working for.


Jess said...

I think we all have moments of "if only I'd known then..."

The problem is that we all have to learn in our own ways. No book or words of advice can change that. It's just how it goes.

So having the perspective to put aside regrets and move forward is the best thing you can do. I'm glad to see you're doing it!

Tuna Girl said...

I found this very interesting. Because I thrived in an all-girl high school and chose a women's college much of what most women I meet now went through during those years is completely foreign to me.

I had no idea it was so hard!

But you're so right. It is important to work for the next generation of women. I was lucky to have it be easy for me. Damn lucky. I want it to be that easy for my daughter too.