The "Promiscuity" Problem: Why Hookup Culture Is Not The EnemyS

Memo to Natasha Walter of the Times of London, and to everybody else talking about young women's sex lives these days: girls got 99 problems, and "promiscuity" ain't one.

Walter began her piece with a kind of upsetting description of a "glamour model" competition at a bar in Southend, England. Hoping to become the next Jordan via a modeling contract with Nuts magazine, young women climbed onto a giant bed to close, strip, and make out with each other. Meanwhile men snapped cell phone pictures, while a DJ made carnival-barker announcements like,

Now we're going to judge your girl-on-girl action. Let's see you get a bit friendly. Come on, how about some kissing? What do you think, boys? Some of the fittest girls in Southend getting it on with each other.

While it's probably true that, as one glamour model says, "the girls that are entering are entering out of choice," I'd be far from the first to argue that faux-bianism for the titillation of guys in a bar is hardly empowering. The issue isn't whether girls and young women are being chained up and forced to perform for men — that, at least, is illegal — it's whether a homogeneous and boring view of male desire is still dictating what makes women feel sexual and sexy. It's pretty clear from Walter's article that at least some young women believe that looking hot in a very specific way is the route to sexual pleasure, and this belief is depressing and limiting.

However, the other choices aren't all that attractive. After the glamour model competition, Walter's article segues — as so many do — into a discussion of modern-day hookup culture. She writes,

I do not want to exaggerate the changes in our society. Just as in Jane Austen's time there were women who had sex before marriage and lovers after marriage, so there are women now who hold themselves in readiness for their one true love and seek to remain eternally faithful to him.

But whereas in Austen's time the promiscuous woman was presented in the dominant culture as marginal and to be condemned, now a girl who has decided to delay sexual activity until she finds a true emotional commitment can be pushed to the margins and silenced.

Walters argues that "this new culture of shags and threesomes, orgies and sex with strangers seems to be replacing the culture in which sex was associated with the flowering of intimacy." Her evidence: girls like the teenage Bella, who tells her about a conversation she had with a male friend:

Somehow we got on to how much sex I had. He was trying to convince me I had had a traumatic childhood and that was why I had so much sex. I had to keep saying no, I actually am happy. I like having this much sex. I love it.

The subtext is that she must not really love it, or that "delay[ing] sexual activity until she finds a true emotional commitment" is actually the superior and healthier choice. Advising girls to wait for someone they love may not be as damaging as pressuring them to strip, but still, girls today are caught between a rock and a hard place. Everyone is telling them how to fuck.

The problem with conflating (very valid) criticism of patriarchal notions of hotness with hysteria about hookup culture is that it equates having sex for physical pleasure — or for any reason other than emotional connection — with simply satisfying the desires of men. Only men, the subtext runs, could possibly want to fuck for fun, and women who do so must have been duped in some way. Girls desperately need the message that they can decide why, when, and with whom they want to have sex — instead, Nuts magazine is telling them to do it one way and feminists, too often, are telling them to do it another. And it's not particularly surprising that girls like Bella are picking the one that's easier to do in bars.

Walter also spoke with a 24-year-old sex education counselor named Esther, who says,

The group of girls I was friends with at school were all sexually active from a very young age. I remember when a friend of mine lost her virginity. It was on a park bench. She was 14. There was huge pressure on me to join in with that kind of behaviour, but I didn't. That wasn't what I wanted from sex. That kind of casual relationship isn't right for me, but I was made to feel like a freak right through school and university because of that.

No one should be made to feel like a freak for her (or his) sexual decisions, and it's true that the culture of "glamour modeling" also encourages women to be sexual and have sex for the gratification of others, not themselves. But the solution to this isn't to impose our own outside standards for when girls should give it up — it's to fight for the right of both Esther and Bella to have sex when and if they want to, and not get shit for it either way. Esther talks about resisting social pressure and delaying sex, and her choice deserves respect — but so does Bella's. It's time to drive the conversation away from "promiscuity" — away from how many partners a woman has or when she loses her virginity — and toward the question of whether we're freely choosing our behavior, and how we can help younger women do so.

Feminism Seen As Promiscuity? [TimesOnline]