Young women are more sexually confident than ever before. Hooking up is less emotionally devastating than we've been led to believe. They enjoy unprecedented personal and professional opportunities. Yet the same book that reports this welcome news also describes contemporary 20-something young women as more overwhelmed by "confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety" than any prior generation. Hungry for romantic fulfillment, they're highly doubtful about their own chances of being able to find both enduring love and professional success. As it turns out, a healthy chunk of this cynicism is rooted in ever-diminishing expectations of men.
Every semester, I ask the students in my women's studies classes a simple question: "How many of you were told — by a relative or older friend — to ‘get an education so you won't have to rely on a man'?" When I first started teaching in the early 1990s, about half the women in the class would raise their hands. In recent years, that percentage has risen to about 75%. (When I ask the guys how many of them were told to get an education so they wouldn't have to depend on women, none — except for the inevitable wisecracker — ever claim to have been raised with that message.) The number of women pursuing higher education has risen over the past 20 years. Also rising — at least among my female community college students — is the sense that one especially pressing reason to crash classes, take out the loans and burn the midnight oil is that even in a weak economy, relying on a man for anything other than passing entertainment is a poor bet indeed. This doesn't mean that young women would want to learn any less if reliable men were available, but it does mean that part of the pressure they're feeling to succeed and succeed early is linked to an ever-louder message about male fecklessness.
25 or 30 students per semester don't constitute a large sample from which to draw conclusions about social changes. Yet psychologist Leslie Bell relies on an even smaller (but laudably diverse) group for her Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom. Based on just 20 in-depth interviews, Hard to Get makes a compelling case that young women are both more ambitious — and also more conflicted about relationships — than ever before.
Writing in the Atlantic this month, Bell notes that young women are both hungry for romance and genuinely fearful about the likelihood that relationships will "derail" their own plans. Not only have they taken to heart the dangers of "relying on a man" that my students mention, they're doubtful about the possibilities of "staying on track" even in a financially egalitarian relationship: "Confused about freedom and desire, young women often split their social and psychological options — independence, strength, safety, control, and career versus connection, vulnerability, need, desire, and relationships — into mutually exclusive possibilities in life. Romantic relationships then often become something to be avoided and denigrated rather than embraced." While those doubts don't do much to diminish that longing for a relationship, Bell suggests that they've left a lot of young women anxious, perhaps even guilt-ridden, about their own conflicting wants.
This "splitting" between contradictory desires for love and success is, as Bell points out, tied in to diminished expectations about male behavior. She cites the influence of increasingly popular evo-psych arguments about "irreconcilable differences" between men and women; more than ever before, girls grow up convinced that men are hardwired to disappoint if not betray. In the face of compelling claims that love will hurt even if you can find it, the young woman who prioritizes romantic fulfillment risks facing an embarrassing chorus of "we told you so" when things go wrong (as she is reminded that they invariably will.) No one wants to be called naïve; no one wants to be labeled a fool.
That fearfulness, Bell writes, is markedly at odds with how 20-something women pursue their professional ambitions. Perhaps women would do better to be as bold romantically as they have become intellectually. "Young women who are taking risks in so many other important areas of life," she says, "should also pursue experiences that may, on their face, seem to be at odds with independence and progress."
That's easy enough advice to give. It's great to encourage young women to be bolder about going for what they want, but that encouragement needs to be accompanied by a challenge to young men as well. We can't ask women to take on still more risk without asking men to change. After all, that's the point we've been repeating this month about rape culture. We've been reminded by everyone from Sir Patrick Stewart to Zerlina Maxwell that if we want to end sexual violence against women, men are an essential part of the solution. It's not enough to teach women to protect themselves; we have to teach men not to rape. The same thing is surely true for combatting the "splitting" problem that Bell diagnoses: if we want women to pursue romance with the same confident determination with which they pursue everything else, we have to do more than offer an encouraging "you go, girl!" As we remind men that (contrary to the evo-psych myths of which Bell is rightly contemptuous) they aren't actually hardwired to rape, we can remind them that they also aren't hardwired to be emotionally obtuse, needy, and disappointing.
As feminists have been pointing out for some time, expanding opportunity for women without also expanding expectations for men leaves us with a lot of anxious and exhausted female overachievers. As Bell argues in Hard to Get, one way that anxiety manifests is in young women's growing "contempt for vulnerability." If we want to get past this maddening dichotomy between romantic happiness and professional success, we need to do more than teach young women emotional self-defense. We need men to change.
We make public life less risky for women not just by encouraging them to take self-defense classes, but by demanding that men respect women's bodies on the street, in the subway, and at work. We make romantic life less risky for women by challenging men to show the fuck up. The myth that excuses rape is the same myth that makes men into such apparently risky propositions as boyfriends or husbands. As long as we believe that men are too weak to control their sexual impulses, we'll force the burden for preventing rape entirely onto women; as long as we believe that men are uniformly incapable of being exciting, reliable, and emotionally aware life companions, we'll continue to mock and shame young women who make romance a priority in their lives.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.
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