Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say Yes

In order to procrastinate I'm reading this new book from the library, Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom by Leslie C. Bell.  I just now looked to see who published it -- University of California Press -- and that surprised me, because Hard to Get reads like something an ordinary commercial publisher would issue.  Bell describes herself as a feminist psychotherapist as well as a sociologist.  The main concession she makes to what I'd consider academic standards is that she provides some details on her research approach, such as how she constructed her sample, the kinds of interview questions she asked, and so on. That's good, but it's not enough.

Hard to Get raises some valuable questions, but Bell seems to be stuck in some basic binaries.  For example:
So what’s a good girl to do? The one form of assertion open to a good girl in relation to men is to say no. But what happens when she starts wanting to say yes? And what if she wants to say yes some of the time and no some of the time? [99].
That last question is scary.  I don't believe there is any "girl," good or bad, who says yes all the time.  Even the baddest girl will turn down some potential partners.  Has anyone tried to count the number of people we reject compared to the number we accept, whether we're talking about one-night stands or potential committed relationships?  And that leaves aside the people we don't pursue from lack of interest in the first place, plus people to whom we might have said yes but who said no to us.  Samuel R. Delany wrote a little about this in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (NYU Press, 1999), noting that in the Times Square porn theaters where he used to cruise, he observed far more rejections than acceptances, and the rejections were almost always made with a minimum of fuss.  Though he wasn't doing a systematic study, a place where men cruise for transient, on-site sex makes the transactions more visible than in a heterosexual dating situation.

It probably is true, alas, that many people don't consider it obvious that someone who says yes at times will say no at other times.  This generalizes, as among anti-abortion propagandists who talk as though a woman who has an abortion will never want to bear a child to term, even though most women who seek abortions in the US are already mothers.  And it's enforced by the socio-legal assumption, common not just in the US but in many societies, that a woman who isn't a virgin can't be raped: having once said yes (even to her husband) she can never again say no to anyone.  But Bell writes as though the concept is new to her as well.  Her rhetorical question shook me up, because it reminds me of the assumptions that underlie a lot of discourse about women's sexuality.

By contrast, it's hard to imagine anyone asking the same question about men who say yes, perhaps because men are still assumed to do the asking, and because men are assumed to be such horndogs that they'll never pass up an opportunity.  From what Bell writes, it is pretty clear that despite all the changes in American sexual mores in the past fifty years, women are still expected to be the gatekeepers of male sexual aggressiveness, and a woman who takes the initiative with males is still suspect.

One thing I do like about Bell is that she recognizes that "good girls" -- young women who postpone sexual activity until their twenties, and who avoid casual involvements in favor of committed relationships -- don't necessarily have it better, or easier, than "bad" ones.  For example, one of her "good girls," who delayed first intercourse until after college, and then only in committed relationships, contracted gonorrhea from one and genital warts from another. But she doesn't like to take that recognition too far.  The "bad" girls she interviews tend to have more experience of committed relationships than she gives them credit for, and her avowed feminism seems poorly informed.  She was born in 1970, so it's not surprising that her impression of Second Wave feminism is based more on mass-media stereotypes than on historical research, let alone personal experience.

Consider "Claudia" (a pseudonym), one of the young women Bell classifies as "bad."  Claudia is "a twenty-eight-year old postdoctoral researcher" (1), a Latina from a poor family who did well in school and decided not to live her mother's life of early marriage and childbearing.  She has had numerous one-night stands as well as several serious relationships, and she first had intercourse in high school with a "long-term boyfriend" (72); as Bell concedes, Claudia "remained a good girl in that she was having sex according to her boyfriend's desires, in the context of a long-term relationship" (73).  After she broke up with that boyfriend, she alternated between serious relationships and more casual (though often ongoing) ones.  Bell concludes that Claudia "did not understand these to be strategies that she was pursuing.  She perceived men as rejecting her, when it was often she who imposed limits on her relationships" (81).  This, I'd say, is a half-truth.  True, Claudia did impose limits on her relationships, but Bell is positing a false equivalence between Claudia's limits and the demands of her boyfriends.

Her first boyfriend, for example, "had had many sexual partners while Claudia remained a virginal good girl.  For several years of the relationship, they did not have intercourse because "he thought I was too young at the time, but [he] also cared about me a lot and liked me, so I think he was saving me for later.  But he also didn't want to coerce me into something I didn't want" (73).  It was later, in high school, that she "gave in" to him, though she didn't really want sex at the time; he continued dating other women, while she stayed faithful to him, and it seems she didn't really enjoy the sex she had with him.  Once she went away to college, "he became increasingly jealous and possessive, so she broke up with him in her senior year of college" (ibid.).

In graduate school she had "a relationship with a man she really loved and with whom sex was great" (74), but after two years he not only wanted to marry her and start a family, he wanted her to transfer to his graduate school.  She wanted to have children with him, but not while she was still in graduate school, so she chose to stay at her "more prestigious and competitive" graduate school, and they broke up; he "quickly dated and married someone else and had kids with her, which indicated to Claudia that she was not the one for him" (ibid.).

Later she got involved with a man she liked.  After about a month, before he left town on business for six weeks, they discussed what was going on between them.  Claudia preferred to leave it open until he returned, and while he was in Europe he met "somebody there who he's still dating" (75.)

It's true, judging from these stories, that Claudia set limits on her relationships, but look at what those limits were.  Her first boyfriend's "traditional" mindset indicates to me that he didn't really support her academic endeavors; he probably wanted a "traditional" wife who'd stay home and raise his babies, while he screwed around.  Claudia could have gone from "good girl" to "good wife" in traditional terms, but it would surely have meant the end of her career.  Ditto for her graduate student: he wanted her to follow him, regardless of the impact on her academic life -- to say nothing of the effects of starting a family while still in school.  He could, after all, have transferred to her school.  Bell doesn't say whether they discussed how they'd run a household, how they'd handle housekeeping and childcare; I suspect his expectations were also "traditional."   Like many women who marry as students, Claudia would have been pressured to abandon her intellectual ambitions for her husband's demands.  The third guy is more ambiguous, but would things have turned out differently had they made some kind of commitment before he went to Europe?  Or would he have become distracted by a new squeeze anyway, and dumped her?  A month of sleeping together on weekends seems to me not enough time to get too serious, or to suppose that they were destined to be soulmates; the actual outcome indicates to me that they weren't.

So Bell seems to believe that Claudia should have subordinated herself to her various boyfriends' demands regardless of the cost to her, which is not what I consider feminism; it sounds like good old-fashioned male chauvinism.  The legal structure of marriage has been changed to make it less of a bad deal for women, but the social expectations are still largely in place.  It's true that Claudia rejected her boyfriends' demands, but I think her rejection was entirely reasonable.  Bell's thesis is that women don't have to choose between a fulfilling career and fulfilling "intimacy" -- "having it all", a stance she derisively attributes to older feminists -- but on her own evidence that assumption is open to serious question.  I know there are young women who find men (or women) who have more egalitarian expectations, but from reading Hard to Get I think it's obvious that young women who fear losing their autonomy in marriage are not being unrealistic.  Certainly Claudia seems to have had good instincts.  Bell's, however, are suspect.