Sunday, January 19, 2014

Has greater sexual freedom meant a loss of power for women?

This month, The Savvy Reader Book Club, is reading Debora L. Spar’s book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. In last week's discussion, I revealed a perfume commercial from the 70's was responsible for shaping my life’s vision. Today I’d like to discuss chapter 3 – sex and the social contract.

Spar begins by explaining that the courting/dating culture that was common prior to the sexual revolution no longer exists. Today’s young men no longer ask women out on dates or to go steady. Instead they “hook up” - a boy meets a girl at a party and takes her home for sex. In one recent survey of college students, 75 percent of the male respondents and 84 percent of the females reported having hooked up at least once during their college years. (Pg. 68)

Spar feels this greater sexual freedom has resulted in a loss of power for women:
There’s something about hooking up that seems to reflect a diminution of women’s choices rather an expansion, a decrease in women’s power rather than a rise.

Ultimately the crux of the matter is whether women truly enjoy the freedom that comes from uncommitted sex. And it’s not clear that they do. Instead, as Stepp reports in Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, many of the women who embrace the hookup culture for some period of time (usually their freshman year of college) later come to regret it. Rather than feeling empowered by their conquests, they feel abandoned by the men they thought might be their boyfriends. Rather than whisking blithely from one affair to the next, they are waiting by the phone (now, at least conveniently in their pocket) for last night’s encounter to call them back. Because the hookup is so clearly not about commitment, though, he rarely does. And the women are left, longing for something they swore they didn’t want. (Pg. 70)
Then there is the money proponent:
Sex has long been connected to some underlying notion of exchange; to some sense, in other words, that each of the parties in a sexual relationship was getting something- be it property or pleasure or a lifetime of protection – out of it. Hooking up challenges this historical relationship. Echoing the anthem of the sexual revolution, it presumes that men and women are free to have sex whenever they want, with whomever they want, and with no commitment implied by the act. 

The question, though, is whether women truly get equal value from a relationship based on “free” sex. Are they equally content to give-and get-sex for nothing, or have they perhaps given men what they want (easy, cheap sex) without getting much in return? (Pg. 72)
While reading this chapter, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a young woman who lived in my dormitory my freshman year of college. I distinctly remember the afternoon a group of us were sitting around discussing our Saturday night plans when this girl announced she hoped to get lucky. If a guy could have a one-night stand without anyone thinking twice about it, she could too. Later that year, I would find her crying in the restroom because a boy was no longer interested in hooking up with her. A year or two later I would run into her again, she would confide she had just had an abortion. She hadn’t even liked her baby’s father yet terminating her pregnancy was one of the hardest decisions of her life.

Eventually, she would marry and have two daughters.

I would meet her for drinks a few years ago when she was visiting in my area. Her former hook-up lifestyle came up in conversation. This was not the life she wanted for her daughters.

As to the loss of power, I wouldn’t want to go back to the era where women were treated as possessions or a man felt he had to marry a women who became pregnant (then would abuse her), but I do think something can be said for waiting a bit before having sex. People tend to appreciate something they have to work for a little bit more.

This quote from Terry Tempest William’s book When Women Were Birds is a good example of why the hook-up experience is different for a woman than a man:
Because what every woman knows each month when she bleeds is, I am not pregnant. Because what every woman understands each time she makes love is, Life could be in the making now. Which is why when a woman allows a man to enter her, it is not just a physical act, but an act of surrendering to the possibility that her life may no longer be hers alone. Because until she bleeds, she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life. Because until she bleeds, she wonders if her life will be one or two or three. Because until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds.
Today’s question again comes from The Reading Group Guides discussion questions for Wonder Women:

Compared to women who courted and married before the sexual revolution, do unmarried women today do a better or worse job managing love, money, and sex in the context of their relationships? Do you agree with Spar that greater sexual freedom has meant a loss of power for women? Have men lost anything?


  1. I definitely agree with the writers. "Sexual freedom" isn't that freeing for women, mainly because we seek an emotional currency in a physical exchange. And in response to your question, I don't believe men have lost a thing. :-/ Great read and great points. I look forward to hearing more!

    (Your SITS tribe member)

  2. Bullshit like this had me feeling like there was something wrong with me for years!

    I am not an emotional woman. I can have sex with people and not want a relationship with it. As a mature adult, I can give & accept rejection. I don't regret any casual sexual relations that I've had. My college experience wasn't crazy (isn't this beyond stereotype now??)

    Yet, I always heard in the media that women want relationships and women are dependent on men and women can't "just" have sex unless it means something. If that's true... then am I not a woman?

    Thankfully, I started listening to Dan Savage's podcast and reading other similar sources. And you know what, there are women out there who aren't emotionally dependent on relationships. We do exist! Some women, can "just" have sex without wanting anything! And our freedoms certainly aren't being limited.

  3. i disagree that the hookup culture is less empowering than generations ago. the plight of women lessens as time goes on. i would certainly rather be a woman raised today, than june cleaver who while apparently happily married, was essentially the property of her husband. women's identity in the past was completely shaped by who she married and who would take care of her. it's not like that anymore. and yes, while women do hookup and it's not exactly what she is genuinely looking for, i think the trade-off is marginal.

  4. Great topic! With having a teenaged daughter {though only 15} it is a conversation worth having because above all, I want my daughter to value herself and to not rely on a man, or relationship to define who she. I think you expect more if you are having sex to enter a relationship as opposed to just hooking up. Very interesting for sure!! Really makes one think...

    (SITS tribe)

  5. Thanks for stopping by my blog the other day! Have a terrific week.

  6. Well, this is certainly not an easy topic...but I'm inclined to agree with the authors - to an extent. While women who truly want to have casual relationships certainly are able in today's culture, many women don't. And the idea that sex can be easy and with no strings attached has helped to breed a generation or two of men who expect it to be so. So where does that leave the woman who wants to have a meaningful, lasting relationship?

  7. Replying to Leslie: Because of sources like this book, the myth of "all men don't want a relationship" is greatly exaggerated. There were several relationships for me that ended because the guy wanted more and I wasn't ready.

    I'm not trying to be purely anecdotal here but... there are plenty of men who do want serious committed relationships. Movies are not real life.

  8. Ade,
    I don't believe any of the commenters have disputed your claim that men haven't lost a thing.

    I too think it is hard for women to not seek an emotional exchange in a sexual encounter - especially young sober women. Perhaps not in with a one-night stand, but after regular hookups most women will begin to feel an attachment. I did know women in college that sought out men they purposely did not like just for sex. They didn't want an attachment - they did feel guilty the morning after thought.

  9. As a single woman who is dating now, I do wish things were a bit more like they were in my parents' generation when it comes to dating and gender roles. However, I also like the freedoms that women have today in terms of careers vs. marriage and not having to follow traditional homemaker type gender roles. But there is a positive and negative side to everything.

    I do think men have lost some too, though not as much as women. Some of my male friends seem to be struggling to find this woman who is traditional like past generations but modern when it comes to finances. I think some of them are just as confused in dating and gender roles as I often feel.

  10. I still think there seems to be a double standard on how men and women should act when it comes to sex. Men can pursue one-night stands and be regarded as studs but when women do it, they are criticized and feel badly about themselves.

    Women lose part of their self-esteem and reputation when they have sex too early in the relationship. They do lose power.

    I am raising three handsome sons, the oldest is just getting to be a teenager. Girls their age have already been quite flirty with them and it surprises me how gutsy some of them are. I was always a prohibitively shy girl and i just wonder what their teenage years will bring my boys. Wish me luck!

  11. I think greater sexual freedom gives women more power. It's just a matter of how you chose to utilize that power.

    I can have sex with someone and have no interest in a relationship and vice versa.

    Some people are better with power than others- that's always been true and always will be.

  12. Leslie Beslie,
    You've hit on one of the biggest criticisms of this book. Spar writes marriage is still a goal of roughly 70 percent of unmarried eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds and she wrote this book. Yes, stereotypes like this perpetuate the myth that there is something wrong with women who do not want a relationship and also leads to a whole lot of guilt.

    FYI- hard-core feminists aren't fond of this book either. She also writes most women want a baby - a perfect baby at the perfect time.

    Thanks for introducing me to Dan Savage I was not familiar with him.

  13. what a great topic of discussion. I think that no matter how much feminism has changed society, both men and women still push women down today. Mothers are the worst enemies of other mothers, women the worst enemies of other women.

    I think as long as we criticize women for using BC and shrug at men buying tons of condoms we are keeping women labled at sl*uts and wh"res.

  14. Catherine,
    There was still a lot of hook-up guilt when I was in college 30 years ago. I wonder if that has changed now? You are right though things are so much better for women than they were prior to the 70's. We couldn't even have our own credit card. Also, marriages today are more about finding a partner than finding someone to take care of us.

  15. Phyllis,
    "I want my daughter to value herself and to not rely on a man, or relationship to define who she. I think you expect more if you are having sex to enter a relationship as opposed to just hooking up."

    Great attitude. Your daughter is going to be just fine!

  16. Leslie,
    I agree this is a tough topic. There are still a lot of men want a lasting relationship. The men I know who don't feel like they've been burnt by women. Which is another conversation entirely.

  17. Leslie Beslie,
    I agree entirely. Many men want to be in a serious relationship. I also know several that get serious way to fast.

  18. Chasing Joy,
    It is good to hear from someone who is looking for a relationship. I think you are right both sexes are more confused today. I hope the next generation can figure it out better than we did.

  19. Tanya,
    I remember friends telling me how bold the girls were towards their sons. Even asking their 12-year old to pay for her admission to a dance. The mother replied by saying her son wasn't paying for anything until he was old enough to have a job. Funny how these dynamics play out. Wishing you luck - I've seen pictures of your boys - you are going to need it.

    I also knew a woman in college who choose a non-college boy for her hookups to preserve her reputation. She was an example of someone who truly wasn't looking for a relationship.

  20. Stefanie,
    Interesting point. Someday I want to spend a whole month exploring power.

  21. Karen,
    Love your comment. Perhaps that is the greater problem - women pushing other women down or if not pushing them down at least not supporting them.