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A dangerous dish on the cultural menu

Are “boys on the side” really the answer to young women’s career ambitions?
Monica Gabriel and Kara Eschbach | 21 September 2012
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In case you haven't noticed, 2012 has been declared The Year of the Women in the United States. Everyone wants to talk about women: Democrats at their National Convention; shocked multitudes following Rep. Todd Akin’s outrageous statements about women and rape; leading columnists debating options for a pregnant Marissa Meyer after her being named CEO of Yahoo! It seems that every time we open a newspaper, turn on the TV, or surf the internet, there is a feverish conversation around who women are and what is and is not good for us.

So it is hardly surprising that when Hanna Rosin, author of the controversial 2010 Atlantic article “The End of Men” (which has spawned a book, just published, of the same name), released one of the book's juicier chapters in the latest Atlantic, it ignited the conversation anew. Her piece, entitled “Boys on the Side”, proves to be just as provocative as the title suggests.

In it, Rosin takes a contrarian view of the hookup culture allegedly flourishing on college campuses, contesting the typical women-as-victim narrative. If your idea of hookups assumes there will be a broken-hearted girl crying into her pillow because “she thought it was love,” you would be quite mistaken. Not only are college women not upset by the new world of casual sexual relationships, says Rosin, but they have actually become the leaders in initiating and perpetuating the system.

More than just acknowledging that casual sex is the new norm, Rosin posits that this development is actually the necessary ingredient for further female progress. Just as birth control affords women sex without the babies, the appeal of the college hook-up culture is sex without the love that can lead to burdensome monogamy and steal our professional dreams.

Rosin bases these conclusions on interviews and research conducted with college women who, at the time, were immersed in this culture themselves. Can we really conclude from these anecdotes that hooking up is good for young women, and therefore something to be applauded?

As late 20-somethings looking back on a decade of witnessing the no-strings-attached trend first hand, we can’t help but be skeptical. Yes, it may look on the surface that the world is our oyster: we are pursuing prestigious, well-paying careers, living in vibrant cities and traveling the world. Perhaps if we only worshiped at the altar of the shattered glass ceiling, this would be enough. But the reality is that most of us don’t, and our definition of the good life has as much to do with love and intimate relationships as with career aspirations.

By denying this, Rosin’s analysis misses the huge downside presented by the hookup culture, namely, that when we habitually separate sex from intimacy, it hurts our chances of being able to form the kinds of committed relationships that would one day lead us towards the very thing we have been avoiding but claim to desire: marriage.

In one of the surveys she cites, 90 percent of respondents said they wanted to get married. One comment she quotes stands out as particularly encapsulating the attitude of young adults towards marriage: “I want to get secure in a city and in a job.... As long as I’m married by 30, I’m good.” But the reality, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, is that only 44 percent of adults aged 25-34 have achieved that goal.

If “hookups haven't wrecked the capacity for intimacy” as Rosin claims, and if the only lasting effects are Facebook photos and alcohol-hazed memories, why are our prospects for attaining committed intimacy plummeting?

Some may say our expectations changed as we matured and that we decided we would prefer to delay or forgo marriage. But in the aforementioned Pew report, 61 percent of those who aren’t married say they want to be, so that doesn’t fully explain what’s going on.

What seems far more likely is that separating sex from love can be habit-forming. Sensory experiences can actually change the physical and organizational structure of our brain, meaning―as Dr. Freda Bush and Dr. Joseph S. McKissic reveal in their book Hooked―that years of equating sexual pleasure with emotional detachment and objectification could have long-term effects on one’s sensory memory and ability to maintain healthy, committed relationships in the future.

The other stumbling block seems to be in the deliberately self-seeking and habitually utilitarian lifestyle that gives rise to casual and detached sex―as one survey respondent in a study by NYU sociologist Paula England put it, just being “100% selfish.”

Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness and founding director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues have found that fostering internal character strengths are the key to happiness and life satisfaction. Their studies have  indicated that the most important character traits are what they call “heart strengths” -- gratitude, hope, zest, and the ability to love and be loved -- and that these are enhanced with practice.

So, when you practice being altruistic by reaching outside of yourself to serve another, you in fact become an altruistic person. On the other hand, it would follow that after practicing being a selfish person for 10 years, it should be no surprise that you reach the end of your twenties and find that selfishness is a bad habit that stands in the way of long-term happiness.

None of this is to say that women should not pursue careers or that they need to “find a husband” early in life. But it is dangerous to believe that there aren’t long-term consequences to teaching ourselves to value our careers first and to use people for momentary sexual gratification without any promise of long-term commitment.

How hollow is the victory of economic progress if our deepest emotional desires are thrown to the wayside?

Rather than taking Rosin’s assessment at face value, young women today would do better to take charge of reshaping the terms of women’s empowerment. Career and healthy romantic relationships are not mutually exclusive; it may be difficult to have both, but if we truly value this as an important part of our happiness, we should want to foster a culture that supports working just as hard at healthy, committed relationships as it does at working on our PhDs.

While we might laugh and shake our heads at the embarrassing Facebook photos of our college days, and we’d be the first to admit they don’t define us, we also have to be honest: they represent hurdles to our relational futures that we wish we didn’t have to clear.

Kara Eschbach is the co-founder and editor in chief of Verily Magazine. Monica Gabriel is a columnist for Verily, and currently works in advertising at TIME Magazine.

This article is published by Monica Gabriel and Kara Eschbach and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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