27 February 2010

The problem with hook up culture is that it's anti-feminist

Via Samhita at Feministing, I found this interesting article by Rachel Simmons, "Is Hooking Up Good for Girls?" Her basic argument is that feminists should criticize the hook up culture on university campuses, and the biggest problem I find with it is that it follows the dating history set forth by "courtship" advocates and anti-feminists. When I was doing research on the manifestations of Jane Austen in anti-feminist literature, I found plenty of what I would call false histories of dating:
Advocates of an old-fashioned system of “courtship”—in which dating cannot precede parental approval, physical contact is not allowed, and men must “call” on women and their families—suggest the same causal relationship between a culture that accepts sex and the occurrence of rape. Terrence Moore’s lengthy description of courtship, outlining its benefits, implies this causal relationship:
At the beginning of the twentieth century, if a man wanted to court a young woman, he had to call on her at home. At home the young woman was on her own turf, so to speak. […] The couple was never totally alone. Mother might enter the parlor to offer some lemonade or iced tea, or hot chocolate or coffee, depending on the season. Father might be reading or cleaning his shotguns in the adjacent room. Therefore the encounter had to remain seemly. Conversation, singing and piano-playing, games of chance, all were encouraged. As a result, young people really had to get to know each other. Necking and groping and making out were strictly verboten. Parents hardly had to lay down such rules. A girl never had to say ‘No’ because she was never asked. Any man who tried to take liberties would have been shown the door. Word would have spread, and he would thenceforth not have been ‘received’ in any respectable home.
Moore is not subtle about the relationship between a culture that allows (and even encourages) sexual activity between young people and rape. Like Fields, Moore assumes that rape is a result of sexual freedom because he assumes that rape is in the same category as voluntary sexual activity, like “necking and groping and making out,” only worse in degree. He suggests that if a “girl” has the opportunity to consent to sexual activity, she is already in danger of being raped, and this danger is not the result of her being in the company of a rapist, but the result of too much privacy and the absence of her parents. Moore—who suggests that sex education should be substituted with reading “Rousseau’s Emile or any Jane Austen novel”—and Fields both admire Austen because her novels are, in their perceptions, pre-sexual. Not only is this understanding of Austen and her era simply incorrect, but it assumes that sex crimes like rape are the result of a culture that condones and celebrates (consensual) sex. Again, this positing of a causal relationship between the two is a result of figuring rape as similar to consensual sex in degree, not type. Positing that rape and sex are related is problematic, because this position leads (almost inevitably) to what are common claims and attitudes today: that women who have sex cannot be raped, that women who dress a certain way “deserve” to be raped or are “asking for it,” that prostitutes cannot be raped, or even that wives cannot refuse consent with their husbands. All of these claims assume that rape is a form of sex. But reading more Austen novels—a solution posited by Moore and other abstinence advocates—and encouraging men to “court” women in the presence of her parents will not reduce the prevalence of rape, because rape is fundamentally a different activity than consensual sex.
The problem with this history is that it links rape to increased consensual sex (placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the victim, who, if she just hadn't been alone with a man, would never have been raped), ignores that rape happened in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and allows advocates of courting to place the blame for rape and female dissatisfaction with their romantic relationships (or lack thereof) on feminism. Feminism is what allowed women to date outside the household, the narrative goes, allowed them the freedom to make out and have sex without being severely censured and called a slut, and thus feminism is why the hook up culture and rape exist. From Simmons:
My concern led me to Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus by sociologist Kathleen A. Bogle. It’s both a short history of dating culture and a study of the sexual habits of men and women on two college campuses. Hooking Up is a nonjudgmental window into the relational and sexual challenges facing young women today. It’s also a fascinating read.

Bogle opens with some downright cool history: In the first decade of the twentieth century, a young man could only see a woman of interest if she and her mother permitted him to “call” on them together. In other words, the women controlled the event.
I haven't read Bogle's book, so I don't know if she's actually suggesting that women have control in a culture that enforces courting. But Simmons, as a feminist, should know better. The era of courting, mostly the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was not an era when women had control of dating and marriage. When women are financially dependent on their male relatives or husbands, their control over the dating game is illusory. The whole situation of calling was situated to give parents (mostly fathers) control over who their daughters were seeing (if a woman were to see a man in private, her reputation was in great danger) and who she would marry. Men had the financial power, the ability to "call" (if women can't even pick their suitors, but have to just choose from what presents itself at her door, is she really in control?), and the ability to ask (the suitor) and even accept (the father) marriage proposals. Women had the ability only to refuse proposals, and many times had not even that.

My point is that romanticizing this era and practice as some sort of feminist, girl-power dream is ridiculous, unhistorical, and dangerous. And hooking up isn't a break from courting, but a continuation.
Like the girls who write to me at Teen Vogue, most of the women Bogle interviewed crammed their dreams of a boyfriend into casual connections determined entirely by the guys. Susan, a first year student, has a typical story: “…We started kissing and everything and then he never talked about…having it be a relationship. But I wanted…in my mind [I was thinking] like: ‘I want to be his girlfriend. I want to be his girlfriend.’….I didn’t want to bring it up and just [say] like: ‘So where do we stand?’ because I know guys don’t like that question.” Susan slept with the guy several times, never expressed her feelings, and ended the “relationship” hurt and dissatisfied.


College men, Bogle writes, “are in a position of power,” where they control the intensity of relationships and determine if and when a relationship will become serious. In case you haven’t caught on yet, us liberated girls are supposed to call this “progress.”
There is a big parallel between this situation (which anti-feminists call the hook up culture, but I have issues with that term) and the practice of courting. Men are in control; in courting practices, men get to choose which women they see and how often, when to propose, and the fathers have the power to answer for their daughters (particularly if their answer is no). In what Bogle and Simmons describe, men have the power over where the relationship goes, and women are forced to bury their feelings and take whatever is offered. So, no, this isn't progress. And Simmons is right to think that when women feel they must take romantic encounters on men's terms, that is an unfeminist situation. But it is not the effect of increased sexual liberation or feminism, but a continuation of sexist and patriarchal structures, which relegate dating power to men, make it so that women feel uncomfortable voicing their desires, and allow men to think it's okay not to listen or to get angry and confrontational when women do voice their desires.
So what’s the deal here? Is a world in which guys rule the result of the so-called man shortage on campus? Fat chance. More likely, we’re enjoying some unintended spoils of the sexual revolution. As authors like Ariel Levy and Jean Kilbourne and Diane Levin have shown, the sexualization of girls and young women has been repackaged as girl power. Sexual freedom was supposed to be good for women, but somewhere along the way, the right to be responsible for your own orgasm became the privilege of being responsible for someone else’s.


Does that make me a right-winger? Can I still be a feminist and say that I’m against this brand of sexual freedom? I fear feminism has been backed into a corner here. It’s become antifeminist to want a guy to buy you dinner and hold the door for you. Yet – picture me ducking behind bullet proof glass as I type this — wasn’t there something about that framework that made more space for a young woman’s feelings and needs?

What, and who, are we losing to the new sexual freedom? I realize a guy buying you dinner is not the only alternative to the hook up culture (and I, like Bogle, am not discussing the lives of GLTBQ students here). Still, the question bears asking. Is this progress? Or did feminism get really drunk, go home with the wrong person, wake up in a strange bed and gasp, “Oh, God?”
Again, I agree with Simmons's basic argument: this is not good for women and girls. But the framing of the whole conversation is straight out of anti-feminist rhetoric. The sexual revolution did not suddently introduce male-controlled dating situations out of the blue; they have always existed. The progress that feminism (and the sexual revolution) has given us is that less women feel uncomfortable controlling and defining their relationships. That there are still many, many women out their (particularly young college students) who feel pressured to get into non-committed sexual relationships because they think they can't ask for anything else is not the fault of feminism or the sexual revolution, but the fault of patriarchy. The only reason this isn't obvious is because we've bought the anti-feminist narrative of dating history.


lorax said...

Oh man, thank you for reminding me about Feministing. I haven't been to that site in about a year and a half.

Also, this gives one a lot to think about. Overall, I entirely agree with your argument.

meanderwithme said...

Courtney, your blog title is entirely what got me to link through form Amanda's. I went to UH, but am well familiar enough with A&M to get a big old giggle from your blog title. Add in the atheism, and I think I may have to add you to my regular reads!

Anonymous said...

This was a great post -- thank you for writing this.