Sex and the twenties
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.
When it comes to sex, it seems, teens and twentysomethings can’t win.
According to the popular media narrative, young people are either more promiscuous than any group before them, hooking up and dragging each other into club bathrooms with a frequency that would make the residents of Jersey Shore blush. Alternately, we are uniquely repressed and sexless, our carnal senses dulled by long hours at work, narcissism and too much time on Twitter.
In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, second wave feminist Erica Jong posited just that: worrying that the younger generation had “given up” on sex, trading it in for the “simpler” pleasures of marriage and motherhood.
Jong isn’t the first person to make these claims. In March, the New York Observer announced that “young New Yorkers no longer care about having sex”, blaming for its demise the rise of social media and a Manhattan house party at which nobody got laid. In 2010, Slate’s Jessica Grose charted a “backlash against casual sex”, spurred by raunch culture, slut shaming and “a new wave of anti-orgasmic sexual conservatism”.
On the surface, such articles seem like the flipside of the other type of commentary we often see about young people and sex: “Oh my god! Kids today are getting it on more than they ever have before, and they are ruining their ability to form lasting relationships!” But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that both narratives rely on the same set assumptions.
Both types of commentary are responding to a perception that the “norm” for young, single people is to be having a lot of sex with a lot of different people. For social conservatives, that’s a problem. For some progressives, it’s the natural course of events; one of the more delicious parts of being young and unencumbered by responsibility.
But as writers like Jong and Grose correctly identify, the perceptions don’t match the reality. The Online College Social Life Survey, the largest study of university aged young people in the United States, found that the average student “hooks up” with seven people over four years at university, and has sex with three or four of those. Twenty-five percent don’t hook up at all.
Another assumption that is consistent across the political spectrum is that this alleged outbreak of carnal activity is question of freedom. For conservatives, casual sex – or in many cases, even premarital sex – is a product of a too much freedom, and the waning of old moral and religious frameworks. For some progressives, there is a sense that if sex has historically been repressed, having lots of it must be an act of resistance.
When Jong was a young woman, these attitudes made sense. If you grow up being told that sex is dirty, that premarital sex makes you a “slut”, that having sex with people of the same gender makes you a “freak”, then it makes sense that you wouldn’t be happy about it. And in response to that climate, becoming sexually active – and doing it on your own terms – might feel like a juicy, sensual freedom.
Our own era is more complex. “Slut shaming” may be alive and well, as the debate around the recent SlutWalk protests showed, but if casual sex isn’t compulsory, sex itself now is. We now live in an age in which if you’re not having sex, you’re deemed boring, ugly or just plain weird. In which people worry that they’re not having “good sex” unless they’re engaging in carnal acrobatics six times a week.
Done with a degree of knowledge about your own body and a partner willing to figure out what makes you tick, sex can be fantastic. But just because sex brings us pleasure doesn’t mean there’s a problem if it isn’t the focus of our politics or identities. In an era that prizes self-determination, pursuing a narrowly defined version of “freedom” can become a form of repression in and of itself.
There are times when not getting laid does suggest a deeper issue: whether it be religious, a product of personal trauma, or simply not wanting to be labelled a “slut”. Other times, it just means you’ve got other things on your mind, or that there’s no one around you want to have sex with.
The same goes for casual sex. Sometimes it’s about pleasure, sometimes it’s about sport, sometimes it’s a thumbs up to the establishment, and sometimes it’s just an awkward performance of what we’re told is “liberating”.
Which suggests that there might just be a way to “win” the hook up wars after all. Do what feels right and makes you happy – regardless of it “reveals” about you as a person, or your generation at large.