The Young and The Feckless: Casual Sex Meets Cognitive Dissonance

J. Maureen Henderson
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Last week, a reader sent a link to a Slate article on the new wave of sexual judgment-mongering among Gen Y and suggested I might want to address the issue here. I wasn't sure I was the one to write this because A) I spent my college years (undergrad and grad) at schools and/or in programs that lacked the traditional qualities necessary to foster a thriving campus hook-up culture - no Greek systems, significantly unequal male/female enrollment stats, nose-to-the-grindstone academic focus, etc. and B) wherever there's a loop, I'm guaranteed to be out of it.

Photo by TheeErin

Not that that would stop me from plunging in, obviously. But the more I read and pondered, the more muddled things got. Hook-up culture doesn't deserve its bad rap! Hook-up culture makes you feel sad and empty! Cosmo says go for it. Glamour says make him wait. And everyone implies only hetero sex counts. It's enough to make anyone lose her/his mind trying to sift through the mixed messages and the conflicting characteristics that are thrown around re: Millennial sexual mores - We're blasé! We're conservative! We're empowered! We're self-loathing! In fact, we're all of these things and more, because the societal context in which we assert our female sexual identity (and subsequently dissect it and parse our motives and influences) demands nothing less.

It has become obvious to me that the question isn't to hook up or not to hook up or whether doing so makes you a dirty slut and not doing so you makes you a dour prude. That argument is a proxy for how damn difficult it is to both identify and assert your own idiosyncratic values in the face of prevailing "norms" that keep shifting below your feet, reinforcing your decision in one context and vilifying you for it in another. And the more that you try to find a logic to the System of Societal Expectations of the Modern American Woman V. 54.1 and attempt to roll with its inconsistencies, its course corrections, its irrationality and Orwellian penchant for telling you that we're at war with Eurasia and we've always been at war with Eurasia and their trashy amoral ways (unless it's Tuesday and in that case we'll be scoffing at Eastasia and their uptight sanctimony), the more dissatisfied, confused and (hopefully) pissed off you become.

You cannot win. You can never embody all of the dichotomies this system (fueled by media, religion, Hollywood, sex ed, etc.) throws at you - modest/sexually liberated, autonomous/relationship-oriented, bold/ingratiating to a degree that will earn you unanimous approval (and that's what the system sets up as your goal - validation that you are sexual in the proper context, to the proper degree and feel the proper mix of enjoyment and ambivalence about this state). And even if you could balance in the perpetual state of cognitive dissonance required, what about how you feel? What about what you want? Do you want to have sex? With whom? Under what circumstances? The system doesn't really care and the pundits and analysts only care insofar as it feeds into whatever shame/empowerment/rubber-necking narrative they're seeking to validate (The decline of casual sex! The birth of ladettes!). The system devotes itself to running interference between you and your own desires. In fact, it's perfectly willing and eager to substitute for your desires and tell you what you should want and how to feel about it.

So, if the game is rigged in favor of inculcating second-guessing and insecurity (which can be further stoked by consumer culture cures purporting to put the control back in your hands, natch), what are your options in the face of damned if you do, damned if you don't? You can refuse to play. You can refuse to let your personal become their political. You can take your sexual decision making out of their system. You can get all ahistorical on their asses and decide to prioritize the context of your own life and circumstance over figuring out whether or not you're in line with the sexual attitude du jour (cloudy with a chance of promiscuity!). It isn't easy, but neither is attempting to live by a system that rewrites the female sexual code of conduct at will and only deigns to tell you about it after you've transgressed.

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20 Comments Have Been Posted

Whoa, yeah. Good point(s).

Whoa, yeah. Good point(s). I often find myself thinking about how these dynamics affect our ability to negotiate the sexual relationships we want with real people in so far as we find ourselves needing to talk or think about our desires in terms of social categories. The temptation to use those categories is natural because they are available for making sense of our own lives. They are also what we often fall back on when trying to talk about ourselves, or our identities or behavior with others. But they are limiting. Maybe you’re the Abstinent Jesus Freak Type, or the State School Party “Slut” Type, or the Pro-Sex Feminist “Slut” Type. Pick one. Or we pick for you. Talking about things like whether people have become more or less promiscuous seems to leave us all without the tools to really talk about sex as a real thing we do or want or don't want to do.

sluts and pruds

Enjoyed the article. Sad truth is that people lie to get laid. People get their feelings hurt. People get funny sores on their genitals or die. Also, the truth is that sex can be really, really marvelous.

Slate Article

I've been following the thread of the Slate article and I'm not sure Henderson's piece, though thoughtful and interesting, really conveys the meaning the Jessice Grose's article, "Generation Scold".

Ms Henderson wrote,

"You can refuse to let your personal become their political. You can take your sexual decision making out of their system."

How can I do that when I am bombarded with messages that claim there is a right or a wrong way to express my sexuality? Grose was calling attention to the judgment stemming from all sources, some of which are the media, but much of which occurs on college campuses, at bars, parties, and the workplace, inflicted upon us by our peers. How can I avoid these judgments? The personal IS political, and there's no way around that. How can my sexual decision making ever be out of their system when the system holds the power to promote or demean my choices? Or when every time I check the news there is the condemnation of people whose personal lives are none of my business (eg. Tiger Woods)? How can I "refuse to play" when the media is saturated with messages that condemn certain expressions of sexuality?

I applaud Grose for writing the Slate article. I guess I'm a little confused about what Henderson is arguing.

Re: Slate Article

Hi there,

The Slate article (as pointed out to me by a reader) was more or less a jumping off point for my piece and my own line of thinking, so no direct linkages to Jessica Grose's thesis were meant to be drawn. Perhaps I should have clarified that.

The personal is political because we see no other way for it to be. I absolutely don't claim that withdrawing your sexual expression from the realm of the public is easily done. It isn't, not by a long shot. But we give the system the power to "promote" or "demean" our choices by accepting/refusing to question its premise that our sexual conduct is public property. I see no compelling reason to accept this narrative at face value and allow it to dictate the choices I make about my sexual behavior and how I feel about them, no matter how much the system would have me believe this to be the inalienable truth of being a young woman in contemporary America.

You can't beat the system from the inside, but you can defeat its intentions by opting out entirely.

But what about the people

But what about the people who don't want to keep their sex lives private? What about the people who want to be proud of their sexuality? People are openly ridiculed and shamed for just talking to the wrong person (someone married, someone of the "wrong" gender, someone who already has a reputation, someone much older/younger than us). People are made examples of (again, eg Tiger). I agree a good way for people to handle invasions of privacy of ANY kind is to say, "It's none of your business." But I don't believe we should be forced to guard our sex lives. I believe our private lives are nobody's business, but I also believe I should be able to publicly display affection with a different person every night of the week without being judged for it. How can we learn to accept one another if we're locking ourselves in the mean bedroom?

Re: But what about the people

I'm not suggesting literal privacy so much as intellectual/emotional privacy, if that makes sense. I don't think spending our energy attempting to change the judgment you mention is the best course of action (sure, it sounds better and would be the ideal, but I'm being pragmatic here) at the individual level. Instead, working to reconceptualize our own attitudes toward sex as beyond/above/removed from the power of omnipresent judgment makes the most sense to me. Can you change what people think about you for being publicly affectionate with a different person every night of the week? Doubtful. But can you change the way YOU feel about their disapproval/salacious interest/objection and downgrade its relevance to YOUR life? I absolutely believe so. And I believe that's where we should be directing our energy.

With all due respect, I

With all due respect, I completely disagree with you. Why do you think we have Pride? Why do we march down the street to promote open expression of sexuality if not to change people's minds and hearts? We've been working for decades (some causes have been going on in different incarnations for centuries). I think your assertion that we should remove ourselves "emotionally/intellectually" from discussion threatens to undue the work hundreds of thousands of people have fought to defend. How many people have died because judgment turned into a hate crime? You don't think that's critical for us to work against? We MUST change people's consciousness. It isn't a question of pragmatism. And the judgment is about much more than hurt feelings.

I, for one, am not going to remove sexuality from emotional/intellectual discourse. I think it SHOULD be there. Your suggestion will do nothing but isolate us at a time when we should be promoting discussion and actively working against the prescription of sexual mores.

And personally, I feel great about my sexuality. But I don't like being demonized for at times having more than one partner (and I LOVED every minute of it). How do I know I won't be assaulted by someone who thinks I'm a (fill-in-sexist-epithet)? If we continue to let judgments slide as insurmountable and therefore not worth actively fighting against then we will backslide into very dangerous territory.

What "game," what "system,"

What "game," what "system," who are "they"?

By these definitions doesn't

By these definitions doesn't Bitch Media fall into the role "They"? I mean, this article does tell women what they should be doing with their sexuality.


I don't think so at all. I see this as an opinion, not a demand. I suppose it depends on the lens a person reads from, but even so, I don't think the opinions here could even go beyond the level of suggestion. Additionally, if it is taken as a suggestion, it is a suggestion in response to a particular situation or desire that might not be shared by everyone. That's just my two cents :)

I think you absolutely do

I think you absolutely do need to spell out your definition of these terms. I would have defined them completely differently, and I don't think I'm alone. Please don't assume all your readers share your exact worldview.

it basically says

I was skeptical when I read the title, expected more of the same from the anti-sex feminists, but it basically says that, in order to “win,” you have to keep your sex life personal instead of political because someone is going to judge you

My understanding of

My understanding of "anti-sex feminism" is that it refers to the "feminists" who continue to purport the idea that certain types of sexual expression are wrong, and actively work against those expressions. Many of them also use the same objectifying language as outright sexists do. I think it's important to understand what people mean when they say "anti-sex feminist" lest we risk becoming one of them.

I wouldn't quite describe this article as "anti-sex feminism" but I can understand why someone might get that idea.

And of course no one identifies that way. But they are out there. Oh, are they out there.

But, that definition itself

But, that definition itself comes from a selective reading of what certain feminists were/are saying about sex. To my understanding, the idea that those labeled anti-sex feminists consider certain sexual expression "wrong" is often a misconception. And, the point that nobody self-identifies as anti-sex feminists is key to the extent that it's a group of boogiemen. The very idea that they are "out there" has less to do with the existence of people who hold anti-sex beliefs and more to do with anxieties that they do. I question, why does the label exist? Assuming that is applied within feminist circles, what does it get us? Because, it seems like a group of somewhat like-minded people attempting to perpetrate our own "system" and punish those who transgress.
Taking it back to the article, you really do get it from all sides these days.

Any feminist who thinks BDSM

Any feminist who thinks BDSM is wrong could fall into the "anti-sex feminist" category. So do the feminists who fight against pornography. Or who judge sex workers. Obviously these feminists don't think all sex is wrong, but they do think some sex is wrong and they condemn these sex acts. hence "anti-sex". I'm sure "anti-some-kinds-of-sex" would be a more accurate name for them but it's a little clumsy.

I personally don't like the term. I don't like "pro-sex" either.

how about starting the "anti-judgment feminists"? Or the pro-sexual freedom feminists? Where are they at?


"Anti-some-kinds-of-sex" certainly is a clumsy way to define "anti-sex feminists". Do you think all manifestations of sex are A-OK, even sexualized violence?

Nor is it remotely appropriate to label the feminists who fight against pornography as "anti-sex". It might be noted that fighting against pornography does not necessarily mean fighting against ALL pornography, but rather might entail fighting against the pornography that is exploitative and misogynistic, which indeed comprises the bulk of mainstream porn.

It might also be noted that feminists who consider prostitution (i.e. the selling and renting of [typically] women's bodies, which is very often coerced) a problem do not necessarily "judge" sex workers. Many of the feminists (e.g. Andrea Dworkin, who is frequently misunderstood and condemned as "anti-sex") who are against pornography and prostitution base their assertions on the experience of having been prostitutes themselves.

I've yet to hear any feminist self-identify as "anti-sex".

I was too pissed

I was too pissed at seeing yet another feminist tearing down and shaming fellow women, fellow womanists/feminists for their sexual choices, and for basically utterly missing the point behind sex-positivity and at the same time dismissing it entirely out of hand.

There is abundant evidence

There is abundant evidence that gender is an important factor in casual sex participation, as males have consistently been found to have significantly more casual sex partners than females. In their sexual relationships, late adolescent males and females both state that emotional investment is a priority. For females, however, emotional investment is far more important then man

Slate article is completely factually inaccurate

Hi! I organized the Rethinking Virginity conference referred to in the Slate piece and I just wanted to set the record straight. This article was a complete mischaracterization of the conference and of my personal life. I am not and have not ever encouraged people to become abstinent. What the conference did do was interrogate notions of sexual purity and critique the heteronormative sexual standards that lead to the shaming of queer and female sexuality. None of that is made clear in the above piece, which heavily implies that conference attendees were "shamed", when in fact, the only sexual act (of the many discussed) that panelists ever explicitly disapproved of was unprotected, non-monogamous intercourse (because of the public health risks).

For a more accurate take, please refer to the conference website:


What most of you are saying is true but doesn't mean that i believe in it tho.

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