Valentine's Day 2013: Stop Feeling Sorry For 20-Somethings

Last week, I went on a date with a man who informed me after one drink that he was recently asked to marry his undocumented roommate for $20,000 to ensure her citizenship.

When asked why he decided against it, he explained that he “hated her” and that “she didn’t actually have $20,000.” As our conversation continued, he candidly reminisced about how wasted he got all summer, told me he didn’t really have any friends in the city, and ultimately got in a verbal altercation with some dude with a neck tattoo standing at the urinal next to him in the bathroom.

At the end of the night he walked me to the subway, where we paused to apathetically kiss in the cold rain before parting ways. Yet in spite of this enchanted evening, the New York Times has dared to declare courtship over for “urban 20-somethings.”

Yes, I concede that this was not my best date. This was also not the Times’ best trend piece. Rather, it was another tired page in a growing collection of articles that are inexplicably obsessed with the apparent demise of middle-class, heterosexual romance and the endless perils of being a 20-something.

We are over-educated but underemployed; inundated with choices but paralyzed by fear; and according to this latest horrified look at the young whippersnappers of today, oversexed but under-romanced.

While I’ve had my share of laughable dates and future-planning anxiety, I can’t help but think that maybe the worst thing about being one of the 20-something women this article so openly pities is simply being on the receiving end of the mainstream media’s misguided drivel.

No matter how satisfied I generally feel with a life in which I am frequently single, surrounded by good friends and brilliant colleagues or contentedly flying solo, I need look no further than my Google Reader to be reminded that my life is actually hurtling toward some kind of lonesome doom at warp speed. Forget any sense of personal satisfaction or happiness I may have cultivated on my own — things are looking pretty grim out there, and I better not forget that my happiness will ultimately hinge on my ability to lock down a romantic partner.

According to Donna Freitas, a professor of gender studies and religion consulted for the Times article, “young people today don’t know how to get out of hookup culture.” The article goes on to regale its reader with the harrowing story of a woman named Lindsay who leaves a bar with a bouncer to drink whiskey, eat macaroni and cheese, and dance in his apartment, an encounter that shockingly failed to result in a long-term relationship.

Thanks, apparently, to the dangerous vortex of noncommittal hookups that all 20-something women are spiraling into, we’re not even eating on someone else’s dime at “romantic new bistros” on our way down to hell. The thinly veiled implication here is that 20-something women are powerless against the dismal forces of their romantic lives. Unfortunately for Freitas and the article’s author, this is nonsense.

Never mind the fact that most young people seem perfectly content getting to know one another over cheap beers — this kind of slovenly informality must be a negative development. Personally, I can’t imagine the “plays” or “fancy restaurants” this article laments the loss of enhancing my ability to figure out whether or not I’m compatible with the person sitting across from me. If anything, the pomp and circumstance of expensive food shared with a near stranger would feel odd. I would rather spend my limited income on a great meal with friends I already know and love — much like the 20-something men denigrated in this piece.

Though the article’s author was kind enough to spare Lindsay’s last name “to avoid professional embarrassment,” (a disclaimer that suggests more judgment than it does empathy), he failed to intrepidly report whether or not she enjoyed herself. Given that she continued to see her anonymous bouncer for four months, I suspect she did — just as I also had fun kissing some goofy guy in the rain last week, in spite of the evening’s absurdity.

But the idea that these encounters could be both short-lived and enjoyable apparently causes such distressing cognitive dissonance that they must be dissected ad nauseam. Fleeting moments like these, however silly they sound, are part of the same unwieldy narratives that will eventually lead us out of our 20s and into better-understood versions of ourselves. Could we lay off the unproductive judgment long enough for us to take a deep breath and actually figure ourselves out?

Like any good navel-gazer, I readily absorbed these articles at first because they purport to document my own experience. But the story they tell is increasingly hollow and incomplete, reflecting some antiquated and sexist notion of the proper way to find love that reads like a dusty joke rather than interesting journalism. For now, Lindsay’s drunken macaroni and cheese is just an anecdote fit to print, and my weird date is just fodder for comedy.

Perhaps in the meantime, the writers of trend pieces could choose a more interesting story to obsess over, rather than unnecessarily pitying the lives of 20-something women.

This article originally appeared on Full-Stop.Net.

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Rebecca McCray

Rebecca currently lives and writes in Ljubljana, Slovenia while researching the Slovenian criminal justice system through a grant from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Previously, she worked with the Criminal Law Reform Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. She has worked as an educator and researcher at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women, the Iowa Juvenile Home, Rikers Island, and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, facilitating classes in creative writing, visual art, and debate. Her writing has appeared in the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, Full Stop Magazine, Huffington Post, and Salon.com. She previously served as the social justice editor for the blog of the New York Writers Coalition, The Narrator. She is an Iowa native and graduate of the University of Iowa.

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