What Do Women Want? I Don't Know — Maybe You Should Ask Them

By now you’ve likely heard about the latest moral panic sweeping America: the so-called “hookup culture”  made famous by Donna Freitas’s recent book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused about Intimacy. The issue has caused tempers to flare on all sides. While some see it as a symptom of a culture of irresponsibility and declining moral standards, others argue that the supposedly recent trend has been around for quite some time and reflects the activities of a particular subset of the millennial population. What is all too frequently lost amidst the outrage, however, is any effort to understand the mindset of the young people — and particularly the young women — at the center of the controversy.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. The motivations of men, after all, need no explanation in the popular imagination. The idea that all men are sexually insatiable is one of the most pervasive and tenacious gender-related myths, so despite all evidence to the contrary, we assume that it is only natural for young men to take advantage of the relaxation of sexual mores brought about by the 1960s’ Women’s Liberation Movement. Generally speaking, this is about as far as those who worry about hookup culture are willing to go in their efforts to root out its causes, no doubt because of the chain of related (if incorrect) assumptions that quickly follow: the counterpart of the promiscuous man is the chaste woman, and if women don’t really desire sex, it follows that any who have sex outside of a relationship must be deluded, manipulated, or both.

Let’s rewind 56 years, though, as Caroline Kitchener did for a recent piece in The Atlantic. Kitchener compares two articles — one written in 2013 and one in 1957 — and concludes that what women really want (and have always wanted) is the “freedom to define sex and relationships in their own time, on their own terms.” 

How does Kitchener arrive at this revolutionary conclusion? Largely by looking at what women themselves have to say. In her discussion of Kate Taylor’s “Sex on Campus — She Can Play That Game, Too,” Kitchener highlights the fact that many college women today simply don’t feel they have time for the demands of a monogamous, long-term relationship. As Taylor writes, “These women [those interviewed as part of a study] saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn. They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through all those transitions was hard for many to imagine.” Those who put their relationship status on the back burner are left with two options: celibacy or some form of casual sex. Some women — though by no means all — opt for the latter.

Nor does this “trend” necessarily indicate a lowering of female expectations. As Hanna Rosin has pointed out, plenty of women who engage in casual sex do plan on “settling down” — just not before they have their professional lives in order.

No doubt there are some women who participate in casual sex because they feel obliged to, and that is an issue we should be discussing. But as Kitchener points out, Nora Johnson, writing in 1957, felt that women were pressured not into casual sex but rather into the monogamous relationships we now assume all women desire. And little wonder: Long-term relationships, though much hyped, can be every bit as “unfulfilling” as hooking up if, as Johnson writes, one finds oneself in a relationship based primarily on “convenience.” If there is a problem, in other words, it probably stems not from some besiegement of female chastity but from the broader inability or reluctance of some women to assert their own needs and desires or, conversely, the unwillingness of their partners to pay attention. 

And all those writers and pundits who make sweeping assumptions about the motivations and desires of women based on what they “know” about the motivations and desires of men? They’re simply compounding the problem. It’s 2013 — more than 100 years since Freud famously declared female sexuality to be, in essence, a knock-off of male sexuality — and yet we still seem to have trouble negotiating female desire on its own terms. It's high time we accepted that different women want different things sexually, that even the same woman may want different things at different stages of her life, and that all of that is okay. The only thing that’s not? Pressuring any given woman into adopting a sexual lifestyle — be it abstinence, monogamy, or “hooking up”—that she doesn’t want. Rather than endlessly and unproductively agonizing over the “true” nature of female sexuality, why not simply work on giving girls the self-confidence they need to assert their own, unique preferences? Then we wouldn’t have to speculate — we could just ask.