Monday, February 2, 2009

Girls and casual sex: syphilis epidemic, but no rainbow parties

I've read a few accounts lately about girls and young women in casual sexual relationships, and the same pattern emerges. These women started a behavior for adventure and experimentation, but when they decide they've had enough of the behavior they feel unable to step away from the behavior pattern due to social pressure.

Hooking Up by Katherine Bogle is about casual relationships in college. She studied two colleges: one small and religious, and one secular and larger. Freshman young women hook-up initially out of a mixture of curiosity, interest, exercising independence from earlier restrictions, and perhaps because it's what others are doing. By hooking up these college students mean anything from kissing to oral or vaginal sex, with or without alcohol, but according to their reports one time hookups are more likely to be at the less intimate end of the spectrum and alcohol is a good social excuse ("beer goggles"). Hooking up is almost always with an acquaintance or an acquaintance of an acquaintance: the closed atmosphere of a college makes women feel safe being alone with someone they just met. Within a year or two, most of the women report that they stopped being so interested in hooking up: they want a real relationship. The dynamic on campus, though, is still aimed at hooking up. The guys who are unassertive are not part of the hook-up culture at all, and they don't date much either. The guys who are assertive are part of the hook-up culture, and seem to have numbers in their favor: they can almost always find a woman willing to hook up with them, so a woman who wants to have any sexual contact and sees her dating pool as comprising such guys has the choice between hooking up or not hooking up: they do not feel that they have the option of a relationship. Some women hook up and hope for a relationship, and are inevitably disappointed. They don't talk about why they don't go for relationships with the nice guys, though probably for the clicheed reasons.

After college, the women are able to assert themselves: they are meeting people outside their comfort zone, hooking up would be with relative strangers and does not feel safe to anyone, and perhaps the men mature as well. Women can insist on real dates and relationships in this new social environment.

Bogle describes a limited time period in which women get involved in casual sex for a time, get tired of it and want real relationships, but don't feel that they have other options. These women seem to feel coerced into hook-ups: not at a level of sexual contact beyond their comfort level, but in a non-relationship context that is beyond their comfort level. After college, women find more power in the romantic arena and are able to have relationships as they want.

This reminds me of the story of the group sex in Atlanta suburbs hosted by 13-16 year old girls that led to a syphilis outbreak. This interview talks about how the girls say that they started having group sex parties partially out of boredom, and partially for similar motivations as the freshman college women reported for hook-ups: curiosity, interest, independence. After awhile, though, the girls felt that they couldn't control the situation any longer: both within an actual event and over many events. At a single event as activity escalated, girls felt unable to slow or stop the activity, especially when with multiple males simultaneously. After going to a few activities, girls felt unable to turn down future activities. The girls engaged in sexual activity with each other as a means of controlling the activity together. Reading that description, I keep thinking of some generally misogynist contexts --- women trafficked into commercial sex work, perhaps --- and have to remind myself that these are upper middle class girls in the US who are told they can become doctors and lawyers and astronauts.

The girls here clearly seem to have less control than the hook-up case because they feel out-numbered and pressured by other attendees, and are obviously less mature and less confident and below the age of consent. Nonetheless, it's interesting that there is a similar dynamic here as well: becoming involved completely willingly initially, and ending up feeling coerced or forced into sexual contact that they did not want both within a single episode and within their social context.

College graduation and syphilis, respectively, intervened, but what if they hadn't? It seems so easy for an outsider to say that a woman should just walk away from a situation she is so uncomfortable with, and yet clearly they didn't feel able to. What inner resources do women need in order to extricate themselves from an uncomfortable situation filled with social pressures? It looks so easy on Degrassi Junior High: one girl finally gets uncomfortable enough to say "Enough! This is not cool." and then everyone suddenly realizes she is right. If nothing else surely these girls have seen Degrassi Junior High or similar! Clearly it's not that easy, and eventually it sounds like the girls did stand up and stop this, maybe before the syphilis, but not after they'd been well past the point of feeling forced and out of control and like they might be traumatized for their future sexual experiences.

No answers, just questions.

1 comment:

Chris Jordan said...

You were quoted today in an article in the Winnipeg Free Press as having said that you don't believe public pledges of purity make a difference in the lives of students. Yet consider this: "In 2004, the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., released a study indicating that abstinence programs such as True Love Waits dramatically reduce the rate of out-of-wedlock births. The study, which tracked the effects of virginity pledges six years later, found that young women who take a virginity pledge are at least 40 percent less likely to have a child out of wedlock and 12 times more likely to be virgins when they marry, compared to young women who do not make such a pledge. The Heritage Foundation findings were consistent with a 2001 study by The American Journal of Sociology that reported teenagers who pledge to remain sexually abstinent until marriage are 34 percent less likely to have sex than those who do not pledge." Public pledges of abstinence DO make a difference! (quote from