16
Oct
07

Teach the Children

Back in March, I read Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked. I wrote a bit about it, but truthfully, the book left me fairly unmoved.  I found it to be a weak journalistic endeavor (though I may have unrealistic academic standards).

The women Stepp portrayed were pretty uncertain about their rights to safety, respect, autonomy and control in intimate encounters, though this may shed more light on her own biases about seeking out what she was looking for vs. an accurately representative sample of sexually active, high-achieving, relatively affluent, college-aged women.  Since it’s release, feminist blogs have been rightfully mobilized around this ludicrious concept of Stepp’s called “grey rape.” (Click through to see Cara at The Curvature’s on-going coverage of the issue.)  Infuriatingly to many of Stepp’s critics, she considers herself a mentor to the generation of young women she portrays as dangerously hooking up across college campuses today.

What annoys me about this book is how it was a missed opportunity to reframe the debate about sexuality, identity, autonomy, equity and women’s empowerment.  Stepp is so narrowly focused on what teen sex means in terms of hetero romantic relationships that she doesn’t step(p) back and think about the broader implications behind her subjects’ apparent cavalier willingness to use their bodies and sexuality to demonstrate their empowerment and power over men. Critically, her book reveals well that rather than change the rules of the game, young women are joining or beating men at their own game, i.e., men are still expected to be players,  but now women are players right alongside them.  What she then fails to acknowledge is that the socialization of women to not be players (but rather nurturing, committed and subordinate), and the double-standards we have of single women who are freely sexually active, remain much stronger cultural phenomena that women internalize than this alleged newfound freedom to bed hop.  If her portrayals are accurate, it’s easy to understand why these women, without these concurrent cultural shifts, would feel crappy after hooking up with these random dudes, who continue to treat receiving sex as their right, or something they are owed from women.

These young women are battling the mixed messages of Stepp’s and subsequent generations about equity and empowerment, not to mention being totally weighed down by the impossible standards we’ve set for women now. In a nutshell, they are told that a) they don’t need a man to be successful and in fact may be held back if they find one at this point in their lives, but b) there is nonetheless the expectation of eventual marriage and commitment, so they should finish their education and establish their careers now to get that out of the way, and c) they should still look totally hot and pulled together and be successful and high achieving all the time.  From these messages about their intelligence, achievement potential and future responsibilities comes the lesson that these women should implicitly know now how to manage their hormones and men, and thus successfully navigate the sexual minefield that is teen love (hell, all love), even though they also should not open their legs or even make time for relationships lest they misstep on their way up the gendered, hetero-normative ladder of 1) education, 2) career, 3) man, 4) family.  We continue to operate in an overall environment in which women’s bodies are some sort of prize or possession for men that women must protect until the time is right to surrender, albeit with much more relaxed rules and penalties on pre-marital sex.

Thus, the women Stepp profiles are operating within a pretty constrained set of choices.  Fool around or stay abstinent?  Enter into a relationship or graduate and go to law school?  Get serious with a guy or keep up with one’s peers?  This is the landscape Stepp details, as she then goes on to encourage women to feel free to enact a different, dissonant set of choices to still ultimately get to #3 (man) and #4 (family).  This is hardly emancipating, instructive, empowering or even relevant advice from the author.

Ironically, she asks in the introduction, Who are where are young women’s teachers?  Too bad she didn’t try to answer that question.  And it sounds like no one’s nominating her for that job anytime soon.

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2 Responses to “Teach the Children”


  1. October 16, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    As someone who’s had sex that lives in that “grey area” – but who, by the same token would not read Stepp’s book or give credence to what she’s trying to assert – I’m a little torn. I do, firmly, believe that the gray area exists, and it’s unfortunate; it’s rather natural that in a society where we often do not talk frankly about sex and th issues around it, that there will be people uncomfortable or unwilling to communicate their feelings about sex. Does that necessarily mean it’s rape? I don’t know (even in my own circumstances), but that seems beside the point here (and over at Curvature, thanks for the link); Stepp, from the sound of it, is using this notion of a “gray rape” to blame women for behavior that led to their mistreatment. Grey rape then becomes the rape that, you know, is her own damn fault.

    I think Stepp’s been pretty roundly discredited at this point – the “hookup culture” as she described it, from what I can tell, really didn’t resonate with anyone, and like most of the antifemnists who lauded her, Stepp turned off a lot of women by making women the problem and their behavior the issue. No doubt modern sexuality, as you so carefully describe, is a minefield. But as you point out, the alternative Stepp suggests is regressive and as antiwoman as it was back in the old days. Whether “grey rape” exists is not the problem here; the problem is how Stepp uses this self-defined “grey rape” to manipulate women yet more: there’s real rape, and then there’s that “fake rape” that’s your fault. Charming.

  2. 2 mom
    October 16, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    Nice post – thanks. I’m a professor in the Northeast and hook up clture is something on the minds of many onmy campus. I always feel uneasy — between condemnation and defensiveness. Unsure how to articlate what it is that is so uncomfortable for me in these conversations — this helps me think a bit.


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