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The Not So Secret Sex Lives of Twenty-Something Women
Scott Lucas | Photo: Courtesy UC Press | March 8, 2013
Berkeley therapist Leslie Bell on why the women of the Lena Dunham generation are so mixed up about sex.
For her new book, Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom, Berkeley therapist Leslie C. Bell interviewed dozens of young Bay Area women about the secrets of their sex lives and relationships. She hoped to find that young women would have dynamic, confident sex lives—i.e. the opposite of what goes down every week on HBO's Girls—but found a much more complex, difficult, dare we say Lena Dunham-esque situation instead. Here she sheds light on the joy (and confusion) of sex in the post-collegiate years. Hard to Get hits bookstores on March 8th, and Bell will be speaking at Books, Inc. in Berkeley on March 13th. (She also wrote a pretty great op/ed over at The Atlantic.)
San Francisco: Your book is about the sexuality and relationships of women in their twenties. How’d you get interested in the topic?
Leslie Bell: Twenty-something women seem perfectly poised to have the freedom and opportunity for which the feminist movement had fought for decades. They came of age after most of the formal rights had been instituted— equal education, legal abortion, non-discrimination in the workplace. I was curious about this group of people because it seemed like they had a wonderful opportunity for sexual agency and relationships. They seemed perfectly poised to have that.
SF: But they haven’t. Despite all that, the young women you interviewed seem very confused about how to get what they want.
LB: There’s the idea that you should have myriad sex experiences with many partners in your twenties. But there’s still a strong prohibition on going too far and being perceived as a whore or a slut. There’s also the idea that in your twenties you shouldn’t settle down in a relationship. You should focus on a career and education. But at the same time, you’d better be married before you hit 30. There’s a lot of confusion.
SF: How did these women manage to navigate sex and relationships?
LB: They split. Rather than feeling both of those desires—which is difficult to manage—they split into two mutually exclusive approaches. Either sex or a relationship. But not both.
SF: The women fell into three main categories, which you describe as the Sexual Woman, the Relational Woman, and the Desiring Woman. Can you explain the differences?
LB: The Sexual Woman is comfortable with the range of her sexual desires. She looks very modern on the outside. But she has limited herself in her desire for a relationship. The Relational Woman feels comfortable with her desire for a relationship, but she feels inhibited from having and expressing sexual desires. She may look a little like the stereotyped woman from an earlier era. The third archetype is the Desiring Woman. These young women felt connected to all of their desires. Sometimes casual sex and sometimes relationships, but fully present in both.
SF: Do any of these women have sex all figured out? Not everyone out there is lost right?
LB: Those are those who fit into the archetype of the Desiring Woman. Take this one woman I spoke to, Sophia. She first had sex in high school and had really the most joyful story of first intercourse. She wanted to know what it was like, and felt like bring it on. She didn’t want a relationship—just wanted to see what it was like. Which was so refreshing and unusual to hear. She grew up as a kid feeling good about her body. She had a mom who related to her body in positive ways. Her puberty experiences were very straightforward. There was just not any shame about her development.
SF: So how did that play out in her sex life?
LB: She had some casual sex experiences in high school. When she was in college she started what became a very long-term relationship with a male partner. They had mutually exploring relationship. Their sex didn’t get less exciting, but it was different. She talked about how in a committed relationship it felt more intimate. After college she started dating women, and it felt slightly more complicated. At the time I interviewed her she was dating a more butch woman, and she herself felt more femme. She felt her partner didn’t really want every conceivable sexual practice to be traded. Her partner had more strict limitations and Sophia was finding it harder to be the active partner.
SF: Your book is admirable in that it doesn’t simply present the experiences of straight women. You take care to talk about queer women as well.
LB: I did that explicitly. I oversampled queer women because I was frustrated by studies of sexuality that focused on white straight women.
SF: And queer women actually are doing pretty well relative to their straight peers, right?
LB: The women who were more able to tolerate their complicated desires tended to be my queer respondents. When you’re with a partner of the same gender, there’s a requirement that at least one of the female partners be comfortable with desire. There can’t be a reliance on what’s presumed to be the stronger male sexual desire. If there’s going to be sex it has to be a woman initiating it. For two, in the process of coming out, even though it’s changed a lot, you are coming up against what is the assumed sexual orientation. Figuring out what your desires are puts you more in tune with them. Straight women tend not to have that process.
SF: It’s not a self-help book, but you do try to offer some thoughts for how women in their twenties can put your findings to use. What could you offer?
LB: One suggestion I have is to try to reclaim the vulnerability, desire, and need as part of being a full powerful woman. Those ways of being often are denigrated. The idea that relatedness takes away from strength is not a helpful cultural norm. More women in their twenties should speak out, and offer conversations about the dilemmas of negotiating strength and ambition, and also vulnerability and relatedness. But not in a simple and glib way. Not like a magazine checklist.
SF: God forbid!
LB: There are false reassurances that are made—like, you can have it all. But in fact, it’s very complicated and doesn’t do anybody any service to make it seem so easy. For men or women.