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Is There Really a Backlash Against Casual Sex?

According to a spate of recent articles, a new sexual conservatism is on the rise. But is it really that simple?

Sexual pleasure without shame is one of the defining characteristics of third-wave feminism. But some avidly pro-sex feminists are increasingly pointing out that casual hookups may not be the best way to achieve it.  Slate’s Jessica Grose reports on the trend in "The Shame Cycle: The new backlash against casual sex."

Grose points to Julie Klausner’s new collection of essays, I Don't Care About Your Band, in which Klausner says even though she doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with casual sex, the encounters make her feel bad. "When you cry about things not working out, you're crying not only because a guy you slept with now doesn't seem to care you're alive, but also because you're ashamed of yourself for crying."

Then there's Hephzibah Anderson, who chronicles her self-imposed year-long celibacy in Chastened, inspired by her growing discomfort over her urge to round down the number of partners in sex surveys.

It’s not just them. Lady Gaga has just announced her decision to be single, saying she doesn’t have the time to get to know anybody. "If you can't get to know somebody, you shouldn't be having sex with them. It's OK at this point, in this day and age, we have grown up and we now know that we can't be that free with your love," she told The Star.

Slate goes on to report that, “Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis was put in jail. Christina Aguilera married a nice Jewish boy and had a baby. She's been replaced on the pop charts by 19-year-old virginal chanteuse Taylor Swift, who sings chaste love songs about Romeo and Juliet. Paris Hilton is rarely in the tabloids and we haven't seen her nether regions in years. Finally, the fictional Carrie Bradshaw is wed and living a New York domestic fantasy.”

Despite pole dancing advocates pushing for the sport to be admitted to the Olympics, enthusiasm for it seems to be waning. Even in my neighborhood, boot camp fliers are plastered over old pole dancing ones.

But are people really dipping their toes, en masse, into conservative waters, to cool off from the last decade’s female lasciviousness? Is the tide on pro-sex feminism going out, washing in a neo-prudishness? Slate’s Grose, a smart feminist writer, is on to something, and doesn’t overstate the situation. But just as reports about the extremes of hookup culture were often exaggerated (remember the rainbow party trend that turned out to be an urban rumor?), accounts of a backlash may turn out to be mostly hype.

Sure, there are cycles in attitudes toward sex. As Grose points out,

In the '60s, Cosmopolitan's Helen Gurley Brown told us in Sex and the Single Girl that "sex is great, and that one should get as much of it as possible," as the New Yorker put it. In the '70s, the sexual revolution reached its peak with Erica Jong's "zipless f---." But by the end of the '70s, Gail Collins argues in When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, women were obsessed with the casual-sex cautionary tale Looking for Mr. Goodbar, "which painted a picture of the new morality that was so dismal it's a wonder the entire generation didn't head for the convent." Then came "spinster panic," involving narratives that focused around the "beautiful, lonely career woman." As Collins notes: "'The Revolution Is Over' announced Time in 1984. In fact, what was over was not the dramatic change in women's feelings about the double standard that had been at the heart of the sexual revolution. What ended was the to-the-nth-degreeness of it—the group sex, the casual encounters at a rock concert or airport ticket line that led almost instantly to sex behind a tree or in a plane restroom."

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