Sex & Relationships

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."

And these cycles aren’t just media phenomenon; I’ve personally seen many changes, and I'm sure most Americans have. When I was in high school in the late '80s and early '90s, being called a slut (i.e. a woman who has casual sex) was a sentence to social ostracism. The only girl in my grade with that label, a guilty-until-proven-innocent designation, wasn’t welcome at the girls’ lunch table. If a teacher partnered her with another girl for a class activity, it was pretty standard for that other girl to protest. Really nice stuff. It played into the fact that sex, in general, was taboo, secret and shameful. And, of course, no one breathed a word about it within earshot of a teacher or other adult.

A decade later, when I was a teacher, students of every tribe and sub-culture, from honor roll to goth, would frankly discuss details about casual sexual encounters with each other, unconcerned that they were within my earshot. At the time I was thankful that the slut bark had mostly lost its bite. Then, when Female Chauvinist Pigs came out, Ariel Levy’s portrayal of the competitive, bravado-filled casual sex culture in which young women used sex as a primary source of power, I recognized the picture she painted, though found it more extreme than anything I’d actually seen.

But I agree with Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory, that hooking up was never, for most, considered the be-all-end-all (because domestic bliss has always been part of the equation). And that the current retrenchment isn’t a signal of neo-Victorianism. "As I see it, young women have fully proved that we can have one-night stands, hear us roar -- and maybe we're beginning to also allow ourselves more nuanced feelings about our hookups. Like Klausner and Anderson, we can now acknowledge regret over a one-night stand, without being considered, or seeing ourselves as, forever ruined women; if there's been a recent change in my generation's relationship to casual sex, I suspect it's that we're relaxing our defensive posturing.”

Women are simply reconsidering some of the exaggerations and oddities of the recent sex-positive trend, sometimes called Spice Girl feminism. As Tina Fey said in Vogue last month, maybe we can improve on that legacy. “We're supposed to be wearing half-shirts and jumping around. And, you know, maybe that's not panning out."

Whoever thought sex-positive feminism was supposed to mean a life like Sam Malone's on "Cheers"? Endless hookups, and rejection of relationships, all while wearing stripper clothes?

I talked to a friend on the weekend, who was married for a decade, and now in a year-long relationship, who said she’s glad about every one of her hookups, but never thought it would be an ideal, permanent M.O, just as, for her, it never seemed ideal to meet one person at 18 and have sex only with that person forever.

It’s also never seemed totally simple to any of my friends. People were fascinated by Samantha on Sex and the City because everyone knew that it doesn’t actually work like that: it was fantasy. Another friend, who is happy about her extended hookup phase, said hooking up is always a kind of dance of resistance. She found that no matter how terrible the guy would have been as a long-term mate, the more she hooked up with him, the more she found herself absent-mindedly wondering about a life with him. Her solution was to call friends and have them remind her not to shack up with her hookups.

But maybe men have a similar experience? A male friend, 25, who has a pro-sex mother who encourages his hookups as long as he’s safe, said he falls for every single woman he has sex with, even when she tells him outright that their encounter will be sex-only and she doesn’t want a relationship.

We’re not caught between the liberation of the last decade and the conservatism of the new one. Neither endless hookups, nor the tyranny of monogamy-or-bust was ever supposed to be the way to go. Real feminism is always supposed to be about choice.

Vanessa Richmond is an AlterNet contributing writer.