Thursday, January 13, 2011

Maura Kelly: "Like Anorexia, but for Sex"

Believe me. Not as sexy as it sounds.

Remember Maura Kelly, the formerly anorexic Marie Claire blogger who wrote a total piece of shit article about how fat people shouldn't make out in public or on television? Well she's back, this time in the Guardian (UK), claiming that there's another thing women should deny themselves for their own good: sex.*

The inspiration for her article is a book by my friend Mark Regnerus, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying . One of Regnerus's central arguments is that, in college, the "price" of female sex has declined due to a variety of factors, which makes women who would prefer to "charge" the "price" of a relationship in exchange for sex less able to do so, because men in college can get sex for "cheaper" very easily through the so-called hookup culture. Unlike Kelly, I've actually read the book--there are copies both on my bedside table at home and on my desk at work. Mark and I had hours of conversation over coffee about the subject matter and you'll find my name close to the top of the acknowledgements--but not because I agree with him that casual sex is bad.

Here's how Kelly starts out:

I often feel like an amateur sociologist myself, conducting interviews about the amorous exploits of friends and acquaintances – and occasionally sacrificing my own body for the social sciences. My data leads me to conclude that casual sex leaves plenty of women feeling awkward or dissatisfied – if not downright miserable – whereas most men don't experience a similar psychological hangover.
Emphasis on amateur. I've written about Mark's work and about the sexual marketplace theory and how it affects women before, and I agree with its premise that sex is a female resource that men "buy." But the thing that people like Kelly don't realize is that part of the reason women research subjects report "regretting" casual sex is because they are punished for it. The "value" of sex has declined and so the "price" women can demand has lowered, too. But does that mean women don't want casual sex? Not necessarily. I think it means that women are shamed for having sex (whether casual or not) in our sexist system, and they don't like it. If you ate pizza with clams and threw up afterwards because you're allergic to shellfish, you might "regret" eating the pizza, but that doesn't mean eating pizza is bad.

She goes on:

I'm glad that women can now, mostly, do as they please sexually, without (too much) cultural opprobrium; we should have the option of acting like men. But casual sex has come to seem more of a necessity or an expectation. Young women – and older ones, too – feel significant pressure, from their peers and a culture in which girls who go wild are minor celebrities and Samantha Jones is cast as a role model, to have rollicking sex lives.
Kelly says that "legit" research backs up her claims that "deferred gratification makes sexual politics sense" but she would do well to read Sex at Dawn, which challenges much of the "standard narrative" this "legit" research is based on in the first place. And I question the claim that women engage in casual sex because of a "culture" that occasionally postively portrays women who like to have sex, because there are actually far more portrayals of women suffering the consequences of sex [see: Teen Mom, 16 and Pregnant, the Pregnancy Pact, and virtually all other media].

An overwhelming majority of sex research, including Mark's book and every other study Kelly cites, uses college students as its subjects. For a book like Regnerus's, which is actually about college student sexual behavior, using student subjects makes sense. But research that uses college students as subjects and attempts to generalize to men and women overall [see: Buss, David; everything ever written] is inherently flawed, because as anyone who's woken up without shoes in a strange sweatshirt after a frat party can attest, sex in college is different than sex after college.

If sex researchers were able to pull together samples of, say, late twentysomethings and ask them about their desires for and experiences with dating, hooking up and casual sex, they would likely get very different answers because having sex when you're older is different. But it's very difficult to sample people who aren't in college, because they aren't sitting in your classes, eager for the extra point or two on their final exam you're offering them for taking your survey or submitting to your interview.

Allow me to indulge in a metaphor. When I was in college, I worked at a coffee shop that had a pizza oven in the back. As employees, we were allowed to make ourselves pizzas anytime we wanted, whether we were working or not. As a semi-broke college student, I took advantage of this benefit with extreme frequency, even sometimes when I might really have preferred to eat something else. Because of this free access to unlimited pizza of my own design, I have experimented with a wide variety of pizza types, of a great diversity of sizes, crust thicknesses, and topping combinations.

Having had such depth of experience with pizza in college, I am very clear about what I am and am not interested in eating. If offered a pizza that I don't want with, say, clams, I will turn it down rather than eat it, because I really fucking hate clams. But I don't regret the pizza with clams that I have tried, and it certainly doesn't cheapen the experiences I have with the pizzas I really prefer. Now, as an adult with all that "promiscuous" pizza under my belt, I am willing to hold out for the pizza I really want. But if I hadn't tried all the different kinds I wouldn't know to avoid the ones I don't like, and I could be married to a clam pizza right now.

It's a metaphor. But it really happened.

The reality is that women are not publicly shamed for eating lots of different pizzas [Coming soon to TLC: My Strange Addiction: Lots of Pizza!], but the feeling of "Given the opportunity to eat that pizza/fuck that person again, I think I'd decline" is the same. And trying things, deciding we don't like them, and choosing not to do them again is okay. It's called growing up.

*As an aside, she posted on the Marie Claire blog last week about how playing hard to get is "never a good idea." In one ear out the other, I guess.

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