“New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large” — John Milton
“the progress of reformation is gradual and silent, as the extension of evening shadows; we know that they were short at noon, and are long at sun-set, but our senses were not able to discern their increase” — Samuel Johnson
Dear friends and readers,
Since I read on WMST-L a thread on a debate that has been taking place over “hook up culture” (see, e.g., Sandy Doyle’s reply, “The Boyfriend Myth”, to the reactionary Caitlin Flannigan,“Love, actually”, both in The Atlantic), I’ve been considering writing about “hook up culture” here on this blog.
The immediate prompting comes from my having on the same evening as that thread on WMST-l occurred spoken with a woman not far from my age (she must be in her 50s) and also white (race as well as class matters here) who told me of her daughter’s experiences going clubbing with the daughter’s friends whom this woman described as enjoying slutty-mean behavior. The woman said these young women think nothing of picking up or being picked up at a dance by a young man, going off with him, and having sex that night, with no expectation to meet again. They dress sexily to help this happen and regard it as a “good time.” They also were said to enjoy dancing with homosexual men, leading them along, pretending to want to dance, perhaps go out (and I suppose have sex), when they were just laughing at them. The woman said her daughter was appalled at this superficiality and shallowness. She also said she was aware that this is the way young women get to go out with, meet young men, and if one didn’t at least engage in this culture (even if with self-control), one would never go out with a boy (unless maybe you met on the Net). She never used the term “hook up culture,” but she meant the same thing that Flannagan, Doyle and the women on WMST-l were talking of. (See Gwen Sharp’s “The Promise and Perils of Hook-up Culture” in Sociological Images).
I thought of my own experiences in the later 1950s and early to mid-1960s and I told her at that time casual encounters were not uncommon — though if you told anyone you would be in danger of being labelled “tramp” and ostracized; you could also become a target of “enterprising” (aka nasty) males. In place of modern clubbing, we did go on dates, but one date could include a casual encounter. And casual encounters could occur as a result of meeting at school, going to park and for walk, in fact easily over the myriad ways people meet one another casually. I also told her of how my older daughter would take my younger daughter clubbing with the older one’s friends, and that the younger one disliked it, perhaps for the reasons this woman’s daughter did. That I find young women students come to me to confide and talk and I’ve found a number telling me about their dismay and conflicts at the experiences they’ve had clubbing. Interestingly, even Islamic or Muslim girls have told me they experience pressure to dress western style (from their mothers!) and go clubbing with friends who dress western style. As a humane teacher who is open to talk about these areas when they come up in my classroom (and they do, mostly in classes where I assign fiction or memoirs) I find that occasionally a girl will come to me with a composition or book to discuss from the class and we end up (especially if we meet a few times) talking about such central experiences for them (whether they realize this or not) in the space I am given to sit in in a large adjunct room.
I went on to say to my woman friend that the difference between today and the 1950s/60s is that nowadays in public we find young women and men claiming to enjoy it, and then in public one found young women and men claimed it was shameful, something only a despicable slut or tramp would do. It was part of the unacknowledged norm of this culture.
Well, as we know from all the controversy over the unfortunately named “slutwalks,” the word slut has not gone, nor has its cruel power diminished. (See, e.g., “The controversy”, a link round-up, some black women’s response). It’s worth noting we have no word which bad-mouths the young men who indulge in “hook up culture.” I see this phenomena as part of our rape-prone sexual culture, where if a girl manifests reluctance to have sex, but responds weakly or with emotional resonance and tact to his pressure or the pressure of the situation on her she can be raped. If this simple rape is reinforced by a bullying sufficiently distasteful or physically invasive (violent) such that while girl gives in (and perhaps at first in foreplay say experiences some sexual pleasure), she also understands as things proceed she’s being raped and later distressed, shamed, angry, dares to complain, she may be led to want to accuse him. She is then at a terrible disadvantage because the rules of evidence rule her experience to not have been rape unless she reported it right away; and she will find a cold guarded reaction most of the time if she complains when she does right away and very little understanding if she reports it late.
Hook up culture versus love actually made a joke of in the film of the latter name (with a cast who reprise archetypal roles, Love Actually 2003)
So, I’ve been in a quandary whether to blog because the issue is right now a topic of serious debate — because I feared going on for too long and because I don’t want to become too personal – I just may if I can get up the courage and emotional strength; I’ll then put it Under the Sign of Sylvia — and would probably be dismissed by some who bothered to read it (it would not get much readership) as subjective, personal, the priggish and hurt memories of an aging woman. At long last I come out with this (not very original idea) that I agree with both Flannagan and Doyle and think those who say this culture does not exist are wrong; see Jessica, in “Speechifying” in Feministing. I suggest Jessica is saying this in order to defend other of her agendas. Jessica says there is no such thing as hook up culture because she wants to encourage young women to have liberty to enjoy their bodies as they wish and sees any talk about the emotional pain and loneliness the aftermath of such an encounter brings as a kind of unacknowledged conspiracy to return women to the safety of repression. As Doyle says, the boyfriend relationship is no safer from rape and abuse than the passing date (or casual encounter). Of course I am speaking out of my own experience and reactions, but I am also speaking out of what I remember women friends have told me and what I’ve read in countless books and essays by women. As one participant in the WMST-l debate wrote: “Its negative impact on women can vary, but in general it’s not positive.”
All this is so important. It’s a continuing manifestation of our continuing rape-prone culture which puts most young women and some young men at a severe disadvantage, can maim them emotionally for life. I believe part of the stunning financial success of both Bridget Jones movies and the two Bridget Jones’s satiric novels by Helen Fielding is that Fielding and the film-makers after and with her made painful comedy from the predicament of young women and men today who want to have a meaningful more or less permanent relationship, to commit to one another as caring, loving, helping friend-lovers. As with the way the economic public world, so this sexual world allows the worst values to reign: so for Bridget and her girlfriends the problem is “emotional fuckwits” like Daniel Cleaver who use, lie, hurt, desert them; and the ideal they long for is the sensitive faithful Mark Darcy (modeled on anachronistic romancing of Jane Austen’s hero in Pride and Prejudice).
My central point in this blog is a subjective one: it’s this: that it is probably better for the public media to present young women and men choosing this mode because then we can talk about sexual life. When the experience was presented as shameful (and disgusting) and could be and was used to degrade and further exploit young women (or vulnerable gay young men), nothing was gained. No change for any kind of better way could be hoped for. By changing how we talk about this publicly, no matter if a new hypocrisy has replaced the old, we allow ourselves to bring out in to the open the cruelties and abuses of sexual experience of our various societies. Whether something can or will be done to improve life for all I can’t say. I even doubt it (I’m with Andrea Dworkin in thinking that feminism in the area of sex has often made life harder for young women), but we may at least hope (see my Samuel Johnson epigraph). And I say probably for it may be that the “hook up” culture merely shows young women and vulnerable young men at a worst disadvantage than ever. The bullying culture has taken over. The young woman cannot expect to be treated with the respect it takes to ask her out on a date several days before the time of going out; she will not be sought out. She has to seek the young man at a club.
I conclude on the larger or full picture, a rape-prone bullying sexual world: I wrote a paper on Rape in Clarissa, ostensibly about the depiction of rape in this and other later novels of sensibility in the 18th century, but the real urge or impetus to do it was to discuss rape as such then and now. I read literally for weeks and weeks not only non-fiction essays about rape by both sexes, but fictional and memoir accounts of rape — by women or men sympathetic to women. While I did some description on Reveries Under the Sign of Austen of the non-fiction arguments (see my “Michelle Fine’s Disruptive Arguments”), I did hardly any writing on the fiction and memoirs I had read.
Of all these, the contemporary novel-memoir I remember best now is Alice Sebold’s Lucky (she was not killed). Every women should read it. The opening chapter is a graphic account of a brutal assault on the heroine where the rapist comes near to killing her; the last chapter is a short but ample account of simple date rape where the young man bullies his fiancee (Alice’s roommate) into a crude full sexual encounter against a wall. The case is not taken to court because the roommate is not beaten up as brutally as Alice was; Alice witnesses a brutal date-rape where the girl does nothing as she feels she will not be listened to because the boy is her boyfriend and she was not a virgin. Sandwiched in-between we see how she was treated by others (they tried to silence, ignore her and then kept away from her when they could), how she changed inwardly, and what happened at the trial she was courageous enough to go through with. It is still true that it is aggravated assault rape that in western countries gets to court, and even here any circumstance which may be used to arouse the jury or other authority figures’ suspicion that the woman in any way consented that may be recognizable by law, can lead to a not-guilty verdict or dismissal of the case.
Some realities I learned from my research and reading: There is still no large general study of rape or its aftermath as depicted across many novels, though Jocelyn Catty (scholar of rape in early modern plays) shows that women as a group treat rape differently from men. Just covering prose narratives (fiction and non-fiction), where rape occurs and is treated seriously, when you find rape in nineteenth-century novels, outside commentators tend not to discuss the event as rape. For example, one area where rapes are found, colonial texts: in George Trevelyan’s 1868 Cawnpore, a history of the Indian Mutiny or (more accurately) Rising, we read of a woman, Miss Wheeler, giving into her captor sexually to save her life, and then instead of killing herself agreeing to live with him; this is not recognized as rape and the narrator is so uncomfortable he does not give her full name; similarly, Flora Annie Steele in her 1896 Anglo-Indian historical novel, On the Face of the Waters, wants us to see that her heroine, Kate Erlton experiences sex with her husband as rape, but does not make this explicit. One typical example from recent detective mystery fiction must stand for many many: Susan Hill’s disquieting The Various Haunts of Men. The novel elides the rape to concentrate on the murder.
Yet false accusations of non-rape stories circulate widely, and are popular. A modern popular novel turned into a prize-winning film adaptation, Ian McEwan’s Atonement attempts a sort of rewriting of Clarissa where the center of attention is also a false accusation. The wrong man is accused because he is lower class; the effect on a number of my students (with whom I read the book and studied the film) was to create intense dislike of the young woman and her mother who accused the young man, and discuss them as cold vengeful women. The real rapist was hardly discussed, partly because he is a marginalized figure in the book. We also continue to overlook real rape scenes when the targeted victim is a minor character or lower class.
So, gentle readers, hook up culture exists; it’s the latest version of casual encounters and much that occurs is abusive of humane and sensitive feeling and it’s significantly central to common male and female relationships as they originate, carry on, or are ended.
The value of Lynda LaPlante’s Prime Suspect series (starring Helen Mirren) is it repeatedly oncentrates on the violence of sexual relationships in our society, abusive (thriving) men towards weak men and boys as well as towards women.
“Hook up culture” is also a manifestation of the same set of values that gives us crony capitalism at its reactionary worst, the valuing of competition, aggression, triumph over others and effective connections to wrest yet more as success in life (with how much money and prestige things you’ve wrested, how many similarly successful well-connected people you know). And that’s another blog too.