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-Lynn Harris,author of Breakup Girl to the Rescue! A Superhero's Guide to Love, and Lack Thereof
"A bold new look at female sexuality in America today. Based on years of meticulous research, Paula Kamen has produced a fascinating, important study of how young women are redefining their roles and relationships in a post-boomer world."
-Iris Chang,author of The Rape of Nanking
"At last, a book about young women's sexual behavior that's actually written by a young woman! Paula Kamen documents women's sexual truths without judgment and—more important—without all the wrongheaded, double-standard-laden assumptions that all too often plague writing on this topic. Kamen brings the focus back where it should be: on women's own views, rather than others' views of them."
-Lisa Miya-Jervis,Bitch Magazine
"Lively and entertaining, honoring the intimate voices of a diversity of women, Her Way is an authoritative study of our long slow journey toward sexual autonomy. Kamen is a savvy third wave feminist who has done her homework. The book is a link between generations, and a major stepping stone toward fuller liberation. This is feminism for the 21st century!"
-Barbara Seaman,coeditor of For Women Only: Our Guide to Health Empowerment
"Gives women cause to celebrate! Her Way shows how, for perhaps the first time in history, a generation of young women is truly defining sex on its own terms. Her nuanced analysis of this quiet but undeniable trend is optimistic while not shying away from the problems that remain, including the inertia of a mainstream popular culture that insists on portraying women as sexy rather than as sexual beings in their own right."
-Lisa Douglass,coauthor of Are We Having Fun Yet? The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Sex
Superrats: The New Breed of Sexual Individualists
When Nancy Friday interviewed Generation-X women for her book Women on Top, she noted that "their voices sound like a new race of women." That is, in describing their sexual fantasies, the young women she sampled felt much less guilt than did their boomer counterparts in her 1973 book, My Secret Garden. Friday calls them "a new race," and I describe them as "a new breed" or, more specifically, "superrats." Although this label may seem insulting at first, I use it with all due respect to refer to an often confounding, sexually savvy breed of young women, who have evolved to become more unstoppable and more prevalent with every generation. Imbued with a large streak of traditionally male (aggressive, self-gratifying) attitudes and behavior, these women illustrate some of the most dramatic sexual changes of the past three decades. These superrats may look different, want a variety of things, come from different backgrounds, have libidos of varying capacities and demands, and confront different obstacles, but they are united by one common trait: the expectation of and insistence on conducting their sex lives on their own terms and with a new degree of openness. When it comes to sharing information about sex and what goes on in their lives, they do ask, and they do tell.
As a result, these women are not popular with traditional authority figures. The unromantic label rat indicates that they are widely considered noisome and disruptive, often condemned as pests or even as a social menace, reflectingthe gap between their expectations and those of society. The prefix super characterizes the development and pattern of future generations of women. It also describes their evolution toward unprecedented levels of self-preservation and survival despite an often hostile environment and repeated attempts by governing authorities (Republicans, fundamentalists, and the like) to shame and curb them. A greater number than ever before are protected by their imperviousness to excessive self-blame, a time-honored means of keeping previous generations of "rats" under control.
This state of "super" evolution, however, is possible only because it builds on the work of other generations, which had progressively higher expectations. In one generation, these superrats have undergone a swifter and more dramatic evolution than anything that Darwin observed on the Galápagos. While not always representing the majority, the superrats are a substantial mainstream force whose influence extends beyond feminist or campus enclaves; they are breaking ranks in the military, the suburbs, housing projects, college campuses, and churches. Yet they commonly are not distinguished by any particular color scheme or style of clothes. They may or may not like jazz, wear clothes made of natural fibers, or speak with an alluring foreign accent. Instead of distracting you with their sexiness like a costumed Anaïs Nin or a Salome discarding seven veils or a lude-popping Diane Keaton looking for Mr. Goodbar, they are more likely to look like (and be) you or your stepsister or daughter or girlfriend or administrative assistant. And thus they are often difficult to classify. Indeed, much of what makes a superrat is in the eye of the beholder. Most superrats aren't interested in rigid classifications and ironclad ideologies but are more concerned about what they do than how they label themselves. As individualists, they also insist on making their own choices, which do not conform to any one particular ideological scheme. But superrats shouldn't be confused with feminists. While they may be similar to feminists because of their desire to take control of their own lives, superrats are not necessarily political about their sexual freedom. Although superrats have absorbed the individualistic advances of feminism, such as sexual self-determination and control, they have left aside the parts about political awareness, organizing, and making a connection to other women.
Most of the women I interviewed could be classified in some manner as superrats because they have taken control of their lives. But in other aspects of their lives, they may express contradictions or inconsistencies, be assertive in some ways but not in others, and feel guilt about sex in some situations but not all. For this reason, "superrat" is probably most appropriate as an adjective describing the sexual assertiveness of this new generation, instead of as a rigid academic category describing their complete personhood. A common link is the trouble and confusion that they cause. Some superrats, such as the sexually aggressive Monica Lewinsky and the sexually defiant Paula Jones, caused notable political upsets. Other superrats have also raised eyebrows: Princess Diana, who incurred the wrath of her elders by divorcing her husband instead of living in an empty marriage, as she would have been required to do not many years earlier, was a royal superrat. Roseanne, who broke new ground in sitcoms exploring the tensions created by clashes of gender, class, and sexual orientation, is a superrat role model. The protagonist of Judy Blume's much banned and much dog-eared 1975 book Forever, teenaged Kath, inspired this generation of superrats by going to Planned Parenthood to get the Pill and openly discussing her conflicts and experiences. Worst of all, she had sex with her boyfriend without getting punished for it.
Throughout history, isolated and solitary women signaled the superrat tradition. Mary McCarthy's 1963 novel The Group, which explicitly details a first sexual experience and a visit to a birth control clinic, was the Forever of the boomer generation. Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote about women's sexual equality in the 1950s, is a superrat emerita. So is anarchist Emma Goldman, who in the early twentieth century made the first theoretical link between women's liberation and contraception—thereby inspiring Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, another of her breed. The very first superrat can be found in the Old Testament: Eve, who by bringing the wrath of God down on all humankind, also caused some headaches. The point is that superrats have always existed but in much smaller numbers than today.
Profiles of Attitude: Five Superrats
A white, middle-class, educated woman, Megan, 22, represents one breed of superrat. She doesn't appear to be a rebel and is traditional in many ways. We met at an upscale pizza place in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, near the insurance company where she works. A recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Wooster, Massachusetts, Megan was raised in a strict, traditional Catholic family and is engaged to an aspiring Republican businessman. Beneath the surface is an individual who is constantly challenging roles that don't fit her. She has never suppressed her natural assertiveness. "When I was in high school, I was always very energetic, but when I went to college, I became very outgoing," she explained. "I remember there was this dance junior year. And [my sister] called me up and she was like: `Can you get me a date?' And so I started calling up all these guys I had never met in my life but they looked cute. I was like, `Hi, I'm so and so. I'm calling for a friend of mine. Do you want to go to a dance with her?' And people were like, `I can't believe you're doing this.' And I didn't think anything about it."
Megan also defied traditional female courting procedures on the night she met her fiancé, when they met at a campus bar and then slept together. While she regrets the experience for going too far too soon, she doesn't blame herself. Less religious than her mother and defining religion as a personal matter, Megan maintains that premarital sex is not "a mortal sin" as long as she is "conscious" about doing it. "In my book, it's wrong.... But that doesn't mean I'm not going to do it. It's part of nature I guess. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. I'm not going to beat myself up about it." Also unlike her mother (and despite some ambivalence about premarital sex), Megan had no doubts about living with her boyfriend in college. "I had my own dorm room, but I lived with him the entire semester, all except two nights when I stayed in my room. We were happy together." This arrangement was possible, she explained, because of loopholes in security. "The girls have these metal security codes. You have this code and a magnetic strip, and that opens the door. But the guys don't have anything. You could just walk onto the guys' floor."
Nonetheless, Megan is starting to notice that some of her assertive attitudes are causing trouble in her relationship with her fiancé, who just informed her that he expects her to quit her job when they have kids. "Even now, we'll go shopping and he'll see a mother with her two kids at the store, and he'll be like, `That will be you in ten years.' I'll be like, `Yeah, and you'll be right there with me.' And he's like, `No I won't.' And I'm like, `Yes you will, or I'm not going to be there.' I refuse to let him shirk his responsibilities with raising a family.... The kids feel it as much if the father isn't there than if the mother isn't there. You need that pair to make it complete."
Describing her superrat philosophies with evident satisfaction was Stacie S., a 27-year-old black social worker in Forest Park, Illinois. We met at her one-bedroom condo that she had bought two months earlier in this working-class, racially integrated western Chicago suburb. Stacie calls herself a "serial monogamist," usually meeting boyfriends through her elaborate network of friends. Her ultimate goals are marriage and a large family, although she stated that she wouldn't be averse to having a child on her own if she hadn't gotten married by her mid-thirties. She has always been dating someone or been in a committed relationship, never "super single, as in not seeing anybody for more than two weeks." When she spoke, she smiled widely and brightly. "I get a lot of guys who think that I probably have self-esteem problems because I'm overweight," she said. "But I never had a problem getting a man and keeping one." Often her dates are surprised at how well Stacie has managed her life. The daughter of postal workers, she put herself through college and graduate school with the help of academic scholarships, and with a friend, she started a small sales business of sorority merchandise. She is especially proud of her investment portfolio—and appreciates her single status without dependents.
Stacie's sexual attitudes have changed since she was a student at Immaculate Heart of Mary High School, when she was too burdened by guilt to have sex. "It's like if it feels good, do it. Just protect yourself. You know, the whole AIDS epidemic and everything, I'm sorry, it has not changed the sexual patterns of the twentysomethings or Generation X. My friends, we're still having the same amount of sex as we had before AIDS, if not more. Now we're smarter, older, and now we're protecting ourselves in ways that we weren't before."
I asked her if she thought women of this generation were more aggressive, and she said yes, keeping her own behavior in mind. "It's like the person I'm dating, I wanted him so bad. I mean, it was like ... I don't know. I just thought about him all the time. And, you know, I wanted to get to know him—in the biblical sense. I didn't want to know what he thought about or anything. I didn't want to know what was his favorite color," she sighs. "He's just ... [a] man.... So, the night that I decided I wanted to, I called him up, asked him what he was doing.... I had never been over to his house before. `I'm going to come by.' And he was like, `Yeah, I want to see you.' ... I put on the sexy underwear and put some condoms in my purse, and I went over there. And I don't consider myself very aggressive, but as I laid across the bed and batted my eyes a couple times, I was pretty sure it was pretty obvious what I wanted. And he gave it to me. And we've been together."
I asked her for more details, for instance, whether she thinks women of this age group are more demanding in bed. "You know, here's the thing. I don't demand that I have an orgasm, but if I don't have one, nobody's going to sleep that night." I asked her to elaborate. "`No, you can't go to sleep until I come.' And I will talk to you. I will poke you. Because then it's like you're not trying to please me. Because I really feel that it doesn't take much to have an orgasm. The least you could do is spend a little time on me and my body and trying to find out what makes me tick.... Because it's like, I can have a good time without having an orgasm, but that says a lot about the man. Is he taking the time? Is he talking to me? Is he trying to find out what I like? Did he even do that before we went there? You know, were we talking about sex before that? Did we talk about what we liked? Did we talk about what does it for us? ... You know, if I don't feel good about what's going on, nothing is going to happen. And it's like, it's not going to happen again. I don't have time for this. `Whack sex,' as me and my friends call it. Because I have needs, too. I have needs. Sex is supposed to be enjoyable for the both of us. That's an outdated idea that, you know, it's just a function, and men have all the fun. I think we ought to be having some fun. You know, then what's the purpose?"
A much more "socially contemptible" superrat I interviewed is someone with a predatory name, Cat. Like minority and teenaged superrats, as a poor woman on welfare, she is feared most by society as an affront to the middle-class way of life. She is a white single mother living on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, with a criminal record for selling cocaine to an undercover FBI agent. Also, like a surprisingly large proportion of the country's poorest women, she has been a "sex worker," earning money as a stripper. Although Cat, 26, has fewer options than do middle-class women to conduct her life "her way," she is a superrat in attitude, as she expressed a desire to take care of her own needs, which have developed slowly during years of abuse.
I drove down dusty, rural roads to reach her government housing development, a sprawling and strangely quiet subdivision of two-story apartments, which contradicted my Chicago-born image of "the projects" as menacing urban high-rises. Cat answered the door wearing an oversized T-shirt and biking shorts, resembling the all-American ideal of a slim blonde. If not for her imperfect teeth, she could be the double of the character Shelly on the 1990s CBS television show Northern Exposure. While we talked, I gave her son, 8, and daughter, 7, a spare tape recorder to play with, to distract them. "These kids are starved for attention," she explained. From time to time, they listened to our conversation and filled in gaps in their mother's story.
"I haven't had a real pretty life," she said. "So, what in particular, would you like to know?" I asked her to give a short summary. "I was three when my parents got divorced," she said. "My mom remarried. I had a stepfather that beat me up for twelve years. I was raped when I was fifteen. I married the first man I had sex with. I was married five and a half years. He was abusive. So I left him. He was an active alcoholic drug addict. Whenever he and I split up, I went nutzoid. I was very active in drugs and such for about three years. I was a topless dancer. And then I was put in a psychiatric hospital twice. I went through treatment three times. I finally decided to get my life together, and I got my kids back about two years ago. They were with their father.... I was in a relationship at the time with a man who was a drug counselor. He relapsed, started shooting heroine, tried to kill me, literally, and I had left. I fled Corpus Christi.... When I got to Austin, I was staying at a center for battered women. I was considered homeless, so I got into this apartment complex. The center for battered women has a thrift store called SAC. They gave me the mattress and box springs for all three of us, the two couches, and some dishes. The rest of it, my mom gave me the TV, and this stuff belongs to a guy I let stay here for a little while."
Cat has planned her life. Now on public aid, she will use government Pell grants and scholarships to pay for her associate's degree in human services from Austin Community College, which will help qualify her to work as a drug counselor.
The conversation naturally kept switching to sex, which has been a major defining theme in her life. Cat told me that she had slept with seventy-five men, all but nine during a two-year period when she "went bonkers" on drugs and stripped for a living. Since that time, she has been learning about maturity and independence, taking control of her life as best she can. Major influences in her life have been therapy and television talk shows, which have taught her the importance of self-esteem in making sexual decisions.
I asked her if this new attitude now causes conflicts with men. "It has, because if I go to sleep with some guy and he lies there and tells me what to do, I kick him out. I have. This one guy, he told me to give him head and I wouldn't do it. And he was trying to make me. So I did, but I stopped right before he came and I threw him out. I threw his clothes out the window. I wanted to humiliate him, and I knew that would humiliate him. I wanted him to feel like I felt, completely degraded. That's how I felt. He obviously didn't see me as a person but as an object to fulfill his pleasure. I didn't appreciate it much. He never told nobody about that. That was a long time ago. I wouldn't do that now. My morals have grown a little bit."
But this new assertiveness has come slowly. Cat's saying no to whatever men tell her to do goes against everything she was taught. "I've been treated like an object for a living. It took me a long time to develop enough self-respect and enough self-esteem. It took me until probably a year and a half ago to finally learn that it's OK to say no, and I don't have to. I would go out with a guy, and I would think I had to have sex with him.... That had been reinforced so much throughout my life that I thought that my purpose in life was to be some guy's piece of ass.... I'll tell you what. I haven't ever really ever enjoyed sex for sex, not until recently. Because I had never realized that having sex was there for my pleasure too. I would use sex as a power thing. I would use sex for love, in my mind. It was never just for pleasure."
Now this new pleasure is possible only with constant communication with her new boyfriend. "I went into this relationship very open. And I talked to him about everything, right down to sex. Most guys aren't comfortable talking about it. I wouldn't have had sex with him if he wasn't comfortable talking about it. I have issues. I was raped. And I have issues. And I have to deal with them, or I'm not going to be able to respond.... It's just because I'm so much more aware of everything and I've worked on stuff."
The two youngest subjects that I interviewed, high school students, are perhaps the most fearsome superrats, even to only slightly older women. These two friends, who attend Wheeling High School (in a working- and middle-class suburb northwest of Chicago), were so experienced with sex and relationships that they were almost jaded. Both are leaders in their high school ROTC program, plan to enter the military, and have already had at least a few long-term relationships with older men. They also stood out from the rest of the interview sample as having more regrets and confusion about their recent behavior.
The youngest, Bridget, 16 (but almost 17, she said), went all the way with her boyfriend when she was 14 (but almost 15, she said). "I did it because I was curious." Bridget said that the sex soon took over and ruined the relationship. "I was just curious. I kept saying, `Yeah, I'm totally sure I'm ready.' And then when it was all over, it was like, `I can't believe I did this.' We just sat in the car on the way home in silence. I didn't want to make him feel guilty. We were really close at that point, and I didn't want to put pressure on him like, `Oh, you know, it was your fault.' Because it wasn't. I mean he totally asked."
Yet Bridget feels more regretful than guilty about the experience, but as a believer in sexual openness, she said she also feels no shame in telling me about the intimate details of her life. "I think that talking about your problems and your situations, it cleanses the soul. To keep things in, that builds things up until you can't take it anymore. So you go a little crazy. So I don't have a real problem talking about my relationships and stuff. It doesn't bother me. Because I want other people to learn what I've learned." Since then, after that first relationship ended, she said she has become like the boys in her class, treating sex "like a game." "When I want something, and I'm talking about sexually, if I want a guy, then I'm going to go for it. I'm going to be the aggressor. I don't care. It doesn't bother me." Recently, though, a 22-year-old male friend turned her down. "He was a military guy. He was medically discharged from the army. He had like these little tattoos that said `scandalous.' It was this thing that him and these three guys had. They all had `scandalous' tattooed on their arm. It was a group thing."
At the age of 17 (almost 18, she said), her friend Kamilla has already had two emotionally intense two-year relationships. Also first having sex at 15, Kamilla, too, now dates only older men. Her current boyfriend, in his early twenties, is a friend of her older brother. "I want to see someone who knows what they're doing, has a job, goes to college," she explained. Both she and Bridget, dressed fashionably in sleek hipster garb, often hang out in college coffee houses in Evanston, as well as with older military and working men. They repeatedly compared these older men with males their own age, whom they dismissed as still acting like children. They cited the example of a group of male friends their own age recently going out on "a mission" to ring doorbells and play "ding dong ditch." "They're jerks. Really immature," said Kamilla, smoking a thin cigarette in the booth of a suburban diner. "You look at them and you laugh."
But Kamilla said that she had reached a different stage of her life in which she takes males less seriously. Her greatest ambitions are reserved for her anticipated career in the marines; she was ranked the best female on her rifle team in high school. When she talks about the military, her eyes light up in the same way as they did when she described the love she felt for her first boyfriend at the age of 15. "I'm a very passionate kind of person, so when I thought I found the person to share that with me and return the same affection I felt for him, I felt that I was in paradise. I hoped that it would go on for years." But letdowns from him proved to her that she had to become independent and derive her value from her own achievements. "That's why I was saying you should be content with yourself first. So even if you don't have that person, you are still going to be in your own paradise in a way, because you are going to be doing what you want to do. And you won't be dependent on that other person to bring happiness into your life."
|Introduction: The Sexual Evolution toward Female Control||1|
|Pt. I||Doing It "His Way"|
|1||Superrats: The New Breed of Sexual Individualists||21|
|2||Portrait of a Generation: Male and Female Sex Patterns Converge||40|
|3||Changing Sexual Scripts: A Close-Up||61|
|Pt. II||Doing It "Her Way"|
|4||Virginity Reimagined: No Sex and the Single Girl||87|
|Pt. III||Redefining the Family and Relationships Her Way|
|5||Modern Marriage: From Meal Ticket to Best Friend||113|
|6||Choices for Remaining Single: "She's Gonna Make It after All"||131|
|7||Lesbians and Bisexuals Out and Proud: "The Grouping Generation"||152|
|Pt. IV||Getting to "Her Way": Social Movements for Power and Permission|
|8||Education and Jobs, the Sexual Revolution, and the Women's Movement: The Foundation||173|
|9||Redefining Religion and Morality: Overcoming Traditional Male Authority||191|
|10||Women's "Locker-Room Talk," Safer Sex Education, and the Media: New Information and Openness||208|
|Conclusion: Beyond Becoming Like Men, Becoming Like Ourselves||233|
|About the Author||280|