Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom

Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom


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Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom by Leslie Bell, Carl Bell

Hard to Get is a powerful and intimate examination of the sex and love lives of the most liberated women in history—twenty-something American women who have had more opportunities, more positive role models, and more information than any previous generation. Drawing from her years of experience as a researcher and a psychotherapist, Leslie C. Bell takes us directly into the lives of young women who struggle to negotiate the complexities of sexual desire and pleasure, and to make sense of their historically unique but contradictory constellation of opportunities and challenges.
In candid interviews, Bell’s subjects reveal that, despite having more choices than ever, they face great uncertainty about desire, sexuality, and relationships. Ground-breaking and highly readable, Hard to Get offers fascinating insights into the many ways that sex, love, and satisfying relationships prove surprisingly elusive to these young women as they navigate the new emotional landscape of the 21st century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520261495
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/08/2013
Pages: 274
Sales rank: 1,185,450
Product dimensions: 8.44(w) x 5.72(h) x 1.05(d)

About the Author

Leslie C. Bell is a sociologist and psychotherapist who specializes in women's development and sexuality. She maintains a private practice in Berkeley, California.

Read an Excerpt

Hard to Get

Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom

By Leslie C. Bell


Copyright © 2013 Leslie C. Bell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-26149-5


The Paradox of Sexual Freedom

Excited yet embarrassed, Claudia, a twenty-eight-year-old postdoctoral researcher, told me about a one-night stand she'd had the night before our interview. I listened as she described the encounter: the fun of flirting with the man at a concert, the excitement and nervousness when it was still unclear what would happen, and the pleasure of being touched by someone she found so attractive. But I noticed that her pleasure gave way to worry that her strong sexual desires might get her into trouble. "I wish I weren't so horny, so I didn't need to go out and get it so much. I wish I could take a pill to kill my desire," she confided. Claudia felt some shame about her sexual desires and feared others might label her a "ho" for acting on them. She imagined that her Mexican Catholic family would be horrified if they knew about the number of sexual partners she'd had, that they would be devastated and disappointed that their daughter had not become the woman they raised her to be: a good girl who would marry her first boyfriend. At the same time, the strength of her sexual desires sometimes frightened her, and she feared that men might find them overwhelming. Claudia also worried that being in a relationship would mean a loss of her identity, as she had witnessed her mother sacrifice her own dreams and adventurous spirit to be a wife and parent. Consequently, Claudia had not settled down, and she felt baffled at how difficult it had been to develop successful relationships with men. She had doggedly pursued her career goals as an academic and felt accomplished in that arena, but wondered why she hadn't had as much success in relationships.

At every turn and from every angle, Claudia was uncomfortable with the dimensions of her sexuality. Claudia, like many twenty-something women, was not playing hard to get. But good sex and relationships were proving elusive.

This is not the outcome Claudia's feminist foremothers dreamed of for her. Today's young women are supposed to be liberated from old edicts about sex and love. Their twenties ought to be a decade of freedom and exploration. But in interviews and in my psychotherapy practice with young women, I have found them to be more confused than ever about not only how to get what they want, but what they want.

Did Claudia want a relationship? Maybe, but not too serious a relationship; she didn't want to be held back from pursuing her goals. Did she want casual sex? Maybe, but only if she could feel safe enough. Did she want to have regular orgasms? Yes, but she was afraid of losing too much control.

In this book, I explore what is going on with highly educated twenty-something women when they're not busy advancing their careers and professional lives in the twenty-first century. Freed from economic, social, and biological pressure to marry and reproduce in their twenties, I explore what's happening in their love and sex lives. A glance at young women in the media—see, for example, Natalie Portman's portrayal of the emotionally detached and high-achieving Emma in the 2011 film No Strings Attached, stories of twenty-something women outearning men, and reports of women outnumbering men on college campuses—might lead one to think that they're happily playing the field, sowing their wild oats, loving their independence and freedom, and building their careers before they settle down in their thirties. But this new developmental period is more complicated than simplified media representations would have us believe. Marriage and motherhood used to mark the transition to adulthood for women—highly educated or not. No longer is this the case. The black box of the twenties for contemporary women, the beneficiaries of so many gains for women in education, work, and sex, needs to be opened.

Young women who are college-educated and childless are part of a new generation that has a longer time for self-exploration than did earlier generations of women. For many women, the twenties are no longer a time principally devoted to either partnership or children. They have more freedom than women a few generations ago would have imagined possible. This period would seem to be ripe with possibilities for sexual and relationship satisfaction.

I take a look at this new in-between period of early adulthood for twenty-somethings and how it offers women a mixed bag: opportunities, to be sure, but also retrograde messages about their identities as sexual beings, partners, and future mothers. And while they have plenty of training in how to be successful and in control of their careers, young women have little help or training, apart from the self-help aisle in their local bookstore, in how to manage these freedoms, mixed messages, and their own desires to get what they want from sex and love.

The absence of such useful training, combined with the new freedoms and mixed messages that characterize their twenties, contribute to a paradox of sexual freedom. Young women may appear to have more choices than ever before, but the opening up of cultural notions of what is acceptable for women generates great confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety. Some women then find shelter in the process of splitting—a defense that involves seeing the world in black-and-white terms—to resolve the internal conflicts they feel about their desires. Through the series of case studies in the chapters that follow, I tease out various strands of the internal conflicts that some women feel as they attempt to navigate early adulthood without, in many cases, being conscious of their panoply of mixed desires and motivations.


This in-between period of early adulthood provides a window into the social, cultural, and economic changes that have been afoot for the past five decades. And twenty-something women bear the imprint of those changes. For these resourceful women, sex and relationships really can occur independent of marriage and reproduction in their twenties. The current average age of first sexual intercourse for girls is seventeen, leaving ten years of sexual and relationship activity before the current average age of marriage at twenty-seven. These women don't think twice about cohabiting with a partner, or about delaying marriage until their own careers are on track.

In formulating this study, I thought that these women would describe this time in their lives as one in which they were relatively free from social restrictions and proscriptions on sexuality and relationships, but through my research and my psychotherapy practice, I discovered a different story. Instead of feeling free, twenty-something women are weighed down by vying cultural notions about the kind of sex and relationships they should be having in their twenties. Be assertive, but not aggressive. Be feminine, but not too passive. Be sexually adventurous, but don't alienate men with your sexual prowess. Be honest and open, but don't overwhelm someone with too much personal information. They are taught to seek out a companionate relationship of equals. But at the same time they are instructed by increasingly popular arguments from the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology about irreconcilable differences between men and women. Meanwhile, they spend their twenties hearing gloomy forecasts about their chances of marriage if they don't marry before thirty, and their chances of conceiving a baby if they don't get pregnant before thirty-five. Given the discordant nature of these prescriptions, it's no wonder that the women I interviewed and counsel struggle to square these contradictory messages with their own individual experiences.

With relationships, women hear that they ought to use their twenties to "live it up" and not necessarily to be serious about relationships. Indeed, they ought not care very much about relationships, and shouldn't be devastated when relationships don't work out. Hearing advice across the self-help spectrum—from The Rules, which admonishes them to pretend to be independent to get into a relationship, to He's Just Not That into You, which entreats them to stop being so needy and get on with their lives after a breakup—young women often struggle to admit that they need anyone, but it's particularly difficult to say that they need a man. At the same time, they are enjoined to remember that partnership and marriage are just around the corner, when they turn thirty, so the dating and experimentation of their twenties must result in a relationship, and must come to an end. At that point, books such as Marry Him advise that they find someone who is "good enough" and hold on to him for dear life.

This is a confusing set of messages with high stakes. If the goal is still marriage, what should young women do with all of their training in not needing anyone? What kind of a marriage should they hope for? It's difficult to square their experiences in their twenties with marriage, which inevitably involves need, compromise, dependence, and vulnerability.

When it comes to sex, women hear that they ought to spend their twenties being sexually experimental, but only to a point. There is a fine line between being experimental and being a slut. Their peers, television shows such as Sex and the City, and movies seem to encourage sexual experimentation. And they may find advice about sexual positions to try in Glamour or Cosmopolitan magazines. But at the same time, books, such as Unhooked and A Return to Modesty, advise them to return to courtship practices from the early 1900s. And real women, not those in magazines, books, and movies, often contend with messages from their families, religions, and partners that they ought not to be sexually assertive, or sexually active at all.

These contradictory directives leave young women in a bind, and without much help in figuring out what they actually want. Every piece of "modern" advice about maintaining independence and using their twenties to explore and experiment sexually is layered over a piece of "old-fashioned" advice about getting married before it's "too late," not being too assertive or passionate in sex, and not being too sexually experienced.

These confusing messages are in contrast to the clear and helpful direction young women in the twenty-first century receive about how to succeed academically and professionally. Parents, educational institutions, workplaces, companies, and countless nonprofit organizations have focused on empowering girls and women to get ahead in fields and endeavors where they had lagged behind for generations. This training has often focused on developing a sense of control and mastery, and these efforts have largely succeeded. Today more women attend college than do men, and women make up close to half of all law and medical school graduates, although their entry into the highest echelons of these professions is still limited. But the skills twenty-something women have developed in getting ahead educationally and professionally have not translated well into getting what they want and need in sex and relationships.

When I began this project, I was a feminist sociologist starting my training as a psychotherapist. In my practice, I found that I was seeing a number of high-achieving twenty-something women who had trouble letting down their guard, who had difficulty being vulnerable and expressing needs, and who, despite their professed desire for satisfying sex and relationships, put a great deal of energy into protecting themselves from getting hurt. I wanted to understand what was going on with my patients and, more importantly, how I could use that understanding to help them get more of what they wanted. For reasons of confidentiality, I do not discuss patients in this book, but their experiences certainly inform my thinking about twenty-something women. The women described in detail in this book are those whom I interviewed. As a sociologist, feminist, and psychotherapist, I bring multiple perspectives to my analysis.


It is not coincidental that women born after 1972, a turning point in U.S. history for women in gaining formal equality with men, are the subject of this book. Title IX, which protects people from discrimination based on sex in educational programs that receive federal funding, passed in 1972 and has had a tremendous impact on girls' access to academics and athletics. By 1971, President Johnson's Executive Order 11375, which prohibits federal contractors from discrimination in employment on the basis of sex and mandates "affirmative" measures to eliminate job segregation by gender, had been fully implemented by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And in 1973, Roe v. Wade made restrictions on abortion illegal throughout the country. The early 1970s also saw a dramatic decline in the proportion of families that lived with a father who earned a "family wage," one able to support his entire family without income generated by another parent; the proportion had held steady for the previous two decades. Women born after 1972 were among the first in the late twentieth century to have been born into a country without formal discrimination in the workforce and educational institutions and with affirmative action and the legal right to abortion. With these formal rights came great changes in their family experiences in childhood, and in their opportunities in the workforce in adulthood.

These women's experiences anticipate the social changes and trends that will characterize the lives of young women to come. Their entire lives have been marked by unprecedented sexual, educational, and professional freedoms. At the same time, some of these freedoms have had contradictory and paradoxical consequences. Not everything turned out exactly as hoped and planned by the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As a feminist who advocates for greater social, educational, economic, and sexual freedom for women, I feel a sense of urgency to understand which versions of freedom are truly liberating for women and which versions come with their own, new limitations.

For readers versed in the progress of the feminist movement and its central and guiding ideals, the next few pages include material that may be well known. But for readers unfamiliar with this history, they provide a historical context for understanding twenty-something women today. In earlier days of the feminist movement, freedom was a clear and important goal, one whose accomplishment seemed unambiguously positive. With the 1963 publication of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan helped to spark a movement that challenged women's confinement to roles as passive wives, mothers who derived their sense of meaning and self solely from domestic work, or sex objects. Feminists at the time critiqued these domestic ideals and fought for women's equality in educational institutions and the workplace, and for the control of their reproductive and personal lives. Important achievements included legal protection from employment discrimination, inclusion in affirmative action, and increased representation in the media. Other feminist activists fought for and won reforms of the law's traditionally punitive stance toward victims of rape and domestic violence. Feminist scholars in the social sciences targeted the traditional nuclear family and its division of labor between the public sector of work and the private sector of home as the cause of much of women's oppression; since the 1960s, what constitutes a family and how it operates have changed dramatically.

As a consequence of these achievements, many women born after 1972 had childhoods characterized by fathers (and sometimes mothers) coaching their soccer teams and encouraging them in sports and school. They grew up prior to the rise of the princess culture for young girls, which began in 2000 when Disney created and marketed a wildly successful line of princess products that promotes regressive versions of femininity. Girls in the 1970s and 1980s could do anything boys could do in the classroom and on the field, and, many argued at the time, they could even do it better than boys. "Girl power," with its emphasis on self-reliance, ambition, and assertiveness, had its ascendance in the 1990s, when these women were in high school. With girlhood characterized by an "anything you can do, I can do better" attitude, and adolescence replete with a girl-power stance, women born after 1972 would seem to be poised for agency and independence in adulthood.


Excerpted from Hard to Get by Leslie C. Bell. Copyright © 2013 Leslie C. Bell. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. The Paradox of Sexual Freedom

Part I. The Sexual Woman
2. The New Taboo: Katie
3. The Bad Girl: Jayanthi
4. A Pill to Kill Desire: Claudia
Part II. The Relational Woman
5. The Good Girl: Alicia
6. On Not Having It All: Phoebe
Part III. The Desiring Woman
7. How Does She Do It? Maria and Susan
8. Maybe She’s Born with It: Sophia and Jeanette
9. Conclusion: What’s a Modern Woman to Do?

Appendix I. Splitting
Appendix II. Clinical
Appendix III. Demographic
Information about Respondents



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"Bell's clear prose and accessible subject matter will appeal to both scholars of women's studies and young women looking for an explanation of some of the predicaments their generation faces."—Kirkus Reviews

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