A recent article about young adults sexual pursuits in Vanity Fair peaked my interest, because once again I believe we are missing the forest for the trees when it comes to young women. Data about sexting from a new survey reported around 88% of US 18-82 year olds had sexted, with 75% in the context of a committed relationship and 43% as part of a casual relationship. Studies have also found that between two thirds and three quarters of students hook up at some point during college, with 60% doing so between four to ten times.
Hook ups and sexting are often associated with a lot of worry and judgment. We need to refocus more of our attention from the physical aspects of relationships to the social-emotional features.
All data aside, let me share what I have earned from listening to hundreds of young women aged high school on up. The mores about sexuality have shifted tremendously especially since the wild 1960’s. Girls have grown up in a culture where it’s all good, and where any clear boundaries about right vs. wrong concerning sexuality have been blurred, leaving them to their own devices and with their peers to decide what’s appropriate or not.
We’ve given girls permission to be way more assertive than in previous generations, be it in the classroom, the sports field, or in dating. Many parents tell me the girls in middle and high school have become the sexual aggressors, more so than the guys. Young women have been encouraged to take on many of the qualities previously assigned to men: ambition, competition, aggression, and a step-on-anyone-to-get-to-the-top attitude. They have responded by getting top grades, attending colleges at a higher level than guys, climbing the corporate ladders, and also becoming more cavalier about sex.
Women have had their noses to the grindstone since grade school, chasing after straight A’s, top tier college admissions, and top jobs. They are busy, stressed out, and distracted with no clue how to slow down, know what they are feeling, or check in with themselves. Most of the young women I have spoken to don’t want a serious relationship; they don’t have time, guys might interfere with their career trajectory, and they are scared of deep connections. They see relationships as a lot of work, tiresome, draining, and many have a pessimistic attitude about creating fulfilling life-long relations. And they are terrified that they will end up settling for something or someone less than perfect.
Women tell me they are usually wasted when they hook up, with women averaging 4 drinks and men 6 prior to hooking up. I see them using sex as a thrill, a way to pull themselves out of feeling empty, unfulfilled, or unhappy. And it works for a few hours, but every thrill has a hangover, emotionally as well as physically. And I hear women saying over and over how lonely they are.
I don’t think everyone needs to get married or have kids etc. That’s not my point. But I find many young women conflicted about the casualness of sex. They are supposed to be free and easy about it, and it’s supposed to make them feel more in control of relationships. But when guys don’t call back after a hook up, they still feel hurt and used. And they still require external validation about feeling attractive, with guy’s comments and requests to hook up acting as confidence boosters.
This issue of sexuality is really an internal battle, and I fear we have not prepared girls to face that kind of struggle. Our culture has confused them by replacing love with lust, and with short-term thrills instead of long-term fulfillment. Women need quiet spaces and alone time to reflect, gather themselves, and to know what is right for them. They need to see more healthy marriages to serve as models that it can work. And they must unplug from technology more in order to create time for real, in-person communication with friends and dating partners. I want them to let go of their fears about commitment and to connect with people instead of profiles.
Women would do well to focus more time and energy on the social-emotional aspects of relationships, and let sex be just one aspect of an intimate connection.