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Casual sex meets cognitive dissonance

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Last week, a reader sent a link to a Slate article on the new wave of sexual judgment-mongering among Gen Y and suggested I might want to address the issue here. I wasn't sure I was the one to write this because A) I spent my college years (undergrad and grad) at schools and/or in programs that lacked the traditional qualities necessary to foster a thriving campus hook-up culture - no Greek systems, significantly unequal male/female enrollment stats, nose-to-the-grindstone academic focus, etc. and B) wherever there's a loop, I'm guaranteed to be out of it.

Not that that would stop me from plunging in, obviously. But the more I read and pondered, the more muddled things got. Hook-up culture doesn't deserve its bad rap! Hook-up culture makes you feel sad and empty! Cosmo says go for it. Glamour says make him wait. And everyone implies only hetero sex counts. It's enough to make anyone lose her/his mind trying to sift through the mixed messages and the conflicting characteristics that are thrown around re: Millennial sexual mores - We're blasé! We're conservative! We're empowered! We're self-loathing! In fact, we're all of these things and more, because the societal context in which we assert our female sexual identity (and subsequently dissect it and parse our motives and influences) demands nothing less.

It has become obvious to me that the question isn't to hook up or not to hook up or whether doing so makes you a dirty slut and not doing so you makes you a dour prude. That argument is a proxy for how damn difficult it is to both identify and assert your own idiosyncratic values in the face of prevailing "norms" that keep shifting below your feet, reinforcing your decision in one context and vilifying you for it in another. And the more that you try to find a logic to the System of Societal Expectations of the Modern American Woman V. 54.1 and attempt to roll with its inconsistencies, its course corrections, its irrationality and Orwellian penchant for telling you that we're at war with Eurasia and we've always been at war with Eurasia and their trashy amoral ways (unless it's Tuesday and in that case we'll be scoffing at Eastasia and their uptight sanctimony), the more dissatisfied, confused and (hopefully) pissed off you become.

You cannot win. You can never embody all of the dichotomies this system (fueled by media, religion, Hollywood, sex ed, etc.) throws at you - modest/sexually liberated, autonomous/relationship-oriented, bold/ingratiating to a degree that will earn you unanimous approval (and that's what the system sets up as your goal - validation that you are sexual in the proper context, to the proper degree and feel the proper mix of enjoyment and ambivalence about this state). And even if you could balance in the perpetual state of cognitive dissonance required, what about how you feel? What about what you want? Do you want to have sex? With whom? Under what circumstances? The system doesn't really care and the pundits and analysts only care insofar as it feeds into whatever shame/empowerment/rubber-necking narrative they're seeking to validate (The decline of casual sex! The birth of ladettes!). The system devotes itself to running interference between you and your own desires. In fact, it's perfectly willing and eager to substitute for your desires and tell you what you should want and how to feel about it.

So, if the game is rigged in favor of inculcating second-guessing and insecurity (which can be further stoked by consumer culture cures purporting to put the control back in your hands, natch), what are your options in the face of damned if you do, damned if you don't? You can refuse to play. You can refuse to let your personal become their political. You can take your sexual decision making out of their system. You can get all ahistorical on their asses and decide to prioritize the context of your own life and circumstance over figuring out whether or not you're in line with the sexual attitude du jour (cloudy with a chance of promiscuity!). It isn't easy, but neither is attempting to live by a system that rewrites the female sexual code of conduct at will and only deigns to tell you about it after you've transgressed.

This post first appeared in Bitch Magazine.

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