Feminism, like all “isms,” is hardly a monolithic category, and the rifts within feminism continue to create revelatory fault lines. Consider the important issue of the hookup culture and what it does for—or to—women. Hanna Rosin and Caitlin Flanagan, two frequent contributors to the Atlantic Monthly, have taken sides. Flanagan, in numerous articles and her book Girl Land, has expressed a sadness for the lost protections of girlhood. She wants to challenge the strong cultural pressure on girls to grow up too quickly. Rosin fires back that Flanagan is merely nostalgic, and that today’s young women actually benefit from finally being in the driver’s seat in the sexual revolution, and particularly in the hookup culture. Their argument reveals that we need a clearer picture of what happens to young women who have inherited the culture created by the sexual revolution. We need answers to questions like “How does the hookup culture operate in real women’s lives?” and “What happens later in life to women who participate?”
Of course, you can try to crunch numbers and claim that they don’t lie. In her Atlantic article “Boys on the Side” (September 2012), Rosin points to data by sociologists that suggest that women are not damaged by the hookup culture at all. She reports on research that asks young women questions like how much sex they’ve had (answer: not as much as we are led to believe), how happy they were about their last relationship, and how interested they are in marriage in the future. One could ask how much useful information you are actually getting from the answers, but Rosin blithely concludes:
Zoom out, and you see that for most women, the hookup culture is like an island they visit, mostly during their college years and even then only when they are bored or experimenting or don’t know any better. But it is not a place where they drown. The sexual culture may be more coarse these days, but young women are more than adequately equipped to handle it, because unlike the women in earlier ages, they have more important things on their minds, such as good grades and internships and job interviews and a financial future of their own. The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don’t get in the way of future success.
But is this really true? Does this kind of research (and this interpretation of it) tell the whole story?
I do not believe that it does. I also don’t necessarily think that we can trust self-reporting within a sociological study. If women have been primed to believe that the sexual revolution and the resulting hookup culture has been good for them, would we expect them to report otherwise on a survey? Can we expect them even to recognize any evidence to the contrary? The fact that we will never get the whole truth from a sociological study is one of the main reasons why we need memoirs and fiction. And while pulp fiction can be (and has been) profitably studied to reveal patterns of desire for fantasy lives in their readers—think Harlequin romances, erotica, and so on—what less formulaic types of fiction reveal about readers and their needs and beliefs is less clear. One thing is for certain: fiction can challenge stereotypes. To my knowledge, no one has ever blamed Edith Wharton for thinking too simply about what it meant to be a woman in the nineteenth century.
When it comes to the hookup culture and the question of the impact that our culture’s sexual mores is having on young women, one surprisingly revelatory recent collection of short stories is Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow. Heiny’s voice is haunting and distinctive, and her perspective is keen. The overall collection feels like a mix between Lena Dunham’s current HBO series Girls, and the older HBO series Sex and the City. It is sharply ironic, laugh-out-loud funny, jarringly intimate, and, in the end, more about the lives and needs of real women than it is about sex.
The opening story, “The Dive Bar,” features Sasha, a young woman who is asked by her lover’s wife to meet her in a bar. As the story progresses, Sasha reveals much more about her separate, female friendships than she does about the fallout from her affair. So when Sasha gets verbally assaulted by her lover’s wife, she ends up grateful that the wife had chosen a bar that Sasha and her friends would never go to instead of one of their usual places, because the confrontation would have “ruined whatever happy memory she had of being there.”
Additionally, three stories in the collection (including the titular story) feature Maya, who feels on the verge of discovering that her boyfriend and later husband, Rhodes, is himself less important to her than the family he brings with him. Of her new mother-in-law, she says that “she wished that she knew Hazelene in some other way, from work or the gym or the neighborhood, so that she could still have Rhodes’s mother when she no longer had Rhodes himself.” But, sadly, Maya doesn’t quite learn how best to meet her actual needs because she feels she doesn’t need to. She can marry who she wants and have affairs on the side when things get boring—all of which she proceeds to do in a later story, and all without apparent consequences. The freedom to hook up that the stories appear to promote is what led one reviewer to declare that “not since Laurie Colwin has a writer so poignantly and wittily depicted the joys of infidelity. Katherine Heiny knows the secret: happy marriages make for happy affairs.”
But what this reviewer has missed is that the most powerful of Heiny’s stories are not the ones that contain this “secret.” Stories that end on a blithe note fall predictably flat, such as “Blue Heron Bridge,” in which the protagonist, Nina, just decides that she isn’t going to be bothered by the fact that the man with whom she was having an affair had also had one with her banal neighbor, Bunny Pringle. We just don’t buy it that she is so happy about this discovery that she leaves a trail of “rose petals and sugar and bits of brightly colored paper,” and that other people would “never experience anything like it themselves.” Instead, the powerful stories are the ones that expose their protagonists in the act of lying to themselves about what they are and are not getting in these affairs. To be even more precise, the most powerful stories are the ones where the protagonists come heartbreakingly close to this discovery without quite getting there, exposing the real damage that comes from the fact that they have accepted our culture’s most pernicious lies about happiness. “The Rhett Butlers,” a story that appeared in the Atlantic in the fall of 2014, is the collection’s best example.
“The Rhett Butlers” succeeds in executing the rare and notoriously difficult second-person point of view. “You always think of him as ‘Mr. Eagleton,’ even after you start sleeping with him,” the story begins. “You always call him that, too.” Within two sentences the reader is invited to take the perspective of both a sixteen-year-old girl who has sex with her forty-year-old history teacher, and the young woman she later becomes. We know from the start that neither the girl nor the woman she became ever stopped thinking about Mr. Eagleton as an ordinary teacher and authority figure.
And this matters. Because the perspective that we might expect a story on this subject to deliver is not the perspective we get. We do not hear the tale of a girl who was naively seduced by her teacher, and later understood it as abusive and regretted it. Instead we get the perspective of a young woman who calls that earlier version of herself naïve, but who now is grown up enough to brush off the affair as inconsequential. Mr. Eagleton takes her to the kind of motel he describes as one “with a stained mattress and a naked lightbulb,” which the narrator tells us “he means to be ironic, but the irony is that his description is pretty accurate.” The narrator gets the irony behind the irony, and she wants us to know that she gets it. She’s above it all now. So when she describes losing her virginity to him, the event barely registers as significant. She wakes up with stomach pains that she assumes (in her naïveté) is hemorrhaging, but what she really has is appendicitis.
Barely registering is not the same thing as not registering at all. For the real genius of “The Rhett Butlers” is in the places where Heiny lets you see the cracks in her protagonist’s thin coating of sophisticated nonchalance. For example, the narrator admits that she was expecting that there would be “naked kissing,” and wasn’t necessarily expecting sex. She tries to hide her feelings by not naming them.
You know that in the motel room, you and Mr. Eagleton will take off all your clothes and get into bed. You imagine that will lead to something you think of as naked kissing. Which it does, but the naked kissing lasts for about five minutes and then becomes sex.
All your life, men will snort with laughter when you tell them about this naked-kissing business—about the fact that you actually thought that—but it’s true.
Although the narrator wants us to see her laughing it off later, the revelation of this abuse of a young girl’s innocence hangs in the air in the story. It continues to hang in the air, giving the reader only the slightest whiff of it from time to time. For example, when Mr. Eagleton shows her a pornographic film, she pins the discomfort she feels on her mother. “You are young enough to still have your parents always in the back of your mind, and you are heartbroken to think that your mother lives in a world where such films exist.” Or this:
Which is not to say that you don’t enjoy it. You only wish Marcy were there to watch it with you, because that would make it real. That’s the problem with Mr. Eagleton—he’s unreal. The part of your life that contains him is too sealed off, like the last slice of cake under one of those glass domes.
Like all effective metaphors, this image freezes us and forces us to process it, to consider what it says and doesn’t say. The narrator knows that she has to hide something that shouldn’t need to be hidden, and she would like to believe she doesn’t care that she has to do so. But she does care. She wants to believe, in spite of her own insistence to the contrary, that her first sexual experience should be something special and important. She compares the relationship not to an everyday piece of cake—an unnecessary and ordinary treat—but to the last slice of cake in a glass dome in a restaurant. The gift of her sexual intimacy is something she actually believes to be precious, but she cannot fully admit she believes it. The cake metaphor is only a very small crack in the veneer of her self-deception.
The narrative continues in this heartbreaking fashion. As soon as she comes close to admitting that she has been deeply hurt, she covers it over by presenting herself as someone who is above it now, and sees how silly it all was. She begins to recognize that she doesn’t even like Mr. Eagleton, and she stops seeing him. She apparently regrets only that he’s a teacher and not a fellow student, because she still has to go to class and he makes her uncomfortable. She gets annoyed when he deliberately gives her C’s (she is an A student), but that annoyance is again dismissed as slight. She displaces it into the category of “things you learn as an adult”—chief among these being that not all adults act like adults should. When Eagleton keeps showing up on her street on his motorcycle, “this confirms something you have long suspected: Marcy—Marcy, who says things like, ‘I never knew you weren’t supposed to put tinfoil in the microwave’—is actually more mature than Mr. Eagleton.”
Many of the stories in Single, Carefree, Mellow work this way. They seem to be rolling their eyes at the experiences described within. But just like parents who see through a teenager’s gesture of defiance to the real feelings of vulnerability that motivated it, we know better. In spite of characters—and perhaps their author—who have been enculturated to believe that sexual infidelities of any sort can be brushed off as meaningless, in the end the narratives themselves belie these efforts. Their collective power comes from the tiny gasps of moral recognition readers get, recognition that is not unlike discovering that the rug you’ve been wiping your feet on in your mudroom is actually a precious family heirloom. When you make that discovery about a rug, you can either try to clean the rug and put it in a proper spot, or you can tell a story that argues: “Who cares, anyway? It’s still a dumb rug. I knew it all along. I chose to walk on it, and I will walk on it still.” Or, to put it another way, it might be that the collective power of the stories comes from their revelation that sex has become what alcohol is to an alcoholic: far too indispensible to remain valuable.
What is valuable is time spent reading these stories for the window they provide on the complicated legacy of the sexual revolution. They teach us how to read beyond the sociological data and into the self-talk of women who inherit a culture that they can only ascribe to or defy, but cannot change. They also teach us, perhaps unwittingly, that to become so evidently desensitized as our culture is to the gift of sexuality is also to reveal an original sensitivity to it precisely as a gift worth protecting. You could tell yourself all you want that it doesn’t matter, but in the end your efforts themselves will give you away.
Christina Bieber Lake is the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College.