It cannot possibly be news to even someone living on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean that college students sometimes detach sex from love, so why are we endlessly declaring what is now called “the hookup culture” and what used to be called “the sexual revolution” a huge new story? The continued struggle in prominent liberal places like the New York Times to come to terms with one of the more obvious and basic realities of modern sexuality is, I think, worth thinking about; the real news story is not “She can play that game, too” but “Why is the New York Times still marveling over women who sleep around just for the sake of it?”
The underlying taboo here is no longer young women having sex, which the culture at large has come to terms with, but young women actively, consciously, seeking out sex without love; it is the cool, calculating search for sexual encounters, without even a secret hope or desire for emotional entanglement which still shocks. (And stories like the New York Times’ always include ritualistic reassurance that there are still some girls who “longed for boyfriends and deeper attachments.”)
There is also the continued critical fuss over television shows that bring “news” of women who sleep with men and are not necessarily looking for boyfriends or in thrall to romantic aspirations (see the fresh wonder greeting Girls). These shows seem perpetually “new” to us, even though the topic has been one of pretty constant interest since the days of Henry James’ Daisy Miller, or Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson or Jane Austen’s Lady Susan (and even earlier if you look at Chaucer or Boccaccio or Moll Flanders.)
The sense of taboo or fascination remains remarkably robust, even though this fall will see the 40th anniversary reissue of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which put forth the idea of a “zipless fuck.” Even earlier, in 1942, Mary McCarthy comically anatomized a one-night stand on a train with a man her character found mostly repellent in “The Man in the Brooks Brothers’ Shirt.” Women writers have been analyzing the myriad ways sex can be independent from love for a very long time, and yet we continue (or I should say some editor at the New York Times continues) to be scandalized or titillated by or interested in the most banal utterances of a college student: “We don’t really like each other in person, sober. … we literally can’t sit down and have coffee.” “I definitely wouldn’t say I’ve regretted any of my one-night stands.”
“Hookup culture” (a term that itself tries to repackage something banal or familiar as “new”) has been explained as victimizing women (who of course are too Harlequin Romance-ish to want sex without secretly yearning for a boyfriend); or else it is analyzed as being part of the new, driving female ambition, which is to say that women are focusing on their careers at an early age and don’t want or have time for love. (As the New York Times put this emergent cliché: “These women said they saw building résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn.”) This may be true, but it may also be true (and not exactly exciting) that there are college students who sleep around just because they feel like it (not to mention women of all ages). It may in fact be a phenomena that doesn’t have to be explained or accounted for or culturally deconstructed or politically analyzed. It may be much murkier—a moment, a phase, a situation, an evening, a mood—in an irreducibly individual woman’s life.
Because we still find the idea of a woman who is not at all times looking for love or imbuing her affairs with romantic ambitions so puzzling or bewildering or exotic, we are especially interested in cartoons or caricatures of the type. The latest of these to grab our attention is Celeste Price in Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, a teacher whose lust for high school students is remarkable in its calculation, its chilliness, its absolute refusal of romantic overlay.* Nutting classifies her as “a remorseless libido in heels.” She says that she did not want to fall into “the current trap of reading the female predator in a sympathetic light.” What renders Nutting’s character so unsympathetic is that she is not dreamy or rapturous or deluded about her transgressions; she is only interested in sexual gratification, lust in its purest most alienating forms. Nutting calls her a “monster” and she is a monster because she has no feelings for anyone besides herself. However, the generations of women who sleep with men they don’t want to marry or live with because they want adventure, or because they are bored, or because they are attracted to them, or because they are afraid of death, or because they are restless or because they are craving intensity on a particular night, or because they just feel like it are not at all monstrous or even interesting. Mary McCarthy evokes these women in her story about the one-night stand on the train when she quotes Chaucer, ”I am my own woman well at ease.”
Correction, July 17, 2013: Alissa Nutting’s name was originally misspelled. (Return.)