Author Dr Leslie Bell adds to concerns facing liberated, educated young women
Twentysomething women are the most liberated and educated women ever. Freed from the economic, social and biological pressure to marry and reproduce in their 20s, they are achieving more academically and professionally than any previous generation.
But, according to a book by a doctor and self-declared feminist, such women are also more “confused, conflicted and uncertain” about what they want from sex and relationships than their mothers or grandmothers.
“They have trouble letting down their guard, difficulty being vulnerable and expressing their needs, and, despite their professed desire for satisfying sex and relationships, they put a great deal of energy into protecting themselves from getting hurt,” says Dr Leslie Bell, a psychotherapist who specialises in treating young women. She is the author of Hard to Get, published this month.
She says the lives of these women, unencumbered by marriage, motherhood and their attendant responsibilities and limitations, may look free and easy. “Digging under the surface of this life, however, the freedom characterising young women’s lives is paradoxical. While have tremendous opportunities to be independent and to pursue their education, careers and sexual and personal development, they receive little guidance in how to navigate the desires, vulnerabilities and internal conflicts that accompany these freedoms. “These young women didn’t feel empowered or like they live on top of the world,” says Bell. “Instead, they feel adrift and lost by the paradox of sexual freedom.”
Marriage and motherhood used to mark the transition to adulthood for women – highly educated or not. Now, with the average age of girls’ first sexual intercourse at 16, they have years of sexual activity before they either marry or have children: the average age for both is about 30.
Instead of spending these years exploring their opportunities, young women struggle to unravel conflicting messages: in the 90s, “girl power” put the emphasis on self-reliance, ambition and assertiveness – books, including The Rules, taught them to pretend to be independent to get into a relationship; by 2009, books such as He’s Just Not That Into You told them to stop being so needy.
When these women hit their 20s, they were encouraged to “live it up” and not necessarily be serious about relationships, at the same time being told they should be ready to marry and start thinking about having children by the age of 30. In 2007, Laura Sessions Stepp in Unhooked and Wendy Shalit in A Return to Modesty (1999) advised them to abandon their freedom and return to courtship practices from the early 1900s. Then the 2008 bestseller Marry Him advised the same young women to grab any man who was “good enough” and keep him.
“These contradictory directives leave young women in a bind, and without much help in figuring out what they actually want,” says Bell. “Every piece of ‘modern’ advice about maintaining independence and using their 20s 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. This sort of advice means that young women often struggle to admit that they need a man.”
Bell interviewed more than 60 women in depth and found that they were trying – and failing – to pursue strategies in their relationships that had been successful in school and work.
“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,” she said.
Bell says that it has become increasingly unclear in recent years what it means to be a liberated woman. Is work a liberating experience? Is sex an empowering experience – and, if so, under what conditions? Is it restrictive to dress and act in traditionally feminine ways? Are relationships an important part of a woman’s life or should they take a backseat to work?
Bell is not alone in her identification of girls as a cause for concern. Shalit, also author of The Good Girl Revolution, says: “Society’s new expectation that girls be jaded and ‘bad’ is actually a much more oppressive script than the old expectation that girls be good. Adults are advocating the bitch as an empowering ideal. Young women are both damaged by this new ideal and increasingly at odds with it.”
Professor Steve Biddulph, a child development specialist and author of bestselling books about the challenges faced by boys in modern society, recently turned his sights on girls. His Raising Girls, is also published this month. “I have been starting to get worried about girls recently,” he says. “Girls used to be doing fine but have recently started to have much more trouble deciding who they are.
“It was an awakening for me. I was very clear that there was a boy-catastrophe unfolding. Part of what I assumed was that girls were doing fine, but about five to six years ago we started getting research and statistics coming in from around the world that girls were, in fact, the ones in trouble.”