Review: Hard To Get

I finished Bell’s Hard To Get, and I can’t think of a more timely point in my life to read it.

Just to remind: Bell interviewed 20 women in-depth, and articulates in her book three archetypes that she found women typically embodied: The Sexual Women, the Relational Woman, and the Desiring Woman. The three “Sexual” women she profiles demonstrate the following “splits”*: between relationships and career, between relationships and a strong identity, and between relationships and strong sexual desire. The two “Relational” women she profile illustrate splits between sexual desire and safety, and between sexual passion and stability. Lastly, the four “Desiring” women demonstrate an integrated framework of relationships, sexual desire, and career/educational desires despite of and because of family of origin contexts. 

[*”Splitting” is a psychological concept and coping mechanism that refers to a an either/or mindset. It can be useful in distinguishing “you and I” and “here and there,” but it can become problematic when desires feel contradictory and thus one must choose between things. The Sexual Woman felt attaining good sex was easy, but saw a choice between long-term or intimate relationships and other desires like careers. The Relational Woman felt comfortable in intimate relationships, but found it difficult to obtain both a satisfying relationship and satisfying sex. The Desiring Woman was able to integrate these competing desires for various reasons.]

This is a great review of the book and interview with the author. I love the article’s introduction:

“This hookup book is not like the others. Want to see either casual sex or committed relationships portrayed as inherently good or bad? You will be sorely disappointed. The same goes for if you expect young men or young women to be chastised for abandoning traditional values. Instead, Leslie C. Bell’s “Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom” argues that despite being the most liberated generation of women to date, today’s 20-somethings face wildly contradictory cultural messages about love and sex that can make it extremely difficult to freely and fully realize their desires.

I have two questions: Who allowed this nuanced and reasonable treatise about my generation to be published? And more important: Why has it taken so goddamned long?”

I really like Bell’s last point she makes in the Q&A. She captures in her book the overall difference in how her straight interviewees, versus her lesbian, bi, and queer interviewees, struggled with the various cultural messages and their various desires for relationships, good sex, and educational/career opportunities. She found that more of her lesbian, bi, and queer participants had more integrated desires (they experienced less psychological “splitting” than her straight participants). She posits that this may be related to gender and sexual minorities already having to contend with non-normative sexual identities, experiences, and desires:

“I have one finding that I really like to talk about: There certainly were women that I spoke with who did manage to kind of express and feel the full range of their desires, for relationships, for sex, and for all kinds of things, and it was much more like my queer, lesbian and bisexual respondents had comfort with the range of desires than it was with my straight respondents. I asked everybody I spoke with, “What would it be like to have sex or have relationships with a partner who’s differently gendered than your usual partner?” I was really surprised about the degree to which straight women had very elaborated responses about what it would be like to be with women, and they all thought it would be much easier to kind of be the full range of themselves. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but it’s fascinating. In some ways it’s an idealization, I think: Lesbian relationships are not easy and they’re complicated in their own way. So one suggestion I have for straight women is that I think part of what we fall into in this pattern of splitting is also splitting men and women, and it’s assuming this kind of a radical difference. What I hear my queer respondents saying is, their partners are human in a way that some of my straight female respondents did not express. One thing that I would just challenge straight women to do is to think of their male partners, or the men in their lives who may become partners, as more like them than different.”

Here is the Guardian’s review, and the Kirkus review, in case you want to see other reviews 🙂

Anyways, in counseling today, I was telling my counselor how timely this book is for me. I have been struggling with the societal message that “you shouldn’t let a relationship get in the way of your education or career. If you do, you are backwards/traditional/conservative, and going against everything that feminism has been working toward.” I have never found myself feeling split between relationships and good sex; they have always gone together in my mind. However, my old (subconscious) behavior patterns definitely were to let a romantic partner and relationship subsume any extracurricular, job, or educational interests of my own. I would put my partner’s ideas, opinions, needs, and desires above my own, at my own expense. The past couple of years, I have been consciously changing these patterns, and I think I feel hyper-vigilant of making sure that I consider my desires. At the same time, it is highly important to me to know my partner’s needs, opinions, and ideas, and I feel really comfortable highly valuing my relationship and the priority that I place on my relationship. Related to integrating these seemingly contradictory desires, I really love this sentiment of Bell’s captured in the Salon interview:

“So, for example, some of the most common splits that I saw were young women thinking, “Well, I can’t have both a career and a relationship at the same time. They’re literally incommensurate with one another.” For others, it would be a split between good sex and committed love. “Well, if I’m in a committed relationship, I can’t be having good sex. Good sex is something that happens in casual, more free flings.” These are very tempting and relatively easy to fall into, but what I argue is that — as it probably sounds — it deprives women of knowing the full range of their desires, because most people want lots of different things that may be contradictory. And it’s hard to acknowledge that in ourselves, but when we can, we’re actually more likely to get what we want, and go for things that either our culture or our minds may tell us is impossible.”

Her recommendations for helping young women integrate their desires ranged from broad cultural changes (continued and better representation of women in the media, government, and academia; better sexuality education and teaching about sexual pleasure; reframing “vulnerability” as a strength and not a weakness) to interpersonal changes (supportive therapists; partners that encourage women to masturbate so they know what they like) to family changes (in which parents treat their daughters like integrated and whole people who embody all kinds of characteristics), among others.

I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it!

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