Women today are finally enjoying no-strings, emotion-free sex. I'm happy for that choice, but I wondered if every 20-something was comfortable having emotionless sex -- or "sex like a guy," as it sometimes gets called. That was the case with Karen Owen, the Duke University woman whose analysis of her sex life went viral, complete with a list of conquests and critique of their performance. Some hailed it as a comeuppance: finally, men treated the way women have been for ages. Others thought it a disgrace that men were subjected to the same kind of objectification that women fight. If we take Ms. Owen at her word -- that her version of the little black book was never meant for the public eye -- then it's a case of a woman having sex with no regrets and exploring her sexual needs. She regrets that it hurt other people, but she doesn't regret doing it. She wasn't having sex like a guy; she wasn't having sex to get a guy. She was doing it for herself.
As more 20-somethings delay marriage, there's an extended period of sexual limbo. The question isn't who you are dating but who you are hooking up with. It's not just one-night stands we're talking about; it's ongoing, uncommitted sex. It's a zero-sum game. Every time you have sex, you're back to square one. Not all women in their early 20s are emotionally prepared to handle that. Some still aspire to a relationship. According to an Oxygen/TRU study of women primarily in their 20s and in a stage of transition, 50 percent say marriage is a priority. The Rutgers University National Marriage Project says 94 percent of 20-somethings want a soulmate.
So how does this jive with the hookup culture? A 20-something guy said, "I know if I'm hanging out with a girl (hooking up with no intention of not hooking up with other women) and she wants more, I can say no and she'll hang out with me anyway." Many 20-something women relate to this. One responded, "I know from personal experience that's true. So many guys feel that way. It's really sad." Another 20-something woman told me that she'd never had a date -- and was afraid she never would. She's dabbled with casual sex but wants a relationship. Sadly, she doesn't feel that she has much control over it. That doesn't sound liberating.
So are these women really able to separate sex from emotion? Not the Karen Owens of the world, but the women who secretly crave a relationship or think that they can have no-strings sex but have no idea what they are getting into. It's confusing. If a guy tells you he doesn't want a relationship but then gives you attention, it's easy to think attention equals some sort of emotional attachment. From the perspective of a 28-year-old woman, "It's a small percentage of girls who can say, 'Yeah. I don't really want anything either.' A lot of my friends are just pretending."
As I asked around about no-strings sex, the idea of pretending came up a lot. You can't pretend to want emotionless sex when you're looking for a relationship. But a lot of young women fall into that trap. One 20-something related, "The minute you think, 'Oh, maybe I could fall in love with him,' you will lose your pride. You have to be willing to walk out the door."
That's where 40-something perspective comes into play. Most women have learned that pretending only holds you back from finding what you want. As one 40-something put it, "If you want more and he doesn't, then he's the wrong guy. You can't lie to yourself and think it will turn into something. Don't expect him to change."
As you get older, you experience different kinds of relationships and are able to tell if you're looking for a connection or truly just want sex. For sure it's a choice, and it's liberating, but you have to be prepared for what it means. It doesn't mean anything. That's not to say that a one-night stand never turned into love, but you can't go into it hoping for love.
Many 40-somethings had casual sex and didn't regret it. Not surprisingly, 40-somethings who married their first and only partner wish they had had more. The regrets were about doing it for the wrong reasons. If you're doing it for someone else or to trying to be someone else, it's not empowering or enjoyable. This woman's story brings it to life:
I tried to be super sexy and thought I was confident. I put on this persona of a sexually liberated person in bed. What a waste of time. I was trying to prove to everyone that I was in control. It was so fake. I was always asking the guy what he wanted in bed. I didn't ask for anything. If you can't talk about what you want in bed, you shouldn't be having sex, is what I think now. You have to do it for yourself. I was just seeing myself projected through their eyes. I think I'm pretty if he says I'm sexy. That really hurt me for a while because I relied on other people for an image of who I was. I married a man who put me on a pedestal. I saw myself the way he saw me. When you fall off the pedestal, and you will, then they are left with a woman they don't know. And you don't know yourself.
My biggest takeaway from this is to be grateful that you have the choice, but don't feel that you have to do it just because it's what everyone else is doing. That's just as wrong as women in the past being cast as "bad" for "doing it." If you choose to do it, explore and get to know what you want, but respect your body and yourself. If you can do that, have fun, and above all, be careful. If not, hold out for what you want and hold onto your self!