Home/Daniel Larison/Don’t Loosen Up

Don’t Loosen Up

In the 1950s, parents got concerned when girls “went steady” instead of playing the field, but Stepp is convinced this “new” habit of playing the field will warp girls’ hearts and make it impossible for them to settle down when the time comes. “It’s as if young women are practicing sprints while planning to run a marathon,” she worries. ~Meghan O’Rourke

Ross makes some smart comments on how O’Rourke’s article tries to do two contradictory things (expressing concern for the girls while also laughing at the author who expresses really serious concern for them) and fails, and I think he has it pretty well covered, but let me add a couple points about this bit about “playing the field.”  It should hardly be necessary to have to explain why “playing the field” in the 1950s and playing the field today are rather different.  First, the field has changed, and so have the rules of the “game.”  To be more blunt, parents in the ’50s didn’t want their daughters sleeping around, much as I suspect most sane parents today don’t want their daughters sleeping around, yet this is what field-playing more or less is today (unless formal courtship and cotillions have made a comeback and nobody told me).  If the parents are consistent about it, they shouldn’t want their sons sleeping around, either, I suppose, but that’s another discussion.  If you mean “keep your options open” or “don’t commit too quickly” by “playing the field,” I suppose most parents today might advise the same thing, but if you mean “hook-up with every guy in sight,” I submit the obvious observation that no parents anywhere on earth want this for their daughter.  It also seems fairly obvious that this is not a particularly sane or edifying way to live.

O’Rourke won’t be stopped, though, since she hits Unhooked for contributing to a culture of girl-repressing guilt:

From at least the 1920s (when everyone thought flappers were destroying manners) on through the 1980s (when teen pregnancy rates had everyone alarmed), girls have been hearing that their sex lives are the symbol of generational decadence.

I know this is supposed to be insightful, but I am having the hardest time understanding how.  Yes, societies focus on the sexual habits of their women because most societies recognise certain obvious connections between the state of marriage, families, relations between men and women and the ways in which society allows women to behave.  When social norms are fairly indulgent, there is going to be the legitimate and well-founded concern that this will have a significant impact on all of these things for the worse–and this concern is usually vindicated when these things do enter into crisis.  Concern about these things is rooted in, among other things, certain biological realities, since the merely practical costs to women and to society of “casual sex” (doesn’t this odd phrase imply that somewhere someone is having formal and semi-formal sex?) are far greater (e.g., children born out of wedlock, relatively impoverished single-parent households, and all the developmental and social problems that follow from these things, etc.).  This doesn’t begin to delve into the necessary and good functions of shame, honour and admittedly very old-fashioned ideas of what it meant for a woman to keep her virtue intact.  Naturally, the “emancipators” have sought to provide all manner of workarounds (contraception, abortion, etc.) to avoid these costs without requiring anything so tiresome as restraint, but O’Rourke makes it seem as if the focus on girls is somehow bizarre or lopsided, when it is many of the girls and society as a whole that pay the price for the “fun” O’Rourke mentions at the beginning.   

What strikes me as particularly unimpressive about this remark by O’Rourke is that no one disputes the realities under discussion.  No one claims that the flappers were, in fact, misunderstood Victorian ladies with a slightly different sense of fashion–they did represent a dramatic, visible change in social habits and in sexual mores.  The trick here is that O’Rourke doesn’t care about that dramatic change, except insofar as it is a step forward the “fun” of later times.  Likewise, I don’t think she really doubts any of Stepp’s evidence.  She and Stepp simply evaluate the evidence according to entirely different standards, and since she doesn’t accept Stepp’s standards she thinks she has come up with a great zinger to paint Stepp as joining in what she portrays as unfair girl-bashing.  This is the progressive’s superior moral pose posing as an argument, when it is simply a lot of hand waving. 

By any standard of traditional morality, the things O’Rourke cited are examples of generational decadence; by certain ’emancipated’ standards, they are supposedly examples of women’s growing independence.  Any critique of the “hookup culture” that assumes that stable, successful marriages are what young women (and, by implication, young men) should seek to have is going to assume that patterns of behaviour that put off or seem to devalue marriage are detrimental to the well-being of those young women.  Yes, really, it will!  Furthermore, it’s going to assume that these young women don’t know enough to know any better that the patterns of the “hookup culture” are actually damaging to the kinds of later relationships they will probably want to have.  O’Rourke doesn’t simply disagree with Stepp’s prescriptions, descriptions or methods, though she nitpicks all of them, but rather she rejects the entire premise of the inquiry, which is to question and then deny the value of that culture itself and to raise an alarm about something that O’Rourke doesn’t find terribly alarming. This is especially true since that culture will inevitably appear to O’Rourke to be another expression of individual emancipation and progress towards unicorn-like gender equality.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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