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In Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom, Leslie Bell analyzes her interviews with women in their twenties about sexual and romantic lives. She examines how they are both able to take control of their own lives in ways that early feminists would admire, and also how they have difficulty combining their careers with their love relationships. It is an unusual work of sociology in that it describes the lives of rather few women: most chapters set out the stories of just one or two main characters. It is also unusual for its push towards a psychological understanding of the women, using some psychoanalytic theory. In this, it brings to mind the feminist psychoanalytic work of Nancy Chodorow, who has endorsed the book.
The challenge facing the book is to make a convincing case that the dilemmas facing American women in the early decades of this new century are significantly different from those in the last decades of the last century, and it will be tempting for those who lived through those earlier decades to shrug off Bell's claims as nothing new. Still, even if there is no significant change in the last few decades, that itself might be important. Bell explains that she expected modern young women to be free of the old pressures that existed before, and she was surprised to find that they still experience them. She claims that women born after 1972 had very different experiences as they were growing up from women in previous generations. Their mothers were more likely to be working, their parents were more likely to be divorced, and their fathers were more likely to be involved in child care. At school, there was more equality with boys both in the classroom and in sports. Access to birth control was more readily available and there was more acceptance of sexual experimentation and especially same-sex relationships. Of course, it is no great surprise that old gender stereotypes and expectations continue to have an effect on how women behave and conceive of themselves, despite the social changes of the last 40 years.
Nevertheless, Bell's interviews with her subjects are interesting. She interviews women from a broad variety of cultural backgrounds and she makes a special effort to include women who don't define themselves as conventionally heterosexual. She gets women to articulate how they feel good about sex and who are able to explore their own desires: half were lesbian, bisexual or queer. They were all college-educated women from Northern California. It was a small sample, with just 20 women, interviewed three times each. Extrapolating from these interviews to the general population is obviously extremely risky, yet this is not a problem to which Bell pays a great deal of attention. It seems clear that at best, the book is a source of promising hypotheses, not a compelling proof that the profiles of Bell's subjects apply equally to all college-educated women in the USA.
Readers who prefer evidence-based theory will also wonder about Bell's three archetypes of women: Sexual, Relational, and Desiring. One question is simply definitional: is there a satisfactory way to distinguish these archetypes? While we may feel we can achieve some intuitive or narrative understanding of them, it would be a challenge to give any sort of quantitative assessment of the extent to which any woman matches up to each of the three archetypes, and it is a challenge that Bell does not attempt. It may be an unfair criticism, because Bell may just be using these labels as ways to structure her discussion, but it's never really clear what her theory amounts to.
The other central theoretical move Bell makes is to employ the idea of psychological splitting as a tactic that women employ in a problematic response to social pressures they experience. It is important enough for her to give a 4-page appendix giving more detail to the idea. Bell describes several cases of women dealing with internal conflicts of desire through splitting them into different parts of their lives. For example, one woman, Katie, "felt ashamed of her desire for a man in her life on whom she could rely." (46) She dealt with this by having relationships with men who were already in other relationships, and focused her energy on her career. Bell says that Katie was aware of her conflicts but was less able to change her life. "Katie imagined commitment to career and commitment to relationship to be mutually exclusive and felt guilty for wanting a relationship. This split goes a long way to explaining why Katie tended to be with unavailable men." (48) However, in what sense is Katie split if she is aware of the different desires and finds a way to resolve the tension between them by dating unavailable men? Obviously, it is not a split in consciousness. Maybe it is a split in her action in some way, but even that isn't very clear, since her behavior is relatively unified: she has both relationships and a career. We might well say that Katie's decision to date married men is not the best solution to her dilemma, and that her shame about wanting a more traditional relationship was inappropriate. So it isn't really clear why the idea of splitting is the most useful one to apply to Katie as an explanation of her behavior. Similar concerns apply to many of Bell's use of the concept. Why should we use a psychoanalytic framework as opposed to a cognitive one? Bell never compares her approach with others, nor does she argue for its greater usefulness. So it is nothing more than an moot assumption of the book, and it isn't a particularly plausible one.
So as a work of theoretically-informed psychological sociology, Hard to Get is disappointing. But as a set of stories about contemporary women, with a heavy emphasis on their sexual, romantic and career choices, it is both fascinating and provocative in highlighting issues of sexual orientation, class, and ethnicity. Bell's book doesn't deliver fully on its promises, but it will still be useful to researchers in feminism and sexuality.
© 2013 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York