Elisabeth Zerofsky

Monday, July 23, 2007

“What does talking have to do with sex?!” Dr. Drew Pinsky’s mockery of a stereotypical male response to the female predilection for intimate conversation was met by a swell of blithe laughter from the audience at the Independent Women’s Forum‘s (IWF) Annual Campus Sex and Dating Conference on Capitol Hill on July 16.

Pinsky’s popular philosophy holds that talking actually has a lot to do with sex. Dr. Drew was on hand to speak to a co-ed group of more than 50 interns about college and a healthy sex life. Pinsky, who has partly made his professional career by answering young people’s questions about the finer points of romance on the hit radio show Loveline, which was also an MTV show for a few years, was in familiar territory engaging this summer’s beltway collegiate cohort in a discussion about their own views and issues concerning love, sex, and everything in between.

Pinsky, who has more than 20 years of experience observing the college dating scene, discussed his observations. College romance these days, Pinsky maintains, seems to offer a meager three options: the overly hasty “joined-at-the-hip” scenario, “friends with benefits”–an arrangement that he says “like communism looks good on paper but usually doesn’t pan out when enacted in real human terms,” and the ambiguous “hook up.”

Mention of this last term provoked an anonymous audience member to shout: “Define that!” Pinsky responded that it doesn’t have a definition. “The only common factor in the hook-up seems to be that there’s no relationship involved, and it always occurs while intoxicated,” Pinsky offered. He noted that the ambiguity of the term is one of its assets–many young people use it to refer to anything from kissing to sexual intercourse. This observation led into an analysis of the varying reasons that both guys and girls find it necessary to consume consciousness-altering substances to engage in this behavior.

“If hooking up is so great, why do you have to get loaded to do it?” Pinsky asked. The consensus at the IWF lunch was that for a guy, getting drunk is a way of bolstering confidence so he can go after what he really wants (sex), and not feel responsible the next morning. For a woman, getting drunk is a means to “numb” her instincts, to “medicate” herself so that she can do what her emotions are telling her not to.

Amidst the general portrayal of men as sex-craving, intimacy-incapable heathens, and women as self-unaware, emotion-laden pushovers, Pinsky didn’t mention that many men look to marriage as an important foreseeable life goal as well, or that men can experience the same “hurt” and “confusion” which stereotypically personifies the female response to hooking up. Nor was there a nuanced approach to female sexuality. The idea that some women might actually know themselves well enough to be able to judge what’s good for them and act accordingly–even the ability to enjoy casual sex–received little discussion.

Pinsky’s forthrightness is admirable. He said he believes simply that “people need to talk, to get this stuff out in the open” and proclaims that “everything I’m saying is not opinion per se, it’s observation. I have no agenda.”

The same could hardly be said for the IWF. The fact that the IWF promotes traditional values and gender roles that are restrictive to women, under the guise of being “a strategic tool to defeat the hegemony of the left on so-called ‘women’s issues’ and…to develop a new vision, based on truth and common sense, for women and families in American life,” is a poorly kept secret. (Hint: Anytime “so-called” appears before “women’s issues” it’s a tip-off for right-wing propaganda.)

As IWF director of campus programs, Allison Kasic mentioned in her opening remarks on Monday, the IWF has been holding this annual forum since the publication of its 2001 study, “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right–College Women on Dating and Mating Today.” The study finds that for the majority of girls and women, marriage “is still a major life goal,” and that “most women hope to meet their future husband at college.” The report deems phrases such as “booty call” scientific jargon, and the introduction guarantees “the autonomy of the scholarly process, the IWF did not involve itself in researching and writing this report.” But the report also offers judgments such as this one:

College women say they want to be married someday, and many would like to meet a future husband at college. Yet it seems virtually no one even attempts to help them consider how their present social experience might or might not lead to a successful marriage, or how marriage might fit with other life goals…. The absence of appropriately updated social norms … leaves many young women confused, and often disempowered, in their relationships with men. Socially defined courtship is an important pathway to more successful marriages.

In short, the report smacks of a biased agenda that supposedly comes from a women’s advocacy group.

So, when Pinsky was invited by the IWF to provide insight into “who’s getting the short end of the stick in the college dating scene–guys or girls,” it came as no surprise that the answer turned out to be women. “The IWF study found that women are unhappy, so that’s what we’re trying to deal with,” Pinsky said, ” and it’s very clear to me that what IWF was seeing was accurate.”

There was no shortage of scientific explanations: Men are wired to salivate at any image of a woman, and the testosterone racing through their veins suppresses chemicals like oxytocin that build attachment in the emotional center of the brain. Women, meanwhile, are “victims” of chemical attachment-builders and are wired to find sexual appeal in intimacy.

The first lesson in any gender studies discipline, however, is the awkwardness of biological rationalizing in the social environment. Perhaps several thousand years ago men and women developed different instincts in the name of survival, but—newsflash–we no longer live in caves. Using science, either for justifying behavior or for confining men and women to narrowly defined gender roles based on “what’s natural” isn’t accomplishing much.

Pinsky did, however, offer a more hopeful vision of the future of college romance, suggesting that, “conversation and interaction are probably what’s best.” Pinsky ended by lauding the novel notion of communication. At least that is a solution most of us can agree upon.

Elisabeth Zerofsky is a summer 2007 intern at The American Prospect.