BLOG » Hanna Rosin talks sex: (article via The Telegraph)
Hanna Rosin talks candidly to Dr Brooke Magnanti about why having relationships pose more of a threat to women than men, and sex, her favourite bit of her new book: The End of Men.
Hanna Rosin talks about women avoiding relationships when they are younger so they can stay in control of their careers, in her book ‘The End of Men and The Rise of Women’.
By Dr Brooke Magnanti, formerly known as the Belle de Jour
I first meet Hanna Rosin just before she takes the stage at Chicago Ideas Week. It’s an intimate theatre, the audience polite and attentive as this small, neatly dressed woman takes the stage. She stands right at the front and delivers a devastating account of what has happened to traditional masculinity in recent decades, and especially, since the recessions of the last few years.
It’s an emotive topic. “I don’t think the changes I describe are ‘good’ or ‘bad’,” Rosin explains, pre-empting the critics. “They are new and confusing though.” Yet the audience is accepting of the message, even friendly. When she gets to the video of her young daughter holding forth on ‘Why Girls Rock’, they are leaning forward in their seats, nodding and laughing. By the time she tells us about the sorority girl who declared “men are the new ball and chain,” the audience is eating out of her hand. As much as her new book The End of Men has attracted criticism, there is something in this we all recognise instinctively: manhood is not what it used to be. And no one knows entirely where it’s going.
“When I wrote the book I was initially thinking only about the economic situation,” she says in the talk. The phenomenon of men losing proportionally more jobs in the early days of the recession made for an explosive, and absorbing, feature article in Atlantic magazine two years ago. The book grew out of that article, but soon became so much more.
It’s an interesting bookend to Susan Faludi’s Stiffed, which in 2000, examined how men at the mercy of cultural forces beyond their control were faring in an age of layoffs, neoconservative politics, and disenchantment with traditionally male values. Plus ça change – the crisis Faludi described then, based on the evidence in Rosin’s book, has only got worse.
I manage to get a few minutes with Rosin backstage after the event. We sit on the floor like teenagers as she gets ready to leave for a flight out of Chicago. We joke about having to pretend to like doing publicity. “The book has become this thing, it’s taking over. This isn’t the only thing I think or do,” she says (Rosin is also senior editor at Atlantic magazine, and founded the DoubleX section of Slate.com).
I’m particularly interested in the sex parts, I tell Rosin. She looks relieved. “None of the parts I like most in the book have really been covered in reviews,” she says. “Except for Katie Roiphe [in the Financial Times]. I get criticism both ways. Men who are reactionary, and it’s like, how dare you. And women who say, this doesn’t represent my experience. It doesn’t feel like a triumphant moment for women right now,” she explains.
Which in a way is why the book is so beguiling. We have become accustomed, starting approximately with Homer Simpson, to a vision of men as infantilised oafs who, if married at all, are no match for their beautiful, multitasking women. “The general image of a man in an American sitcom is like a complete moron,” Rosin says. “You’d think the industry was run by a feminist cabal.”
Maybe it’s this Homer-type now so prolific in media that’s putting young women off relationships? The End of Men documents the unexpected phenomenon of women, not men, who insist on no-strings connections, keeping things casual, and ditching a sex partner at the first sign he’s getting clingy. In particular women in their early 20s “before children and complications kick in. The male fantasy of free sex from the 60s and 70s is almost the reverse now,” she says. “This is not your mother’s ‘Free Love’.”
Yet the image of women we see over and over in films and television is not quite a ferocious corporate go-getter by day and sexual libertine by night, a la Samantha in Sex and the City. Rosin sees society as “working out our issues with men and women in entertainment, right now.” New archetypes are emerging, ones that we could not even have imagined, much less scripted, ten years ago: “Carrie Bradshaw and her friends, that was all bawdy at the time, but now it’s like nothing.”
Rather, it’s the woman who thinks she wants a man, but maybe has a novel she wants to write first, like Lena Dunham in Girls. Or the woman who takes gross-out comedy and ball-busting to a whole new level, perhaps as a shield against getting into unsatisfying relationships. Women as conflicted soul-searchers but always, by default, in control.
I suggest to Rosin that these are exactly the types of people we get in reality TV: women like Jordan, whose glossy image and iron grip on her career will always be more important than the string of men she leaves behind. And yet Katie Price’s books are still stuffed with the language of the old way of relationships, where she says she really wants a man who knows how to treat her the right way, who can take charge and be responsible.
Rosin agrees. Her breakthrough moment, when it came to seeing how young women approach relationships now, was research by university professors Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton examining patterns of social interactions and sexual assault on girls in dormitories on a US university campus. “These professors camped out for years, researching sexual assault. But some of what they found was unexpected,” Rosin says. “The women still talked about the old concerns, about things going badly with men and being treated badly. But they were actually the ones found to be avoiding relationships, and they were super anxious about it all.”
I ask Rosin is this because women risk more by being tied down early in their careers? Certainly I would never have even considered getting married in my 20s, when that might have meant compromising the very early stages of a career in science. Taking things lightly was the more palatable alternative to not having relationships at all.
“That was something I didn’t examine as much in the book,” she says. “But it seems to be true that having relationships is more of a threat to women than to men. Women have more to lose when it goes wrong.” The stats seem to be on her side here – for instance, figures in the US and UK showing teens are having first sex later than they were in the 1990s. “It’s a culture of control now,” Rosin says.
Do men still have control in sexual relationships?
While there are some who dispute this view, claiming men still have the upper hand in sexual relationships, it rings absolutely true to me. I actively eschewed anything more than sex buddy status for years, and watched female friends of mine sabotage relationship after relationship because the men didn’t live up to their expectations. (Disclosure: I met my husband after advertising in the ‘casual relationships’ section and he just wouldn’t go away. Call it the one-night stand that went on forever.)
With more women than ever taking up university places and professional training – women outnumber men in medical school now – there are still a lot of nuances of work/life balance to be figured out. Add in advances in fertility technology and near-constant reminders that the glass ceiling still exists, and you have girls erring on the safe side career-wise. Of the majority-female academic departments in which I worked over the years only one of my female colleagues got married and had a baby before the age of 30. She took minimal leave and worked throughout, depending heavily on her husband and his family to pick up the childcare slack. As admirable as her workload was, it was obvious that spending more time at home would have ended her academic future before it even started.
Is this really the end of men?
So where does that leave guys? Because who wants a man who is basically a domestic drudge – “the masculine mystique,” Rosin jokes, making reference to Betty Friedan’s seminal feminist text. We were sold the idea of the ‘new man’ back before the millennium, but that always seemed to exist more in the minds of lifestyle editors than reality. And all the talk about role changes seems to be taking place almost without considering what men are doing or what they want.
Because it’s 2012 and this is pretty much a requirement wherever women, sex, and books are involved, I ask Rosin what she thinks about 50 Shades of Grey. Is the sexy mega-hit telling us something vital about men and women now? “I have three ideas, and they’re pretty contradictory,” she says. “The first is that’s it’s reactionary in the same way the war on women is reactionary – the protector type lives strong in our collective imagination,” Rosin says.
“The second thought, or is it the opposite? Is it a kind of woman-worship so supreme [Christian Grey] must give up his entire sensual experience to her?” Arguably, this is not necessarily the opposite of the first point – putting someone on a pedestal is, in some hands, simply another form of controlling them.
“The third idea is maybe boring, but I’ve talked to a lot of sex scientists and the domination fantasy is always with us, no matter what,” Rosin says. “You can go back to the first documented research into men’s and women’s fantasies and there it is, regardless of how the sexes relate to each other.” And this is the answer I like best – that at least on some level, regardless of where the balance of power between the sexes lies at any point, the personal is not always political.
Rosin is careful to underline the fact that her conception of the sexes now – ‘cardboard men’, who have not adapted to broad social changes, and ‘plastic women’, who have – is subject to change. And indeed, men have been the gender more flexible and capable of adapting in the past. So why has that changed?
Women have the underdog adaptability that migrants do
She references “the underdog adaptability” that women have had to develop in recent decades, and compares it to migrants who are often able to accommodate economic shifts in their adopted countries more easily than natives can.
There’s the unspoken future in this – as society reshapes itself along feminine lines, when will the now-underdog men who are now in their twenties bounce back? And what form will that take? When the pendulum swings, it might bring some unwelcome retro attitudes along with it both in the bedroom and the boardroom.
We’ve ended up with a society where, as I remark to my mother later that evening, men still ‘only want one thing’, except it’s not the thing our parents told us it was. They only want unconditional acceptance. The same thing women want, in fact. And perhaps it’s our misunderstanding of that basic human truth, our endless arguments over child leave and access rights, hook-up culture and glass ceilings, that keeps us from seeing why Rosin’s The End of Men really doesn’t have to be that at all.