In Defense of 'Women's Stories'

When I was an intern with five other young women at the Village Voice in 1992, then-staffer Ann Powers rounded us up and asked if we’d consider being part of a roundtable interview about sex—specifically, about the power plays and challenges involved in being a young and empowered sexual being in the brave new ’90s.

It was so cool that someone wanted to know, and we all jumped at the chance and shared our experiences—straight, gay, bold, shy—and we were photographed for the cover staring directly into the camera’s lens, a fierce “What of it?” look in our eyes, under the headline “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

It was a “women’s story,” before the genre was such a behemoth monster—and long before Salon writer Anna North would declare it as a genre she was sick of, as she did in an essay on Monday. In it, she articulated a particular disdain for so-called hookup stories, in which young women, much like the six of us did back then, talk about how they are navigating the waters of sex—minus love—on campus.

“They’re a lot like porn, except that instead of an orgasm you get a vague sense of free-floating anxiety,” North explains. “This is the emotion of the women’s story. It does not move. It does not satiate. It does not provoke tears or laughter, or even good clean fear. Maybe it titillates, but ultimately, it is intended to worry.”

As evidence, she presents and disses a lineup of stories from respectable publications—the New York Times, the Atlantic and Slate—as well as Donna Freitas’s new, well-regarded book, “The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.”

Her most recent example, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” is a seven-page New York Times feature that shows an intense fascination with young women who have indiscriminate sex, and who are okay with talking about it. And while I understand why she (and Katie Roiphe, who similarly panned the idea of hookup stories Wednesday) might take umbrage with the grating animals-in-a-zoo tone, the story and others like it are still giving voice to young women as sexual beings after a too-long drought on the topic. What’s so wrong with that?

North says such stories serve no one, and that they are selective in that they cover only certain women (thin, white, middle-class), which, in effect, drowns out the worthy stories of lots of other people.

I do hear what she’s saying. I recognize that feeling of vague anxiety. And I would even argue that, to bolster her argument, she could’ve tossed in a few pop-culture elements like “Spring Breakers” and “The Bling Ring,” and the much older but perhaps most chilling “Thirteen,” all of which left me with the same disturbed, hopeless aftertaste that she describes.

Still, I must respectfully disagree, and want to defend “women’s stories,” warts and all.

When I read in the New York Times story that a young University of Pennsylvania student, “A,” is too busy to focus on finding a meaningful relationship, and that she favors lots of drunk hookups instead, that interests me. When she says she’s in charge of her sexuality, and a “feminist,” it pleases me. And when she and others talk about how much drunkenness is involved, it makes me sad—because I can relate, because I think that having real relationships in college (no matter how temporary) is as important as learning in the classroom.

But the point is that this and other stories like it make me feel and make me think, even if the emotions are uncomfortable and frustrating because I don’t know how to change the world.

So I want to read “women’s stories.” I want to celebrate them and encourage them, and stress that, just because they may leave vague anxiety in their wake doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be told.

Maybe I want to know about things like hookup culture and a troubling lack of intimacy among young women because I have a young daughter. Though she’s just out of toddlerhood, I want to make sure to be as clued-in as I can to her generation, at every age, so I can try and better understand her. If courtship is dead, if more and more college girls find that they “can’t have a meaningful relationship,” I want to know about it. Just like I want to know about how Disney princesses may be toxic, and about Facebook bullying, and about how eating disorders can start as young as age 10 and about how girls still get blamed for rape. I want the anxiety and dread that those stories bring, because I don’t want to ignore any social trend that’s real, no matter how fatigued of it I am.

Or maybe I’m okay with hookup stories simply because I’m a woman living in the world, and because I want to know what other women in the world are doing—all women, from thin white middle-class girls to rich and poor women of all colors, pregnant teens, depressed girls, queer teen activists, transgender moms, incarcerated women, wealthy high achievers.

And I believe that one type of story doesn’t have to cancel out the other, because really: Isn’t there room for them all?