As I was browsing through headlines and websites the other day, gleaning research and material for a post idea simmering on a back burner, I encountered Hannah Rosin’s article Boys on the Side featured in Atlantic magazine.
The article’s thesis reads, The hookup culture that has largely replaced dating on college campuses has been viewed, in many quarters, as socially corrosive and ultimately toxic to women, who seemingly have little choice but to participate. Actually, it is an engine of female progress—one being harnessed and driven by women themselves.
I read the article, start to finish, as well as all of the comments. I thought a lot about it last night, and I came to a few new conclusions. These conclusions, however, are not related to whether or not I believe that hooking up is an empowering response to sexual liberation. These new conclusions are related to a new and still developing idea of what empowerment actually means.
I have decided, for now, that to me a true empowerment of female individuals entails a liberation 1) from social and political structures that perpetuate unequal treatment of women, and 2) from media representation that propagates dehumanizing portrayals, images or assessments of women.
What empowerment does not entail is 1) the individual responses of women in light of political and social equality and 2) the ability to control the attitudes and misconceptions of others about women. ( I reserve the right to revise this definition in the future, but for the time being I think it suffices.)
As I was reading through the commentary for the Rosin article, I observed an all too familiar trend. Rather than a balanced consideration of the actual discussion points highlighted in the article, the commentary rather quickly degenerated into personal attacks, name calling and a heated argument about abortion. I have noticed this trend all too frequently in any “feminist” discussion even remotely related to female sexuality.
As I considered the commentary and its relation to the article further, I decided that approaches to empowerment from this angle (making assumptions about the relative state of empowerment of the gender based on the net trends in individual responses) may not be helpful.
For me, empowerment is what happens beforehand that allows the individual woman the right and honor of personal choice. That she is able to decide for herself whether she wants to hook up or not is empowerment. That she no longer faces legal restrictions in making her choice, that she no longer faces social stigmatization in making her choice: these factors comprise the context for an empowered woman.
What she as an individual decides in response to this freedom should not be lumped together with the personal and individual decisions of others and constructed into a generalization about the relative state of female empowerment. This applies, furthermore, to the decisions female individuals make about staying home or going to work (i.e. the Rechner polemic), raising their own chickens or purchasing packaged meat from the supermarket, wearing high heels and make up or not wearing high heels and makeup. As a result of empowerment, these should be respected as individual decisions, free from the risk of being included in generalized assessments of the gender.
It seems to me that Rosin’s approach to empowerment is dehumanizing in that these polemics see women as women only and not as female individuals. While a discussion of the issues that women face is helpful when considering the legal and social constructs that are still restrictive, at some point, the true result of empowerment should be that the individual identity of each woman (within which gender plays only a part) supersedes that of simply and singularly the categorization of her gender.
At this point, women will be free from the traditional assumption that men are human individuals and women are women first, individuals second.
Empowerment, which allows women to make equal and unstigmatized individual choices, also allows for a variety of responses, whether those responses be the imitation of patriarchal patterns, a rebellion against them, or the creation of new patterns (in my opinion, this is the hardest to achieve.) Female individuals will choose a variety of responses, and, as individuals, they will be as inconsistent and as human as men have been and have been allowed to be.
For me, deciding that one response, only, is empowering while others are not creates polemic and unnecessarily divisive issues regarding decisions that are made on a personal and individual level. Focusing and quarrelling over these hot button issues detracts from the ultimate goal of assuring that, eventually, women are respected on an equal and individual level, the same as men.
I believe we have a ways to go in order to reach this state of fair and equal treatment. However, unless we allow women the right to individual choice in light of new found freedoms and equality without passing judgment or attempting to concoct generalizations, I believe it will be difficult to arrive at this ultimate destination.
Do you agree or disagree with this view of empowerment? Do we have the right to make generalizations based on individuals responses to freedom as representative of the gender? Or, should individual responses be respected as such?