Women in Their 20s Shouldn't Feel Bad About Wanting a Boyfriend

But a lot of them experience ambivalence about being in a relationship. A therapist asks why.

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So much that has been written about hookup culture and 20-something women would suggest that successful young women don't care anymore about love and relationships. That they're not waiting for romance, but assessing their next sexual conquest. As a sociologist who's interviewed several 20-something women on their sexual development, I've found straight young women aren't necessarily embracing hooking up because they're masters of their own destiny, as suggested by Hanna Rosin here a The Atlantic but because they face a new taboo and it's not about sex or money or power. Instead, it's a taboo about that traditional province of women: relationships. Ambitious young women in their 20s feel they shouldn't want relationships with men at this phase in their lives.

Hannah, the protagonist of HBO's Girls, worried during the show's first season that being in an actual relationship with a man, as opposed to friends with benefits, would compromise her art. When her casual sex partner expressed his interest in committing, she jumped ship. She's living her life in accordance with the new taboo, investing in experience but not in relationships.

When I talk to real women, as I did in researching my book on sexual freedom and 20-something women, I hear young women's mixed feelings about relationships. Some young women deeply desire meaningful relationships with men, even as they feel guilty about those desires. Many express the same sentiment again and again: "Why do I, a young and highly educated woman in the 21st century, value relationships with men so highly?" To do so feels like a betrayal of themselves, of their education, and of their achievements.

Katie, a 25-year-old woman I spoke with as part of my research, confided that she worried her single-minded pursuit of a graduate degree might limit her ability to meet a man with whom she could build a life. This realization—that she might want to prioritize a relationship over a career—felt shocking to Katie, and she did not admit to it easily. She felt deeply ashamed by such thoughts, worried that they signaled weakness and dependence, qualities she did not admire. To put such a high premium on relationships was frightening to Katie. She worried that it meant she wasn't liberated and was still defined by traditional expectations of women.

I have heard Katie's dilemma from countless young women. Many feel ashamed about being too relationship-oriented in their 20s. Parents warn, "Do you really want to settle down so early? We just don't want to see you miss out on any opportunities." Friends intone, "How will you know what you like and want if you don't play the field? You're only young once. Now's the time to explore."

With women delaying marriage—the average age at first marriage for college-educated women is now 27—there is ample time for young women to focus on self- and career-development in their 20s. Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth Armstrong, sociologists at University of California, Merced and the University of Michigan studied relationship patterns among upper-middle-class female college students, and they discovered that these women believed relational commitments were supposed to take a backseat to self-development. And that young women often found relationships to be "greedy," demanding excessive amounts of time and energy that detracted from the main tasks of college—educational achievements and meeting people. Hamilton and Armstrong found that young women often sought protection from relationships that could "derail their ambition."

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Leslie C. Bell is a Berkeley, California-based sociologist and psychotherapist who specializes in women’s development and sexuality. She is author of Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom.

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