Almost all of the college women Armstrong and Hamilton interviewed assumed they would get married, and were looking forward to it. In England’s survey, about 90 percent of the college kids, male and female, have said they want to get married.
One of the great crime stories of the past 20 years, meanwhile, is the dramatic decline of rape and sexual assault. Between 1993 and 2008, the rate of those crimes against females dropped by 70 percent nationally. When women were financially dependent on men, leaving an abusive situation was much harder for them. But now women who in earlier eras might have stayed in such relationships can leave or, more often, kick men out of the house. Women, argues Mike Males, a criminologist at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, “have achieved a great deal more power. And that makes them a lot harder to victimize.”
We’ve landed in an era that has produced a new breed of female sexual creature, one who acknowledges the eternal vulnerability of women but, rather than cave in or trap herself in the bell jar, instead looks that vulnerability square in the face and then manipulates it in unexpected, and sometimes hilarious, ways. In the fall of 2010, Karen Owen, a recent graduate of Duke University, became momentarily famous when her friends leaked her pornographic PowerPoint presentation cataloging her sexual exploits with 13 Duke athletes, whom she identified by name, skill, and penis size (“While he had girth on his side, the subject was severely lacking in length”). In Owen’s hands, scenes of potential humiliation were transformed into punch lines. (“Mmm tell me about how much you like big, black cocks,” Subject 6, a baseball player, told her. “But, I’ve never even hooked up with a black man!” she told him. “Oh … well, just pretend like you have,” he responded. “Umm ok … I like big, black … cocks?”)
The 2012 successor to the iconic single-girl show of a decade ago, Sex and the City, is Girls, a new HBO series created by the indie actress/filmmaker Lena Dunham, who plays the main character, Hannah. When Hannah has sex, she is not wearing a Carrie Bradshaw–style $200 couture bra and rolling in silk sheets, but hiking her shirt up over belly flesh loose enough that her boyfriend, Adam, can grab it by the fistful. In one scene, they attempt anal sex: “That feels awful.” In another, Adam spins a ridiculously degrading fantasy about Hannah as an 11-year-old hooker with a “fucking Cabbage Patch lunch box.” Hannah plays along, reluctantly. But when they’re done, she doesn’t feel deep remorse or have to detox with her girlfriends or call the police. She makes a joke about the 11-year-old, which he doesn’t get, and then goes home to rock out with her roommate to Swedish pop star Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.”
In Hannah’s charmed but falling-apart life, her encounters with Adam count as “experience,” fodder for the memoir she half-jokingly tells her parents will make her “the voice of [her] generation.” She is our era’s Portnoy, entitled and narcissistic enough to obsess about precisely how she gets off. (Adam, meanwhile, plays the role of the Pumpkin, or the Pilgrim, or the Monkey, the love or lust objects from Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint—all merely props in Portnoy’s long and comical sexual journey.) The suspense in the series is not driven by the usual rom-com mystery—will she or won’t she get her man?—because she snags him pretty early in the series. Instead it’s driven by the uncertainty of Hannah’s career—will she or won’t she fulfill her potential and become a great writer? When, in the season finale, Adam asks to move in, she rejects him. We’re left to believe that one reason is because she’s afraid he might get in the way of her bigger plans to be a writer.