I like to bring up my mom when talking to friends about sex. No, it isn’t a product of some subscription to one of Freud’s incestual talking points — my tendency to mention her is actually empirically grounded: she is a professor who has taught about the history of sex for over 20 years. And my personal bias aside, I’d confidently say she is an expert in the field.
Telling people what she does usually garners the same cautious, yet intrigued reactions. People question, “Is that a thing?”, to which I usually answer yes and make a half-hearted joke about take-your-kid-to-work day. Others wonder if it’s like “Sex Education” on Netflix, and the answer is a little, but the absence of British accents makes a bigger difference than one would suspect. By far though, the response I get most often is some variation of: “You must have had an interesting childhood!”
Without pause, I will always reply, “to say the least.”
Despite being Jewish, my mom loved to decorate our Christmas tree — but only with her beloved felt vaginaments (vagina ornaments). And this type of demonstration was no seasonal project; exposing her children to elements of the body and sex was my mom’s year-round, 24/7 hobby.
One of my fondest memories of her avocation in action comes from a car ride to my fourth-grade field trip. The destination was to a nearby retried mission to explore the church-like structure originally established to expand Christianity to the Native peoples of California. Naturally, my mom objected to the trip alone for socio-political reasons. But, in an effort to be supportive of my excitement to go, she decided to enlighten me on the puritanical origins of the sex position Missionary and its anti-Indigenous roots.
Not to mention the one time I asked her who Thomas Jefferson was. She felt the most important thing to know about him was not his presidency but that he was a rapist; specifically, that he serially abused enslaved woman Sally Hemings. She was adamant to explain how the prevailing narrative of them having a beautiful relationship is a historical inaccuracy. From there, she derived an impromptu lecture about the nature of consent and our culture trying to rename abuse as love. I was 10.
These were not isolated incidents. By nature of her work on sex, rape, power and race, she was constantly uncovering the disgraceful histories behind many current day, seemingly innocuous social functions. I was 15 when her latest book, “Colonial Complexions,” was published. The book is dedicated to me and my brother and is focused on characterizations of the body. It reads “For Casey, For Ripley, May you each continue to embrace the amazing bodies that house you.”
Because I had been taking my mom’s courses since I could speak, there was no way my unsophisticated, still rapidly developing brain could take on the weight of such hefty subjects. So, I resorted to adopting an emotionless perspective in order to manage the overwhelming feelings that held hands with this devastating reality of sex. I felt it was only feasible to anesthetize myself in order to process the intimidating facts I newly became aware of. I sustained this perspective throughout my very PG high school career. So, when I arrived at college with this intellectualization approach, I found the University of Michigan’s rampant hookup culture to be one of the strangest, most grotesque social phenomenons I had ever witnessed.
From what I could tell from my, admittedly subjective, cis, heterosexual advantage point, it seemed that most women in similar standings to mine were losing out in hookup culture, yet still choosing to participate. I watched as my friends compromised their boundaries, safety, health and sanity. They explained that their pursuits were mostly motivated by a need for validation and human touch, which is completely understandable. But rarely did it seem like the extent of those benefits could ever master the sacrifices required for them to occur.
The women I knew became jaded beings just weeks after agreeing to participate in this culture. And those were the lucky ones — not everyone made it out whole. I would seethe with anger thinking about the things that have been done to the women I love. I still cry for them. I had painfully related to their sentiments of wanting to be cared for and was saddened by the means they felt necessary to achieve that. And the worst part of it all? No amount of cautionary tales could satisfy my own morbid curiosity.
I am my mother’s daughter. Her love for intellectual inquiry is hereditary, and we are at a top-tier research institution, after all. I couldn’t help but do my own experiment to see if I could stay above water in hookup culture, regardless of knowing the success rate of my peers. So, I embarked on a self-directed case study to investigate and critically assess loosely promised benefits within hookup culture.
The most classic experiment to run is of course a college situationship. Put in less than academic terms, this title exists to represent the grey area of a relationship where both participants operate under the assumption that sex will be the primary focus of the arrangement with no promise of exclusivity. In theory, this is not problematic — casual sex is not inherently destructive or wrong. But as I observed through others’ participation, respect can vary with the lending of bodies and it can be difficult to reject the feelings that arrive with physical intimacy. Methods for my field study go as follows:
My standards for the selection of a male participant: way too low. The set up: a man invested for sex and a woman, me, invested for emotional fulfillment. The variable that seemed to stay constant: abysmal communication.
The first thing I gained in my preliminary research rang true: these dynamics are not sustainable because sex cannot be the currency of a relationship. Emotional and physical intimacy run on completely different metrics and bodies cannot be traded and borrowed without any emotional toll.
One time, following my co-participant’s and I’s usual exchange, I wanted to see how far I could push this anthropological research. We sat in his dorm room and I asked him if he respected me. He replied with honesty: “Probably not as much as you would like me to.” When I asked why, he responded: “It is hard to respect someone who doesn’t respect themselves.”
His twin-XL mattress became my very own pyre as he finished his sentence. He hugged me as I started to dissipate, my head hung over his shoulder, facing away — he did not have to bear witness to the casualties of his words. It was a poetic injustice that he never saw the hollowness my face assumed, a disposition wiped and vacant of all intellectual capacity.
He deduced that my mere participation in the situationship phenomenon was permission to mistreat me. My poor coping skills and desperate need for validation were a green light for him to borrow my body. In that moment, because of my emotional vulnerability and a little internalized misogyny, I had taken his conclusions as academic fact — man had cracked the code once again. My maltreatment was my own fault.
Empirically speaking though, I suspect that experts in the field, specifically and especially my own mom, would disagree with his theory. Walking home from his place, just like a little girl, I needed my mom’s wisdom. I returned to the dedication she wrote in hopes it would wake me from my comatose state.
May you continue to embrace the amazing bodies that house you.
I speculated what message she would have for when I do not embrace the amazing body that houses me. When I deprive it. When I pinch and appraise it in front of a full-body mirror. When I forgo all intellectual thought, forcing it to accompany me in subservience. It has housed me as I have tormented it for the majority of my 18 years of life. What is someone to make of such a manhandled body?
I hypothesize that she would argue it is okay to imperfectly reside in a home. She would say my body still holds value and should be regarded with inalienable respect. She would tell me I deserve to be handled with care. And she would adamantly note that neglecting your own body is never permission for others to abuse it in tandem.
But why would I speculate? Why not just ask? Mother knows best, and experts know even better.
Yet I chose not to tell her what happened that day. I did not tell my mom about any of this, actually. Honestly, I would have rather relayed every grueling detail to a Sweetwaters barista before even mentioning to my mom the surface of my escapades.
And my apprehension about telling her was not from fear of punishment. As I’m sure you can infer, she is very sex-positive. Besides, I’m a legal adult, and she never really bought into discipline anyway. Instead, I refused to share what happened because I knew, academically speaking, what was wrong. I could confidently synthesize with very little margin of error what my mother’s professional opinion would be. I know how she would correct him and console me. I could hear her scream all the way from California how ludicrous his logic was if you consider bodily autonomy and the logical fallacies of misogyny.
But these were not intellectual endeavors, so they could not be governed by intellectual answers. I could have known every philosophical, sociological, historically informed argument academia had to offer, and I still would have returned to his dorm again that night like I did, even in the wake of his dehumanizing comments. I arrived to him as a lost puppy who realized a locked kennel is warmer than the streets. I missed my owner and domesticated animals do not bother themselves with the trivialities of critical thought.
After returning from my second visit, I decided to tell my friends what was happening. That way, at least the case study would be peer-reviewed. As we debriefed the night’s detriment, it became evident that my experience was relatable to too many of them. We attempted to reach for an empirical cure — all to assuage our fear that this might be a universal experience for women. We tried to find big words to assign to our feelings and organize our thoughts to make sense of the mess. We could have written dissertations on these topics.
And we do.
We write mental essays upon essays on why participating in hookup culture hurts us, and how terrible it feels to participate in this type of sexual culture, and how even more difficult it is to completely abstain. We take gender studies classes and critically analyze the patriarchy and current-day misogyny. We craft the most sophisticated of arguments for thesis statements and online discourse. We trade ghost stories. We watch each other try to exist in the world despite the men who have used our bodies as demolition sites.
And even though we do all of those things, we will still choose to settle on a lonely Saturday night. We could come up with no train of thought brave enough to combat our desire for validation and connection. We know the intimacy we receive will not be the variety of which we desperately seek. No amount of hours pondering could have produced an answer applicable to our circumstances. Just like the rhetoric I internalized from childhood, it is simply not helpful in matters of emotion. That is a tough reality to accept, so it is a good thing all respectable studies include a continuing research section.
Once again, I look to the experts. Audre Lorde said it best: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Clearly, trying to intellectualize participation in this culture will not save us. Women are demonized by men for being emotional and forming connections to the people we have sex with. So many of us resort to removing our feelings and trying to think our way out of a broken system. Yet it is simply ineffective to appeal to the sexist idea that strength only looks like observation robbed of emotion. Feelings should be taken into account and not just for feminist principle. Shutting off executive function and regressing into assuming the role of someone’s pet is not the answer either. Emotion and empirical thought must find an equilibrium.
And of course, I will always go back to my mom. Throughout all my speculation and secrecy of our now shared hobby, I missed possibly the clearest lesson my mother ever taught me: With every historical recounting and progressive commentary, she was showing me love in the way she knew best. She is an academic at heart, but I have never been just one of her students. She has handled me with care and provided protection through her lessons. So as I continue to collect my data, I no longer will discount her as a solely empirical educator — because who better to learn from than a woman with a Ph.D. and an unconditional, fearless love for her daughter?
Statement Contributor and CTI Liasion Ripley Block Newman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.