Female Inequality, Two Ways

This past week, a pair of meme-cousins raced around the internet: one a news item about a little girls' t-shirt available online (and then not) from JC Penney reading "I'm too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me"; the other a Sunday Styles piece from the New York Time's Lisa Belkin puzzling over the sexual behavior of college women, apparently liberated in the lecture hall but more demeaned than ever at the frat party. These dogs had their day last week, but in truth it could have been just about any week: there is always another shocking news story about the sexualization and self-sexualization of girls, and there is certainly never a shortage of highly clickable Sunday Styles.

The author of the Styles piece is mostly flummoxed by the college women's sexual behavior: how, she wonders, can these young women deliver pitch-perfect performances of feminist ideas on gender equality, and then turn around to deliver pitch-perfect performances of frat boy fantasies? For those of us who accept the claim that a basic set of sexual incentives, always responsive to environment, is hard-wired into human psychology, it's not such a puzzle. I'm not shocked that young women act out sexually in the absence of cultural proscriptions, as much as I share Belkin's dismay at that behavior. What's much harder for me to explain is the other side of the coin: how, if a culture tolerant of risky and demeaning sexual choices is as harmful to young women's self-confidence and self-motivation as my gut tells me it is, can we explain girls' dramatic success in the classroom?

For there's no doubt that they are succeeding. Girls excel academically at a rate much higher than boys beginning very early and continuing through college, where men are increasingly in the minority. Women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees. Women account for six of ten master's degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Women dominate in the labor sectors poised to grow most over the next decade. Childless women in the workplace, free to compete on a level playing field with hard-driven men, earn slightly more than their male counterparts. If it is not exactly the end of men -- thank goodness -- there's no doubt that, on the whole, young women are outpacing young men in the classroom.

That's a good thing, of course, but it tends to make a shambles of the two dominant narratives of female experience post-sexual revolution. The first is the progressive narrative of liberation: feminism freed women from sexist constraints in the classroom just as it freed them from oppressive sexual mores, and thus there is no contradiction between their academic success and their sexual behavior, as long as it is freely chosen. This story holds together nicely until an inevitable collision with the storyteller's generational intuition: at some point between showing one's ankle and whatever is on the cover of this month's Cosmo—and it's a different point for each generation—young women's sexual behavior will trespass the pale of tolerance, and the author, even this one, will be left grasping at weak straws of covert victimization or false consciousness.

The socially conservative narrative that I tend to favor fares no better, however. By this account, traditional sexual mores, now partially dismantled, once functioned-- never perfectly—to benefit mothers and their children by assuring fathers of their paternity and in turn requiring investment in their offspring. There was a terrible cost to the enforcement of this bargain, the stigma attached to unwed mothers and their innocent children, and that cost should never be blithely dismissed. But the manifold advantages to married women and their legitimate children represented the greater good for both individuals and their community.

On this account, sex is risky and costly for young women—much riskier and costlier than for young men—both in the enormous potential burden of a pregnancy, of course, but also in the opportunity costs, emotional, material and cognitive, of competing in an assymetrical sexual marketplace that places dangerous and demeaning demands on women. The insidious message that girls' primary value is in providing pleasure for others can sap the confidence and ambition of even the strongest girl. In a permissive culture that encourages these young women to compete sexually, then, one would expect to see a proportional penalty to women's academic achievement.