In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Hard to Get: 20-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom by Leslie C. Bell
  • Michele Curran Cornell
Hard to Get: 20-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom. By Leslie C. Bell. Berkley: University of California Press, 2013. 262 pp. Hardbound, $29.95.

In 2003, sociologist and psychotherapist Leslie C. Bell interviewed sixty women about sex and relationships. Of those sixty, Bell then pursued clinical interviews—a series of three one-and-a-half to two-hour interviews—with twenty women to explore their intimate lives in greater detail. At the time of the interviews, the women ranged in age from twenty-four to twenty-nine and all were born between 1974 and 1979. Diverse in their self-described race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, religion, and upbringing, each was from the San Francisco Bay Area and received a college education. According to Bell, she chose women in this demographic because they were most likely to be influenced by the new opportunities that came out of the women’s liberation movement and second-wave feminism.

One transformative opportunity for these women was attending college, which quickly developed into a buffer phase to divide women’s adolescence from their adult lives as wives and mothers. Bell argues, “the skills twenty-something women have developed in getting ahead educationally and professionally have not translated well into getting what they want and need in sex and relationships” (7). In fact, while the college experience and career-driven years that follow for young women in their twenties comprise a developmental period of self exploration, Bell’s primary point is that, unlike earlier generations, twenty-something women are able to experiment with sex and relationships independent of the bonds of marriage and reproduction. But rather than feeling “free from social restrictions and proscriptions on sexuality and relationships,” they feel “weighed down by the vying cultural notions about the kind of sex and relationships they should be having” (4–5).

Bell’s interviewees discuss what it is like to face sexual double standards and a ticking biological clock: in their early twenties, women are encouraged to be sexually adventurous but are warned against being too sexually promiscuous; in their late twenties, women are pressured to settle down and marry by the age of thirty to ensure their future happiness complete with a spouse and children. As a result of these and other conflicting social pressures, women often report [End Page 363] feeling suffocated and conflicted when attempting to balance successful careers, stable relationships, and satisfying sex, all while society imposes a sense of shame, guilt, and selfishness on women about their decisions, priorities, desire, and sexual pleasure. Many women, according to Bell, revert to a process known as splitting—“a tendency to think in either/or patterns and to insist that one cannot feel two seemingly contradictory desires at once”—as a coping mechanism to resolve internal conflicts and alleviate anxiety (15).

Bell organizes her book into three sections based on the behavioral and emotional patterns that she observed in her interviewees, and within each section she uses specific individuals to elucidate her findings. First, with the stories of Katie, Jayanthi, and Claudia, Bell looks at “the sexual woman,” or women who felt comfortable expressing and pursuing their sexual desires but feared that relationships would threaten their independent identities. She then moves on to Alicia and Phoebe, who both exemplify “the relational woman,” or women who felt conflicted yet understood the power of their sexual desire and, therefore, avoided it in exchange for safe, stable relationships. Finally, Bell uses Maria, Susan, Sophia, and Jeanette as examples of “the desiring woman,” or women who were able to pursue their desires for sex and relationships amid feelings of conflict without defensively splitting. Bell demonstrates how various pressures, past experiences, and personal fear led many of her interviewees to split their desires according to what they believed to be attainable. For example, sexual women sacrificed stable relationships for satisfying sex and successful careers, while relational women gave up on expressing their sexual desire to have secure relationships. Additionally, queer, lesbian, or bisexual women, although deliberately overrepresented in comparison to population demographics, are more likely than...