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In 2004, Elizabeth Armstrong, then a sociologist at Indiana University, and Laura Hamilton, a young graduate student, set out to do a study on sexual abuse in college students’ relationships. They applied for permission to interview women on a single floor of what was known as a “party dorm” at a state university in the Midwest. About two-thirds of the students came from what they called “more privileged” backgrounds, meaning they had financial support from their parents, who were probably college-educated themselves. A third came from less privileged families; they supported themselves and were probably the first in their family to go to college. The researchers found their first day of interviewing so enlightening that they decided to ask the administration if they could stay on campus for four years and track the 53 women’s romantic lives.

Women in the dorm complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic,” Armstrong writes, because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career. “If I want to maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with,” one woman told Armstrong, “I have to work. I just don’t see myself being someone who marries young and lives off of some boy’s money.” Or from another woman: “I want to get secure in a city and in a job … I’m not in any hurry at all. As long as I’m married by 30, I’m good.”

The women still had to deal with the old-fashioned burden of protecting their personal reputations, but in the long view, what they really wanted to protect was their future professional reputations. “Rather than struggling to get into relationships,” Armstrong reported, women “had to work to avoid them.” (One woman lied to an interested guy, portraying herself as “extremely conservative” to avoid dating him.) Many did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.

Armstrong and Hamilton had come looking for sexual victims. Instead, at this university, and even more so at other, more prestigious universities they studied, they found the opposite: women who were managing their romantic lives like savvy headhunters. “The ambitious women calculate that having a relationship would be like a four-credit class, and they don’t always have time for it, so instead they opt for a lighter hookup,” Armstrong told me.

The women described boyfriends as “too greedy” and relation­ships as “too involved.” One woman “with no shortage of admirers” explained, “I know this sounds really pathetic and you probably think I am lying, but there are so many other things going on right now that it’s really not something high up on my list … I know that’s such a lame-ass excuse, but it’s true.” The women wanted to study or hang out with friends or just be “100 percent selfish,” as one said. “I have the rest of my life to devote to a husband or kids or my job.” Some even purposely had what one might think of as fake boyfriends, whom they considered sub–marriage quality, and weren’t genuinely attached to. “He fits my needs now, because I don’t want to get married now,” one said. “I don’t want anyone else to influence what I do after I graduate.”

The most revealing parts of the study emerge from the interviews with the less privileged women. They came to college mostly with boyfriends back home and the expectation of living a life similar to their parents’, piloting toward an early marriage. They were still fairly conservative and found the hookup culture initially alienating (“Those rich bitches are way slutty” is how Armstrong summarizes their attitude). They felt trapped between the choice of marrying the kind of disastrous hometown guy who never gets off the couch, and will steal their credit card—or joining a sexual culture that made them uncomfortable. The ones who chose the first option were considered the dorm tragedies, women who had succumbed to some Victorian-style delusion. “She would always talk about how she couldn’t wait to get married and have babies,” one woman said about her working-class friend. “It was just like, Whoa. I’m 18 … Slow down. You know? Then she just crazy dropped out of school and wouldn’t contact any of us … The way I see it is that she’s from a really small town, and that’s what everyone in her town does … [they] get married and have babies.”

Most of the women considered success stories by their dormmates had a revelation and revised their plan, setting themselves on what was universally considered the path to success. “Now I’m like, I don’t even need to be getting married yet [or] have kids,” one of the less privileged women told the researchers in her senior year. “All of [my brother’s] friends, 17-to-20-year-old girls, have their … babies, and I’m like, Oh my God … Now I’ll be able to do something else for a couple years before I settle down … before I worry about kids.” The hookup culture opened her horizons. She could study and work and date, and live on temporary intimacy. She could find her way to professional success, and then get married.

–Hanna Rosin, “Boys on the Side” (bolding mine)

Breaking news: hooking up may in fact be an exhibition of young women’s agency and desire to manage sexual desire against other competing goals like career and friendships. Sorry sexual panickers.

But clearly class matters in distinguishing how women negotiating against these different norms. I LOLed at Susan Walsh‘s line that this was featured in The Atlantic, “the unrivaled go-to source for all stories describing the educated female’s life trajectory and meteoric rise to financial success and emotional independence.” I wouldn’t expect The Atlantic to focus more on how socio-economic status changes these dynamics, so I’ll hold out for Rosin’s book before making Walsh’s critique.

Also sexuality matters. What about the lesbian and bi ladies–does this apply? Or is this just a straight girl strategy? Nobody’s gonna know if we don’t do the research.

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…Across the world, it seems, wealthier people are much more likely to complain — or kvetch, if you will — about being busy than the poor. It’s not simply that the well-to-do work more, although that’s part of it, says Daniel Hamermesh, the University of Texas economist who co-authored the 2005 study with a former graduate student. It turns out that if you hold the hours people spend at their jobs and on household chores constant, individuals who bring home bigger paychecks still feel more stressed for time. Increase a husband’s income, and his wife begins to feel busier.

Hamermesh reached his conclusions by analyzing time-use surveys from the United States, Germany, Australia, and South Korea. The results were fairly consistent across international borders, although they varied a bit in South Korea, he says. In general, the richer a survey taker was, the more they kvetched about their lack of time. Women, meanwhile, kvetched more than men. And although Hamermish is hesitant to make cross cultural comparisons, he says that Americans appeared to be the “world champions” of kvetching.

All of this seems a bit counterintuitive. After all, one of the perks of being rich is that you can afford to pay people to take care of life’s necessities in order to free up more time for life’s pleasures. A nurse and a Google engineer might work the same hours. But the engineer can afford a babysitter and maid.

Nice in theory. But in practice, hiring help only makes a marginal difference, Hamermesh says. “You can’t pay somebody to sleep for you,” he explains. “You can’t pay somebody to read Proust for you. Or go to the opera, or go to the movies, or go to a ballgame.” And that’s where a bit of psychology comes into play.

We all live on two things: time and money. And people who have extra income don’t get much, if any, extra time to spend it. As a result, Hamermesh argues, each of their hours seems more valuable, and they feel the clock ticking away more acutely. Much the way it’s more stressful to order dinner from a menu with 100 items than 10, choosing between a night at the symphony, seats at the hot new play, or tickets to Woody Allen’s latest flick is in some senses more stressful than knowing you’ll have to save money by staying in for the evening. There’s a lot the rich could be doing and too few hours to do it all. 

That isn’t to say the rich are necessarily more stressed overall. While the poor are less likely to complain about a lack of time, they are much more likely to complain about a lack of money. “One of them is always going to be scarce for you. If you’re rich, it’s time that’s scarce. If you’re poor, it’s the money that’s scarce,” Hamermesh says.

So should we all feel guilty about our kvetching? Not necessarily — as long as you remember that, in the scheme of things, being busy is a nice problem to afford.

–Jordan Weissman, “Why Only Yuppies Feel Busy: An Economic Theory

I’ve never felt any special affinity for the bad-boy hedonism of the hair-metal era, but there’s at least one thing I can say for those guys: They had a certain commitment. You never wondered how they felt about partying, getting messed up, getting laid. They were clearly for it. They were dedicated to it with the same unquestioning, unrelenting vigor others point toward god or country…

Most everything these enthusiastic cartoons have had to say, then and since, about reckless alcoholism, drug abuse, and compulsive systematic banging of every last possible groupie comes in the form of giddy, giggly locker-room stories. They’re idealists, some of the last true believers in a weird idea that had floated around for decades: that rock music could be used to escape all the moral and hygienic values of the working and middle classes– self-restraint, work ethic, humility, sexual decency– and live happily among baser pleasures.

…You can trace something similar through hip-hop and R&B. I never felt any special affinity for the really glittery, wealth-and-consumption obsessed end of mainstream hip-hop in the later 90s, either, but it tended to have the same sense of commitment, to an idea that feels much easier to swallow: that rap and capitalism had been used to escape the constraints of poverty, and live happily among all the comforts of material excess and economic power. For nearly two decades now, the colorful party-hard decadence mid-American kids used to want from L.A. rockers has been the colorful party-hard decadence they want from, say, Southern rappers. (You can almost imagine a stripper pole, somewhere around the Continental Divide, being cut into batons and symbolically passed between genres.) And as of 2012, we’ve even spent a few years clocking the emergence of something that works a lot more like an Ellis novel, music wherein a lifestyle of glamor and excess provokes sullenness, emptiness, loneliness, anhedonia, and spiritual/moral crises in everyone who gets a taste of them. If there’s anything that’s going to keep the Weeknd‘s name floating through music discussions far into the future, it’s the way that act has served as perfect shorthand for the same qualities you can see bits of in the worlds of Drake, or Kanye West, or Kid Cudi— or Lana Del Rey, orTwin Shadow, or scattered far and wide across the pop landscape.

It’s usually men, and it’s usually a performance of a kind of masculinity– the “deep,” dangerous, damaged guy who, in the right moment, comes off a little more intriguing and romantic than his cheerful hearty counterparts. You know the dimensions and signatures of this world already, don’t you? Life is easy, but life is hard. There are drugs everywhere– synthetic, medical, prescription-grade– and songs tell stories by cataloging exactly how much of them the speaker’s had, from moment to moment, usually somewhere in the vicinity of too much, too many, plus too much liquor, to the point of hallucinatory overload and frayed, chaotic emotions, as if those are the moments when life becomes real and worth dramatizing. The drugs aren’t described as much fun, not as something that creates new and exciting sensations– they’re things that numb sensation, often taken in a glassy-eyed and faintly pleasureless routine. A wide streak of anhedonia surrounds everything. Nothing’s exactly pleasurable. Sex is like the drugs, glamorous, dangerous, annoyingly empty, and transactional in a way that, implausibly, is somehow emotionally worse for the speaker than the women being spoken of. (Often the women turn out to be mercenary about it themselves, which offends some hidden idealism the singer suddenly develops.) The past is nostalgic, the site of some kind of purity that makes the present seem only more turbulent. The speaker’s devilish, cynical, and rapacious; he’s frozen and suffering. He’s dissolute. He’s like Dorian Gray writing songs about the portrait of Dorian Gray.

–Nitsuh Abebe, “Uncomfortably Numb: Eighties-style druggy hedonism and the songwriting vision of Frank Ocean,” (bolding mine)

The rest of the column includes a lot of (wonderful) Frank Ocean love, but I was taken by the description of ‘this sort of pulp-thriller take on the sad glamour and anhedonic emptiness of the high life’ in pop music lately. Why have these themes (re-) emerged and why does it have resonance with us?

I know very few people who are rich enough to truly enjoy a ‘high’ life, but really, there seems to be something in this glassy-eyed music that reflects contemporary pining. Is it our frustration with the synthetic when what we are yearning for is the authentic?

If so, there is nothing that embodies that more than emotionally laden yet flat lyrics atop autotuning and dubstep.

(hat tip to the everlovely Seth Grass, who in forwarding me this article, has introduced me to my new intellectual crush & writing inspiration, Nitsuh Abebe.

Nitsuh, you had me at the quote under your ‘about me’ on your tumblr:

“it might be too ‘high level’ for me, like writing that belongs in a book or magazine — not on the internet.”

I want that in my obituary.)

The American Dream is really two dreams. There’s the Horatio Alger myth, in which a person with grit, ingenuity, and hard work succeeds and prospers. And there’s the firehouse dinner, the Fourth of July picnic, the common green, in which everyone gives a little so the group can get a lot. Markus’s work seems to suggest the emergence of a dream apartheid, wherein the upper class continues to chase a vision of personal success and everyone else lingers at a potluck complaining that the system is broken. (Research shows that the rich tend to blame individuals for their own failure and likewise credit themselves for their own success, whereas those in the lower classes find explanations for inequality in circumstances and events outside their control.) But the truth is much more nuanced. Every American, rich and poor, bounces back and forth between these two ideals of self, calibrating ambitions and adjusting behaviors accordingly.

–Lisa Miller, “The Money-Empathy Gap“, pg 6 (bolding mine)

In the cover story for New York Magazine, Miller brings light to a new group of psychology studies trying to understand the role socio-economic class has on personality, from interpersonal relations to physiological response. Turns out, despite our cultural denial about the significance of class in America, money matters. And you can see it all over our confused little minds.

[Also, super clever to use dogs to visualise class and power dynamics in the pics accompanying the article.]

So much interesting in this burgeoning field. Definitely an area to watch out for.

Happy 4th of July, folks.