“When it comes to sex, women hear that they ought to spend their twenties being sexually experimental, but only to a point. There is a fine line between being experimental and being a slut. Their peers, television shows such as ‘Sex and the City,’ and movies seems to encourage sexual experimentation… But at the same time, books such as ‘Unbooked’ and ‘A Return to Modesty’ advise them to return to courtship practices from the early 1900s… These contradictory directives leave young women in a bind, and without much help in figuring out what they actually want.” —Leslie C. Bell, ‘Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom

The paradox of sexual freedom

The biggest problem, it seems, when it comes to the modern, twenty-something woman in the 21st century, is the problem of having it all: the amazing job, the perfect supportive spouse, the white picket fence. Most of us by now have read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic about why women still can’t have it all (and if you haven’t read it yet, it’s a fascinating read—I highly recommend it!), but what about when it comes to having it all solely as it relates to love and, dare I say it, lust?

Levo spoke with Leslie Bell, author of Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom, during yesterday’s Office Hours, who shared her enlightened view of what she calls the paradox of sexual freedom. Based on countless interviews with women from all walks of life, both as research for her book and through her private practice as a psychotherapist, Bell discovered that twenty-something women feel guilty about prioritizing relationships in their 20s. These women felt that their feminist ancestors had worked their petticoats off to pave such an illuminated path of professional freedom that they’d be throwing it all away by putting relationships on par with or ahead of their careers.

Bell pointed out that Sheryl Sandberg herself says that the most important decision a woman will ever make in her career is who she chooses as a partner—one who supports and isn’t threatened by her career, and who shares half the work at home. That’s what makes it possible to have a successful career life and a fulfilling love life.

So where does the paradox come into play? When young women hear mixed messages about their 20s being the time to play the field. But then, if they play the field “too much,” they’re promiscuous, or sexually aggressive, and won’t be able to find a partner to settle down with that way.

“Instead of feeling free, twenty-something women are weighed down by vying cultural notions about the kind of sex and relationships they should be having in their twenties,” writes Bell. Subsequently, she says, they’re left having desires all over the place—for sex, for love, for success—and feeling badly about it.

Bell says what we need to do is acknowledge the full range of desires. Most people want contradictory things: We want to be independent, but we also want to be taken care of. We want to experiment, but we also want to settle down. Desire is complex, says Bell, and involves a decent amount of ambivalence. It’s rare to want purely one thing; more often than not, we have mixed feelings. Ambivalence doesn’t mean not wanting—it’s just a manifestation of conflicting desires. But when you acknowledge the full range, says Bell, instead of feeling guilty or choosing not to recognize them, you’re more likely to find clarity and get what you want.

For example, you may decide you don’t want a steady partner at all, fearing it might compromise your ambitions, but you should consider why being alone feels safer than being with someone. It’s tempting to split our desires, to tell ourselves to only have one thing, so we end up channeling our desires into one thing to create less work for us.

Bell says it is possible to have it all, so long as you define what “all” means to you individually. It could require some reprioritization, and being satisfied with the way you prioritize the things that are most important to you. The tendency is to create less work for yourself, but if a little extra work gets you what you want, it seems like it’s definitely worth it in the end.

Enter for a chance to win Bell’s new book, Hard to Get, on Goodreads!

Get the rest of Bell’s wise words by watching her Office Hours below: