TIME Internet

Behold the Power of #Hashtag Feminism

Janay Rice Ray Rice NFL
Janay Rice listens as her husband, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, speaks during a news conference at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills, Md on May 23, 2014. Patrick Semansky—AP

Women are using social media to have a voice in a way that organizations like the NFL do not afford them.

At the time, the ad campaign — modeled on efforts to curb drunk driving — was considered shocking. It was 1994, the year that OJ Simpson would be arrested for murder, his history of domestic abuse exposed. Yet even so, domestic violence was not a crime that anybody seemed willing to talk about back then. It was, as then Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala put it, “our dirty little secret” — something that happened, and stayed, behind closed doors.

But Esta Soler, the president of a group called Futures Without Violence, was determined to get people talking. Under the banner, “There’s No Excuse for Domestic Violence,” she distributed a series of advertisements to 22,000 media outlets — including ones published in TIME and People. In one, the blurred image of a woman is pictured cowering under a man. “If we remain silent,” Soler told the Washington Post at the time, “our silence will breed even more fear.”

Twenty years later, domestic abuse is again making headlines (and again with a star football player). But this time women are talking about it en masse.

When TMZ released a damning video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beating his girlfriend (now wife) unconscious on Monday, the response was swift: commenters called the NFL response an “epic breach of trust.” Rice was cut from the team. Cable news commenters began to question, in light of the revelation, why Rice’s wife would have stayed with him in the first place.

Beverly Gooden, a Cleveland HR manager, had had enough. Under the hashtag #WhyIStayed, she tweeted a staccato response:

“I stayed because my pastor told me that God hates divorce,” she wrote of her own abusive relationship.

I stayed because I was halfway across the country, isolated from my friends and family.”

“I stayed because I thought love was enough to conquer all.”

It was the antidote to the simplistic view of many of the “experts” who’d weighed in, and it went viral in an instant. “You can feel voiceless,” Gooden told PolicyMic, as the hashtag collected thousands of women’s (and men’s) stories. “I want people to know that they have a voice.”

She was talking about domestic violence, and yet it could have been a metaphor for the way that women like her are using social media daily to make their voices heard. From #StandWithWendy to #HobbyLobby to #YesAllWomen, they are bypassing the gatekeepers, simply by sheer mass — forcing attention on the issues they deem important. “This conversation would have been impossible even 10 years ago,” says Soler, reflecting on more than 30 years as an advocate. “Social media has created space for people of all kinds to express themselves, and to see their voices amplified.”

The women’s social media revolution began some time ago — but reached its tipping point this year. In May, #YesAllWomen practically broke the Internet — a response to the misogynist killings at UCSB that turned into a three day global movement. Since then, the stream of hashtag causes has been hard to keep up with: #SurvivorPrivilege, the response to a George Will column that asserted being a rape survivor on a college campus was now a “coveted status” (he was dumped by the St. Louis Dispatch as a result). There’s #EverydaySexism, about daily harassment, #YouOKSis, to challenge street harassment, #AskHerMore, which calls out the questions we wish reporters would ask women on the red carpet. The list goes on. It’s no huge surprise that, according to data from Twitter, conversation about “feminism” has increased by 300 percent on the platform over the past three years. Women’s issues are everywhere, relentlessly spread by the women they impact. For the mainstream media, tracking the feminist hashtag of the moment has become a virtual sport.

In the 1970s, feminists often said “the personal is political.” It meant that the more women could connect with issues in their own life, the more attention they’d pay to the politics around them. But if consciousness-raising groups were the personal for thousands of women then, then the intimate personal stories curated in hashtags like #WhyIStayed are the modern-day equivalent. “What I think is most unique now is that we’re able to attach our own stories to elevate the issues beyond just a video of a man punching a woman,” says Tara Conley, an ethnographer who studies online media and the creator of a blog called Hashtag Feminism. “Social media can play an important role in opening up spaces for women — particularly those who’ve been marginalized.”

Social organizing has always existed in the women’s space — from word of mouth to letter-writing to telephone chains and flyers, methods of organizing has adopted to the times. And yet in a pre-Internet era, unless a woman accidentally stumbled into a protest, or a consciousness-raising group, she likely wasn’t hearing much about it. Which is why #WhyIStayed, and movements like it, are even more significant. They manage to take issues frequently confined to small circles — feminist circles — and bring them to the masses. “What is interesting to me is how these issues are going mainstream,” says Matthew Slutsky, who runs partnerships at Change.org. “It’s not feminists, or even activists, talking about rape, or domestic violence, or abortion rights, anymore. It’s just people.”

Those people happen to be women — mostly. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Women’s power on the internet continues to rise: they now dominate every major social media platform but one (LinkedIn), they log in more often than their male counterparts, and they are more engaged when they do. When it comes to activism, they are ruling there, too: women are 2.5 times more likely to sign petitions than their male counterparts, and more likely to have successful organizing campaigns, according to data from Change.org. “Women don’t just dominate social media, they drive traffic,” says Elizabeth Plank, the executive social editor at PolicyMic. “That’s a massive game changer.”

It means that they don’t just have a voice, they are forcing institutions to listen.

Bennett is a contributing columnist at Time.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is also a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

TIME College

An Ode to the Random College Roommate

Room mates
Getty Images

A host of new apps are making roommate selection less random than ever. Here's what too much control means you might just miss out on

I met my best friends in the world on Craigslist. I also lived with a bulimic, a woman who taped “Bush/Cheney 2000″ posters all over our dorm room, and one who communicated only through passive aggressive Post-It notes on the house refrigerator.

There was the roommate whose bedroom didn’t have a door — only a curtain — and whose boyfriend I saw naked more times than my own. Then there were the two best friends who happily welcomed me in, sweet as pie, only for me to discover I’d signed a yearlong lease to become the buffer in their roommate feud. Roommate A had taken all of the kitchen supplies — pots, pans, silverware, dishes — and locked them, with a padlock, inside her bedroom. (Maybe that’s why I still don’t cook.)

For decades, the random college roommate has been a right of passage. Every year around this time, hoards of students show up to dorm rooms across the country, racing — with parents in tow — to claim the side of the room with the window. But in the age of social media, the randomness of that experience has been all but erased. As Rolling Stone reported last month, today’s college students are using apps to find harmonious bunk matches. RoomSync, a Facebook app reportedly used at more than 60 campuses, crunches data based on questionnaire responses to suggest a roster of choices. The unthinkable has finally happened: college students are suddenly able to avoid the awkwardness of getting thrown together with the last person they’d ever choose as a companion.

And yet, as Stephanie Wu, the author of a new collection of essays called The Roommates puts it, “There’s something to be said about being squeezed into very small quarters for a long period of time.” There are lessons learned — about love, rivalry and friendship. You learn to negotiate. You learn to move your own boundaries. And for every horror story, there is a tale of best friends and overcoming odds.

I asked my senior year college roommates — still some of my best friends — to help me come up with a list of things we all learned from the old way of doing things. Here are our top 10:

1. How to Stage An Intervention

Going through a bottle of mustard in a single day just isn’t OK, OK? Even if you really love the taste.

2. Clothes Exist for a Reason

No, really. Can you tell your boyfriend to put some on?

3. Sharing Closets Only Works When Both of You Have Equally Great Wardrobes

Borrowing each other’s clothes is best left to Sweet Valley High.

4. Teamwork Is Necessary

Specifically, when you must remove a screaming mouse trapped inside the coils of your oven with your bare hands.

5. The Bathroom and Its Mysteries

There will always be hair in the tub and yet it will belong to no one. The layers of soap scum will eventually come to resemble the faces of roommates past. Your most important heart-to-hearts will end up taking place across the six inches between the toilet and the shower.

6. Patience Is a Virtue

You know the roommate who always swears she’ll be ready in “just 15 minutes”? Get ready to uncork some Yellow Tail and wait.

7. Binge-Watching Should be Offered for Credit

There’s nothing like a pleather a pleather couch, a box of Wheat Thins and animated feminist discourse over Carrie’s relationship with Mr. Big.

8. It’s Possible to Know More About Your Roommates’ Intimate Parts Than What’s Going on in the World

Periods, sex partners, STD results: the dorm room as OB-GYN office.

9. Your Friends Will Always Be There to Listen (Because they Have to Be)

An unwritten rule of room-sharing is that I get to crawl into your bed after an epically disastrous night and have you help me relive the gory details.

10. It Can Always Be Worse

Even when your patience is strained beyond what you thought possible, just be thankful you’re not living with that roommate down the hall. Need a reminder? Just take a flip through Wu’s “The Roommates.” From mental disorders to harassment to cleaning up sewage, there’s always a roommate story worse than your own.

Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A formerNewsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

TIME Opinion

How to Reclaim the F-Word? Just Call Beyoncé

Beyonce performs onstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, Calif.
Beyonce performs onstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, Calif. Jason LaVeris—FilmMagic/Getty Images

Beyonce’s brand of empowerment isn’t perfect, but her VMA performance on Sunday accomplished what activists could not: She took feminism to the masses.

Militant. Radical. Man-hating. If you study word patterns in media over the past two decades, you’ll find that these are among the most common terms used to talk about the word “feminist.” Yes, I did this — with the help of a linguist and a tool called the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which is the world’s largest database of language.

I did a similar search on Twitter, with the help of Twitter’s data team, looking at language trends over the past 48 hours. There, the word patterns were more simple. Search “feminist,” and you’ll likely come up with just one word association: Beyoncé.

That’s a product of Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, of course, in which the 33-year-old closed out the show with an epic declaration of the F-Word, a giant “FEMINIST” sign blazing from behind her silhouette.

As far as feminist endorsements are concerned, this was the holy grail: A word with a complicated history reclaimed by the most powerful celebrity in the world. And then she projected it — along with its definition, by the Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — into the homes of 12 million unassuming Americans. Beyoncé would become the subject of two-thirds of all tweets about feminism in the 24 hours after her appearance, according to a data analysis by Twitter, making Sunday the sixth-highest day for volume of conversation about feminism since Twitter began tracking this year (the top three were days during #YesAllWomen).

“What Bey just did for feminism, on national television, look, for better or worse, that reach is WAY more than anything we’ve seen,” the writer Roxane Gay, author of the new book, Bad Feminist, declared (on Twitter, naturally).

“HELL YES!” messaged Jennifer Pozner, a writer and media critic.

“It would have been unthinkable during my era,” said Barbara Berg, a historian and the author of Sexism in America.

Feminism may be enjoying a particular celebrity moment, but let’s just remember that this wasn’t always the case. Feminism’s definition may be simple — it is the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, as Adichie put it — and yet its interpretation is anything but. “There was only about two seconds in the history of the world in which women really welcomed [feminism],” Gail Collins, The New York Times columnist and author of America’s Women once told me in 2010, for an article I was writing about young women and feminism. “There’s something about the word that just drives people nuts.”

Over the past 40 years in particular, as Berg explains it, the word has seen it all: exultation, neutrality, uncertainty, animosity. “Feminazi” has become a perennial (and favorite) insult of the religious right (and of Rush Limbaugh). In 1992, in a public letter decrying a proposal for an equal rights amendment (the horror!) television evangelist Pat Robertson hilariously proclaimed that feminism would cause women to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”

Even the leaders of the movement have debated whether the word should be abandoned (or rebranded). From feminist has evolved the words womanist, humanist, and a host of other options — including, at one point, the suggestion from Queen Bey herself for something a little bit more catchy, “like ‘bootylicious.'” (Thank God that didn’t stick.)

It wasn’t that the people behind these efforts (well, most of them anyway) didn’t believe in the tenets of feminism — to the contrary, they did. But there was just something about identifying with that word. For some, it was pure naiveté: We were raised post-Title IX, and there were moments here and there where we thought maybe we didn’t need it. (We could be whatever we wanted, right? That was the gift of the feminists who came before us.) But for others, it was a notion of what the word had come to represent: angry, extreme, unlikeable. As recently as last year, a poll by the Huffington Post/YouGov found that while 82 percent of Americans stated that they indeed believe women and men should be equals, only 20 percent of them were willing to identify as feminists.

Enter… Beyoncé. The new enlightened Beyoncé, that is. Universally loved, virtually unquestioned, and flawless, the 33-year-old entertainer seems to debunk every feminist stereotype you’ve ever heard. Beyoncé can’t be a man-hater – she’s got a man (right?). Her relationship – whatever you believe about the divorce rumors – has been elevated as a kind of model for egalitarian bliss: dual earners, adventurous sex life, supportive husband and an adorable child held up on stage by daddy while mommy worked. Beyoncé’s got the confidence of a superstar but the feminine touch of a mother. And, as a woman of color, she’s speaking to the masses – a powerful voice amid a movement that has a complicated history when it comes to inclusion.

No, you don’t have to like the way Beyoncé writhes around in that leotard – or the slickness with which her image is controlled – but whether you like it or not, she’s accomplished what feminists have long struggled to do: She’s reached the masses. She has, literally, brought feminism into the living rooms of 12.4 million Americans. “Sure, it’s just the VMAs,” says Pozner. “She’s not marching in Ferguson or staffing a battered woman’s shelter, but through her performance millions of mainstream music fans are being challenged to think about feminism as something powerful, important, and yes, attractive. And let’s head off at the pass any of the usual hand-wringing about her sexuality — Madonna never put the word FEMINIST in glowing lights during a national awards show performance. This is, as we say… a major moment.”

It’s what’s behind the word that matters, of course. Empty branding won’t change policy (and, yes, we need policy change). But there is power in language, too.

“Looking back on those early days of feminism, you can see that the word worked as a rallying cry,” says Deborah Tannen, aa linguist at Georgetown University and the author of You Just Don’t Understand, about men and women in conversation. “It gave women who embraced [it] a sense of identity and community — a feeling that they were part of something, and a connection to others who were a part of it too. Beyoncé’s taking back this word and identifying with it is huge.”

Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

TIME selfies

Our Bodies, Our Selfies: The Feminist Photo Revolution

The Taxonomy of a Feminist Selfie
Illustration by Anna Sudit for TIME

How young women are turning a symbol of narcissism into a new kind of empowerment

As far as selfies go, the photo of 17-year-old Grammy winner Lorde was a coup. “In bed in paris with my acne cream on,” the singer wrote on Instagram, captioning herself in a black T-shirt and messy bun, white splotches visible on her face.

Twenty-four hours and 95,000 Likes later, fans couldn’t stop gushing. “Lorde’s No-Makeup, Acne-Cream Selfie Only Further Proves Her Awesomeness,” the Huffington Post declared. “RESPECT” and “Love u,” commenters screamed. “Finally a celeb who doesn’t have seemingly flawless skin.”

The scene was utterly ordinary — the way most teen girls go to bed each night — which was precisely what made it so out of the ordinary. How often do you see a celebrity looking like a regular awkward teen? (Answer: almost never.)

Over the past year, the selfie has pushed its way into our collective consciousness like a pop song you can’t get out of your head. It was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. It has spawned think pieces about think pieces. It will earn you nine points in Scrabble.

Yet when it comes to selfies and girls, much of the conversation has been judgey: selfies are narcissistic, humble-braggy, slutty, too sexy, a “cry for help,” or yet another way for girls’ to judge each other (or seek validation for their looks).

But the Lorde acne-cream selfie is just a tiny example of the ways young women like her — and even, yes, some socially conscious celebs — are using the self-portrait to turn that narcissism notion on its head. In small pockets all over the Internet, women are celebrating their flaws. They’re making silly faces (ugly selfies!) and experimenting with identities. They’re owning their imperfections (whether it be full hair or wrinkles or — dare we say it — fat) and contradicting old stereotypes (for instance, that “#FeministsAreUgly,” as a new Twitter campaign has it). In a culture that places immeasurable value on a woman’s beauty, women are using selfies to show what women really look like — no makeup, acne cream and all.

I’ve spent a good portion of the last year looking at the ways that imagery can impact our perception of women, and how we can overturn sexist tropes through mass media. But the selfie is doing the same thing through mass culture. Here are nine ways the selfie is empowering women.

Selfies Push Back Against Traditional Beauty Norms
Self-portraits have been an outlet for feminist expression, and subversion, for a long time. But when it comes to modern-day beauty representations, what we see daily is often a familiar spectrum of vanilla: white, gaunt, emotionless and airbrushed beyond recognition. Selfies are pushing back against that beauty ideal, through thousands of images of “real” women that they’ve created and shared themselves. “Selfies open up deep issues about who controls the image of women,” says Peggy Phelan, an art and English professor at Stanford University and the author of a recent essay about feminist selfies. “Selfies make possible a vast array of gazes that simply were not seen before.”

Selfies Take Advantage of a Platform That Girls Rule
It should be no surprise that, according to a recent survey by Dove, 63% of women believe social media — not print, film or music — is having the most pivotal impact on today’s definition of beauty. That’s because it’s a world where girls rule. Teens and young women use social media often and in more ways than men on almost every site, from Facebook to Instagram to Tumblr.

Selfies Allow Women to Own Their Flaws
Whether it’s Nicki Minaj sans makeup; the model Cara Delevingne modeling the grotesque; or Tavi Gevinson, the teen creator of Rookie magazine, noting the giant pimple on the “Upper West Side of my face,” there is something powerful in seeing normally flawless celebrities with actual flaws. On Twitter and Tumblr, the #FeministSelfie hashtag reveals an epic stream of women in all shapes and sizes, engaged in all sorts of activities, while #365FeministSelfie project — started by an administrator at the University of Illinois at Chicago — encourages women to take a snapshot of themselves each day for a year, no matter how they look. “We spend so much time trying to hide our flaws because the culture has set it up that you have to be ashamed if you’re not perfect,” Cynthia Wade, a filmmaker and creator of the short film Selfie told me recently, for an article about ugly selfies in the New York Times. “I think girls are tired of it.”

Selfies Give Girls Control
For centuries, we’ve watched as changing standards of beauty have shaped us: it was men, not women, controlling the photos. But selfies put the power in girls’ hands. “It allows you to have complete control over one moment in time,” 15-year-old Harper Glantz, one of the subjects of the film Selfie, told me a few months back. “In school, me and other girls sort of feel smothered just by social pressures that are hard to even detect sometimes. I think what a selfie does is that it really allows you to express yourself in a way that you feel comfortable with.”

Selfies Showcase Faces Not Normally on Display
“A huge swath of women and girls don’t see themselves portrayed in mainstream media,” explains Jennifer Pozner, a media critic and the founder of Women in Media and News, which aims to amplify female voices. And yet, through the sheer number of selfies uploaded daily — selfies that showcase women in all forms — women are upending notions about whose faces are beautiful, or mainstream, enough to be seen. “They’re breaking through the media gatekeepers,” says Pozner. “And they’re saying, ‘I’m great the way I am.’”

Selfies Are a Form of Social Currency
James Franco’s recent ridiculousness aside, the actor made a good point when he wrote, in an op-ed in the New York Times, that “attention is power.” “In a visual culture,” he said, “the selfie quickly and easily shows, not tells, how you’re feeling, where you are, what you’re doing. In our age of social media, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, ‘Hello, this is me.’”

Selfies Challenge the Notion That You Need a Reason to Be Seen
Narcissus may have drowned because he was too enchanted with his own reflection, but selfies challenge the idea that girls can’t revel in their own reflection — or feel good about a photo of themselves. “Selfies are one way for a female to make space for herself in the world: to say ‘I’m here, this is what I actually look like, my story counts, too,'” says Pamela Grossman, the director of visual trends at Getty Images, and my co-curator on a feminist photo-curation project. “They allow girls to shine on their own terms.”

Selfies Aren’t Just About What You Look Like, They’re About What You’re Doing
Whether it’s solving a math equation or crossing a marathon finish line.

Selfies Force Us to See Ourselves
To celebrate what we look like — flaws and all.

Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In, where she curates the Lean In Collection with Getty Images. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

TIME Opinion

Stop Telling Women Their Most Valuable Asset Is Their Youth

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MmeEmil—Getty Images/Vetta

Why, in an era when we are succeeding in so many ways, do we buy into sexist tropes about aging?

Last week, I wrote a column about​ millennials and​ beta-marriages: ​young people, like me, who want to beta-test their relationships before they commit to “forever” — by way of temporary marriage contracts. It led to an interesting response,​ in particular,​ from a five-times married, ​71-year-old ​television host who posts semi-nude selfies on the internet.

Appearing on FOX to discuss the piece, Geraldo Rivera noted, to stunned female hosts, that what a woman brings to a marriage “more than anything else” is “her youth.”

Her youth?

Yes, “her youth,​” ​Geraldo continued. Because a woman’s youth, he explained, “is a fragile and diminishing resource.”

Geraldo’s logic went like this: If a woman were to invest two precious years into ​a beta-marriage, and then, God forbid, have her man reject her (his words, not mine), she’ll have wasted her most valuable asset. The thing that is, obviously, going to determine not just whether a woman will have a family, but whether she’ll have a husband, and live happily ever after, at all.

I spent all week trying to ignore that comment. Honestly, who gives a ​sh-t about Geraldo Rivera? And yet I couldn’t get it out of my head. Like the ticking of that clock, I kept hearing it, reading about it, stumbling on it everywhere I turned: Your youth. Your youth. Your youth.

Women have been hearing this argument since the dawn of time. And since the dawn of time, part of it has been true (youth means fertility). But Geraldo’s sin was not simply that what he said was impolitic. It’s that he put bluntly one of the most insidious and persistent smears: that women come with an expiration date.

​It’s a concept that is still pounded into us at every turn, from media to pop culture–and not just by septuagenarian TV personalities. It is there, almost tauntingly, in a recent article in Esquire, which seemed to bask in its own generosity by proclaiming that a woman could still be hot at 42–as if that were a reason to reconsider their value. It’s there in the endless media blitz by Susan Patton, the “Princeton Mom,” who’s managed to create a “mini empire,“as Salon recently put it, from “one crazy op-ed” about how women need to hurry up and find a man.

I’m 32 (though I’m always tempted to shave a year or two from that number). I’m surrounded by other unmarried women in their 30s ​who are ambitious, career-driven, attractive.Intellectually, we know that the longer we wait to ​settle down, the more likely our relationships will be successful. (We’ve read the studies.) And we know that when we do decide to tie the knot, we’re going to bring a whole lot ​of benefits to ​the relationships – things like ​advanced ​education and ​money-earning​ potential​ — ​that would have been inconceivable even a generation ago.

​We also know we’re going to do all of this while slathering our faces with anti-aging cream. Pricking our smile-lines with Botox. Lying about our ages.​ ​And cleaning up after everyone in the house (even ​breadwinning wives still do the majority of chores).​ And on some strange level, we’ve accepted it.

The thing is, reality no longer conforms to those old tropes. Women now get the majority of college degrees. We have careers. We are living longer than ever. We can freeze our eggs to buy us biological time.

And yet our conception of what makes a woman desirable and valuable in society hasn’t caught up. From every angle, we continue to hear that we need to “rush.” That we should make it easier and more comfortable for the men around us. That our youth — not necessarily even our fertility — is our most valuable asset.

And as if that wasn’t already our worst fear, we have people like Geraldo hammering that home.

On Tuesday, while this story went viral, my 33-year-old friend was having her eggs frozen, then tearfully coming over to my house, bloated and emotional, worried she hadn’t bought herself enough time.

On Wednesday, I had a half-hour conversation with another friend, about how many years she was allowed to shave off of an online dating profile​ — because, she feared, nobody would want to date a woman over 30.

On Thursday, I cried to my therapist, about the clock that was ticking in my head. “​But is it really even your clock?” she asked. “Or is it just the pressure you feel from everybody else?”

The youthfulness we’re chasing is not about biology, and it’s not solvable by science. It’s a cultural message. And we need to stop listening to it.

So thanks for the reminder, Geraldo — but I’d rather not listen. Here’s hoping that the fifth time’s the charm.

If not, there’s always the beta-marriage.

 

TIME Opinion

The Beta Marriage: How Millennials Approach ‘I Do’

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Archive Holdings Inc.—Getty Images

We are a generation reared on technology and choice. Why wouldn’t we want to test a lifelong relationship first? How millennials are redefining "forever"

You could say I beta-tested my relationship.​

It began with a platform migration ​(a cross-country move) and a bandwidth challenge (cohabitation in a 450-sq.-ft. apartment). There was a false start (botched marriage proposal). Then, an emergency deglitching (couples therapy). We tried to take the product public before we were ready (I wrote about our relationship in Newsweek). And then, finally, we abandoned launch. There were simply too many bugs.

It’s a joke, kind of — except that when it comes to millennials and marriage, the beta test may be par for the course. And really, why wouldn’t it be? For a generation reared on technology, overwhelmed by choice, feedback and constant FOMO, isn’t testing a marriage, like we test a username, simply … well, logical?

The findings of a new survey certainly reveal so. In conjunction with a new television drama, Satisfaction, which premiered on USA Network last week, trend researchers asked 1,000 people about their attitudes toward marriage. They found all sorts of things: among them, that people cheat on the Internet (uh huh), that young people don’t think their relationships are like their parents’ (of course), and that everyone seems to have taken to the term uncoupling (yuck).

marriage

They also uncovered a surprising gem. Buried in the data was the revelation that almost half of millennials (43%, and higher among the youngest subset) said they would support a marriage model that involved a two-year trial — at which point the union could be either formalized or dissolved, no divorce or paperwork required. Thirty-three percent said they’d be open to trying what researchers dubbed the “real estate” approach — marriage licenses granted on a five-, seven-, 10- or 30-year ARM, after which the terms must be renegotiated. And 21% said they’d give the “presidential” method a try, whereby marriage vows last for four years but after eight you can elect to choose a new partner.

In total, nearly half of all of those surveyed, ages 18 to 49 — and 53% of millennials — thought marriage vows should be renewed, and nearly 40% said they believed the “till death do us part” vow should be abolished. In other words: Beta marriages! Unions you can test and deglitch, work out kinks or simply abandon course without consequence. “This is a generation that is used to this idea that everything is in beta, that life is a work in progress, so the idea of a beta marriage makes sense,” the study’s author, Melissa Lavigne-Delville, tells me. “It’s not that they’re entirely noncommittal, it’s just that they’re nimble and open to change.”

It’s not a new concept, entirely. In the 1970s, the anthropologist Margaret Mead predicted the growing popularity of “serial monogamy,” involving a string of monogamous marriages. Helen Fisher, the biological anthropologist, has advocated for much of the same: she believes humans aren’t meant to be together forever, but in short-term, monogamous relationships of three or four years. Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage: A History, has advised a marriage contract “reup” every five years — or before every major transition in life — “with a new set of vows that reflect what the couple has learned.”

More recently, Mexico City lawmakers proposed (unsuccessfully) a “renewable” marriage concept, whereby couples could simply renew or dissolve their unions after a period of two years. It’s not so unlike the setup described by a young writer in a Modern Love column in the New York Times last month, about how she overcomes “marriage anxiety” by renewing her vows with her husband every year like clockwork. “I think people are indeed trying to avoid failure,” says Andrew Cherlin, the author of The Marriage-Go-Round.

And, why wouldn’t they? The U.S. has the highest divorce rate in the Western world. The data show clearly that the longer we wait to get married the more successful our marriages will be. And it’s not like we can’t move in together in the meantime: the rate of unmarried cohabitation has risen 1,000% over the past four decades. Not all of our marriages will work, no — but when they do, they’ll work better than at any other time in history, say scholars. And when they don’t, why not simply avoid the hassle of a drawn-out divorce?

“Millennials aren’t scared of commitment — we’re just trying to do commitment more wisely,” says Cristen Conger, a 29-year-old unmarried but cohabitating podcast host in Atlanta. “We rigorously craft our social media and online dating profiles to maximize our chances of getting a first date, and ‘beta testing’ is just an extension of us trying to strategize for future romantic success.”

In an era where, according to the survey, 56% of women and men think a marriage can be successful even if it doesn’t last forever, that might just make sense. Scholars have observed for some time that attitudes toward divorce have become more favorable over the past decade. Millennials in particular are more likely to view divorce as a good solution to matrimonial strife, according to the sociologist Philip Cohen — and more likely to believe it should be easier to obtain.

And, of course, it’s easy to understand why. We’re cynical. We are a generation raised on a wedding industry that could fund a small nation, but marriages that end before the ink has dried. (As one 29-year-old survey respondent put it: “We don’t trust that institution.”) We are also less religious than any other generation, meaning we don’t enter (or stay) committed simply for God. We feel less bound to tradition as a whole (no bouquet tosses here).

And while we have among the highest standards when it comes to a partner — we want somebody who can be a best friend, a business partner, a soul mate — we are a generation that is overwhelmed by options, in everything from college and first jobs to who we should choose for a partner. “This is a generation who has not had to make as many long-term commitments as previous generations, so the idea of not having an out feels a little stringent,” says Lavigne-Delville. “Divorce has happened for a long time. Maybe we should rethink the rules.”

Indeed, at the end of the day, whatever you want to say about the hookup generation, or millennials’ inability to commit, the vast majority (69%, according to Pew) of millennials still want to get married. We simply need a little extra time to work out the kinks.

“Getting married is so much more weighted today, I get the impulse to want to test it,” says Hannah Seligson, the 31-year-old married author of A Little Bit Married, about 20-somethings and long-term unmarried relationships. At the same time, she adds, “I wonder if this is a false control study in a way. Yes, marriage terrifying, it’s probably the biggest leap of faith you’ll ever make. But you’ll never be able to peer into a crystal ball — or map it out on a spreadsheet.”

Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is also a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

TIME Culture

Why Masters of Sex Is the Most Feminist Show on Television

Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex
Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex Frank W Ockenfels—Showtime

How do you make a show about sex interesting in an era when we’re bombarded by it? Easy. Put three women behind the lens.

Michelle Ashford, Amy Lippman and Sarah Timberman are seated around a conference table ticking off a list of Hollywood sex scenes.

“Basic Instinct.”

“Out of Sight.”

“Remains of the Day.”

“Ohhh, Remains of the Day,” Lippman coos. “That’s a beautiful sex scene.”

It’s all research, of course. As the brains behind the Showtime series, Masters of Sex – which traces the lives of pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson – the women needed to understand: What makes a sex scene sexy?

(Read this week’s story on the women behind Masters of Sex)

So they each sat down one night, with a series of sex scenes collected on a DVD. One by one, they dissected each carnal moment. “We literally had 50 movies,” says Ashford, the show’s creator and showrunner. “We wanted to find out what actually makes something, honest to God, sexy.”

What they found, naturally, was that it had little to do with the physical act – and everything to do with narrative. And so as the trio – creator and executive producers, respectively – prepared to film the pilot of Masters of Sex, Ashford made a rule: sex on this show couldn’t just be about sex. “We decided that sex had to be completely connected to story,” she tells TIME, in a profile in this week’s magazine. “So it was either funny or humiliating or curious or revelatory or… something.”

Ashford, Lippman and Timberman spoke to TIME about Masters and Johnson, sex on television, and how you keep a show about sex interesting in an era where we’re bombarded by it.

So you guys watched 50 sex scenes. What was the sexiest?

Ashford: We all agreed that Don’t Look Now, the Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie movie, from 1973, was memorably sexy. Michael Sheen (who plays Masters) loved it. We loved it. And our director, John Madden, said, ‘Every love scene I’ve ever directed was influenced by that movie.’ So when we went and watched the film again, we tried to figure out what were we all responding to. We just assumed it must not be trying to be sexy. But that’s actually not true — the sex is very sexy. But what they did was they shot that sex scene and then they intercut it with all these shots of that couple after sex, getting ready to go out for the evening. And so the aftermath of being together is on their faces, what this intimacy has meant to them. And so all of a sudden you get a whole story, because you’re seeing the sex but you’re also seeing the effect of the sex.

Is it rare to get that level of story and sex these days?

Ashford: I think in a lot of shows it’s still as if, OK, we’re going to have a lot of exposition, so we’re going to have two people humping in the background to make it more interesting.

Part of what makes Masters of Sex great is its willingness to treat sex like science.

Ashford: We show a lot of sex, but the discussion of sex is incredibly frank. We use the words vagina and clitoris, like, endlessly, and you really don’t find that on other television shows.

Lippman: I mean, I’m not a prude about this stuff, but [before this show] I don’t think I’d spoken the word dildo publicly … well, ever.

Ashford: And now you say it six times a day.

Lippman: An hour! It’s like, is the masturbation with the dildo, with out the dildo…

You talk about more serious topics too – there’s an episode on vaginismus, a rare sexual disorder, and even male impotence. Those are like the least sexy topics possible in a show about sex.

Ashford: We want this show to feel relatable … We want people out there watching, who don’t have perfect sex lives, who suffer from sexual dysfunction and insecurities and many nights of the worst dates ever, we all want those people to watch and say, ‘Well, that’s me.’

So there’s almost an underlying social mission.

Timberman: The show has really given us license to talk about a lot of these taboos.

How do you make sure you get the science right?

Ashford: One of Masters and Johnson’s claims-to-fame is that they disproved Freud’s theory that vaginal orgasms were superior to clitoral orgasms — which made half in the women in the world think they were “frigid.” But when we actually went to write that part of the script, we realized we didn’t understand the mechanics. So at one point, we had all these diagrams out to try and understand the difference between. It was hilarious, all of us writers gathered around this drawing, going, “Really, that’s how it works?”

It’s still pretty rare to find women running the show in Hollywood. How do you think your gender influences the way this story is told?

Timberman: It’s something that’s come up a lot in talking about the show that we almost forget – that this is a show that’s run by a lot of women. That’s not by design. But, sure, it’s not the male gaze.

Lippman: And female pleasure is well represented. As women writing a show about sex, the expectation might be that we are most interested in telling stories about love and romance, and while that’s a component of the series, it isn’t necessarily our focus.

Timberman: Right. And, you know, in season one, we make a big deal of that line by Masters, where he says that women are ‘greater sexual athletes’ than men, because they have multiple orgasms.

I was watching the preview of the second season, and within the first five minutes we hear Virginia Johnson talk about asking for a raise, the farce of diet pills, dildos, and female competition. You watch something like that and it’s hard to imagine this not being a show produced by women.

Lippman: I think the thing that gives us license is not necessarily being female, but having Virginia Johnson as a character. She was a remarkable woman, very flawed, very complicated, but absolutely a groundbreaker. And her attitude toward sex was truly unusual – even for today. She was able to separate love and sex.

Right. And she’s a working mom.

Lippman: You know, we all have children. We’re working. We’re struggling with things like, ‘When do I get home because my kid’s in an All Star game?’ and ‘I need to take a week off to take my kid back East to go look at colleges.’ So I think there is a lack of judgment on our part about Virginia as a working mother and an appreciation for how hard it must have been, in the late 50s, to balance one’s professional ambitions with having a family.

When I spoke with Lizzy Caplan [who plays Virginia Johnson], she made the point that your portrayal of female friendships is really quite nuanced. Can you speak to that a bit?

Ashford: I think sometimes female friendships tend to be portrayed as either ‘We’re best friends and tell each other everything’ or ‘I did like you but now we want the same man, so I hate you.’ But the truth of female friendships is they are often as complicated as romantic relationships, sibling relationships, mother/daughter relationships — there’s competition between women, and envy, women can be both very judgmental and incredibly selfless in the love and support they offer one another. There are a million emotions under the sun that play out in female friendships, and I think we’re just committed to making the women (and their friendships) that we portray on our show as very specific.

Jessica Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is also a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

TIME Advertising

I’m Sorry, but Women Really Need to Stop Apologizing

A new Pantene ad calls attention to how the apology is too often used as a crutch and a way to downplay female power

Here are a few of the dumbest things I’ve apologized for in the last week:

  • To a waiter, when I asked again for water, after he repeatedly forgot to bring it
  • To the dude who bumped into me at a party, spilling his drink down the front of my dress
  • To a friend of a friend of a friend I agreed to give advice to, when she had to change the time

I started thinking about sorry this morning after watching the latest empowerment ad from Pantene (yes, the shampoo brand) titled “Sorry, Not Sorry.” In it, we see women apologize at work (“Sorry, can I ask a stupid question?”), at home (“Sorry,” a mom says, handing her baby over to what appears to be her husband), to strangers (the man who bumps a woman as he spreads out in a seat), and friends. It’s followed by a click moment: “Don’t be sorry,” the ad states, followed by a hashtag sales pitch to “Shine Strong.”

As far as ads go, this one is good — and yet when a shampoo brand is telling us to stop apologizing, it’s fair to say we’ve reached a sorry tipping point.

“I realized my sorry habit was bad when I heard myself apologizing to my boyfriend for a burned dinner that he cooked,” my friend Cristen Conger, the creator of a feminist podcast called Stuff Mom Never Told You, told me.

I forwarded her response to another friend. “What’s up with ladies and ‘I’m sorry’?” I asked.

“Sorry I didn’t reply sooner,” she replied, 45 minutes later.

Sorry is a crutch — a tyrannical lady-crutch. It’s a space filler, a hedge, a way to politely ask for something without offending, to appear “soft” while making a demand. It falls in the same category as “I hate to ask” or “I know this is a stupid question” or another version of “No offense, but” or ending your statements with a question. It’s bled into our text messages (“sorrrrrryy!!!!!!”), our emails (“SO SORRY for the delay”), our emoji (you know, the bashful “eeek” face), and our workplaces. Even the rise of “sorry-not-sorry” — a joke, and hashtag, that implies I’m saying sorry but I don’t really mean it — is couched in apology. (Can’t we even own the apology–or the insult?!)

Sorry is a ritualized form meaning something like, ‘I hope this is O.K. with you,’” says Robin Lakoff, a linguist at University of California, Berkeley, and author of the famous linguistic text from the 1970s, Language and Woman’s Place. “It lets people — especially women — get away with saying what the other person doesn’t want to hear.”

But as the Pantene ad conveys accurately, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy who says sorry with quite the same frequency.

Some have argued that’s because men don’t want to admit they’re wrong; Deborah Tannen, a gender linguist, has reasoned that men are simply more attuned to the fact that an apology can symbolize defeat. (“Like a wolf baring its neck or a dog rolling over on its back,” she has written, “an apologizer is taking a one-down position.”)

Still other studies have determined that what we deem worthy of an apology differs. In one from 2010, researchers determined that men are just as likely to apologize if they think they’ve committed some transgression, but men and women can easily disagree on what kinds of things require an apology.

“Once, I was my trying to leave a bookstore and my way was blocked by a woman who was sitting on the floor,” screenwriter Nell Scovell tells me. “I hesitated and was about to turn around when she noticed and started to get up. ‘Sorry,’ she said, because she’d been blocking my path. ‘Sorry,’ I said, because I made her move. Then she bumped another woman who turned around and said, you guessed it, ‘Sorry.’ Three grown women all apologizing to each other for no reason in under five seconds. A world record?”

Maybe.

But there are some — repeat some, as in, a few — instances when apologizing makes sense. “In email, where communication is so terribly impersonal,” Alisa Richter, a digital publicist in New York, explains, “phrases like I’m sorry make me feel like I’m coming across as a real human being.” In other cases, perhaps the impulse to apologize is part of the same skill set that allows women to work more collaboratively than men, as studies have shown.

And yet the modern-day apology — at least when it comes to women at work — is rarely an apology at all. We’re not sorry to be asking a question, we’re simply trying to be polite. We’re trying to make a statement, a direct one, without being deemed “bossy” or “too aggressive.” Sorry is simply another way of downplaying our power, of softening what we do, to seem nice.

“Women know they have to be likable to get ahead. Apologizing is one way to make yourself more accessible and less threatening,” says Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl. “Apologizing is one way of being deemed more likable.”

And yet, how can we be deemed likable and competent if we’re always sounding defensive or unsure?

As I was making edits on this piece, I was sitting at a panel at an advertising conference in France, where the moderator — Sheryl Sandberg — had just finished speaking about marketing to women. She showed the Pantene ad, and Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, chimed in. “Sorry, but I want to back up,” she began — only to catch herself.

Jessica Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is also a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

TIME

The Shame of the Male Virgin

Vigil Held At UCLA For Santa Barbara Shooting Rampage Victims
Students of UCSB and UCLA mourn at a candlelight vigil at UCLA for the victims of a killing rampage over the weekend near UCSB on May 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, Calif. David McNew—Getty Images

Yes, the UCSB tragedy is a story about misogyny and violence. But it's also a story about the narrow way we still define what it means to be a man.

What’s craziest about the story of the young man who killed six people and himself at UC Santa Barbara over the weekend is not that he was obsessed with sex, or even that he thought he was entitled to it. Reading his 141-page “manifesto” — and the series of YouTube videos he filmed and posted online — what was most surprising was how ordinary his complaint seemed.

Elliot Rodger had never kissed a girl. In a culture of casual sex, he was a virgin — at 22. ​He was lonely, angry, humiliated, depressed, and also likely struggling with mental illness. He couldn’t understand why others got to have what he didn’t; why girls always seemed to go after the “obnoxious jocks,” not the nice guys like him; why he had to see it all around him — from porn to campus party culture — as if taunting him. He was always missing out.

It was the kind of teen agony that is common enough: garden variety Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And yet when this same young man added to his stream of misery something less ordinary — that he wanted to annihilate what he couldn’t have — it almost seemed like a bluff. Perhaps that’s why, when Rodger vowed to enter the “hottest sorority” at UCSB and “slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see” — a boast he laid out in the last of a series of threatening videos posted in the weeks before his death — nobody responded sooner.

In the days since the killings, his mad crusade has launched a ​vigorous ​conversation about misogyny and the kind of culture from which a man like Elliot Rodger, so-called “Virgin Killer,” could emerge. It’s sparked a viral protest by way of the #YesAllWomen hashtag, a collective outrage about sexism and violence. And it will likely draw attention​ to UCSB, a campus ​fondly known as “University of Casual Sex and Beer.”

But this is also a story about the narrow way we still define what it means to be a man. If Columbine taught us about school bullying in the 1990s, then the brutal killings at UCSB give us a glimpse into the toxic way that failed sex, misogyny and modern masculinity are intertwined.

“To me the central issue is masculinity,” says Jackson Katz, the author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help. “Elliot Rodger didn’t come out of nowhere.”

It’s a complicated tale — about culture and privilege, guns and mental health. But it’s also about sex, pornography, and the increased pressure on young men to live up to some mythical “player” status — now amplified in a thousand social updates and dating apps. American college students today may not actually be having more sex than their parents, but it’s easy to see how an isolated young man might perceive the opposite. Like most boys, Rodger described seeing his first porn at age 11. It’s a safe bet that what he learned about sex on the Internet was not the stuff of three-dimensional women.

Part of the issue, say experts, is that while sex is all around us, we still don’t have the language to talk about it — or its impact on the generation who’s grown up in this toxic soup. And so instead of talking, we internalize the messages that are insidious: that sex is our most valuable social currency; that “boys will be boys”; that women are sluts if they put out, prudes if they don’t, and bitches if they object. Women may still be on the losing side of this sexual equation, but men too are not immune. “The message men get, that their number of sex partners is equal to their value as a male, is part of the same patriarchal structure that judges, values and punishes women for their sexual choices,” says Therese Shechter, a filmmaker whose recent documentary, How to Lose Your Virginity -- and its accompanying V-Card Diaries project — takes on the concept of sexual stigma. (The film will air on Fusion in the fall.)

It’s possible that Rodger did hate all women. “They are all spoiled, heartless, wicked bitches,” he wrote. Or maybe his hatred of women was simply what he latched onto in his suffering. What is certain is that Rodger perceived his inability to lose his virginity as his greatest failure, and a failure on the aspect of life on which many men judge themselves most harshly. As he put it: “No one respects a man who is unable to get a woman.”

“This is one place where women have more flexibility than men,” says Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist who studies family and gender dynamics. “Especially in adolescence, the question is: If you can’t be good at sports or have sex, what makes you man? Maybe it’s violence.”

Most men do not resort to killing sprees, of course. And yet there is something in this terrible story that reveals how anger is frequently the only way that men know to express their depression or frustration. From film to music, we often see images of young men reclaiming lost manhood through spectacular violence. Combine that with a mentally unstable mind, access to guns and a campus culture that revolves around sex, and the result was tragic.

“In a horrible, totally twisted way, when young men act out like this, they are doing what the culture says that boys should do when they’re angry,” says Rosalind Wiseman, the author of Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World.

The reality is that we don’t spend enough time helping men learn how to navigate the new world order.

Jessica Bennett is a contributing columnist at Time.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is also a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.

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