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Hookup culture is a training ground for the expectations of motherhood
Amanda Montei's 'Touched Out' explores the overlaps of motherhood, consent, and misogyny—and it's revelatory.
When Amanda Montei was in high school, there was a party and a boy—a shy football player she had a crush on. They ended up alone in a bedroom on a mattress without sheets. “I imagined us falling in love, holding each other close, laughing and talking,” she writes. “But in the bedroom that night, he didn’t kiss me. He just hovered over me and thrusted, and I focused on the feeling of the rough mattress underneath my back.”
He never spoke to her again.
“It was a plan, I later realized, that had been concocted by his friends, other boys who knew how much I liked him,” writes Montei in her soon-to-be-released book, Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control. This scene is devastatingly relatable, but what happens next is revelatory: Montei links this night with the football player to her experience of motherhood.
“American motherhood felt like that: a plan devised by men,” says Montei, a writer and scholar. “Something I wanted, then got, only to find I had been lured in by a group of boys who didn’t care at all how I ended up and who were nowhere on the scene.” She had “asked for it” and even “desperately wanted it,” but it felt “forced, compulsory, staged.” The experience of “getting what I wanted was immediately tainted by what I hadn’t known before consenting,” Montei writes.
The provocative premise of Touched Out is that there is a direct line between the culture of motherhood and rape culture, which includes the realm of questionable and coerced consent. It’s a connection that Montei made during her own experiences with the physical overwhelm of early motherhood—with her kids scaling her chest and back, playing with her body like a toy, and studying her as she dressed or peed. She started to wonder about how this common phenomenon among moms of feeling “touched out” connected to the “larger culture of assault in which we had all grown up.”
“My aversion to the soft hands of my children felt like an indication of a deep unresolvedness in my body,” she writes. “Along with the feeling of not wanting to be touched came memories of being used, violated, and seen by men.” Montei was reminded of so many of her earlier experiences with love and sex, especially during the 2000s-era of hookup culture, defined as it was by binge drinking, the male gaze, and men with copies of The Game on their nightstand. It recalled those “years of saying yes to men more times than I wanted, and years of waking up wondering if I had consented to men having sex with me.”
Touched Out blends memoir and cultural criticism to explore these overlaps of consent, misogyny, and motherhood. Montei engages deeply with classic feminist scholarship—from Silvia Federici to Adrienne Rich—while breaking entirely new ground. Touched Out is an entry of its own: original, illuminating, and inciting.
I chatted with Montei about how motherhood relates to everything from #MeToo to hookup culture. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity—consider it a warm-up for the in-person book launch event we’ll be doing on September 12 at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.
As a new mom, you started to see this clear link between “the basic tenets of rape culture” and “our cultural expectations of motherhood,” as you put it. How did that connection emerge for you?
I had my first kid in 2015. I was a grad student then and I was teaching a lot. It was when Steubenville and Maryville and all these really big high-profile campus sexual assault cases were happening. I was trying to figure out how to have these conversations with my students. At that time, I was really starting to reevaluate my own sexual life, my own sense of desire, sort of in the “comfort pocket” of a new marriage, where I felt like I could finally look back and explore some of that. Then I had my daughter.
A couple years later, I had my second child, right around the time of #MeToo. I was home alone, feeling totally alienated from my body and totally out of control, like I had no sense of autonomy, no real grasp on my identity or my life. That really threw a lot into relief for me, to witness all these public declarations of assault from afar, having been working through a lot of this in my mind, and noticing how so much of that was being echoed by my experience as a new mom.
This phrase you just used—the “comfort pocket” of a new marriage—I really like that. I relate to that sense of entering into marriage and feeling like it’s a safe harbor from the storm of your twenties.
Yeah. Well, it was like I was “off the market,” right? I didn't have to invest so much in the public performance of my sexuality. That's not true in every marriage, but because of who my partner was, I felt there was suddenly this door toward figuring out what it is that I wanted to do within the institution, but also, like, without the pressure of the male gaze all the time. Of course, in the book, I write about how that was complicated later as I got deeper into the institution itself.
Right. Lots of us push through the wilds of our 20s, especially when those wilds involve the routine punishments of heteronormative love and sex, in pursuit of the supposed relief of marriage and motherhood. You talk in the book about how marriage and motherhood didn't end up feeling like the relief that you'd imagined—they actually recreated some of the same dynamics. In what ways are our twenties, especially in the 2000s-era hookup culture that was defining for both of us, a training ground for the culture of motherhood?
It's a training ground in a lot of ways, and I would say this started even before my 20s. I learned to make my own sense of desire—my own sense of comfort and my own sense of pleasure—secondary to the performance of femininity, but also to the desires of men.
When we think about how that plays out in motherhood, I have a scene in the book of breastfeeding and realizing, like, here was that same familiar feeling of gritting my teeth and watching the clock, and being in this position with my body that I didn't wanna be in, but I felt like I had to perform this ideal—to give pleasure to my child, but, really, to give pleasure to this masculine ideal of what a woman should be, what a mother should be.
In my twenties, through sex and through hookup culture, I really started to equate femininity with this sense of suffering, this sense that things were gonna be hard, that I was gonna feel violated, and I was gonna feel confused about what had happened to me, and that that was just part of growing up and being a woman. It's crazy to say, but it took me a while to realize that that was not okay.
Of course, we see that reiterated in the discourse of motherhood that’s like, “It's going to be a little crazy. It's going to be a little hard. It's going to be a little confusing, but you know, that's just how motherhood is!”
What's clear in your book is that we often consent to both sex and motherhood with a degree of coercion—or, at the very least, it isn't truly informed consent. How does that bait-and-switch show up, and what does it serve?
We are taught from a young age, if we're socialized as girls, that motherhood is the pinnacle, right? It's the pinnacle of womanhood. It's a method towards self-actualization. Then we get into this role and we find that, actually, there's all these moving goalposts. There's no real way to arrive at motherhood. That is the bait and switch.
I had consented to this thing—I had really wanted to be a mother—and then to be on the other side of it and start to wonder where that desire was coming from, you know? What was it that I thought was promised for me on the other side?
That was a hard conversation to have with myself. There are so many ways in which the realities of parenting, especially in America, are sort of secreted away. Also, our cultural inability to see parenting and domestic labor as work creates that invisibility, or certainly makes it more extreme.
Relatedly, it's not just that we find ourselves wanting things without being fully informed about the reality of those things. There's also this aspect of not being able to fully trust our desires—or even our own pleasures—when, as you put it, “we're taught as girls to service emotions, to self-objectify, to take pleasure in the pleasure of others.” What are we to do with that mistrust when it comes to sex and motherhood?
Yeah, good question. That's the funny thing that I'm learning about writing a book like this: everyone's like, “So what do we do? How do we solve it?” The truth is that, like, I don't know—and it's different for everyone. What I really wanted to do with this book is to show that struggle, show that desire to understand one's own desires. It’s the slow process of looking around and realizing how connected these different phases of a woman's life are, and how they all are meant to lead us toward one place.
I think it means talking about these things and giving ourselves new language for understanding sexual labor—and the connection between labor and sex and desire. It means talking about the real complicated dance of consent. This idea that affirmative consent, which is always a burden placed on women, can be a cure-all for a misogynist culture—that just places more pressure on women to know what they want all the time without fail. But we are human and that is not the case, especially since we're taught to not trust our voices and what we want from a young age. I think it's valuable to have conversations about how consent is more of a process—it’s care work, right? It’s this process of two people trying to understand each other and their own desires.
I think sex education is hugely important when it comes to the question of motherhood. I think men need to be more involved in general across the board—not just at home in domestic settings, but in professional child care.
Of course, it's become sort of obligatory to list all the public policy changes that we need in order to support parents, especially mothers, in this country. For me, it's much more important that we unpack some of these more intricate ways that misogyny shapes the way we think about ourselves and each other and desire and sex. Because, obviously, we know the policy changes we need—and they’re not happening.
One of the radical, and wonderful, things that you do in the book is that you write about your pre-baby sex life alongside your experience with pregnancy and early motherhood, which obviously goes against the cultural dichotomizing of motherhood and sexuality. In what ways does that dichotomizing get in the way of our ability to recognize this through-line of consent and control in both sex and motherhood, to see where these experiences overlap?
It allows us to separate off motherhood as this sphere of purity and nostalgia and sentimentality. All of that always works in service of making it “not work,” not labor, and naturalizing it as women's labor.
That is kind of paralleled in the discourse of sex and love, right? The whole mythology of love, as I write about in the book, serves this capitalist institution of the hetero-nuclear family, such that it's this thing that women are all supposed to aspire to—like Silvia Federici says, the best thing in life, right? You're a real woman now.
When we look at some of the things that I look at in the book—the brutalities, the violence of it—we can start to see that the ways that women's bodies are exploited in motherhood and in sex, there's a continuity there. Our bodies are often thought of as tools for serving male power and male pleasure. And, of course, we're seeing that very much codified right now, nationally. Forced motherhood.
I’m guessing that just as you were finishing up the book, Roe was overturned. Was that the timeline?
What was that like just as you were coming to the end of this book?
It definitely brought a sense of urgency to my work as an author, as a feminist, and as a woman. It was heartbreaking, like it was for everyone, but also, I think it really drove home the point that I was making earlier, which is that we can sit around and say, like, these are the sort of electoral politics that we need to push through to make our lives better. But, really, there's a bigger ideological structure at work here, that we need to articulate and unpack and refuse before any of that change can happen.
It's interesting to hear you talk about the ideological structure that needs to be overcome, because I think people often think about that stuff as being kind of amorphous. Laws and policies are concrete. So there can be this sense of hopelessness around the all-pervasive ideological stuff.
Yeah, I think that's true. I both totally get that and feel resistant to it—like, as an author, I think that talking and writing are very much actions. Folks who work in day-to-day advocacy and policy, they do such important work, and that often feels much more like an action, a concrete way that we can affect change now. That's very important, and I don't think it has to be an either-or, but I do think that giving ourselves more language to talk about some of these connections is really important and active work.
The discourse around motherhood is so riddled with cliche. There are these preordained narratives that we tend to just fall into lockstep. The more that we can break out of that, the better.
You write that motherhood radicalized you. How so? And what happens when motherhood does not radicalize us?
I thought I had pretty radical politics before I became a parent. I understood the exploitation of women's work in the home—like, this was what all my academic research was about. Then I became a mother and I was like, oh shit, now I get it. You're just faced with the reality of how women's labor has been made invisible, and how our entire economic and work structure has been built on that invisibility. And then, you know, just talking with your kids—like, actually having to explain the world to children—can be very radicalizing.
But I love this question of what happens when it isn’t radicalizing, because I think that's a new maternal narrative, that it's inherently radicalizing, but it's not. There's plenty of white women, especially, who are upholding conservative, patriarchal, racist, white supremacist values every day. I mean, look at Casey DeSantis, who's got the “mamas” campaign right now. So, I mean, I don't know what happens—I guess motherhood becomes a political weapon. It's just another reason why we have to be vigilant about the way that we talk about motherhood, because it can so easily become another warped tool for these horrible systems of power.