When we talk about "hookup culture" — the oft-lamented outcome of the sexual revolution, scourge of our era, and sole reason why 7-year-old girls can now purchase padded bikini tops at Abercrombie & Fitch — we almost always talk about everything women have lost since the good ol' days when women were protected by their fathers and husbands. (And, if they were particularly daring, perhaps a few serious boyfriends in between.) But what about everything women have gained thanks to the ability to dabble in relationships without putting other ambitions on hold?
"To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture," Hanna Rosin writes in a new piece for The Atlantic, excerpted from her upcoming book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. I think she's right.
We hear a lot about so-called "hookup culture" because the idea of young people having premarital sex is sexy (for the media) and scary (for conservatives, some parents, Caitlin Flanagan, etc.). Our culture's obsession with the way "hookup culture" purportedly debases women, as if women have no say in the matter, has always made me frustrated and angry, because neither I nor any of my 20 and 30-something friends have ever felt fucked over by our ability to sleep with whomever we want when we want to.
"Hookup culture" — which essentially just means having a fair amount of sex without monogamy, right Patti Stanger? — is something most of my friends and I experimented with in our late teens and early 20s before realizing that, 9 times out of 10, we'd rather hang out with friends or eat pizza than have unsatisfying sex with people we don't care about. Since many (but not all!) women (and some men too!) eventually prioritize emotional connection over casual sex as they grow older, "experts" love to deduce that "hookup culture" has left us women feeling hurt, dissatisfied, and alone. (Men, as we all know, have no emotions, since they are biologically required to spread their seed wherever and whenever possible.)
Critics do an awlful lot of hand-wringing, but they never seem to come up with possible solutions to the "hookup culture" conundrum. Maybe it's because we've come too far to go back to "easier" times in which it was understood that a woman's virginity was a precious flower that must be protected at all times, lest she lose sight of her self-worth. And maybe because, as Rosin argues, "hookup culture" has actually become a great equalizer, allowing us to pick and choose when we want to have relationships and when we want to focus on academics, careers, or just figuring out who we are.
In her piece, Rosin sums up the main reasons why people love to fret over "hookup culture," such as how it's resulted in "ubiquitous porn, young women so inured to ubiquitous porn that they don't bother to protest, young women behaving exactly like frat boys, and no one guarding the virtues of honor, chivalry, or even lasting love." Much of this mindset is summed up in Flanagan's infamous Girl Land:
Girl Land, like so much writing about young women and sexuality, concentrates on what has been lost. The central argument holds that women have effectively been duped by a sexual revolution that persuaded them to trade away the protections of (and from) young men. In return, they were left even more vulnerable and exploited than before. Sexual liberation, goes the argument, primarily liberated men-to act as cads, using women for their own pleasures and taking no responsibility for the emotional wreckage that their behavior created. The men hold all the cards, and the women put up with it because now it's too late to zip it back up, so they don't have a choice.
But Rosin argues that single women in their sexual prime are for the first time in history more successful on average than their male peers because of their ability to "delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don't derail education or career."
...to a surprising degree, it is women-not men-who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.
When Rosin interviews female college students, she finds that most of them, like my friends, eventually do tire of constantly hooking up; all they really want, romantically speaking, is "Some guy to ask me out on a date to the frozen-yogurt place." Flanagan and her contemporaries always stop here, drawing conclusions about what young women want and need based on the premise that "hookup culture" is ultimately unsatisfying. But Rosin takes it an important step further when she asks, "Did they want the hookup culture to go away — might they prefer the mores of an earlier age, with formal dating and slightly more obvious rules?"
This question, each time, prompted a look of horror. Reform the culture, maybe, teach women to "advocate for themselves"-a phrase I heard many times-but end it? Never. Even one of the women who had initiated the [Yale] Title IX complaint, Alexandra Brodsky, felt this way. "I would never come down on the hookup culture," she said. "Plenty of women enjoy having casual sex."
Zoom out, and you see that for most women, the hookup culture is like an island they visit, mostly during their college years and even then only when they are bored or experimenting or don't know any better. But it is not a place where they drown. The sexual culture may be more coarse these days, but young women are more than adequately equipped to handle it, because unlike the women in earlier ages, they have more important things on their minds, such as good grades and internships and job interviews and a financial future of their own. The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don't get in the way of future success.
"Hookup culture" (god, we really need another phrase for this, anyone have any ideas?) is a way for ambitious, upwardly-mobile young women to "dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork," according to Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociologist who has done extensive research on the subject:
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.
Rosin's entire piece is worth reading in full — she makes some important points about how things aren't as clear-cut for lower-income women, which I won't get into here — but her bottom line is that women are better off thanks to "hookup culture", not worse, not just in an emotional and professional sense but in ways even conservatives can't argue against: most young people still want to get married, teenagers today are far less likely than their parents were to have sex or get pregnant, and rates of rape and sexual assault against females dropped by 70 percent nationally between 1993 and 2008. Remind us what's wrong with "hookup culture" again?
The other day, I watched 20 minutes of What's Your Number? on Netflix (don't ask why), an idiotic movie which is basically about how Anna Faris' character will die if she sleeps with more than 20 men before she gets married. I don't usually care or even think about my "number," but the movie made me paranoid and insecure, even though I knew I was being ridiculous. Rosin's argument is necessary because it's still so easy for even the most empowered, confident women to feel guilty about their sexual decisions thanks to the pervasive theory that "hookup culture" will get us in the end. As if one day all of us who've slept around will wake up, barren and alone, and think to ourselves, "I never should've had a one-night stand with that bartender! That's where everything went wrong!"
That's why my favorite takeaway from Rosin's piece is her point about how admitting that emotions do matter, for both men and women, doesn't mean that hookup culture is a bust; it's all about figuring out what you want and what you need. "Hookup culture" gives us the means to do exactly that.