Now that I’m in my 40s, I can look back on my sexual history with a better understanding of who I am and what has traditionally worked for me.
In order for me to have a healthy sexual relationship—since day one when I lost my virginity, up until now—one fact has remained: I need to be in a committed, monogamous relationship. Or, at the very least, have some kind of connection outside of a physical one.
This flies in the face of the idea that women, just like men, can take part in so-called hookup culture and have their needs met. And that’s absolutely true—for some women. It wasn’t for me. The only healthy and enjoyable sexual encounters I have had were with men I was connected to outside of the bedroom as well as in it.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have sex with people I wasn’t dating. But looking back, those were the instances where I walked away feeling empty and hollow. Those were the instances when I had sex hoping that it would lead to something more. Those were the times that I couldn’t enjoy myself because I wasn’t comfortable enough with my partner to communicate what I wanted. Those are the hookups I don’t necessarily regret, but I wouldn’t relive them either.
There are many women who insist that they can love ‘em or leave ‘em as easily as guys can. And I know there will always be outliers—women who can bed a string of partners with no strings attached and walk away feeling nothing but satiated. But I posit that they’re in the minority.
Alas, my 19-year-old stepdaughter Lauren thinks she’s in that minority. And—though I am not Lauren—I happen to disagree.
Lauren had a sexual relationship early in her sex life with someone who was not her boyfriend. She’d crushed on him for years and years, and he showed little to no interest—until puberty hit. He still didn’t want to date her, but it turned into, “Hey, I’ll have sex with you though.”
This saddened me. I didn’t want Lauren to have sex with anyone who didn’t care deeply about her—especially when she was younger and just starting to explore sexual relationships. Lauren said that she was taking ownership of her body and having sex on her terms; I called bullshit and still do. Does she truly have sex on her own terms and with her own parameters? Or is she, like I was at her age, likely to have sex with something she has feelings for, knowing he doesn’t feel the same?
I called up Lauren, who is in her first year of college, to talk casual sex, hookup culture and the insanity of a “committed sex-only relationship.” All names have been changed.
This is a topic I know we’re not going to see eye to eye on.
Okay, let’s hear it.
Do you feel like you need to be in a relationship in order to have a healthy sexual encounter?
Do you mean women in general? Or are you speaking about your own experiences?
Not women in general. I think it’s contextual and based on the person. I think there are instances where a particular person and her partner could not be in a relationship and it’s still a totally fine and healthy encounter.
Have you ever settled for sex when you wanted something more? That’s what happened to me quite often.
I think so. But not recently.
Tell me about it.
Well, I really liked this guy. And I was telling myself I didn’t like him.
Why were you telling yourself you didn’t like him?
I was in a strange place. This wasn’t too long after [her first love] Brian and I broke up so I knew I wasn’t ready for a relationship. I liked this guy but I knew I wasn’t in the right space. So I’m thinking, I can’t really explore if this is a relationship that could make sense. But I can have sex with him in the meantime!
But you said you don’t make those kinds of decisions now.
No. But hookup culture is still happening. And I don’t think it’s always an awful thing that girls don’t really want but settle for. I mean, you can even have an exclusive hookup partner.
What do you mean “exclusive hookup partner”? That doesn’t make sense. By definition a hookup is an encounter with no strings attached.
There are levels of hooking up. I’ve had sex-only relationships with guys where we were each only hooking up with each other.
So, this is something you verbalize? Hey there exclusive sex-only friend. I’m not having sex with anyone but you. That sounds insane.
A situation where you agree to be exclusive with someone you’re hooking up with… You know what’s that called? A relationship.
Well, yeah. It is a type of relationship. But one’s claiming it and one’s not. You go public with a boyfriend—not with a hookup guy.
My head hurts. An exclusive hookup just seems counterproductive.
Let me give you a real world example. I have a friend name Regina, and she and this guy Adam have been hooking up for months. No official relationship. Sex only. And then, at one point, she said to him that the hookup thing wasn’t working out anymore and that they could either explore a more official relationship or go their separate ways. Adam decided he wanted to make things official, and now that’s that—they’re an official couple. They don’t act any different. He just refers to her as his girlfriend and she calls him her boyfriend.
That sounds to me like they were just in the early stages of a relationship. That wasn’t an exclusive hookup. They were dating.
But it’s not dating. It’s like living together for years. You can call it what you want. You’re not married. And when you are, it’s different.
Okay. So here’s my opinion. Give me your thoughts: I believe that the typical woman doesn’t consistently want no-commitment sex. I just don’t buy it.
I don’t want to agree with that. But I have to agree with part of it. There’s this funny rule. I’ve heard it among different girls here at school. We say, you can’t hook up with a guy more than three times or you’ll be in trouble.
Right. Which implies that the girl will catch feelings and the guy won’t.
Yeah. God. I hate to say this. Hate. But I guess…yeah, I think guys have more of the capacity to do the sex-with-no-emotion thing.
Why do you hate to say it?
Because it reinforces the assumptions people make about women and their sexuality. When you reduce women to not being able to hook up and be sexual beings and manage to separate that from their feelings...I don’t know. The idea that guys are better than girls at that, there’s something demeaning about that.
Is it that guys are better at it? Or just different?
I would argue that they’re just different. But society says they’re better. And it also reinforces the idea that women shouldn’t be promiscuous.
Do you follow that rule? To be careful about hooking up with someone more than three times if you’re not in a relationship?
Well, it gets complex. Because what’s the alternative? You have a string of one and two-night stands? That seems a little problematic. There are definitely people I have hooked up with several times and had no feelings for. And if they wanted to stop hooking up, I wouldn’t care. Honestly, there are more times when I’m afraid the guy is going to catch feelings for me.
Have you heard of ghosting?
Yeah. Aziz Ansari talks about that in his standup. I also read his book Modern Romance…which I’m kinda embarrassed about, I think.
Why would you be embarrassed about reading his book?
In my circle, people would think it was weird. But the book is interesting. I thought it was a memoir, but it’s more a sociology book. It discusses the ways our romantic and sexual interactions have changed.
Like with Tinder.
Yeah. Good old Tinder.
My single friends tell me that it’s easier to figure out a guy’s motives than we were younger. Because men don’t need to be interested in a woman over a period of time in order to have sex. I mean, Lauren. What a guy had to do 20 years ago to get a woman in bed?
Right! You had to marry her!
We had these awful directives: keep your legs closed! Three dates before sex! Don’t live together before marriage! Why would he buy the cow if he can get the milk for free! Which is kind of like—but what if I don’t want to be bought?
But that’s the world I grew up in. And your dad too. What did your dad tell you about men and their intentions?
Dad says that guys are going to do the least amount of work to maximize their return.
Your dad also said that a woman should meet a guy’s parents before having sex.
I think the proliferation of porn has been helpful too. Again, men are not walking around about to explode. When I was young, you had to trade magazines and tapes.
Ohmygod. That’s barbaric! So you have to hide your collection? And then you’re trading magazines with sticky pages? That’s awful!
Yes. It was the Dark Ages.
Well, here’s a counterpoint to what you’re saying. Yes, the new age of hooking up is making men more mature in some way. But now there is a certain entitlement, too. They’re like, you’re not gonna give it to me? Fine. They expect it more. And sooner.
Do you ever conduct yourself in a certain way if you don’t want to just hook up with someone?
Hmm. Yeah, I do have to comport myself differently, though I don’t follow Dad’s rules. You can definitely hook up with a guy and still be respected. There is some of that. But that’s not everything.
You told me about your latest crush. We’ll call him William.
William is so awesome.
So what’s your approach here?
I’m not having sex with him unless we’re dating.
What? Why? You just told me there’s no need to wait.
Yeah....for some reason because he knows a lot about my sexual history I don’t want him to think, Oh. We had sex. That’s what she does with guys. Hang out for a while and then have sex and move on.
But now you’re putting a premium on being someone who doesn’t hook up! This is running counter to every thing you’ve been saying!
I knoow. It’s weird. This is all new. I’ve never used this strategy. Most times I’m not like, I gotta hold off or they won’t date me. But this time, I’m thinking…what can I do to make William see me as someone he’d want to be with?
Once again, I have to ask. How would you approach this with your little sister? She calls you up 10 years from now and tells you she’s not sure how to handle hookup culture.
Oh god. It’s so hard. It really depends on who she is as a person. I would say here’s how I feel at this very moment: Don’t try to manipulate anyone into looking at you as relationship material—not with sex or anything else. If you feel like you need to have sex with a guy in order to get him to date you, he’s not worthy of dating.
Now I’m going to have to revisit my earlier statement. For the sake of argument, you can only answer yes or no: Women in general need more of an emotional connection to have a healthy sexual relationship.
You had to add in the word healthy? That just messed it up. Okay. I’d have to say yeah. In general. Most women. But not all. UGH.
Lauren, why is it paining you to say this?
Well, you know how we jokingly say that we have a Black card and it can be taken away for not knowing how to do certain stereotypical Black people things?
Yeah. I can’t play spades. Pretty sure I can get my Black card pulled for that.
Well, I feel like someone’s gonna pop up and snatch away my feminist card.
Lauren, that’s insane.
They’re gonna say, we HEARD you on the phone with your stepmother. Women can’t hook up? We need an emotional connection for healthy sex? You have 10 seconds to take it all back. Or hand over the card. Now.
You can hold on to your card. Feminism is also about thinking for yourself. No need for hive mind.
I hope so. What’s next week’s topic?
Safe sex: Always. Mostly. Or Rarely.
Oooh, good timing. I’ve been having weird side effects with the Pill. I have to find a new method of birth control. There are so many options. I had no idea!
Is the sponge still an option these days?
What’s a sponge?
Devin Anderson is a writer and author from New Jersey. She’s written professionally since 1998 and currently works as a full-time freelance writer for various outlets. She’s also written five books, three non-fiction and two novels. The name Devin Anderson is a pseudonym. The writer is changing her name to protect the innocent, the guilty—and her mom.
Illustration by Jim Cooke