How to Make Hookup Culture More Empowering

I’m catching up on pieces I’ve written for Everyday Feminism but forgotten to post here! So here’s one about how hookup culture can be super sexist, and how to make it better.

When I was in college, I held a belief I’m a little ashamed of now: that casual hookups are intrinsically disempowering and demeaning for women.

It was a sentiment echoed by many conservative commentators whose books and articles I eagerly read, feeling that they affirmed my own feelings and experiences.

Looking back on it, though, I can understand why I believed that: I thought that casual sex was degrading because I had felt degraded every time I had it.

But as I later realized, the reason I felt degraded wasn’t because casual sex is inherently degrading. It was because my hookup partners had treated me like an object, like a means to an end. They didn’t care about my pleasure, they disrespected and ignored me afterwards, and they were often pushy and coercive.

The more I learned about feminism, the more I realized that my experiences with casual sex with men fit into a much broader pattern of structural sexism. They treated me that way because that’s how they’d learned to treat women (often not just in hookup situations, either), and the reason they’d learned to treat women that way was because they, like all of us, were raised in a sexist society.

Unfortunately, while there are real and important critiques to be made of the way that hookup culture tends to function, many of the critiques we hear most often are coming from a place of sex negativity and a fear of young people’s sexuality.

Through their coded language and their failure to look at hookup culture through a feminist lens, these critics reveal the fact that, ultimately, they think that people (especially young people, and especially young women) having casual sex is just kind of immoral and icky.

Well, it’s not. The problems we see in hookup culture aren’t there because it involves casual sex, but because it involves sexism – and sexism is deeply embedded in our society.

Of course hookup culture is sexist. It’s sexist for the same reason that serious relationships are sexist, and TV shows are sexist, and workplaces are sexist.

In order to completely remove sexism from hookup culture, we’d have to completely remove it from society, and that’s a tall order – for now. There are still things we can do to make our hookups less sexist and more empowering.

Before I get started, though, I just want to note that I’ll primarily be examining heterosexual dynamics here because that’s what criticisms of “hookup culture” have primarily focused on. But some parts of this article will also apply to queer hookups.

Let’s look at five ways sexism plays out in hookup culture and how we can address it:

1. There’s a Lack of Focus on Women’s Pleasure

In many heterosexual hookup situations, the focus is on the man having an orgasm, and when he does, the hookup is over.

One study of college students found that 80% of men had orgasms during their hookups, but only 40% of women did. By comparison, 75% of women in relationships had orgasms during sex.

That’s quite a substantial gap, but it doesn’t mean we all have to commit to serious relationships in order to get the pleasure we want.

The researchers of that study pointed out that women may not feel comfortable asking for what they want in a hookup situation because they don’t know the person well. But being upfront about your sexual desires is always okay, whether you’ve known the person for years or minutes.

If you still feel awkward talking about sex, these tips may help.

However, when it comes to sex, it takes (at least) two to tango. Even when women ask for what they want, their male hookups may not always care enough to make the effort. One young man quoted in the New York Times article about this study said, “I’m not going to try as hard as when I’m with someone I really care about.”

Men (and everyone): if you don’t care enough to give your partner a good time, maybe you shouldn’t be having sex with other people.

And if your partner doesn’t care enough about you to bother asking you what you’re into or making sure that you’re enjoying yourself, it might be time to find another hookup. Casual doesn’t have to mean careless or boring.

2. Men Are Expected to Conform to Unrealistic and Toxic Standards

What do I mean by unrealistic and toxic standards? Let’s start with the fact that men, straightand queer, are expected to want tons of casual sex all the time.

Men who are asexual, have low sex drives, prefer sex in committed relationships, or feel too shy to initiate sexual encounters are seen as less “manly” and often find themselves ridiculed by other men (and sometimes by women, too).

Men are also expected to “perform” sexually in ways that aren’t always possible (or preferable).

If cis women’s orgasms are supposed to be “complicated” and difficult to achieve, cis men are expected to be “easy to please” and to have orgasms readily during a casual hookup. At the same time, they’re not supposed to orgasm too quickly, or else they’re viewed as inexperienced and not in control. They’re not supposed to be sexually submissive or unsure of what they want.

If you hook up with men, remember that their needs and desires are as diverse as those of folks of other genders.

Some men may not be interested in casual sex (or any sex at all), and that doesn’t make them any less male. Some may have a difficult time reaching orgasm and may need a particular type of play or stimulation in order to get there.

When you meet a guy who breaks your expectations of what men are “supposed” to be like in hookup situations, treat him with kindness and an earnest curiosity, not ridicule. And if it turns out that you’re not sexually compatible with him, say so honestly and directly, without putting him down in a gendered way.

Read the rest here.

How to Make Hookup Culture More Empowering

What We Write About When We Write About Hookups

Every few months the New York Times (or another similarly-positioned publication) prints an article about how Women These Days Are Having Casual Sex And It’s Ruining Things. The articles are often framed just progressively enough to get progressives to eagerly share them over social media because anything about casual sex that’s not from Fox News must be interesting, right?

No. It’s the same story over and over, and it misrepresents what casual sex is really like.

First of all, only a certain type of woman is ever interviewed. The newest offering from the NYT starts out: “At 11 on a weeknight earlier this year, her work finished, a slim, pretty junior–”

Stop right there. Why are they always “slim” and “pretty”? Why are they always middle-/upper-class? Why are they always white? In fact, why are these stories only ever written about women, and not about men? How do men feel about casual sex? (You might think the answer is obvious, but that’s just because you haven’t talked to enough men.)

In fact, interviewing a more diverse group of people might provide insights about hookups that are more profound than “sometimes skinny hot girls have casual sex.” For instance, Black and Latina women are sexualized–presumed to be “overly” sexual–based on their race. How do they view casual sex? Asian and Indian American women are desexualized–presumed to have little independent sexuality–based on their race. How do they view casual sex?

Poor women are sometimes sexualized, too, and they also face more challenges if their hookups lead to STIs, pregnancy, or sexual assault. How do they view casual sex?

Disabled women are presumed to have no sex drive, but they do. How do they view casual sex? How do they overcome the stereotypes that people have about them?

Fat women are stigmatized by many people, and also fetishized by some. They’re expected to be “grateful” for any sex they can get. How do they view casual sex?

Older women who still want casual sex are looked down upon because this is something that “kids these days” do. They’re expected to be married with children already. How do they view casual sex?

Queer women are often considered either promiscuous or sexless, depending on how people have categorized them. Asexual women, when they are even recognized to exist, are assumed not to want any sex ever for any reason. Do some of them have casual sex? How do they experience it? Trans* women face a unique set of challenges when it comes to finding partners. Do they feel pressure to out themselves to potential partners? Do their partners ever view them as not “really” women?

Polyamorous women may have only casual sex, but they may also have a committed partner, too. They may have several committed partners. They may have a committed partner and a few friends that they hook up with. What’s casual sex like when you get to come home to your spouse afterward?

Isn’t this all a lot more interesting, relevant, and important than interviewing the same types of women over and over?

One might argue that there are separate articles written about sex from the perspective of these types of women. But how come, when we talk about “hookups” in general, we’re always talking about straight/white/thin/attractive/well-off/able-bodied women? Why are women who don’t fit into these categories relegated to other articles, ones that don’t get published in places like the NYT and the Atlantic?

Furthermore, these articles generally present the same narrative about how and why people have casual sex. From the one linked above:

Ask her why she hasn’t had a relationship at Penn, and she won’t complain about the death of courtship or men who won’t commit. Instead, she’ll talk about “cost-benefit” analyses and the “low risk and low investment costs” of hooking up.

“I positioned myself in college in such a way that I can’t have a meaningful romantic relationship, because I’m always busy and the people that I am interested in are always busy, too,” she said.

“And I know everyone says, ‘Make time, make time,’ ” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity but agreed to be identified by her middle initial, which is A. “But there are so many other things going on in my life that I find so important that I just, like, can’t make time, and I don’t want to make time.”

I absolutely do not doubt that some people, perhaps including this “A,” really do conduct a “cost-benefit analysis” to determine what types of relationships to have. However, based on everything I know about the way we make decisions, I’ll say that that’s not usually how it works. Usually, we make decisions based on emotions, and then we come up with post-hoc rationalizations for those decisions. Often this happens subconsciously.

A previous NYT trend piece on casual sex, meanwhile, blamed hookup culture on the fact that people just don’t know how to do anything different:

Many students today have never been on a traditional date, said Donna Freitas, who has taught religion and gender studies at Boston University and Hofstra and is the author of the forthcoming book, “The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.”

Hookups may be fine for college students, but what about after, when they start to build an adult life? The problem is that “young people today don’t know how to get out of hookup culture,” Ms. Freitas said. In interviews with students, many graduating seniors did not know the first thing about the basic mechanics of a traditional date. “They’re wondering, ‘If you like someone, how would you walk up to them? What would you say? What words would you use?’ ” Ms. Freitas said.

Predictably, that piece also blames technology:

Online dating services, which have gained mainstream acceptance, reinforce the hyper-casual approach by greatly expanding the number of potential dates. Faced with a never-ending stream of singles to choose from, many feel a sense of “FOMO” (fear of missing out), so they opt for a speed-dating approach — cycle through lots of suitors quickly.

That also means that suitors need to keep dates cheap and casual. A fancy dinner? You’re lucky to get a drink.

So, young people have casual sex because their cost-benefit analyses have told them that it’s more optimal than relationships. Or because they don’t know how to not have casual sex. Or because the evil technology makes them.

What’s missing from this picture?

Many people have casual sex because that’s what they want to do.

This is a story you never seem to find in the NYT. You’ll have to go to blogs for it, probably because it wouldn’t play well to the NYT’s audience. One of my favorite pieces along this vein is from xoJane and it’s called “I Used To Give Out Sex Like Gold Star Stickers (And I’m Glad I Did).” While I’m a little weirded out by the metaphor of “giving” sex like some sort of reward (different strokes for different folks, though), I can really relate to the basic message of the piece. For instance:

Several years ago, on a long walk through the English countryside, Lucy and I were struggling to define our sexual standards. We weren’t wait-until-marriage types, or even wait-until-exclusivity. Yet neither of us would say we did much in the way of soulless jolly-grinding.

We were somewhere in between: we had sex with friends we liked and trusted, almost as a prize for being awesome. It was our seal of approval: “You’re an attractive and accomplished person, and I admire you. Congratulations! Gold star for you.”

Gold Star Sticker Sex is the opposite of no-strings-attached. It’s shared in the same way you might have shared a deep, dark secret in high school…or one of those BE FRI/ST ENDS necklaces in 2nd grade. It’s not a romantic commitment, but nevertheless, it comes from a loving place — a desire to enhance intimacy.

You will never find this type of sex in the NYT trend pieces. There, sex is of only two kinds: Meaningful and Committed, or Meaningless and Casual. But why can’t casual sex be meaningful, affectionate, intimate? Why does casual sex need to be with someone you don’t like “in person, sober,” as A says in the latest piece? Why can’t it be with someone you’re close with and adore, but just don’t want a serious relationship with for any number of reasons?

I think I know why these pieces always interview women. They think they’re reporting on some new and edgy phenomenon (they’re not) or writing about it in a new and edgy way (they’re not), but they’re actually repeating the same tired narrative about women and sex.

Namely, women don’t really want casual sex. They do it because those stupid shallow guys don’t want anything else. They do it because they don’t know what’s good for them. They do it because they’re too tragically busy for meaningful human connections. They do it because they have conducted a cost-benefit analysis, the results of which have determined that a relationship would not be optimal at this time; the marginal utility of casual sex is greater than the marginal utility of a relationship. They do it because they don’t know how to do anything different.

But they don’t really, really want it.

Casual sex is meaningless. Casual sex makes you feel empty inside. Casual sex makes you forget how to have a Real Relationship. Casual sex leads to rape. Casual sex is unfulfilling. Casual sex is cold and calculating (see: cost-benefit analysis). Casual sex is no way for a woman to live.

If you think this is an original idea, you’re quite wrong.

I’m not sure that these reporters deliberately set out to write this story over and over like so many Sisyphuses with their boulders. I’m not a professional journalist, but I spent a year studying to be one, and I remember what it’s like to try to collect interviews and assemble them into a coherent narrative. To be specific: the interviews that felt out of place, that couldn’t be woven into that narrative, were left out.

A college woman telling you that she’s had opportunities for relationships but turned them down because casual sex is just too fun and fulfilling would not “fit in.” A 40-year-old woman telling you that her loving husband doesn’t care if she’s out hooking up with someone else a few nights a week would not “fit in.” And, for that matter, a young man telling you that he’s having casual sex not because HORMONES but because he’d like to figure out what he’s looking for in a partner wouldn’t fit in either, because men are only supposed to have casual sex because their penishormones make them.

We need to change the way we talk about casual sex. It needs to be more inclusive, both of people and of narratives. Writing the exact same story again isn’t just boring; it’s bad journalism.


Further reading:

What We Write About When We Write About Hookups