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

49 thoughts on “What We Write About When We Write About Hookups

  1. 1

    This should totally be the introduction to a book. An anthology about hookups, of everyone who doesn’t get written about: people with disabilities, POC, trans* people, bi people, poly people, older people, fat people, and a bunch of intersections of these and others. Essays or short stories or poetry about how and why they hook up.

    You collect ’em, we’ll edit ’em, I’ll do the layout, we’ll sell it as an e-book. Whaddaya think? 🙂

    1. 1.2

      Can one portion of the anthology be dedicated to hulksmashing the social assumption that the only reason single mothers have hookups is because they are emotionally “damaged” and/or they are looking for their foreversubstitutebabydaddy? And that even if they are those things, there is nothing inherently wrong with either?

      ‘Cause I would read the everloving shit out of that.

  2. 4

    I had to weigh in on the horrors of the demise of the ‘traditional date’ mostly since I’m as worried about that as I am about the decline of the traditional marriage. When I think of the ‘date’ or the ‘traditional date’ I think about a world where a man and woman would only be sitting across from each other over coffee or a meal to conduct an interview for a potential spouse. It’s a super-loaded, somewhat artificial interaction with a stated purpose.

    The whole ‘dating’ process makes no sense if you end up hanging out in mixed-gender groups of people your whole life.

    The other thing is there’s no reason why ‘casual sex’ should be seen as horrible. It assumes either total commitment and emotional investment or 0 commitment and emotional investment. I can occasionally do something like go to a movie with someone I’m not 100% committed to, but it doesn’t make it a totally empty experience. People can have sex just for fun and then still be friends or at least still respect each other, provided they haven’t been taught that what they did was shameful and wrong.

    1. 4.1

      noooo…. not over coffee that’s too “casual”!!!!!!!!!! It must be a fancy dinner, or else it doesn’t count!!!1111

      “dating” is such an inane invention.

  3. 6

    I can edit and proof, too, as well as doing layout; I have the Adobe Creative Suite, including InDesign (their layout tool), and have laid out books before.

    I’m no project manager, though; do we have someone who is?

  4. MK

    Thank so much for including the bit about asexuality. I’m tired of telling people I identify with asexual, only to have them ask “Then you don’t like sex, right?” or “then why are you talking about sex all the time?” or “So we can’t hook up?” Shits fucked up

    1. 8.1

      My joke used to be ‘dating? that’s that thing with carbon 14 and dinosaur bones.’ Even some of us in Western cultures grew up in subcultures where ‘dating’ didn’t seem to happen as planned.

      I heard the whole idea of the ‘date’ came from some story in the early 20th century as increasing urbanization had changed the way men and women looked for partners. I’m going to have to dig around and see if I can find that source.

  5. 10

    I’m serious about the e-book idea too. I think it would be a great project, and I happen to have construction project manager experience. No experience with the world of writing and publishing, but I think the basic principles still apply as most management consists of coordinating all involved parties.

  6. 11

    From the other side, I tried hooking up once or twice (depending on how you count it), and I very quickly decided that *for me* it was completely unsatisfying. So I stopped doing it. I strongly suspect people who don’t stop probably enjoy it more than I did? I’m male. Hookups were with men.

  7. 12

    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.)

    I thought feminists were supposed to totally hate men? I was told so; it must be true.

    Asian and Indian American women are desexualized–presumed to have little independent sexuality–based on their race.

    Asian women can also be considered very “attractive”, because of the narrative that says asian women are inherently subordinate. This often leads in to the very creepy “foreign wife” business, where supposedly subordinate wives are sold for the price of a green card.

    Also, speaking as someone who is all for intimate, casual sex, I never realized how hurtful this “casual sex is meaningless/ you only do it if you don’t care” narritive is until I heard it over and over from a commited partner.

  8. 13

    Types of people we’d want to have included (these categories are meant to be read as inclusively as possible, not as an exhaustive list):

    men who aren’t big on casual sex
    single parents/single moms specifically (because of stereotypes)
    Black/Hispanic (&ethnicities of people who tend to be hypersexualised)
    East Asian/South Asian (&ethnicities of people who tend to be hyposexualised)
    First Nations/Indians
    people with disabilities mental/emotional/physical (neuroatypical?)
    Deaf (listed separarely because of language difference, plus existence of clear and well-established culture)

    Anyone got others?

      1. Yes, I know that, anymore than “Hispanic” and “Black” are the same category; there are similarities, in that bisexual people are interested in people of more than one gender, as are pansexuals like myself.

        I’m not sure nitpicking is an entirely useful activity at this point in conceiving a project? And I say that as a professional editor/proofreader.

    1. 13.2

      I guess that this just shows the need for a good inclusive book about the nuances of hook-ups.
      I’m not at all clear on pansexual identity, and how that affects sexual expression.

      more groups that should be included:

      people in prison
      clergy both current and former
      PUA’s ( it would most likely be an exercise in toxic masculinity, but it would be a fascinating read)

      1. Sorry – term from queer culture, meaning “all/any”: someone who doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender among their lovers. Sort of, “bisexual+”.

        I’m not saying we’d definitely have one and only one of each and every category, more aiming at looking in places where such people might gather, in terms of a call for submissions, and trying to ensure that all of these points-of-view are represented. Realistically, we’d likely get a melange of people, who’d cross several of those boundaries each, which is good, because intersectionality.

        Much cool idea. Wonder if it’d be worth kickstarting. Hrm.

      2. Great suggestions! However, if I were in charge of this project, I would probably veto PUAs. PLENTY has already been written about them and their illustrious sex lives, including plenty of forums documenting their exploits and a book by feminist sex writer Clarisse Thorn. This is not a perspective that has been suppressed or ignored, in my opinion.

        I’m not saying that every story in this book has to be virtuous and perfect, but we should focus on stories that are marginalized and try to make sure that the book does not perpetuate any oppressions.

        1. I’m with you on that – I think it might be interesting, though, to have a perspective from a man who does like casual sex, but doesn’t use PUA techniques. There are (as you said in the OP) a number of different ways of having casual sex that don’t have to include going to bars or parties and manipulating people. It’d be interesting to find a man who does like casual sex, but finds his in a feminist way, by doing the little things about equality right: not interrupting all the time, not condescending, not ‘splaining, always gettting enthusiastic consent, that kind of thing.

          I think I just described my fantasy man. I don’t even much care what he looks like, if he gets all that lot right. 🙂

  9. 14

    looking in places where such people might gather, in terms of a call for submissions, and trying to ensure that all of these points-of-view are represented

    First thing to do is a project website with a sign in that takes the statistical data, followed by a submissions page.

    Soliciting submissions from a broad range of online forums would be the easy part.


    I want to include the PUA’s because I anticipate a stark contrast between them and with people for whom sex is not a competition. I am more interested in the reasoning behind their sexual strategy than hearing stories of their exploits. What does hooking up mean to them?

  10. 15

    that article is hilarious:

    Many students today have never been on a traditional date

    oh, good. “dating” in the North American sense is a horrible invention. :-p

    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.

    because hooking up is not adult life? Because “a traditional date” is the only way to get to know someone? LOL

    now that’s tragic myopia right there. I’ve not been on dates with any of the boyfriends/husbands I’ve ever been in, and I’m perfectly capable of getting to know people without the “dinner and a movie with a nearly complete stranger and no other company” setup :-p

    Online dating services, which have gained mainstream acceptance, reinforce the hyper-casual approach by greatly expanding the number of potential dates.

    wait, what? I thought the problem was not enough dates; now it’s too many dates? Please pick one gripe and stick with it, m’kay?

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

    casual? Oh Teh Noes! the kids are “just hanging out” instead of dressing up and spending ridiculous amounts of money!!!

  11. 16

    anyway: the book is a great idea, but I have nothing to contribute. back when I was hooking up, I fit into their standard profile of white/single/ablebodied/stright/pretty/early 20’s

  12. 17

    This trope is so persistent, it really makes you wonder if the people writing about it are just, to paraphrase Yahtzee Croshaw, projecting so hard you could use them to show PowerPoint presentations. WE are the ones who are just not doing the things we REALLY want? Are you sure it’s not the other way around, trope-writers? Are you sure your apparently ginormous need to find ways to imply that we aren’t actually having any fun doesn’t maybe say a little bit more about you than it does about us?

  13. 18

    Great insight. Something always irked me about these hookup articles but I could never really put my finger on what. I think you’re right, and I think that the authors often seem to start with unexamined moralizing assumptions about casual sex founded in patriarchal mythology.

    Even the name “casual sex” doesn’t seem to really fit in with my experience of sex outside committed monogamous relationships. It sort of trivializes it, as though it’s a choice made just as lightly as whether to wear jeans or khakis to work on Friday rather than an informed, considered, and reasonable alternative to more socially-privileged sexual arrangements.

  14. 19

    Hey, I love dating, now that I’m in a committed relationship. Going on a date with my girlfriend is the best thing ever. Meeting her for the first time as strangers though, eek, scary. 😉

    I’m a bi woman who’s a bit fat and a bit uggo but not really to any extreme. I hooked up a fair bit over the years but I’m not sure any of my stories are really interesting enough. Except for that time at my BFF’s engagement party. AHAHAHA. However, I think the book is a great idea and would be happy to help with proof-reading if required.

  15. 20

    CaitieCat, I love your idea, and I also really appreciate that you mentioned including people with various disabilities – I think mental illness fits that category, and the way people perceive mental illness and sexuality is incredibly insulting.

    I have Bipolar II, and although hypomania isn’t a huge issue for me, I did experience one fairly serious episode. The assumption that people make is that any and all casual sex that a person engages in (or even just pursues) during an episode is reflective of the underlying pathology. I suppose there’s a level on which that’s true, but it’s so much more nuanced than that. For me, at least, sex was an important outlet. I had to be extremely careful, because bad decisions are a hallmark of the illness, but I have enough hard-won insight that I managed to negotiate the situation safely. (I also managed to garner a handful of great memories!) Of course, for some friends, my choices seemed inherently self-destructive – one close friend in particular was . . . awful. Awful in an incredibly loving and well meaning way, which was somehow worse.

    So, yes, please, if you do this, don’t leave out us nut-jobs. We could use a little understanding.

  16. 22

    I love the anthology idea, I love the idea of exposing stereotypes and blasting the practise of ascribing universality to practises that are not as common as one might think. Can I suggest something that may well be unavoidable, but if recognised and acknowledged may avoid some of the same traps? I hope your call for stories will result in a wide and diverse collection of fascinating experiences. But I think it would be a fairly safe bet that the majority of stories will come from the USA. And the USA contains 4.46% of the world’s population. So the stories are likely to contain a great many terms, concepts and practises that are not common or easily recognised elsewhere. I’m not suggesting that you try to extend the geographical range of the stories, or that some of the experiences described will not be common to other people outside the USA. Only that, in my opinion, a recognition by the contributors and editors that the descriptions may not be universal might result in a much more readable, saleable and enlightening book. And I certainly think ‘Hookup Anthology – Going Global’ might make a quite excellent sequel!

    I hope this project happens and I wish you all the best. And in case it sounds like I’m standing on the side shouting instructions to the people doing the work, if you think an editor watching out for areas where additional explanation might help a wide reading public might be useful, I’ll volunteer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.