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

4 thoughts on “How to Make Hookup Culture More Empowering

  1. 1

    Your piece here actually reminds me of how I came to change how I thought about hookups by meeting people whose hookups didn’t fit the sexist stereotypes or norms I had expected. Perhaps the biggest thing that defied my expectation was finding people who hooked up within their group of friends and acquaintances, but where people still remained on good terms afterwards. Not that this always went well, but seeing that it could was an eye opener.

  2. 2

    I don’t know if we can make hookup culture more empowering. We live in a sexist world where a lot of men were raised with a madonna/whore complex. You can explain to men until you are blue in the face how they should respect their female partners, but it’s not going to sink in or stick unless there is a HUGE culture shift.

    Which of course, is what feminism is all about. We should do all we can to teach younger women who are just entering hookup culture that 1) they deserve respect; 2) how to recognize when a guy is not respecting them; and 3) how to avoid and not hook up with guys who don’t respect them.

    Even with that approach, I’m afraid hookup culture is always going to be a disrespectful place for women. To be clear, I identify as a sex positive feminist. In my 20’s and 30’s I rampaged around town trying to fvck as many guys as I could. 🙂 I had plenty of good experiences, but also bad ones. I eventually learned how to spot sex positive men, and since than have limited my hookups and dating to them. Now I watch as my friends hook up with shitty men who treat them like dirt afterwards, and can not for the life of me understand why they put their qualms about these guys’ characters aside (they almost always know) and have sex with these guys anyway. Usually they say, “Oh, he’s just so HOT, I don’t care that he’s an asshole.” or “I know he’s an asshole, but I want to fuck him.” or “Well, I’m using him, too.”

    So I have to ask: if women don’t care that they are being treated disrespectfully, then I’m not sure how hookup culture can ever be empowering. The fact that these women don’t hold men accountable for their misogyny allows them to get away with it, and even (in their minds) profit from it via getting sex. If there is no downside to being a misogynist, then what impetus do these guys have to change? Due to this, I firmly believe that by ignoring misogyny just so they can get their rocks off, some women are, in a way, contributing to the disempowerment of women.

  3. 3

    Great article, although, admittedly, I came into it with the preconceived notion of thinking you were going to talk about a tinder/uber/airbnb feminist led start up with early stage angel funding.

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