What’s Wrong With Hooking Up?

By Lisa Wade

Crossposted from Ms. and Sociological Images

Hanna Rosin, senior editor at The Atlantic and author of The End of Men, has written a piece about hook-up culture on and off college campuses for the September issue of her magazine. Given that I’ve done some research on hook-up culture, here are my two cents: Rosin isn’t wrong to argue that the culture offers women sexual opportunities and independence, but she mischaracterizes the objections to hook-up culture and draws too rosy a conclusion.

Those who wring their hands and “lament” hook-up culture, Rosin contends, do so because they think women are giving it up too easily, a practice that will inevitably leave them heartbroken. She writes:

[Critics of hook up culture pine] for an earlier time, when fathers protected ‘innocent’ girls from ‘punks’ and predators, and when girls understood it was their role to also protect themselves.

If this is the problem, the answer is less sex and more (sexless?) relationships. But, Rosin rightly argues, this wrongly stereotypes women as fragile flowers whose self-esteem lies between their legs. It also romanticizes relationships. Drawing on the fantastic research of sociologists Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth A. Armstrong, she explains that young women often find serious relationships with men to be distracting; staying single (and hooking up for fun) is one way to protect their own educational and career paths.

All this is true and so, Rosin concludes, hook-up culture is “an engine of female progress—one being harnessed and driven by women themselves.”

Well, not exactly. Yes, women get to choose to have sex with men casually and many do. And some women truly enjoy hook-up culture, while others who like it less still learn a lot about themselves and feel grateful for the experiences. I make this argument with my colleague, Caroline Heldman, in Hooking Up and Opting Out: Negotiating Sex in the First Year of College [PDF].

But what young women don’t control is the context in which they have sex. The problem with hook-up culture is not casual sex, nor is it the fact that some women are choosing it; it’s the sexism that encourages men to treat women like pawns and requires women to be just as cunning and manipulative if they want to be in the game; it’s the relentless pressure to be hot that makes some women feel like shit all the time and the rest feel like shit some of the time; it’s the heterosexism that marginalizes and excludes true experimentation with same-sex desire; and it’s the intolerance towards people who would rather be in relationships or practice abstinence (considered boring, pathetic or weird by many advocates of hook-up culture, including, perhaps, Rosin).

Fundamentally, what’s wrong with hook-up culture is the antagonistic, competitive and malevolent attitude towards one’s sexual partners. College students largely aren’t experimenting with sexuality nicely. Hook ups aren’t, on the whole, mutually satisfying, strongly consensual, experimental affairs during which both partners express concern for the others’ pleasure. They’re repetitive, awkward and confusing sexual encounters in which men have orgasms more than twice as often as women:

The problem with hook-up culture, then, is not that people are friends with benefits. It’s that they’re not. As one of my students concluded about one of her hook-up partners: “You could have labeled it friends with benefits … without the friendship, maybe?”

Hook-up culture is an “engine of female progress” only if we take for granted that our destination is a caricature of male sexuality, one in which sex is a game with a winner and a loser. But do we really want sex to be competitive? Is “keep[ing] pace with the boys,” as Rosin puts it, really what liberation looks like? I think we can do better.

Crossposted from Ms. Magazine and Sociological Images

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on September 24, 2012, in feminism, men, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. Sex has become just a game, dominated by men once again. It’s a competition of who has had the most sexual partners but this doesn’t apply equally to women, they can’t have high numbers of sexual partners or else they’d be considered a whore. A lot of men won’t be with a women if she has a high count of people she’s had sex with in the past, and this is completely ridiculous, because now this is restricting women from being free and we’re letting this control our sex lives. Its nature, you’re going to want to have sex and it’s okay as long you’re being safe about it and you feel comfortable with the person you’re sharing it with. BUT sex is very intimate and “hooking up” is just sex, no strings attached and I’ve had a friend who caught feelings towards their “friend with benefits” and it’s a tough situation to be in because either the guy may feel the same way or he doesn’t and you ended up hurting yourself because you knew “the rules” of it just being sex but you developed some feelings anyway. Women get caught more in the moment and in order for someone to be just “hooking up” you have to be emotionally ready and happy with yourself so you won’t look for this in a hook up resulting in you hurting your feelings more. Hooking up is okay, it’s life experiment, but be cautious and aware of your emotions.

  2. During my high school years I always thought that college was a place to hook up. Now that I am in college, I find that to be false. I realized that the media gave those thoughts to me. There are many movies that portray that colleges are just for hooking up instead of education. It is also sad how women are being used in a way to please men, like they haven’t suffered enough yet. Society gives men a free ticket on talking about hook up’s and at times they brag about it. On the other hand society does not permit women to talk about hook ups because then she will be slut shamed. I feel that women should also enjoy sex just as the men do but that is not the case because we keep repressing women’s sexuality. Both sexes should be winners when it comes to sex, since both are doing the deed.
    When it comes to friends with benefits, I feel that girls are just being used for pleasure when a man wants to get off. I have a friend that does this “friends with benefits” and she really does not enjoy it, but she does it because she is waiting for the guy to ask her out on a real date. It is just painful to see how far she is willing to give up her body to please a guy she really likes. Instead of her making the “first move” she is expecting him to do it.

  3. The way someone is dealing with sexuality is a matter of personality. Not every one is made for casual sex. In my opinion a person has to be somewhat extroverted, uninhibited, self-centred, callous or hardened to enjoy casual sex. But not all people are made this way. Not everybody likes this kind of closeness and intimacy with a person he or she isn’t emotional connected to. People should recognize that and stop encouraging young people to engage in “hookup-culture”. Whoever wants to do it can do it.

  4. As women, we have relationships with unmotivated men we know we’ll never truly be in love with, to rebel against the romantic comedy idea of true love that has caused us pain. These low-standard relationships make women feel better at first. The women are the “good ones” in the relationship, often praised for having dreams and aspirations, for being active. The unmotivated men’s parents almost always love us and say we’re “a good influence.” These relationships don’t work out, though, because deep down, women are still thinking about true love. We gradually start to realize all the things that are wrong with our partners, and it bugs us more and more– our internalized, ridiculously high expectations are always there, no matter what, because they’ve been drilled into who we are as women.

    I think that women start hooking up to feel in control, to feel better about themselves, but eventually women start to feel unfulfilled by hooking up (or even less in control) because the internalized ideas about true love are always there. So as an alternative to hooking up, we have crappy relationships, because we feel that good relationships aren’t an option.

  5. Hooking up is not the only way women rebel against the idea that they need Prince Charming. They found Prince Charming, and they loved him, but he wanted to prove he was a tough guy by getting around, or pulling at heart strings. So women in my generation, after failing at true love, tend to get in relationships with Prince Not-So-Charming. After we fail at true love, we feel like we must be to blame (as opposed to our society’s standards, and contradictory messages ingrained in us) so we start feeling that we don’t deserve a good relationship. Rebelling against our teachings about “the one,” we start having relationships with men who are unmotivated, relationships with guys who aren’t going anywhere, and relationships that aren’t going anywhere.

    Me and all my female friends are guilty of this. When we’re in love men who meet our high expectations, but then for some mysterious reason–which I explained in length earlier– it just doesn’t work out, we lower our expectations. The most obvious quality in all these low-expectation partners, (I don’t know about all women, but with all of my friends) is a lack of motivation, goals, dreams. Maybe part of it is that these guys are attainable because they’ve given up on trying to be the man that society tells them to be because they don’t believe in themselves or anything; while their counterparts, highly-motivated men, are more likely to be active in seeking out the life that society tells them they’re supposed to have.

    Unfortunately, motivation is essential in relationships and in life. An unmotivated person will have a relationship that does not grow or progress; a relationship with little activity. A successful relationship has to have two motivated people, who have goals and dreams in their own lives, because it’s impossible to grow and be interested as a couple without doing so as individuals. It’s too bad that motivated men might also be motivated in the way that they want to follow society’s guidelines (see: rap music, the tv show Entourage, any action movie) about treating women like playthings in order to be real men, even in the face of true love.

    Continued in next comment…

  6. I recently got to thinking about the ridiculously high expectations that our culture puts on women to find their one true love. As women, we are taught lessons about love throughout our lives: love conquers all, there is a soul-mate for every person, prince charming exists, always marry for love. Little girls pretend to get married and plan their perfect weddings while little boys are playing with trucks and not even thinking about girls. When I was a kid, I always wondered if I was going to find my true love, and when it would happened. I was so worried, as a kid that I would never find true love, or that I wouldn’t be beautiful and because of that no one would love me.

    When I first fell in love, it took me a while to realize it because it was worlds different that I’d imagined (in an agonizing kind of way), I didn’t know what to do, or how to act. I was always taught everything would work out because love conquers all. I can’t really say for sure, but I imagine that a lot of young women experience this– if they’re like me, they figured out at some point that love is different from what they were told (that the world in general is a lot different from what we are told as kids) and they stop believing in love, like how kids stop believing in Santa Claus. It’s maybe the equivalent of finding out Santa Claus DOES exist, but that he’s actually a mean old alcoholic who comes to your house once a year and has an affair with your mom and breaks all the valuable stuff in your house.

    That is why a lot of women I know, myself included, started partaking in hookup culture. Hooking up allowed us to feel in control, whereas real love made us feel confused and frustrated. However, I’ve noticed a lot of times hooking up leads to women eventually developing feelings for one guy, (or even though women are “hooking-up,” women will still be monogamous without calling it monogamy) and this is because no matter how hard women try to rebel against the idea that “Someday My Prince Will Come,” that notion of true love has seeped into our unconscious: we can try to have control by hooking up, but deep down, we’re still wondering about “the one” (and in hooking-up, the question arises “could he be(come) the one?” no matter how hard we resist it).

  7. “You could have labeled it friends with benefits … without the friendship, maybe?”… Why can’t it be this simple? They way I see it is that if two people are involved in a hook up no matter how well they both explained to each other that they are just in it for the fun, someone will eventually end up falling for the other and get hurt. One possibility as a solution, is that you have more than one hook up partner at the time. However, then as women we would have to deal with descrimination of being with more than one partner and being looked as whores and sluts.
    I love how the author explains that some women now a days, see hooking up as a means of protection for their career and educational path. I personally can say this is my reason as to why I don’t want a serious relationship. Don’t get me wrong though, I have tried to have one, but in the end it’s my partner who ends up getting hurt. And it is not like I do it on purpose, it is just that I put my education and family before anything, not leaving much time left over for a relationship.

  8. As a sophomore in college I am surrounded by this “hook-up culture”. I have many friends who have “friends with benefits” or sex with different guys regularly. Personally, I think there is a point where both men and women need to draw a line. When I say this I am referring to the numbers of partners. I don’t think there is a maximum but I feel at a young age a person’s number should not be 42 such as my best friend’s ex boyfriend. Now in 2012 it makes a difference since there is such an emphasis on STI’s.
    I do agree with Elizabeth A. Armstrong as to why some women decide not to be in serious relationships. I understand the interest of hooking up with someone with no strings attached but doesn’t that eventually get old? The down side of hooking up is it doesn’t fulfill the needs that a serious relationship does. Eventually hooking up because something that just leaves a woman empty other then being sexual satisfy 19 percent of the time. Is that really worth it? In conclusion I completely agree the new trend of the hook up culture leaves women in a negative place because it allows men to look at women as purely pawn who have to play the game with them.

  9. This is exactly the type of article I’ve been wanting to read, not that I completely agree with what is being said, but this subject of women being promiscuous is one that is not spoken in a positive light. Actually today in my women’s studies class a classmate mentioned that women are looked at like sluts and men are admired for multiple sexual partners, this comment is one that many of us have heard before. I bring this up because in this article the author mentions that women are focusing on the men pleasure and/or are allowing men to use women for casual sex and not settle down. My opinion is that it’s equal out there. Yes, there are egotistical men who are pigs and treat women like dirt, and those women who sell their bodies and give women a bad name. I’m talking about the average woman ages 21-35 sex is not something for only men to enjoy…. Being in long term relationships often I had a narrow few of “casual sex” or how women can “give it up” so easily. Recently I am learning through myself and my best friend that for women the “hook up” trend is more than sex, its self-esteem, its empowerment, its pleasure and I’ve seen my friend turn the tables on the guy and not be a victim like so many authors portrays us.

    • The extent to which women aren’t called sluts or put down for giving out varies from group to group.

      The authors feel the problem isn’t hooking up. The problem is

      1) when it’s the only game in town
      2) it’s used more like a game/weapon against the other sex

  10. I disagree with Ms. Rosin conclusion, that the hook-up culture is “an engine of female progress—one being harnessed and driven by women themselves.” I have to assume she has no teenage daughters. Surely she cannot believe that women are driving casual sex. Men are far more eager for the casual hookup than females. The reason why is simple: ORAL SEX! There was a study done in England that found women give oral sex to their male partners at higher rates than men do. In first-time hookups men receive oral sex 80% of the time. Why would females want to drive hookups? What’s in it for them? No mutual orgasm or reciprocal oral sex. A double standard still exists, which judges females more harshly than men for hooking up. Am I missing something?

  11. Stargazer Lily

    I think that the “hook up” trend can empower some-but not all women that are engaged in it. A big part of hooking up sometimes means keeping it a secret matter. However, keeping a hook up a secret is not always possible if someone spills it out. Usually when a few people know of a woman engaging in hook ups, that woman gets stigmatized by her peers for such behavior. Men on the other hand get a certain amount of praise over hooking up and “conquering” so many women. As a woman who hooks up, I have had to keep my business very secret. Mostly because I don’t want to have to deal with any negative comments, even if it is a slight joke. By keeping my hook ups secret I feel some empowerment that is by knowing what others don’t, but I feel I would be more empowered if I wouldn’t have to keep it secret.

  12. Adrene Garabedian

    At this point in my life, I just entered college, I am trying to create a successful path for myself, and learning to become more independent than before and to me, the casual “hookup” scene is a way for women to have fun but be able to live a life for their own also. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for a “real relationship,” however, with boys my age, it is hard to find a mature young man who will treat a girl right, which makes it even more appealing for young women to find a boy to just be ”friends with benefits” with. In my experiences with “friends with benefits” I have been able to actually live the “friend” status too, even if we were doing the “hookup” scene in the background and it has always worked perfectly fine with me. I was able to focus on my studies, my personal life, and creating a future for myself, while receiving the pleasure that was needed. Also, the article mentioned some things about the “hookup” trend making women “easy,” but I believe that if a woman makes herself a harder target with men and not give up herself too easily, than she will be able to live the “friends with benefits” life and still be considered a respected woman. The “hookup” trend has kicked into high gear more recently with high school and college students and I have been one of them. To me, it is a perfectly fine trend as long as women remember to stay protected, do a little investigation to know who they are dealing with, and to not give themselves away too quickly.

  13. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with hooking up completely- I’ve had a friend with benefits myself- but I was more speaking to the parts where it talks about young women not controlling the context of hooking up. I can see how my wording can be totally misunderstood so I wanted to clarify. When I say giving out the goods, I mean the trend of hooking up without requiring the respect of their partner, not hooking up as a whole.

  14. To me, this is a very touchy subject. I was taught to love and cherish my body. The thought of hooking up is un pleasurable and a subject that is uncomfortable to me. When it comes to sexual relations with a male, I want to make sure it is a real connection. A relationship needs to be formed before a woman should “give it up”.

    The reason this is such a touchy, but important subject for me is because I have a friend who is currently away at college who is participating in the college hook up scene. It seems that every week she is telling me about a new guy she slept with the weekend before. My friend is a nice girl who is a little confused in the relationship world. She has never had a “real relationship” where a guy showed true intimacy towards her, so most of these hookups seem real to her, or how a relationship should be. The way she makes it seem is the guy talks to her and makes her feel comfortable in the moment and when they see that she is vulnerable they “attack”. Yes, she made the consent to hook up, but I believe that she was caught in the college scene, and this new trend that everyone is doing.

    This may not be the case for everyone who is involved in these college hook ups, but from my experience with my friend, it makes me believe that women are caught in the moment. Some women may love the fact that they can make their own decisions on who they sleep with and when. I’m just glad I have my boundaries and know what I want in a relationship.

  15. I think that the nature of hooking up is beneficial at certain times, that there are opportunities available for getting to know someone better by spending quality time that can become an everlasting friendship. I feel it is important to have positive friends that will give you words and actions of being. There at certain times of grief or advice that can be helpful. Age is another important factor because nobody wants to be a cradle robber in my point of view. I enjoy dating older women myself because they tend not to be shy when I am present. They also know how to have a good time sometimes with the same thing in mind.

  16. I absolutely agree with this article and am actually a bit relieved that I am not alone in seeing this trend happening! I feel like with this “hookup” trend, women are consistently devaluing themselves and lose the respect from their male peers. Young women are being stereotyped as “easy” and feed into the general idea that a mutually respectful and considerate relationship as friends isn’t even necessary for sex. Sex without respect for the other human is a scary thought. How many steps are we from consent even being necessary? If an extremely basic friendship isn’t even necessary to “hook up”, then what is?

    I personally feel like the “strange” one because I value a loving relationship over general “hooking up”. This seems so bizarre to me since I was raised to respect myself and my body. I couldn’t possibly imagine just giving out my “goods” just for the sake of “hooking up”!

  17. Alexander Ghanma

    I think this article is amazing! I believe that if you are going to “hook-up” with someone, you should both be getting something out of it. Whether it be an orgasm or some sort of emotional gratification. I love how this article asked the question, “But do we really want sex to be competitive?” I thought that was really funny, yet totally a juicy thought for the mind.

  18. Agreed! that mentality, for years has been passed on, and all as females get lectured on by parents about hooking up being “wrong”, just like she mentions in the third paragraph about “fathers protected ‘innocent’ girls from ‘punks’”, as if women are not sexual beings and it is just guys. But in reality, just like she mentions, hooking up is really more about learning about yourself as a woman. Women can choose to practice abstinence after LIVING and going through experiences themselves; and not because there is this implied way of living a “correct” sex live style…

  19. AHHH. I have been saying this for such a long time, but I am merely a psychology undergrad and you have a PhD. I feel vindicated. 😛

  20. Yeah, for definite! In my experience, only women slut-shame other women; the men don’t care except to maybe joke about a woman being a ‘slut’, but they don’t gossip or take it seiously. And sometimes men like sluts more because they’re more relaxed and fun and don’t play mind games (not sure if that’s true, just how men see it).

  21. Interesting and well argued. Sadly the ‘patriarchal’ sexual attitudes ruin everything to do with sex, even hookups. I once read a book on US college hooking-up, I don’t know if it was by you or not. It studied a small Christian uni and a larger secular one and concluded the hook-up culture was practically identical and the Christians weren’t less adventurous. And that in bith unis, girls can’t hook up that often as boys because of being labelled sluts, that doing so is a ‘mistake girls make when they’re new’ and they think they can ‘get away with it’ without realising that in a small uni, gossip gets around. And that ‘booty calls’ ar usually made by boys. So yeah, the double standard ruins everything. This sort of stuff is partly why I chose to start my sex life by being a slut, that I wouldn’t lose virginity and slowly progress to doing what I wanted, I’d just do it all at once by prostituting myself as a virgin. And at least there won’t be the ‘will he call? Or was he just after one thing?’ or a friendship turning a bit awkward after sex. A great book about the double standard was by Rutter and someone else, in 2006, you might know it since you’re in that sort of field.

    • And strangely, according to surveys men are more against the double standard than women are (I’ll write about this later), likely cause they know they’ll get less sex with it. Yet the game goes on.

  22. Yes!! I’m all for women’s sexual liberation and see nothing wrong with promiscuity, but today’s hook up culture does smack of women trying to be ‘one of the guys’, focussing (again) on pleasing men rather than on finding sexual fulfillment themselves. And men’s attitudes towards their hook-ups really need to change for it to be truly liberating; I remember reading an article in which the men surveyed largely said that they did not care about whether or not their hook up partners achieved an orgasm. The imbalanced orgasm rate is infuriating.

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