The Hookup Culture: Boost or Bane for Women?

The majority of today’s American college students—between 60% and 80%—have had a “hookup” experience in which they engaged in casual, uncommitted sex with someone whom they not only weren’t dating, but with whom they wanted nothing more than a sexual relationship. This is according to the most recent data collected by the American Psychological Association.I don’t know what to make of this trend. Is it good, liberating, and empowering for women, or does it create a new kind of unwanted pressure and put women in a new kind of bind?casualOne commentator, Hanna Rosin, argues that the hookup culture is “an engine of female progress” and that it benefits young women by keeping them un-tethered and able to concentrate on their professional futures. In an article she wrote in The Atlantic, Rosin asserts that being free to indulge in one-time or temporary, no-strings-attached sexual encounters enables young women to have enjoyable sex lives while focusing most of their time and energy on pursuing their academic and professional goals. She found in her research that today’s ambitious young women are avoiding meaningful relationships with men, rather than seeking them, because they believe that emotional entanglements steal too much time from their jobs or studies.Rosin’s findings were echoed in a New York Times article about women at the University of Pennsylvania,  which reported that young women are using casual sex in a way that was once monopolized by men. They like the “low investment and low risk costs” of hooking up. Hookups for them are about getting sexual pleasure, nothing more.But Boston University religion professor Donna Freitas, in her 2013 book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled and Confused About Intimacy, argues that while young men and women may publicly praise the hookup—which she defines as “quick, ostensibly meaningless sexual intimacy”—in private, they’re ambivalent. Pointing to the results of a national study of 2,500 college students, Freitas said a substantial portion of youths, 41% of those surveyed, were not just ambivalent but expressed “sadness” and “despair” about such brief sexual connections. Frietas doesn’t oppose casual sex, but she worries that the hookup culture makes young women (and men) feel as though they have no other option.An article in the American Psychological Association Journal, which looked at a number of research studies on the hookup culture,  also found a lot of ambivalence, especially among young women, about casual, unplanned sex that has no promise of a future. One study asked participants to characterize the morning after a hookup: 82% percent of the men but only 57% of the women were glad they had done it. In another study, 26% of the women and 50% percent of the men reported feeling positive after a hookup; 49% of the women and 26% of the men reported a negative reaction. (The remainders for each sex had mixed feelings.) And in a survey of 169 sexually experienced men and women, 32% percent of the men and a whopping 72% of the women agreed with the statement, “I feel guilty or would feel guilty about having sexual intercourse with someone I had just met.“A study of 273 college students described in an article in Psychology Today, found that women believe they’re just as capable as men of having no strings attached sex. However, the article then goes on to point out that, although women feel they can behave just like men sexually, their biology says they’re different from men: “When women have sex, oxytocin gets released because of the evolutionary drive to attach to someone who may be the potential father of a possible child…Men’s bodies release testosterone which drives them off to go find some other women with whom to spread their biological material. So it seems that biology grows strings when women have sex.”In trying to sort out my own feelings about the hookup culture, I keep recalling my dalliance with casual sex. It was 1962 and I was living in New York City with my best friend from college, Elaine. Helen Gurley Brown’s book, Sex and the Single Girl, had just come out and caused a sensation by challenging the double standard and asserting that women had just as much right to have liberal sex before marriage as men. It condoned sleeping around and encouraged women to have sex just for fun. Elaine and I embraced her view. It gave us permission to sow our wild oats, and sow we did.For several months, Elaine and I pushed our liberation to the limits. At first it was thrilling to be so free. But then we began to feel twinges of guilt and shame. We realized that we were verging on promiscuity and couldn’t shake the distasteful feeling of being “slutty.” We saw that the sex we were having, though physically pleasurable, was emotionally empty and unfulfilling. We missed the intimacy and connection of real relationships. From then on, we struck a much better balance between sexual freedom, on the one hand, and sexual restraint and selectivity, on the other.I’m glad I escaped the enormous pressure society placed on women of my generation not to have sex until you were married. But I worry that society today has swung too far in the opposite direction and there’s now too much pressure on young women to engage in casual sex, even when it’s not entirely alright with them. True liberation and empowerment, I believe, is having the choice to say yes or no and marching to one’s own drum.