What the ‘Hook-Up’ Culture Really Says About Women

April 13, 2007 § Leave a comment

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We won’t remember each other’s names when the morning comes, but the night’s still young…so let’s hook up! Author and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, Laura Sessions Stepp’s new book, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, unlocks a trend among young women, especially college-aged women to forgo dating and step into the hook-up culture—willingly. “No strings attached,” “friends with benefits,” “jump offs,” and “casual relationships,” are other familiar terms that describe this sexual phenomenon that everyone seems to be revisiting since Stepp’s new release. “Hook-ups” themselves are nothing new. How many of today’s women perceive them as a source of empowerment is what’s new.

The “free love” era of the 1960s and 1970s were full of “hook-ups.” During this period, a sexual revolution occurred in America, shaped heavily by the emerging feminist movement, which redefined female sexuality. In the 1950s before the sexual revolution transpired, women were strongly encouraged to return to the domestic setting. A large majority of American women had left the home during World War II to assume positions in the workforce, replacing their spouses who were drafted into the war. Contrary to popular belief, women entering the workforce during World War II had little to do with an emerging feminist movement. This movement into the workforce was merely part of the war effort campaign and was designed as a temporary fix to alleviate the financial burden placed on families in wartime. During the war, women had no choice but to become the sole breadwinners of the home because their husbands were absent. When America’s soldiers returned home after World War II ended in 1945, they reclaimed their masculinity by taking back their positions in the workforce from their wives. American media helped reinforce gender roles. For example, in 1956, Life magazine published interviews with five male psychiatrists who claimed that female ambition was the root of mental illness in wives, emotional upsets in husbands, and homosexuality in boys. Thus, the need for women to return to the domestic sphere became popular.

With the emergence of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which advocated for education, economic independence, social and political rights, and the legalization of abortion for women, a sexual revolution among women also surfaced. This growing educational, economic, social, and political independence among women ultimately began encouraging sexual independence as well. The message was simple. In order for women to gain full equality, they needed to uphold the same sexual standards as men. Thus, women began to redefine their sexual behavior, which from the beginning of time was socially constructed to exalt repression. Whereas the media had helped reinforce gender roles in the 1950s, in the 1960s and 1970s the media began embracing gender equality in that it began promoting female sexuality. Female sexuality was most encouraged in literature. Sex and the Single Girl is a best-selling book penned by Helen Gurley Brown in 1962. The book took up arms against the sexual double standard that required women to practice chastity, while permitting men to engage in sex. Books like this one reinforced women to challenge societal perceptions of female sexuality. This encouragement of female sexuality along with the growing notion during this time of sex as a pleasure principle, rather a procreation principle became the breeding ground for “hook-ups” early on.

However, in the 1980s the sexual revolution became an evanescent moment in time when AIDS emerged. Once people realized that AIDS wasn’t just a homosexual disease, as it was perceived earlier, people began taking more precautions when having sex. Essentially, both heterosexual men and women began limiting their indulgence of “free love” and multiple sexual partners. Once again, the media played an integral role in reinforcing society’s perception of sexual behavior. The threat of AIDS was covered in mainstream publications like Newsweek and Time, reinforcing the need for Americans to rethink their sexual behavior.

Well into the 21st century, the sexual revolution has made a comeback, most notably with the “hook-up” culture among young adults. What exactly constitutes a “hook-up? The term “hook-up” is loosely defined. It ranges from kissing, fondling, and oral sex to anal sex or intercourse. A “hook-up” can be one night only or ongoing sexual encounters with an expiration date of days, weeks, or even months. Partners can be friends, acquaintances—strangers, even. Whatever the case may be, there is one thing that rings true in the “hook-up” culture, and that is no commitment, no feelings, no boyfriend/girlfriend mumbo jumbo.

Since the beginning of time, women have been revered as bearers of purity and discernment. In the Middle Ages, a woman who wasn’t a virgin might as well have been a prostitute, because in the eyes of society that’s what she was. If a woman was impure, she was damaged goods. Although this sentiment has changed in modern times, this perception of female purity still exists today. Most American men and women have acknowledged that sexual intimacy can be as serious as people want it to be or as recreational and noncommittal as they wish. Regardless of men and women’s shared viewpoints on sexual intimacy, there has always been a divide between the way men and women are sexually defined. Recreational sexual activity for women comes with a “whore” label, whereas the “player” label comes with men’s sexual behavior. Traditionally men have embraced promiscuity, without scrutiny, whereas women have always been criticized for promiscuity. The stigma attached to women for promiscuous behavior has traditionally left them on the sidelines of the “hook- up” playing field. And whenever they’ve been active players, they’ve never been in control of the game. That is why in the past, “hooking up” was usually something young men had to con young women into doing. Those women who accepted their terms were usually deemed “easy” or insecure.

Today most college females that embrace “hook-ups” aren’t considered easy at all. According to Stepp, they tend to be ambitious, intelligent, and confident. Many of them just prefer casual relationships to dating because they want to focus on themselves, their education, and sometimes even their careers. This sentiment may stem from a stronger focus on female independence, which was apparent during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s as well.

In 2000, Dr. Elizabeth Paul of The College of New Jersey, conducted psychological research on the “hook-up” trend among college students. Her research culminated in an extensive published report based on the surveys of about 500 students from 2002 to 2004. Paul said three-quarters of those surveyed had “hook-ups;” and about half of those had sexual intercourse. Less than a quarter of those “hook-ups” turned into a relationship, she explained. It takes two to tango in the “hook up” culture, which means that in the past few years women have been just as interested in hooking up as men have. An independent lifestyle contingent on personal fulfillment instead of fulfillment from the opposite sex may be the reason why so many young women are embracing “hook- ups.”

In Stepp’s 2003 Washington Post article, “Modern Flirting,” she interviewed Ronda Rich, a marketing consultant who wrote a book titled, What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should). “It’s hard to separate career and life independence from romantic independence,” Rich said. “I have friends who excel in their jobs and have money, friends and family, but they struggle with dating…” Rich’s observations demonstrate that for many female college students, dating and long-term serious relationships are distractions because they require too much effort to maintain and can be emotionally draining. Hook-ups, because they are void of commitment and can end when either party says the word, offer flexibility and enable both partners to feel less vulnerable, whereas in a romantic, more serious relationship the emotional attachment would probably make both partners more vulnerable.

The reasons aforementioned are reasons why both young males and females prefer “hook-ups” to dating. However, it seems that the main reason why more young women are embracing “hook-ups” is about way more than focusing on their more important priorities. Embracing this “typical” masculine accepted sexual behavior is empowering for women. In our patriarchal society, women are often sexually commodified by men. Women being just as gung-ho about “hooking up” with men kills this commodification. Thus, if young women engage in “no-strings attached” sexual behavior on their own terms, they are doing exactly what men have been doing for ages, except this time, women aren’t being punished for it. Rather the women are perceived as the “players,” competing in what society regards as solely a man’s game. In the “hook- up” culture, young women are just as in control as the young men are. Or are they, says, Stepp?

In her book, Stepp claims that while women think this feminist way of looking at sex is empowering, they still lack power. This is where maintaining the “hook up” culture becomes troublesome because Stepp says that while it is particularly difficult for men and women to have sex without feelings, it is inherently more difficult for women. The intimacy of sexual behavior, no matter how unserious females make it, still makes it hard for them to separate their feelings from sex, she explains in her book. The problem with this conceptualization is that Stepp reinforces traditional gender roles which characterize females as overemotional and men as emotionless. This backward way of looking at men and women is essentially what the “hook up” culture from the female perspective aims to cripple. Stepp’s argument assumes that all women are emotional. They must be lying to themselves when they say with conviction that they can handle “no-strings” attached sex, she implies. In contrast, her argument states that men are in control at all times, regardless of whether or not a woman initiates the “hook-up.” Men are apparently predisposed to separating sex from feelings, Stepp suggests. This sentiment is not credible. Although there may be plenty of young men who are truly comfortable with “hook-ups,” there are just as many who cannot handle that type of relationship. The reason why many of us assume that most men are comfortable with “hook-ups” is because like women are socially constructed to appear emotionally fragile when it comes to sex, men are also socially engineered to withdraw emotion from sex.

Stepp also explains that “hook-ups” are damaging because they

leave women unable to handle serious committed relationships in the

future, which means marriage is headed for trouble. Yet, even without

the prevalence of the “hook-up” culture, the marriage rate has always

taken a dive every year. I will acknowledge the fact that women

embracing and initiating “hook ups” solely as a source of

empowerment is a new phenomenon. I’ll also agree with Stepp and

say that it can hinder the formation of healthy committed

relationships down the road. This is possible because engaging in

“no-strings attached” sexual behavior doesn’t teach men and women

how to express their emotions in committed relationships where an

emotional attachment and some vulnerability is necessary for a

relationship to progress. Because they’ve avoided sex with feelings in

the past, they’re more likely to continue avoiding it, having grown

accustomed to it by now. I won’t knock anyone male or female for

“hooking up.” What people do with their bodies is their own

prerogative. My problem however is how men are always left out of

the equation when people discuss this trend. Relationships require

two to tango. Aren’t men contributing to the demolishment of serious

relationships if they too, are embracing “hook-ups?” Why should

women be the only culprits for causing the breakdown of future

serious long-term relationships because they want to “hook-up?”

Stepp seems to be looking at this trend as a women’s problem, which

proves as usual that the double standard is alive and well. So what

does the “hook-up” culture truly say about women? Maybe the real

way to approach analyzing this trend is to rethink our double standard

way of thinking.


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