October 16, 2003

Has the hook-up culture helped or hurt today's women?

The first few weekends of the new school year are now behind us, and with them, it seems safe to assume, are the first hook-ups of the ‘03-'04 academic year. Whether you participated in one yourself, or merely gossiped about it after the fact, welcome to this sexually-liberated campus. No-strings-attached physical encounters have replaced dating, and women in particular have been encouraged to take charge of their own sexuality, which usually means behaving like our worst stereotypes of the promiscuous male. But are we any happier with this looser state of affairs?

A study done by the Independent Women's Forum and the Institute for American Values asked 1,000 female college students how they felt about the hook-up culture that pervades our campuses today. The answer: mixed. Many women had positive feelings about hooking-up, reporting that it made them feel "strong, desirable and sexy." Other women told the researchers they felt awkward and confused post-hook-up. And a great many of the women interviewed reported having both reactions. However, women tended to blame themselves for whatever negative reactions they had to hooking-up, saying they were too "emotional" or "sensitive" or "should have known better." They questioned themselves for not being satisfied by the hook-up culture, rather than turning a critical eye on the hook-up culture for not satisfying them. If we're not happy with the status quo, why don't we just change it?

Our ambiguity about hooking-up implies at the very least that the secret of human happiness is more complex than having as much sex with as many different people as possible. The erasure of courtship norms and any sort of given structure has led to confusion and discomfort about the meaning of our interactions with the opposite sex. We misinterpret signals and intentions. We go on dates, but don't realize that's what they were until they have ended. We hook-up to feel empowered, but also get drunk first just in case we want an excuse later. Is this the utopia the sexual revolutionaries intended?

The hook-up culture cheats us by depriving us of the wisdom of both the sexual revolution and the "repressed" generations that came before it. Going steady, pinning, and even the date itself are out of fashion today, but it may be instructive to reflect on the widely known gestures our grandparents used to convey generally messages. Going on a date did not mean you were embarking on a monogamous, committed relationship; accepting a boy's fraternity pin did.

Earlier generations had structures that helped them to define the parameters of their relationships with their peers and to clearly understand just where everybody stood. Today, we completely lack those social norms; even the term "hooking-up" has no clear definition, meaning anything from smooching to sex. No wonder we're confused.

Reaching for, perhaps, a more traditional way of structuring our romantic relationships will not require surrendering our newly found sexual autonomy. In fact, it will allow us to express it in a more meaningful and satisfying way.

Women will be more truly sexually liberated when we can base our decisions about our behavior on a clear understanding of our circumstances and relationship to their potential partners, rather than our intoxicated "judgment," and when we choose to be physically intimate with someone because we want to, not because it seems our only option.