On the “hook-up culture” (sorry, folks): Part 1

Let’s talk about sex. “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” that is.

(Sidenote: why do we continue to use sports-related metaphors for stories ostensibly about romance? Patriarchal and stale.)

As with all New York Times trend pieces, this story is in the Fashion & Style section of the paper (sex is stylish, y’all!). As with most of the trend pieces, it’s snappy, well-reported (perhaps even over-reported for this kind of fodder), and has some charmingly naive quotes. And like most of the trend pieces, it’s fairly late to the game: Hanna Rosin’s “Boys on the Side” was published in the Atlantic in August of last year, and since then we’ve been reading an endless parade of articles on the subject of hook-up culture and sex and college life and, really, “girls these days.” No one can figure us out, it seems—most of all not the journalists whose job it is to plumb the depths of our psyches to understand what we’re doing with our potent 21st-century combination of sexual liberation, feminist inclinations, education, and ambition.

The easy response to this latest NYT addition to the hook-up culture canon would be to refer readers back to my own foray into the subject, my 30-minutes-of-Internet-fame: #SWUGNation. To be perfectly frank, I’m bored of discussing this stuff ad nauseum. I mean, I already lived that particular hell.

But since here we are and there is that NYT piece staring back at me, I suppose I’ll add my latest two cents. Here’s the story’s thesis:

“Until recently, those who studied the rise of hookup culture had generally assumed that it was driven by men, and that women were reluctant participants, more interested in romance than in casual sexual encounters. But there is an increasing realization that young women are propelling it, too.

Hanna Rosin, in her recent book, “The End of Men,” argues that hooking up is a functional strategy for today’s hard-charging and ambitious young women, allowing them to have enjoyable sex lives while focusing most of their energy on academic and professional goals.”

And then the writer goes on to share various anecdotes about young women at Penn, almost all of whom don’t have time for or interest in relationships, instead focusing on their professional and academic goals. Their interactions with men range from consensual casual sex to unwanted hook-ups that just sort of happened. It’s all fairly depressing; I don’t get the sense that any of these young women are particularly satisfied—sexually, emotionally, or otherwise. They just don’t have time, they say. It isn’t important. No one does the relationship thing anyway. Where’s my vodka-soda?

So I actually have three cents to throw down here.

Cent #1: Look, girls: I feel you. I, too, have been there. I, too, put myself first. “You do you!” as one of my former suitemates used to say—and she’s damn right. In the realm of college romance, you do what makes you (and, ideally, your partner) happy; and that comes in all forms of interaction. But I also have to contend that what each woman likes, thinks she should like, and says she likes are often very different things for each person. Especially important: these are ideas about ourselves and our preferences that are constantly changing, maybe even every day in college. Which brings me to the point that no trend piece, no matter how many people you talk to, is going to be universally satisfying. I’d rather not revert back to that old saying of “women are complicated,” but in this case… there’s something to it. When it comes to relationships, love, and sex, each person’s experiences tend to be disctint and, well, personal. This is the overarching danger of all trend stories, but in stories of love and college, it often rings especially true. The “trend” outlined is usually reflective more of a subculture—a specific phenomenon perpetuated by a social group—than a nationwide, generation-wide, or even college-wide experience. (And let’s not diminish the fact that this “trend” is only applicable to a certain sector of affluent, educated, sexually active young adults—a small slice of the American pie indeed.)

Cent #2: My experiences, and my college environment, were unique; everyone’s are. But after spending four years at Yale, I can count on one hand the number of female peers I spoke with who said they were “too busy” for a relationship. We were ambitious, we were committed to our futures, we were focused on projects and school; but that almost never precluded interest in relationships. To be harsh, saying that you are “too busy” sounds to me like a justification for a problematic power structure; like an excuse for accepting the status quo, a shield to protect from frustration. OK, here I go with the “structure vs. agency” debate. I’m not convinced, and never will be, that women in the case of college hook-up culture are at any kind of advantage. Free agents in their choices, sure; but agents acting within the space of a limited, gender-hierarchical sexual script. Never forget the forces who define the field of action.

Cent #3: Where are the guys in this story? They seem fairly awful, on the whole (sorry dudes). But they still should get a voice. My male friends believed in a male-dominated hook-up culture, no question. Girls may be “playing that game” too, but they certainly did not write the rules, nor do they make the calls. This is common knowledge. And although we like to think otherwise, and though we like to say (as the girls in this story often do) that we’re in charge, the joke is often unfortunately on us. If guys’ voices had been included in this article, I’ll bet we’d be reading a very different story—in which most of the men don’t even recognize any kind of woman-fueled hook-up culture, but instead see themselves as being in charge of defining and benefiting from romantic activity.

I am not—and never have been—advocating for a return to some old-fashioned era of traditional dating and rigid gender roles. I’m very grateful that I’m a young woman today, and not 50 years ago. And I’m glad that these articles continue to be printed and read, even if they are repetitive, even when they’re frustrating and seem to miss some elusive point. At least we’re talking about this stuff, constantly, with fervor. That means we care. And kudos to the Penn women who are prioritizing their lives and careers over relationships. I believe in that too, and I live by that belief.

But I am advocating for us to move beyond the strict binary: are guys or girls in power in hook-up culture? Is hook-up culture good or bad?

The reality, as with women, is (thankfully) much more complicated.

(Stay tuned for Part 2, y’all!)

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