On romance

On the “hook-up culture”: Part 2

By now many others have said—more succinctly, more earnestly, and more wittily—what I had intended to say, so instead I’ll offer up some links to thought-provoking reads on the topic.

First up, my friend Eliana over at Time lays it down in her piece What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Ivy League Hookup Culture (full disclosure: she quotes me in the article… #stillfamous). I definitely recommend reading her full article (it’s a quick read), but in brief she points out three major flaws in the prevailing discourse on the subject: (1) College students are choosing random hookups over meaningful relationships; (2) Most Ivy League girls are too busy and ambitious for relationships; and (3) The so-called hookup generation represents a radical break from the past. All three myths; all three debunked by Eliana. I couldn’t agree more.

Next, we have Leandra Medine over at popular fashion blog The Man Repeller. Never heard of her? Her main claim to fame is wearing crazy trendy clothes (think lots of clashing colors, unexpected layers, vertiginous heels), making Snapchat-style faces at the camera, and blogging at length about it—all underlaid by a very do-whatever-makes-ya-happy ethos. But don’t write her off just yet! Leandra’s got a social conscience too, and her post The F-Word is not so much fashion as feminism. Yep, fashion blogging—that realm of the woman-as-object-adorned-and-decorated—just got political. (Note: I have lots more to say on fashion blogging, but we’ll save that for a later date.) “There’s a sense of innocence inconspicuously tied to silence, and in this story, the men are on mute,” Leandra writes about the NYT piece. Yes! (Read the whole post, it’s great.)

Then we have one of Slate’s contributions to the ouevre, The Hookup Elites by Lisa Wade (thanks to Emily Y. for passing this one along). Wade suggests that most research on college hook-up culture focuses on gender dynamics on college campuses—but there’s another side to the story, and that side is not about male-female power play but white/wealthy/heterosexual privilege.

“So what we are seeing on college campuses is the same dynamic we see outside of colleges.  People with privilege—based on race, class, ability, attractiveness, sexual orientation, and, yes, gender—get to set the terms for everyone else. Their ideologies dominate our discourses, their particular set of values gets to appear universal, and everyone is subject to their behavioral norms. Students feel that a hookup culture dominates their colleges not because it is actually widely embraced, but because the people with the most power to shape campus culture like it that way.”

—Lisa Wade, The Hookup Elites

So not only do we (privileged women) think that men are writing the script, but actually we women are writing it too (even if somewhat unknowingly) by virtue of our subject positionality. Classic.

On the flip side of the Slate coin, Matt Yglesias reminds us that hooking up isn’t actually that bad. In fact, it makes sense! Modern world, modern problems: we are saving marriage for later and later, but are interested in sexual experimentation at the same age as humans across the centuries. “Young people should feel free to do what they want with their sex lives, but I think it’s the people who are following neo-traditional visions of dating and romance who are operating with bad information and are more likely in need of guidance,” he writes.

Which brings me to my own more broad, contemporary-romantic thoughts on the subject, which are that we (generationally, civilizationally) currently lack the language, vocabulary, and social acceptance to discuss the various newfangled romantic partnerships that make the most sense for our lives today. What often gets lost in translation is that not every relationship must exist in the black-and-white binary of casual/emotionless/short-term vs. serious/marriage-oriented/soulful. There are infinite stages in between these two opposites—don’t tell me you haven’t been in some intermediate place yourself! But until we start accepting the range of options and complexity that any relationship might hold (and the idea there is not always an end-goal), we limit our conversations (especially in the media) to this frustrating back-and-forth, and set expectations of ourselves and others that cannot be realistically met. And that, to me, is just plain regressive.


(…For now.)


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!)

Where the cottonwoods grow

… and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, ‘at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.’ As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.”

—Joan Didion, “John Wayne: A Love Song” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem