“Hook-up culture’s” bad rap

It isn't casual sex that's damaging young women's lives. It's insisting they become exactly What Men Want

Topics: Sex, Broadsheet,

"Hook-up culture's" bad rap

Is “hook-up culture” a demeaning, destructive thing for girls and young women that would best be remedied by a return to traditional values? Or is it no big deal, the new normal, just something you’re too old to understand? That argument never seems to end, despite recent evidence that casual sex does not, statistically speaking, ruin young women’s lives.

Problem is, statistics don’t tell the whole story.  Rachel J. Simmons, author of “The Curse of the Good Girl” and advice columnist for Teen Vogue, says she gets letters all the time from teenage girls who are miserable just hooking up — and for the sake of their emotional health, something’s got to give.

“The girls describe themselves as ‘kind of’ with a guy, ‘sort of’ seeing him, or ‘hanging out’ with him,” writes Simmons. “The guy may be noncommittal, or worse, in another no-strings relationship. In the meantime, the girls have ‘fallen’ for him or plead with me for advice on how to make him come around and be a real boyfriend.” She worries that these letters “signify a growing trend in girls’ sexual lives where they are giving themselves to guys on guys’ terms.” Noting that sociologist Kathleen A. Bogle found similar stories when she interviewed college-age women for her book “Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus,” Simmons suggests that maybe the “old school rules” of dating “made more space for a young woman’s feelings and needs” and wonders, “What, and who, are we losing to the new sexual freedom? … Is this progress? Or did feminism get really drunk, go home with the wrong person, wake up in a strange bed and gasp, ‘Oh, God?’”



OK, that was funny. And I do think Simmons is talking about a real problem here — specifically, “if [girls] get too comfortable deferring to ‘kind of’ and ‘sort of’ relationships, when do they learn to act on desire and advocate for themselves sexually?” — but I certainly don’t think feminism is the culprit, nor do I even think “hook-up culture” is. I think young women are different — from each other, and often enough from their past and future selves — so it’s pointless to keep discussing whether casual sex is All Good or All Bad for them. Here’s a thought: Maybe “hooking up” is terrific for some, terrible for others, and somewhere in between for the rest? Sort of like getting married or having children or going into engineering or riding roller coasters or owning a dog or eating sushi — or any other subjective experience? Maybe?

But if we stopped looking at “hook-up culture” as intrinsically good or evil, then what about those young women Simmons and Bogle describe — the ones who feel pressured into accepting arrangements they don’t want? Well, here’s another thought: What if we focused on teaching girls to “act on desire and advocate for themselves sexually” instead of fretting about an entire generation being ruined by meaningless blow jobs, or longing for a time when the dating “rules” were simpler? (I suppose things were significantly less complicated when rape was a “bad date,” women were expected to decline sex even when they wanted it, the only acceptable options for pregnant teens were immediate marriage or temporary disappearance, reliable birth control was difficult to come by, ignorance about STIs was rampant, intimate partner violence was strictly a private matter between two people, etc. Sometimes — I’m just throwing this out there — a little additional complexity might not be a bad thing.)

From where I’m sitting, the problem that needs solving isn’t hook-up culture, but the intense pressure on girls and women to focus on getting and keeping a guy, rather than on getting and keeping whatever they want. Media aimed at the female of the species from adolescence on up hammers on a few simple messages. 1) If you’re not heterosexual — or for some other reason don’t see landing a boyfriend as your primary purpose in life — you don’t exist. 2) Landing a boyfriend is about understanding What Guys Want and doing whatever it takes to become that. 3) Keeping a boyfriend is about continuing to be What Guys Want, and if your relationship fails, it’s probably because you did something Guys Hate.

Seventeen magazine, for instance, helpfully offers a list of 23 things Guys Hate (sample behaviors: crying, burping, talking about your problems) along with bona fide male answers to burning questions like, “What’s your biggest turnoff?” “What’s your favorite hairstyle on a girl?” “What’s the biggest dealbreaker on a first date?” And, I kid you not, “What’s the hottest after-school activity a girl can do?” Once they’re a little older, young women can turn to Glamour to learn “10 things your man never needs to know,” “15 love rules for single women,” “10 ways to seduce your man in 10 seconds,” “What he really thinks of one-night stands” and of course, “What to do when he’s afraid to commit.” (Sample advice: “What can you say that won’t scare him away? Nothing.”)

If magazine articles don’t provide quite enough detail about how to be What Men Want, then there’s the self-help aisle. You could start with something like “Make Every Man Want You: How to Be So Irresistible You’ll Barely Keep from Dating Yourself!” Every man, ladies! Not just one or two — all of them. Gay, partnered, married, not your type, too young, too old, selfish, addicted, abusive, sociopathic — if you become What Men Want, sexual orientation, personal tastes, geographical boundaries, language barriers and anything else that has henceforth prevented you from attracting every man is out the window! You might also check out “Date Like a Man: What Men Know About Dating and Are Afraid You’ll Find Out.” Because, see, all men know the rules of attraction, but there’s no logical reason they’d ever reveal those to potential partners; relationships are intrinsically adversarial. Men hate falling in love, making commitments, living with women, having someone who’s always there for them, getting to know a partner deeply, and all that other girly shit. They do like sex, though. That’s their weakness. And if you find out the Secret Dude Dating Rules they are desperately trying to hide, there is a good chance you could trick them into having sex with you on a permanent basis! Still confused? Then the twice-divorced Steve Harvey is here to help with “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, and Commitment.” If, after all that, you still can’t figure out What Guys Want, then I’m not sure what to tell you.

Except maybe, I don’t know, find a guy you like and ask him what he wants, on the assumption that he is not, in fact, completely interchangeable with every other man in existence? And tell him what you want, recognizing that if your desires and needs aren’t going to be met, he is probably not the guy for you? And if that doesn’t work out, find an entirely separate human being and try again with the talking about what it is you both want? Maybe?

The problem facing these girls writing to Simmons is not that “hook-up culture” has completely destroyed dating, mutual respect, love and commitment. It’s that the girls in question don’t feel comfortable admitting what they want. They’ve been taught that saying “I want a relationship” or “I’m falling in love with you” will terrify any red-blooded American male — that is so not What Guys Want! — so young women who are interested in something more serious are terrified of being alone and completely unwanted if they say so. They’ve been taught to value male attention so much (if you’re hooking up, at least you can be reasonably certain someone thinks you’re pretty) and their own desires so little, that when they’re not getting enough out of a relationship, their first thought is “How can I change so he’ll want me more?” instead of, “Well, this isn’t working — I’m going to end it and look for a better match.” They’ve been taught that if they’re unhappy with a guy, it’s probably because they’re making Common Dating Mistakes, not because true compatibility is maddeningly uncommon — or because, get this, guys make mistakes, too.

If we stopped telling girls and women how to be What Guys Want (But Would Totally Never Tell You Because Ew, Feelings Are For Girls) and started telling them that what they want matters, that every sexual and romantic partnership from a hook-up to a marriage can be fantastic if you both want it and miserable if one of you really doesn’t, then maybe the ones who want relationships wouldn’t get stuck waiting for guys who don’t to fall for them. And meanwhile, the ones who enjoy exploring their sexuality more casually would be free to do so without being slut-shamed, and the ones who don’t want guys at all wouldn’t be erased from the picture entirely. If we encouraged girls and women to place real value on their own desires, then instead of hand-waving about kids these days, we could trust them to seek out what they want and need, and to end relationships, casual or serious, that are unsatisfying or damaging to them, regardless of whether they’d work for anyone else. (While acknowledging, of course, that to some extent, heartbreak and romantic regrets are an inevitable part of growing up.)

The thing is, if only one kind of dating “culture” is acceptable at any given time — whether it’s hooking up or old-fashioned courtship — then anyone whose desires don’t fit the mold will be left out. But if we teach all kids that there’s a wide range of potentially healthy sexual and emotional relationships, and the only real trick (granted, it’s a doozy) is finding partners who are enthusiastic about the same things you want, then there’s room for a lot more people to pursue something personally satisfying at no one else’s expense. Doesn’t that sound better than trying to turn back the clock?

Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>