In defense of casual sex

A new raft of chastity books laments a hookup culture that is hurting young women. As one of those young women, I beg to disagree.

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Tracy Clark-Flory
August 1, 2008 3:00PM (UTC)

Twenty-something Anna Broadway has known many men -- so many, in fact, that she's given them each an easy nickname, like Singapore Fling, Sugar Daddy, Internet Date and Married Man. She's met them on Craigslist, through online dating sites and at singles bars. Broadway sounds a lot like your average member of the "hookup" generation, save for one detail: None of these men have made it into her bed. That's because, as Broadway writes in her memoir, "Sexless in the City," she's saving herself for marriage.

Broadway's G-rated memoir is just one of a slew of books about chastity released in time to make everyone's list of hot summer reads ... for those planning a vacation in the Arctic Circle. The onslaught started in the spring with "Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America's College Campuses," which reports that all but marriage-minded evangelical students are sleeping around -- and attending Pimps 'n' Hos parties -- in hopes of meeting that special someone. Next came "The Purity Code," a book for Christian teens detailing "God's plan for sex and your body." The catalog climaxes this week with the Aug. 1 release of "Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex Is Affecting Our Children." (Hint: Cataclysmically.)


These books are just the latest result of the mounting abstinence movement, which, despite its religious roots, has recast its attack on "hookup" culture as secular, even feminist. The term "hooking up" -- meaning anything from kissing to casual sex -- can be traced back to the early '80s, but only within the past few years did the hand-wringing really begin. Former Washington Post reporter Laura Sessions Stepp spent years detailing so-called collegiate mating rituals -- often lamenting a tendency among young women toward boozed-up hookups instead of cross-legged gatekeeping -- which culminated in last year's retro revitalization, "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both."

The abstinence movement has been successful in securing federal funding for abstinence-only programs -- to the tune of $800 million over the past eight years -- but the spectacle of father-daughter purity balls, chastity rings and virginity pledges has failed to make abstinence appear even marginally cool to the mainstream. More recently, activists have begun borrowing from the feminist arsenal -- using words like "empowerment" and "respect" -- in their assault on uncommitted sex. These books add to a loudening cautionary chorus: Young women are hooking up and tuning out emotionally. And, increasingly, young women are being told they are either respecting or exploiting themselves; they're either with the "Girls Gone Wild," sex blogger set or with the iron-belted and chaste. A few months back, a New York Times Magazine piece about chastity on Ivy League campuses relied on this false binary: It pitted a prim Harvard abstinence advocate against a campus sex blogger (who recently posted a photo of her face covered in splooge).

Choose a side? No thanks. I'm a 24-year-old member of the hookup generation -- I've had roughly three times as many hookups as relationships -- and, like innumerable 20-somethings before me, I've found that casual sex can be healthy and normal and lead to better adult relationships. I don't exactly advocate picking up guys at frat parties and screwing atop the keg as the path to marital bliss. It's just that hookup culture is not the radical extreme it is so frequently mischaracterized as in the media. There is sloppy stranger sex among people my age, sure, but sometimes hooking up is regular sex with a casual acquaintance; sometimes it's innocent making out or casually dating or cuddling, and, oftentimes, it involves just one person at a time. In a sense it's all very old-fashioned -- there's just a lot more unattached sex involved.

Like most 20-somethings, I've had online pornography and unregulated chat rooms at my fingertips since I hit puberty. But I also grew up during the Girl/Grrrl Power explosion, which taught me to demand respect, and play handball (and, later, hardball) with the boys. And it taught me that I didn't need to cake myself in makeup or teeter along in foot-disfiguring heels -- unless, of course, I wanted to.

From the very start, my love life has embodied that seeming paradox. I lost my virginity at 16 with my first love and best friend; it was all champagne and roses. It was also as-porn-ational sex: I enthusiastically guided us into nearly every position I'd long marveled at online. At one point, midcoital, I actually pinched my chin and asked aloud, "What positions are left?" Afterward, he observed: "That wasn't what I'd imagined, exactly." He had imagined: 1) the missionary position and 2) ceremonial crying.

I didn't do much hooking up in college; I went to a single-sex school. But after I closed the gates to that cosseted women's school -- and all of its unsexy talk about misogyny and the patriarchy -- I opened those other, um, metaphorical gates of mine. OK, screw the modesty: My legs, I opened my legs. That's not to say I had a host of one-night stands -- I've never had a one-night stand, only several-nights stands. But I went through a dressing room phase of trying on different men to see how they fit. (This one makes my control-freak quotient look big but has a slimming effect on my ego.) Like Anna Broadway, I can easily and embarrassingly categorize these men: Lonely Lawyer, Sociopathic Spaniard, Testosterone-Poisoned Pilot and Bellicose Bartender, for starters. Together, they're like the Village People for straight women. During this time, I told my friend Sarah and her boyfriend about the latest person I was seeing. "Which one?" he asked, smirking. I laughed, but I wondered: Shit, am I that girl?


For a while, I was. First, there was the cartoonist. The first night we hooked up, he took me back to his house and played guitar, sang every song he'd ever written, and juggled his collection of vitamin pill bottles.

Then there was the lawyer. We would have passionate, hours-long debates, as though we were opposing counsels in court; the first of such debates ended with him throwing up his hands and announcing, "Congratulations, you've worn out a professional litigator." He owned his own three-story house with a panorama of the Bay Area, drove an SUV -- with a shiny hood ornament that made me cringe -- and wanted to sweep me off my feet, rescue me from my one-room apartment, as well as the dishes piled up in (and under) my sink and my bipolar upstairs neighbor whose monologues are the constant soundtrack to my home life. I told him "no thanks" and moved along.

Then there was the pilot, whom I would see whenever his flight schedule brought him in town. I'd stay the night at his utilitarian airport hotel, order room service, watch planes take off right outside our window, and talk about sexy things like black boxes, plane crashes and thunderstorms. He was cartoonishly masculine and he made me feel stereotypically feminine, which I am not; it made me constantly want to challenge him to an arm-wrestling match. It was amorous antagonism.

As far as I can tell, these choices don't form a pattern, other than a refusal to really choose. I was like a college freshman filling out the Career Center's job placement questionnaire, making an enthusiastic check mark next to every box; except, in my case, I was checking off men. Most of them were great; others led me on and made me cry. In a few cases, I felt used, but other times I felt like a user. There were some I wanted to date but who wanted to keep things casual, and vice versa.


There's nothing unusual about my experience. The New York Times recently ran a Modern Love essay by Marguerite Fields, a college junior, about her search for a boy willing to commit. Like me, and like Broadway, she has worked her way through a number of men and says, "I think what I have been seeking in some form from all of these men is permanence." Near the end of her essay, she ends a third date by asking the guy when she'll see him next. "That's a loaded question," he says, offering a meandering explanation: "He said he had just gotten out of a long relationship, and now he was single and didn't really know how this whole dating thing works, but he was seeing a lot of other people, and he liked me."

I've heard that speech before; I've given that speech before. It shouldn't be mistaken as a symptom of a generation unable to commit; it's simply what you tell someone when you realize that you don't like him or her all that much. For all the anxiety about "hookup culture" the truth is that for many people older than 20, "hookup culture" will sound remarkably like, well, "college." Indeed, students shifted from dating to what was essentially hooking up during a wild time -- perhaps you've heard of it -- called the '70s.

But, as the median age of marriage continues to climb, young women are spending a lot more time romantically vetting -- and being vetted. It isn't just that hooking up is becoming a common preamble to dating, either -- living in sin is increasingly a prelude to marriage. Hopefully, by taking several test-drives before buying, we'll be happier with our final investment.


Of course, there are also very real hazards to hookup culture: namely, rising rates of unplanned pregnancies among young women and sky-high STD rates. It's safe to say many don't take the latter very seriously: Moe Tkacik, a blogger for Gawker Media's feminist blog, Jezebel, recently stirred the pot by writing that condomless sex "feels awesome" because she has "only really engaged in bareback sex with the types of dudes ... whose diseases I don't particularly fear, because the worst thing I can think of about most of them is the ensuing lifetime of awkward conversations." (And, occasionally, sexual empowerment is overplayed to the point of farce, in the case of a recent incident in which Moe and fellow blogger Tracie Egan shrugged off the seriousness of rape.)

But much of the finger-wagging over hooking up neglects those very reasonable concerns. For example, abstinence advocates are fond of the saying: "There is no condom for the heart." But heartbreak isn't always sexually transmitted. In the New York Times Magazine piece on chastity, prominent Harvard activist Janie Fredell lamented the hurt she'd seen women go through in their pursuit of relationships via hooking up -- as though abstaining from sex would have saved them a broken heart. If only.

I learned something from all of the men I dated. Sexually, I learned plenty about what turns me on. More important, by spending time in uncommitted relationships, what I wanted in a committed relationship became clearer -- and it wasn't amorous antagonism but a partnership that didn't trigger self-protectiveness.


I also discovered that a lot of young men are scared shitless -- of women, themselves and their future; that, contrary to our cultural imaginings, they are just as desperate to figure things out as young women. I found that a lot of the pains in the relationships of us 20-somethings can be blamed on cultural prescriptions for masculinity. Yes, there is the stud-slut double standard -- but there's also an expectation that men, unlike women, will not seek safe harbor in a relationship. No, they are supposed to bravely sail their ships beyond the singing sirens and silted waters of their quarter life until they miraculously hit land in the Real Adult World.

As Kathy Dobie wrote in reviewing Stepp's "Unhooked": "We learn less about intimacy in our youthful sex lives than we do about humanity ... Perhaps, this generation, by making sex less precious, less a commodity, will succeed in putting simple humanity back into sex." Indeed, and perhaps young women are putting feminist ideals of equality into sex by refusing shame and claiming the traditionally male side of the stud/slut double standard. Also, the idea that a woman has to test a man by withholding sex -- as many abstinence advocates actually argue -- relies on a paradigm of inequality in which women are forced to rely on such desperate power plays. It isn't that feminism has taught women to have sex like men, as the argument commonly goes, but that withholding sex isn't women's sole superpower; coitus isn't women's kryptonite.

With that in mind, I put my academic and career achievements ahead of romantic relationships, and allowed myself plenty of uncommitted entertainment along the way.

Like Broadway, I happily stayed single until I found someone who seemed truly worth the commitment; unlike Broadway, I wasn't abstinent. These can be different paths ultimately converging on the same plateau of partnership. By the same token, though, you can chastely date more men than you can count -- or sleep with every man who offers you a drink -- and not learn a damn thing about how to find a healthy relationship. We feminists do, indeed, love words like "empowerment" and "respect," but there's one we like even more: choice. The problem is that, too often, the abstinence movement prescribes a particular path, rather than encouraging young women to blaze their own trail.


A year ago, I decided to take a brief hookup hiatus and then, unexpectedly, met a man who is emotionally available and comfortably, not defensively, masculine -- I've never felt the need to challenge him to an arm-wrestling match. We're in a relationship now and he has become my best friend. He openly calls himself a feminist and, smilingly, describes our relationship as "respect run amok."

Oh, and we had sex the first night we met.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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