Usually when the old debate over whether the “hook-up culture” is damaging to girls flares up—as it has over and over again for years—it’s safe to assume that the critics are conservatives who, even when couching their argument in the language of concern for girls and female empowerment, ultimately blame feminism for unleashing the horrors of “sexual liberation” and advocate a return to tradition gender roles. But this time the concern is coming from Rachel Simmons, a feminist writer and expert on girls, who writes:
As a relationship advice columnist for Teen Vogue, I get a lot of mail from girls in “no strings attached” relationships. The girls describe themselves as “kind of” with a guy, “sort of” seeing him, or “hanging out” with him. 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.
These letters worry me. They signify a growing trend in girls’ sexual lives where they are giving themselves to guys on guys’ terms. They hook up first and ask later. The girls are expected to “be cool” about not formalizing the relationship. They repress their needs and feelings in order to maintain the connection. And they’re letting guys call the shots about when it gets serious.
The rebuttal from great minds like Kate Harding and Amanda Marcotte was swift and persuasive: Obviously the “hook-up culture” can’t be judged uniformly Good or uniformly Bad (for women or anyone) but it’s safe to assume that the problems with it—just like the problems with dating or courting in that strange yesteryear long before my time—stem from, surprise!, sexism.
As Kate points out, so much of what’s unproductive about this endless argument is that making any kind of generalization about the “hook-up culture”—that ill-defined swamp of casual (and not-so-casual) making out, having sex, falling (and not falling) in love that apparently my peers and I have been navigating for the last couple decades—is, of course, totally impossible:
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 rollercoasters or owning a dog or eating sushi — or any other subjective experience? Maybe?
The fact that these varied experiences with hooking up can all exist and be equally valid—that one lady can be perfectly happy sleeping with a different guy every weekend and another can’t imagine having sex with anyone but the person she wants to spend the rest of her life with—is the very reason that most feminists have long defended the sexual revolution against its conservative critics. Whatever its problems, the “hook-up culture,” simply by expanding the options available to young women and allowing more freedom to explore in that complicated sphere of sex and love, is an improvement on the days when only men initiated dating and only “bad” girls said “yes.”
Yet Rachel’s concern that girls are accepting casual relationships on guys’ terms is genuine—and worth considering. Certainly, social pressure to conform to the hook-up culture can be damaging for anyone—female or male—who wants a more committed relationship. And I do agree this pressure to embrace hooking up exists—if only because it’s kinda the only game in town.
But if girls feel that pressure, guys feel it twice as much. It’s simply assumed that the hook-up culture is a nothing less than every high school- and college-aged guy’s (wet) dream come true. Amidst all the concern over the damage to girls’ fragile hearts, the possibility that some guys could be looking for more than a one-night stand and might be hurt by a noncommittal girl is simply ignored. If it’s still hard for us as a culture to believe that a girl who likes casual sex isn’t simply deluding herself and repressing her true desire for a relationship, it’s perhaps even harder for us to accept that guys are also not a monolithic group of unemotional, sex-driven cavemen.
I think many in my generation are quick to offer an impassioned defense of the hook-up culture to (often) older concerned critics because we have seen—and lived—this diversity of experience; we know girls and guys who’ve been hurt by the hook-up culture and those who’ve not and everything in between. The hysteria over hooking up flattens the complexity of our histories and relationships.
However, I also know I cringe when I read the words of Rachel’s teen readers. And I know I’ve silently wished my younger sister would just forget about the wishy-washy high school boys who shouldn’t have affected her but did. And I believe Rachel when she says she worries that “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?” Because I know that’s actually a pretty hard thing to learn.
But as Kate and Amanda both point out, the underlying problem here is not the casual sex that has come to define the hook-up culture but the fact that girls are still taught (through a gazillion teen magazines and TV shows and romantic comedies and pop songs) to seek male validation and attention above all else—including their own desires. It’s not the sex but the sexism—which is not unique to the hook-up culture but pervades the entire society—that is harmful. Casual sex itself, research shows, has no effect on emotional well-being.
Which is really great, because that means we can work to fix the problems with the hook-up culture without, you know, throwing the sexual freedom out with the bath water. As Kate suggests, we can do a much better job of teaching girls to figure out what they want out—sexually and emotionally—and not be afraid to ask for it:
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.
And Amanda notes, we also need to focus on teaching “boys to appreciate girls more as human beings.” I agree. If there is one thing I hope for the next decade’s worth of debate over the hook-up culture it is this: that we do not ignore the ways boys are affected by it. This is at once insulting to them—since it assumes they are a homogenous bunch only looking to get laid—and lets them off the hook too easily—because too many of them do take advantage of girls and it should be on them to change their behavior, not on the girls to guard themselves (their hearts and their vajayjays) against it.
We can definitely do better. But even while working to make the hookup culture more equitable and satisfying for all, we also have to acknowledge that mistakes and regrets and heartbreak are part of sexual and romantic relationships—particularly those scary and confusing and wonderful first ones. As (slightly) older and wiser ladies it may sometimes be painful to see our (literal or figurative) younger sisters feel shitty after drunken hookups or cry over immature 16-year-old boys who don’t have a clue.
But as feminists we have to remember what our job is—and what it isn’t. Our job is to make sure that young people have the information and resources they need to have safe sex whenever they have it. Our job is to make sure that girls can explore their sexuality—even make missteps along the way—and not be socially punished for being “sluts.” Our job is to help ensure those immature 16-year-olds eventually grow into mature, caring men. Our job is to provide models of healthy sexual relationships of all kinds—from one-night stands to decades-long marriages. Above all, our job is to teach girls—and boys—to be emotionally resilient, learn from every experience, and keep searching for what’s right for them. Our job is not to shield young women from the risks of being human; it’s to make sure they are granted the freedom to explore their humanity as fully as possible.