We as a nation are prone to moral panics where one social group—perhaps a more religious, conservative one—decries a social trend that threatens a traditional aspect of our society. If something is considered a threat to a conventional social order, especially a relationship model where monogamy and celibacy prior to marriage is the norm, we are often treated to multiple news stories and editorials and petitions expressing outrage. Most of the more recent issues that inspire such fear and ire are related to women’s sexuality—birth control access, abortion access, whether it’s appropriate for Komen to fund breast exams at Planned Parenthood, and “hook up culture.”
The issue of hook up culture is not a new one, but it’s still an ongoing source of contention and fear, especially among older adults who look at new types of relationships emerging on college campuses and feel afraid for what these changes mean.
What’s referred to as hook up culture is a cultural standard among young adults where sexual activity usually occurs outside the context of a relationship, often without the promise of a relationship occurring afterwards, and the absence of traditional dates. This is opposed to an older model in which a boy called a girl days in advance, a date was planned, he picked her up and met her parents, brought her home by 10, etc. While premarital sex or sexual activity outside of a relationship are new things, it does seem true that they are becoming more accepted.
Most of the fear surrounding so called hook up culture is based upon an evolutionary model of male and female sex differences that insist women are designed to become attached to a partner after sex and thus cannot really enjoy casual sex. The other side of the argument states that this model is outdated and both men and women are capable of enjoying casual sex or desiring monogamy, depending on the individual and the situation.
Sociologist Paula England has studied hook up culture extensively, and gave a lecture on the subject discussing her findings. (It’s a quick and really interesting 6-minute video.) In her research, she has discovered that in many areas, traditional pre-arranged one-on-one dating practically doesn’t exist, but that most sexual partners are found while socializing in groups of friends. Hooking up does not necessarily mean sexual intercourse, but may mean anything from making out to intercourse. Most hookups do not lead to relationships, but most relationships she studied did start out with hooking up. It took a “define the relationship talk” to transition between a repeated hook-up situation into a relationship situation.
Now, what interests me is not just the anatomy of hook up culture, but how does it actually affect women? According to England, the double standard of the slut vs. stud dichotomy has not gone anywhere, sadly; women were more likely to experience slurs and judgment due to their sexual behavior. Also, more men have orgasms than women in these hookups. However, in repeat hookups or ones that turned into relationships, the gap in orgasm rate between men and women diminished over time. More men than women initiated sexual contact but that does not mean the women did not want it; it may be a reflection of traditional sex roles where men are supposed to be the aggressor. England concludes that it is unclear whether a hook up culture is better or worse for women than the more traditional courtship rituals.
What seems clear to me is that our society still has much to work on when it comes to sexual equality. Even though the types of relationships, and the way they transition into relationships has changed for young adults, not enough has changed. It is not important whether young adults find sexual relationships through dating or through hooking up; I’m more concerned with a shift from a society that upholds sexist priorities to one that insists on mutual consent, sexual pleasure, and emotional honesty.