Sunday, November 23, 2008

On hooking up and hormones

by Josh Franklin

Following the discussions about hooking up on campus, I've become bothered by the way that this issue is typically framed. If what concerns us is a hookup culture, then why do we seem so keen to avoid talking about culture?

In her recent post "A feminist, scientific perspective on the hook-up culture", Equal Writes contributor Eva Wash discussed scientific findings revealing a gender disparity in the release of the attachment-producing hormone oxytocin in response to physical intimacy. Commenting on the article, readers were interested in debating the significance and legitimacy of this claim. How should we react to learning that women are biologically predisposed to developing emotional attachments from physical encounters? How significant is this knowledge? The answer is: not very significant at all.

Even accepting the legitimacy of this research, knowing that women are more likely to develop problematic attachments is fairly insignificant. Feminists have worked against the common error of equating the statistical predispositions of a particular group with the character of individual group members. That is, there are many men who feel the repercussions of the emotional side of the hookup culture, and there are many women who can hook up frequently without those repercussions. I don't have any evidence to substantiate this claim, but I certainly know people who fit into both categories. I also think that it's odd for a feminist perspective to rely so strongly on biological determinism.

The point that I want to make is that biology doesn't give us a particularly insightful way of looking at the emotional ramifications of the hookup culture. The ways in which the hookup culture affects those who participate in it is not defined by some essential experience of physical intimacy that is constituted entirely in biology; rather, the emotions that we have after a hookup depend heavily on what a hookup has come to mean to us on campus. Why do people hook up? How do they view themselves, and how do their peers view them, after a hookup? I think it is these considerations that ought to shape our evaluation of the hookup culture.

Why do people hook up? It's certainly true that hooking up can be physically pleasurable. However, people also want to hook up because it gives them self-confidence, because it gives them a certain recognition in the eyes of their peers, because it gains them acceptance in a certain group or cultivates favor with a particular individual, because they believe that it's normal or that it's normative, because they need to confront their sexual insecurities, and so on. Participants in the hookup culture will necessarily react emotionally by referring their experience to the emotional needs -- the motivations -- that made them want to hook up in the first place. I'm not denying that the biological reality of sexual pleasure lies at the core of hooking up.

Rather, I want to call attention to the fact that the emotional response of someone who hooks up because he/she feels that all of her friends are doing it and that she needs to to fit in is going to exceed the issues caused by emotional attachment to a physical partner. Do we really need to measure levels of oxytocin to figure out that people want other people, that we want to have intimate relationships? It's sad that our dialogue on the hookup culture has replaced a deep window into the intersection of human intimacy, sexuality, and a culture of post-feminist promiscuity with a discourse dominated by biological statistics and moralizing language of propriety and freedom.

Findings about oxytocin and attachment are certainly interesting and probably valuable in some respect. However, the way in which they have been inserted into the debate on the hookup culture reflects the unfounded assumption that hooking up can be characterized merely as casual sexual encounters or the search for pure physical pleasure. Certainly those descriptions are salient in the explicit characterizations of what a hookup is. However, I want to call attention to the fact that on this campus hooking up follows a script of sorts, although it is an unwritten and only vaguely consistent script.

There are certain behaviors that are visible as 'normal hooking up'; they involve the street, alcohol, and a variety of other subtle performances between the two partners. I think that in order to understand how people react to their hookups, it's necessary for us to understand this script and how hooking up has come to signify for us more than just pure, casual pleasure. The way that we experience hookups is very interesting; much more interesting than a insight-less study claiming merely that women have more of a certain attachment-producing hormone following hooking up.

I've talked to a lot of people about their experiences with hookups, and they've said a lot of fascinating things, but nobody has ever mentioned oxytocin. Even if we take the oxytocin study seriously -- and we really ought to -- we are doing the discourse on the hookup culture a disservice by ignoring the experiences of those who participate in that culture.


At November 24, 2008 at 3:00 PM , Blogger Susan said...

The release of the hormone oxytocin does have a real physiological effect on both men and women during intimacy. In men, testosterone largely tamps down the effect, while women experience it fully. It is, however, only one of many factors that affect how men and women experience casual sex differently. Of course there are women who enjoy hooking up and men who don't. But the research does, in fact, show that the majority of women feel regretful and confused after hooking up. They don't object to hooking up per se, but wish that it led to relationships more often (rather than 12% of the time). Research also shows that the majority of men are delighted with the hookup script, and the ready access to sex that it provides. Of course, studies cannot conclude anything about a particular individual, but important work is being done in this area that enables us to understand better the impact that hooking up has on levels of depression, self-esteem, STD incidence, etc. in women. Check out my blog at
Susan A. Walsh


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