Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thoughts on the "hookup culture"

[The author of this piece has chosen to remain anonymous]

I wrote this shortly before the school year began:

From what I’ve seen and experienced, hooking up can be a fun, great, exciting experience, but for some people, it can also seem empty and meaningless.

I don’t hook up anymore. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was uncomfortable with the reality of one-night stands. When presented with the opportunity, I wanted to get to know the person, and that just doesn’t lend itself well to alcohol-fueled, physical encounters. But that’s just me. I know plenty of people who enjoy the hook up scene precisely because there are no strings attached.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I had a hook-up that followed up. It didn’t work out. My closest male friend also has an unsuccessful tendency to pursue his hook-ups. This is not the norm, but it does color my perceptions.

There are people in this school that are looking for real relationships, and they’re not all members of the Anscombe Society. If you suspect that you’re one of them, I would stay away from the hook up scene, or experiment just enough to find out.

Having said that, I don’t regret finding out.

Just a few weeks later, I feel that I can’t stand behind these words, because I did hook up again despite telling myself that I wouldn’t. Why would I do such a thing?

Well, alcohol played a role, but alcohol is no excuse. I guess it was a matter of opportunity. The right boy was there at the right time, and yes, I knew him, and yes, I had feelings for him, and when the emotion is there already, having a little bit of casual fun doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

I’m not saying that hook-ups are a bad idea. They are different for everyone, and affect everyone differently. Some of my best friends hook up on a regular basis while others believe in abstinence until marriage. To each her own.

However, I am saying that my thoughts on pre-marital sex, and by extension, on the hook-up culture, were heavily influenced by my thoughts on feminism, prior to having actually experienced hook-ups. By this, I mean that I was under the mistaken impression that feminism meant sexual liberation which meant that just following the urges of your body was enough, and plenty of women could separate sex and emotion, so why couldn’t I? This was my thought process when I encountered my first hook-up.

I’m not here to talk about nonsense like oxytocin, or even discuss morality and ethics. But I am here to say there is some truth in the assumption that women (and men, actually) can get hurt by the hook-up culture. I’ve seen people get hurt and I’ve been hurt by it, too. For me, at least, it’s not as fun and carefree as some people make it out to be. As a result of my experiences, I can honestly say that I never want to have sex outside of a relationship ever again.

And yeah, for a while, I did blame my feminist views on causing me so much pain. Maybe men and women do process things differently? Maybe women are prone to emotion, or maybe women do need to be taken care of, shielded from such things? I mean, how could I hurt so much when I had walked into the situation thinking that it was a one-night stand, trying my hardest not to care, and trying to enjoy my body for the sake of enjoyment?

But maybe it’s just me.

Intellectually, I know that there are women who enjoy the hook-up scene. Yeah, women enjoy sex too, guys, even casual sex sometimes. But these women, unlike me, have frameworks that make this a comfortable experience for them. Maybe they can distance themselves from the situation, or maybe they’re just not inclined to bond as quickly. Who knows? They should be able to express their sexuality as they see fit without fearing being called a slut or a whore.

Hell, I’m still a sex-positive feminist in that I don’t judge others for their actions. I’m just saying that after my experimentation, I know that I have to follow the traditional pattern—yes, I do want dinner dates and a kiss at the third date—to be emotionally comfortable. This pattern is pretty incompatible with the dating/relationship scene at Princeton. C’est la vie. But I think I’ll be ok.


At September 22, 2009 at 12:24 PM , Blogger Emily Rutherford said...

In your penultimate paragraph, you use the phrase "hookup scene," which is great. I think it's a much better way of describing a network of casual sex relationships than "culture," which makes casual sex out to be something insidious and endemic to college life. The thing is, it's not, at least in my experience, and your evaluation of hooking up as something that people can choose to participate in, or not, and can choose to be affected by, or not, seems far more accurate to me.

At September 25, 2009 at 1:35 PM , Anonymous AC said...

People need moral boundaries, and when culture becomes a relativistic do-as-thou-wilt morass, it becomes easy to take the short-term gratification, easy way out. Fancy handwaving is easy in blog posts but the reality of human behavior bites.

At September 25, 2009 at 5:55 PM , Anonymous Angela said...

Men sleep around; it is the duty of women to do the same. As every Feminist knows, there are no innate differences between the sexes, and to perpetuate an ideal that is any less permissive as male sexuality is Patriarchal.

At September 26, 2009 at 8:53 AM , Blogger Franklinster said...

Angela -

I'm not sure if you're being sarcastic in your comment, so forgive me if this is unnecessarily adversarial.

There is a difference between the idea that men sleep around and the idea that society permits men to be promiscuous. The latter is generally true, although not everywhere. The former, however, is not true. There are many men who do not "sleep around". Again, sorry if you are being sarcastic, but I would like to ask you to not stereotype a huge group of diverse individuals.

At September 27, 2009 at 4:24 AM , Blogger Giancarlo said...


Thank you for pointing that out, that had been bothering me for a while.

And Angela, whether you're serious and are just really passionate, or sarcastic, I don't mean to offend, but another interesting thing to notice about the argument here is that:

Men do x

Women should do the same as men

Therefore women should do x

Now, that's definitely valid, but i think soundness comes into question with the second assertion. What if some women think men that sleep around are bad, and instead of emulating them wish to be who they wish to be. After all, is it really the DUTY of women to do the same as men, much less sleep around. I mean, I like to think that as a feminist, a woman's duty is to do what she deliberately and thoughtfully thinks is her duty...

But then, duty is such a heavy word. To who is her duty? God, Self, Family, Friends, Country, Society, Humanity...Ideology? Which ones? Order? Dare I ask, WHY?

At September 29, 2009 at 2:40 PM , Anonymous Dan said...

"I’m not saying that hook-ups are a bad idea."

This statement begs the question: why not? You've just amassed a ton of evidence that demonstrates that hook-ups are in fact a very bad idea. Perhaps you hesitate to draw this obvious (to me) conclusion because you've left something crucial out of the moral calculus you just presented. If your topic had been cliff hanging, you might have said that you tried cliff hanging, and it was amazingly thrilling, but you found out that you just couldn't do it without falling down and breaking your legs, and thus you concluded that it wasn't right for you. But you wouldn't want to conclude that it was a bad idea for everyone, because clearly some people can do it without falling down, and it's really up to each individual to decide how much risk she wants to take, etc. But cliff hanging is a poor analogy for hooking up, because in hooking up you use another person (rather than a mere object, like a cliff) as a means to an end (eg. your own sexual pleasure) and that other person also uses you in a similar fashion. You are reducing another person, and yourself, to the status of a mere object, and that is why it is wrong. You feel horrible afterwards because you understand that you have been used. But even for someone who can walk away without feeling horrible, it is still wrong to use another person and to allow oneself to be used.

I don't think your feminist views are to blame for causing you pain, but rather a certain brand of liberal ideology that unfortunately seems to be embraced by many on campus who call themselves feminists.

Although I don't know you, I do feel for you and I hope you will be OK.

At September 29, 2009 at 3:19 PM , Blogger Emily Rutherford said...


Hanging off cliffs is such a specious analogy that places a moral weight on hooking up that you fail to support. You're making a lot of totally unfounded assumptions about the author's mental state; reading through her post again, I can't find your insinuations of brokenness and trauma anywhere in her text and the language she uses.

One negative experience hooking up is not an indictment of an entire, as the writer of this post says, "scene." It's a critique of a specific version, or perspective, of that experience. To my mind it reads as a suggestion that said scene can be improved upon--not necessarily done away with in a manner which implies insubstantiated moral condemnation.

At September 29, 2009 at 7:57 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


"I can't find your insinuations of brokenness and trauma anywhere in her text and the language she uses."

The analogy was not necessarily intended to convey the level of brokenness, but rather the risk-benefit calculation that enters into a decision about whether to engage in such behaviour. My main point was that this calculation leaves out an essential feature of the hook-up, namely that one uses another person as a mere means to and end.

At September 29, 2009 at 9:32 PM , Blogger Emily Rutherford said...

Surely if it's consensual, that reduction of a person to physicality is okay? If both people agree that they're in it for sex and nothing else, that's not harming anyone.

At September 30, 2009 at 8:35 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


I'm not sure if "reduction of a person to physicality" really captures what I mean by "using".

"Using" occurs when you treat another person as a means toward an end, subordinating the value of the person to the value of that end. In a hook-up, that is exactly what takes place: you treat the other person as a means for obtaining sexual pleasure. In contrast, when you value the whole person, you long for that person's good, and not just for that person as a good for yourself.

Sexual attraction, sexual pleasure, desire, etc. are all good, but none of these things is worthy of being treated as an end in itself, and none should be given priority over the value of the person. Everyone wants to be appreciated for who they are and not merely for the value of the pleasure they provide.

So, I think "using" is wrong even if both people agree and there are absolutely no misunderstandings. On top of that, the reality of human nature is such that sexual relationships are rife with opportunities for misaligned expectations, with a person's deepest feelings at stake. And that's when a person really gets hurt very badly.

Each of us has the responsibility to ensure that our actions do not compromise another person. I just don't see how anyone can engage in hook-ups without shirking that responsibility.

At September 30, 2009 at 9:50 PM , Blogger Emily Rutherford said...

I guess maybe we just disagree on the basic premise, Dan. I don't have a problem with the acknowledgment that Person A is seeking sexual satisfaction and not emotional fulfillment from Person B, as long as Person B acknowledges that too and agrees. I think it's presuming too much about any given person's situation to assume that hookups are always emotionally damaging, since I think many people who do hook up would posit that they're not doing something damaging or even unsatisfying. Sex is a biological instinct in the same way that seeking out food or shelter is, and I don't see an inherent problem with that desire existing separately of emotional commitment.

Of course, if you disagree, then we're not going to get anywhere in terms of convincing the other person of the logic of our respective positions! :)

At October 1, 2009 at 8:01 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


You don't have to assume that hook-ups are *always* emotionally damaging in order to reach the same conclusion as me. If you are going to hook up with someone you don't know, then you have no idea what the effect on them is going to be. If you proceed anyway, you are really saying that you don't give a d*mn.

The reality is that most people cannot separate sex from bonding. Some of us believe it was meant to be that way, and it is destructive to try to force things to be otherwise.


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