What Does "Hookup Culture" Really Mean? And Is It A Good Thing?

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Much like "having it all," the term "hook-up culture" is one of those phrases that gets bandied about far too easily — and in many cases, thoughtlessly. You've heard it deplored as an apocalypse of traditional values, lauded as proof that women are finally seizing sexual liberation, and dropped into research journals in a questionable attempt at appearing hip. This vague, ill-defined phrase is quite the source of contention — much to the annoyance of many college students who are just doing what feels natural.
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For our part, we will always side with any system that allows women to explore their sexuality in whatever way feels most comfortable. So, while we're pleased that this recent feature in The Atlantic, by Hannah Rosin, takes the view that "hookup culture" provides an opportunity for young women to experience true sexual freedom, the author's underlying attitude toward sexual culture at American colleges and universities is actually even more interesting to us than her thesis.
The women in this article — some interviewed directly by the author and others quoted from various books, studies and articles — are generally portrayed as being in opposition to casual sex. Either they have been "socialized" to "tolerate" a high level of sexual crudity by their experiences in business school and on Wall Street, or they are desperately trying to deal with the prolonged lack of intimacy of a string of one-night stands.
Though they may be owning it in on the surface, Rosin does not allow these female students a psychological and social ownership of their status as players in the hookup game. But that's probably more symptomatic of society's general attitude towards women and sex than Rosin's own bias — and she does do her part to combat those attitudes. She notes that statistically, just as many young men as women report wanting more intimacy in their relationships, and she gives women today credit for having "...vastly more control over their actions and appetites than we have been led to believe. You could even say that what defines this era is an unusual amount of sexual control and planning."
That said, we do take issue with Rosin's apparent conflation of sexual abuse and intolerance with a culture of casual sex. She shares one university's story of frat boys chanting "no means yes" outside of freshman dorms, and of course, we heartily agree that that sort of behavior is intolerable. But precisely what place does it have in this article? While it's perhaps natural that such an incident would come up in a discussion with college students about the sexual atmosphere on American campuses, we think this piece does a disservice to women by inferring that this kind of disgusting faux-machismo is a natural consequence of engaging in casual sex. Blurring the line between a community's tolerance of sexual flexibility and its fostering of abusive or inappropriate behavior endangers the agency that feminists (both male and female) have worked to gain for decades. If we're not careful to separate sexual freedom and sexual deviance (like insults, harassment, and rape), we risk losing that freedom altogether — all in the name of safety.
We're not saying Rosin didn't do her research; she's clearly well-informed on the subject. But information is no substitute for experience, and we can't help but think that if this article had been written by a college student who was living and breathing the culture in question, it might have felt a bit more honest to the experience. The real problem with the whole idea of "hookup culture" as an academic term is that we so rarely hear from the actual women (and men!) who participate in it. Sure, they're interviewed on occasion and studied in psych labs, with their answers recorded in polls and surveys. But when will magazines like The Atlantic, magazines that love to comment on this section of culture despite having a staff mostly dissociated from it, start featuring articles featuring opinions coming straight from the horse's mouth?
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Let's start in the comments: tell us, college kids and recent grads: how does so-called hookup culture affect you?
Photo: Courtesy of United Colors of Benetton.
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