"Sex is nothing anymore. Sex doesn't mean anything. Sex is just a pleasure," says a male college student named Loden, from Florida, in the opening sequence of a new Netflix documentary about one of the key aspects of today's dating landscape: casual sex.
Obviously, not every young person is into casual sex, or able to detach themselves emotionally from the physical act of sex, but reams of research show that there has been a sea change in the dominant attitude towards sex among young people who have grown up with the internet (porn being a huge factor), the inescapable nature of sexual imagery, and dating apps.
Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution, available now on Netflix UK, makes for eye-opening viewing even if you're a member of the generation being put under the microscope and casual sex is part of your life. Award-winning filmmaker Benjamin Nolot follows groups of British and American students during spring break in the US, uncovering some of their attitudes towards sex and gender.
Your ultimate goal is to take her back and have sex with her. As a guy, that's your goal every time
"It's a totally different world nowadays. It's easy to have sex with girls, they're down just like guys are down," says an unnamed young man who sums up how the process works: "You meet a girl, you hang out with her, you flirt with her, you maybe make out with her... and then you can tell right away if she's down or not. Your ultimate goal is to take her back and have sex with her. As a guy, that's your goal every time."
Then there's the guy who boasts of sleeping with four "girls" (it's always "girls", never "women") a night, another with a bracelet pronouncing him "DTF" (down to fuck), and another who brags about enjoying the "challenge" of sleeping with virgins.
While none of this behaviour is shocking in itself – particularly if you've been on nights out in university cities in the UK – in a post #Me Too world, witnessing some of the straight male entitlement over women's bodies and the sheer brazenness of their behaviour caught on camera shows we have a long way to go.
It's no wonder that many of the women featured claim to have "given up on love" or believe it doesn't exist. Women are treated like slabs of meat, asked by the men if they "can get a hug?" (or more) and if they're "down" (for sex) within the first five minutes of meeting; they're ranked solely by their looks and are generally treated with zero respect. "Our generation has given up on love," says one young woman. "It's easier to find a fuck buddy than a boyfriend."
Dakota, a college student from Florida, says the bar for their male hookups' behaviour is so low that if a man texts them the following morning, they're considered a rare "great guy" – despite that being, by most people's standards, common courtesy. "People will completely dismiss any emotions that go along with sex because it's not supposed to matter anymore. It's not supposed to be a big thing."
Dakota's theory is that the main difference between the sexual revolution of the '60s and now is that the link between sex and emotions has been severed completely. "[Sex is] no longer about love or relationships." And that's the case for both men and women, the documentary concludes.
"Traditionally, it has been men who have driven that kind of culture. Men who have wanted to be able to 'score' without complication," says Dr. Robert Jensen, a professor of media law and ethics quoted in the documentary. In our "hookup culture", however, women are also active participants who accept the rules of the game.
To its credit, the documentary doesn't glamorise casual sex and goes some way in exploring how, for most students, it is rarely an "exciting, one-time experience full of desire and pleasure". It calls out the toxic masculinity promoted in porn, video games, music and more, as one of the main reasons why men consider their sexuality (and the number of women they've slept with) to be a key signifier of heterosexual manhood.
“Masculinity in this culture is about a notion of male strength and women play into that," says Sut Jhally, a professor of communication and founder of the Media Education Foundation. "Women are one of the ways in which [men] express that power and on whose bodies [men] express that power. Many men then become “players” to assert their place in the world, feeling the need to sleep with a lot of women to be considered a “real man”. It's through the physical act of sex that many men gain self-esteem and validate themselves among their peer groups, gaining the all-important proverbial bro fist-bump in the process, he explains.
In the same way that both women and men are disadvantaged in a patriarchal society, a hookup culture that valorises casual, emotionless sex blights these men's lives, as well as those of the women who feel objectified and pressured into acts they’re not comfortable with.
What do you mean get to know her? Get to know her name and where she’s from and then it’s down to business.
The pressure to sleep with as many women as possible brings "its own level of anxiety", says Jhally. “Men are full of these insecurities and anxieties about not measuring up,” with many feeling pressure to be sexually “on” at all times and from an increasingly young age. However, it's difficult to feel sorry for many of the men interviewed in the documentary, particularly after they reveal their tactics for sleeping with women.
“Compliment a girl, she’ll fall for it, especially with the accent,” says a British student named Ben, while another called Shep says girls are "troopers" if, "once you’ve banged them they... put their clothes on and do one.” Another asks: “What do you mean get to know her? Get to know her name and where she’s from and then it’s down to business.”
When making the film, Nolot said he was struck by the ownership the men seemed to feel over women's bodies. “It’s clear that as a society we tolerate this in all kinds of contexts. Liberated draws attention to the connection between pop culture, hookup culture and the normalisation of sexual violation. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements has brought us to a cultural tipping point, which for us makes the Liberated release exceptionally relevant.”
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