Point Genuine Sexual Power
by Mark Regnerus
Counterpoint Hooking Up, Ladies, and Why Everyone Seriously Needs to Shut Up Already
by Tabitha Berry
Let’s start by being honest. The question about whether hooking up is a good idea, whether it is sex-positive or not, is largely a question for women. They’re the ones who must weigh what they want with what they can hope for in today’s competitive market for relationships. Most women prefer something more than hooking up. But given the pressures of academic achievement and career preparations, combined with the significant time investment required of real romantic relationships, hooking up is where we stand. Men, on the other hand, seem largely fine with hooking up, since their interest in sex has always been—and will always be—elevated. Relationships can wait. Jonathan Zimmerman, writing this past summer in the Chicago Tribune about the gender gap in satisfaction with hooking-up, noted how the absence of a reliable dating script plays to men’s interests:
I’ve heard plenty of my 40- and 50-something male peers complain that they were born several decades too early [and thus missed out on hooking up]. But I have never, ever heard a woman say she’d prefer today’s hooking-up system to the dating rituals we grew up with.
It’s obvious that hooking up is supplanting dating as the normal means by which romantic and sexual relationships get started. In a 2006 Rolling Stone exposé of Duke University sexual norms in the wake of accusations—later dropped—that Duke Lacrosse players raped a paid stripper, writer Janet Reitman remarked that “much to the disappointment of many students, female and male, there’s no real dating scene at Duke.” Lots of other colleges reflect this same culture. One attractive student admitted to her that she’d “never been asked out on a date in [her] entire life—not once.” She’s not alone. Not at all. For her, the script was to hang out, meet men at social functions, hookup, and—if she finds herself with a particular man for an extended period of time—eventually ask him to clarify their status. How passive and powerless. How bizarre.
Honestly. Do women really like it this way?
Some say they do. Most don’t. Some women think that power is found in generating male desire. On the contrary, most women with a pulse can generate some male desire. Or perhaps, power is found in having sex whenever and however she wants. Again, that’s not power; that’s just reality.
Instead, ambivalence—especially but not exclusively among women—remains a quiet fixture of the hookup scene on most college campuses. To be sure, sex apart from security can be fun. But truly satisfying sex will remain elusive.
How did we get here? Changes in American sexual norms have come about not simply because men and women decided to think differently about sex and relationships today, or because we value freedom more than our parents did, but because the economy and society has witnessed a remarkable reorganization in the past 60 years. In 1947, 71 percent of college students were men; today that number is only about 43 percent. When there are considerably more women on campus than men, it makes romantic relationships more difficult for women to both start and navigate successfully. They have to compete for men. And when women compete for men, guess what—men win. Ironically, then, hookup culture may actually be a passive result of this demographic shift—the growing gender imbalance on campus—rather than any active change in western sexual culture. It is, I would argue, an unintended consequence.
It’s obvious that hooking up is supplanting dating as the normal means by which romantic and sexual relationships get started.
By now, however, the hookup norm is not so easily altered. Most women don’t know how to work around it, or they fear that in doing so, men will ignore them. So plenty acquiesce. They try to put a good face on it. They tell each other things like, “it’s all good,” even when it’s not.
Unfortunately, the prospect that women will collectively demand that men actually treat them well in order for the privilege of being in her company isn’t likely anytime soon. In part that’s because women no longer need men. Like them? Yes. Need them? No. Back when they did, women protected and policed each other in the domain of relationships. This, of course, is no longer the case. Women who prefer commitment and security in their sexual relationships now can only hope for it. Not much power in that.
What to do? Give in and hook up? You can, and many will. But I wouldn’t recommend it. While I can’t assure that the road ahead to a stable relationship is guaranteed, women would do well to remember men’s secret. They want you. Badly. If women remember that sex has considerable “exchange value,” they are more apt to get what they want: security, responsibility, attention, affection, exclusivity, and commitment. That is power. It won’t be easy, since the numbers aren’t in their favor. But to give up and hookup will guarantee only sex. And that isn’t much of an accomplishment.
Policing women’s sexuality1 – what’s right with it, wrong with it, whether it’s too loose, too frigid, too premarital, extramarital, too withheld, kinky or vanilla, too oppressed or too liberated – is a favorite American pastime. The core of these national conversations does change2, but all assertions attempt to speak in absolutes about women, their experiences, and what they ought to be doing, as if there was one unquestionable answer universally best for the ladies3.
The quibbling about whether “hooking up is good for today’s young women” is not only ridiculous, but also offensive.
Allow me to pause for a moment before going any further. I want to clear something up. Women are not one homogeneous mass4. Rather, like most, we vary from person to person. I have three sisters and I can tell you right now, even though we all sport vulvas, we are entirely different people. Although this might sound obvious or even sarcastic, it is a fact I feel needs to be stated for the argument to be constructive.
The quibbling about whether “hooking up5 is good6 for today’s young women”7 is not only ridiculous, but also offensive.8 First, there is no one response that will apply to every woman. Secondly, as I often yell at the authors of articles and books on the subject: “Seriously? Do I know you? Do you know me? I’m fairly certain I count as a human being and, as such, I’m going to ask you to leave me to my business, regardless of what you think.” The question of the impact of hooking up on the fragile psyche and morality9 of young ladies is not easily thwarted.
I don’t want to come out screaming that hooking up is just dandy and what-are-you-on-about-leave-us-alone-sex-is-always-awesome! So I won’t. But I do think that it’s vital to accept women as sexual beings more than capable of making their own decisions. It is irrelevant whether or not you approve. You may be Wendy Shalit, author of Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good and A Return to Modesty: Recovering the Lost Virtue and assert that women who are mild and/or virtuous, who do want love and marriage, are the ones ostracized by their peers. You may think mystery and virtue are necessary feminine traits and girls are absolutely ruining themselves, giving it all up within days, hours, or, hey, even minutes. Or you may be Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both. She thinks casual sex is meaningless and a harbinger of lifelong detriment to the ladies’ self-esteem. Women need committed relationships for sex. That’s cool; it’s her opinion, but it’s not the universal relationship script. So shut up.
It ought to be somewhat evident that if women are sexual beings, they cannot be passive objects or possessions. And it ought to follow that if women are not simple trophies to be won, they cannot depreciate in value – no matter how many strangers they have sex with. The ‘value’ of a being is not similar to that of a car. It does not go down with age or use. This is not the popular viewpoint. There are those who absolutely believe that if a lady engages in copious sex, she is a slut10 and therefore, gross (though they might still have sex with her, just not, you know, date her.)
The messages from the media, as well as from peers, parents and others about hooking up vs. relationships are so jumbled together into one hideous, indiscernible thing it’s impossible to know what to do. Virginity is still the ideal, as feminist author and blogger Jessica Valenti points out in her book, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. There are so many myths, double standards and unrealistic manifestations of this attitude. To skim the surface, there’s abstinence-only education, being told “that’s not ladylike,” or how the female orgasm, let alone the clitoris, is not acutely discussed or understood. Society perpetuates and dictates the idea that girls don’t masturbate; they don’t even poop! When a woman is confronted and conflicted by the stigmatization of premarital sexual activity, personal sexual desire and the opportunity to hookup, what is a she to do?
How about this: it’s her decision. Perhaps with American culture as it is, it seems as if she has little say in the matter
How about this: it’s her decision. Perhaps with American culture as it is, it seems as if she has little say in the matter; she’s being bombarded! She’s subtly and overtly manipulated to want to have sex, to be single and fierce. It’s important to deconstruct why we do what we do. Some say, however, we have no free will and hookup culture is the inevitable state of college relationships. Does that mean we should stop acting? If the decision to hookup is consensual, even if the lady does actually want to date the dude – and even if she doesn’t, it is her choice. In fact, if the next day, after just wanting a hookup (score!), she decides she is looking for something more, then it’s still fine. We all have preferences, and they change. If she chooses not to hookup, then she shouldn’t have to. Neither choice will make her impure, a slut10, a prude, powerless, nor anything else other than what she already is: herself. The semantics of sexual relationships scrutinize women’s actions and choices far too seriously. So shut up already!
1 Let’s define ‘sexuality’ as one’s sexual character, as well as sexual activity [dictionary.com]
2 Take a look at discussions surrounding Victorian women’s sexuality compared to today.
3 Keep in mind here that this argument, especially when focused on hooking up, is generally conflating “women” with cisgendered, heterosexual, white, skinny, able-bodied and with a Judeo-Christian background women.
4 It would be scary if we were.
5 A loose term, “hooking up” is generally defined as non-committed sexual activity between (especially young) people, ranging from a kiss to a one-night-stand (or maybe, if you’re adventurous, an orgy.)
6 Yes. It’s a vague, moralistic term. Enjoy!
7 It’s generally agreed not to be by most in the very large and cloudy “mainstream,” where women are said to be equal members of society, while continuing to receive lower pay and shreds of respect. Seriously. I’ve heard so many arguments about how it isn’t sexist for men to hold doors open for women and how it’s a sign of respect. It’s not because they think ladies are weak or anything! It’s nice when people help others, I’ll agree. I hold the door open too. A vast majority of the men refuse to go through first, and most of those same men don’t hold doors open for women who are not conventionally attractive.
8 Don’t even mention the word ‘irony.’ I see it.
9 The hive-like psyche and morality of women.
10 “Slut” is an insult. Shalit attempts to prove that the ease with which it is exchanged between girls indicates how horribly awry and oversexed youth culture is today. These light-hearted greetings are exchanged by girls only, between themselves and their friends. It’s an in-crowd thing. (Think of jokes about race or religion.) It’s non-threatening from the inside. It doesn’t mean it’s not an insult when coming from someone else, does it?
(Think of jokes about race or religion.) It’s non-threatening from the inside. It doesn’t mean it’s not an insult when coming from someone else, does it?
About the Issue
Point author: Mark Regnerus is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying (Oxford University Press, 2011.)
Counterpoint author: Tabitha Berry is a recent graduate with a BA in Creative Writing and a minor in German from the U of M Residential College. She is a sex-positive feminist with strong interests in gender and sexuality. She likes painting, photography, printmaking, and (attempting) simple living.
Edited by: lexie tourek
Cover by: Rose Jaffe and Meirav Gebler