As a relationship advice columnist for Teen Vogue, I get a lot of mail from girls in “no strings attached” relationships. The girls describe themselves as “kind of” with a guy, “sort of” seeing him, or “hanging out” with him. The guy may be noncommittal, or worse, in another no-strings relationship. In the meantime, the girls have “fallen” for him or plead with me for advice on how to make him come around and be a real boyfriend.
These letters worry me. They signify a growing trend in girls’ sexual lives where they are giving themselves to guys on guys’ terms. They hook up first and ask later. The girls are expected to “be cool” about not formalizing the relationship. They repress their needs and feelings in order to maintain the connection. And they’re letting guys call the shots about when it gets serious.
My concern led me to Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus by sociologist Kathleen A. Bogle. It’s both a short history of dating culture and a study of the sexual habits of men and women on two college campuses. Hooking Up is a nonjudgmental window into the relational and sexual challenges facing young women today. It’s also a fascinating read.
Bogle opens with some downright cool history: In the first decade of the twentieth century, a young man could only see a woman of interest if she and her mother permitted him to “call” on them together. In other words, the women controlled the event.
Cut to a hundred years later: in today’s hook up culture, physical appearance, status and gender conformity determine who gets called on, and Jack, a sophomore, tells Bogle about party life at school: “Well, talking amongst my friends, we decided that girls travel in threes: there’s the hot one, there’s the fat one, and there’s the one that’s just there.” Er, we’ve come a long way, baby.
Like the girls who write to me at Teen Vogue, most of the women Bogle interviewed crammed their dreams of a boyfriend into casual connections determined entirely by the guys. Susan, a first year student, has a typical story: “…We started kissing and everything and then he never talked about…having it be a relationship. But I wanted…in my mind [I was thinking] like: ‘I want to be his girlfriend. I want to be his girlfriend.’….I didn’t want to bring it up and just [say] like: ‘So where do we stand?’ because I know guys don’t like that question.” Susan slept with the guy several times, never expressed her feelings, and ended the “relationship” hurt and dissatisfied.
Bogle’s interview subjects cope by using mental tricks like denial and fantasy to rationalize their choices, even going so far as to “fool themselves into believing they have a relationship when this is actually not the case.” They try to carve out emotional attachments within relationship categories determined by guys – “booty calls,” “friends with benefits,” etc. You can pretty much guess how that ends up.
According to Bogle, in the “dating era” (just the use of the word “era” tells you where college dating has gone), men asked women on dates with the hope that something sexual might happen at the end. Now, Bogle explains, “the sexual norm is reversed. College students…become sexual first and then maybe go on a date someday.”
So what’s the deal here? Is a world in which guys rule the result of the so-called man shortage on campus? Fat chance. More likely, we’re enjoying some unintended spoils of the sexual revolution. As authors like Ariel Levy and Jean Kilbourne and Diane Levin have shown, the sexualization of girls and young women has been repackaged as girl power. Sexual freedom was supposed to be good for women, but somewhere along the way, the right to be responsible for your own orgasm became the privilege of being responsible for someone else’s.
Which is exactly what’s playing out on today’s college campuses. College men, Bogle writes, “are in a position of power,” where they control the intensity of relationships and determine if and when a relationship will become serious. In case you haven’t caught on yet, us liberated girls are supposed to call this “progress.”
To be sure, although it may be a form of “enlightened sexism,” the hook up culture kicks it old school when it comes to the sexual double standard. Bogle writes that the system is “fraught with pitfalls that can lead to being labeled a ‘slut.’” Hook up with too many guys in the same frat, or go too far on the first hook up, drink too much, act too crazy, dress revealing…you know the drill. It’s high school with a better fake ID. Women who went too far and hit the trip wire were “severely stigmatized” by men. Liberating indeed.
Now, just to be clear, I’m all for the freedom to hook up. But let’s face it: despite our desire to give women the freedom to plunder the bar scene and flex their sexual appetites, it would appear a whole lot of them are pretty happy playing by old school rules, thank you very much. Incidentally, one of the women smart enough to figure this out just sold her 5 billionth book, or something like that.
Does that make me a right-winger? Can I still be a feminist and say that I’m against this brand of sexual freedom? I fear feminism has been backed into a corner here. It’s become antifeminist to want a guy to buy you dinner and hold the door for you. Yet – picture me ducking behind bullet proof glass as I type this — wasn’t there something about that framework that made more space for a young woman’s feelings and needs?
What, and who, are we losing to the new sexual freedom? I realize a guy buying you dinner is not the only alternative to the hook up culture (and I, like Bogle, am not discussing the lives of GLTBQ students here). Still, the question bears asking. Is this progress? Or did feminism get really drunk, go home with the wrong person, wake up in a strange bed and gasp, “Oh, God?”
Worth noting is one of Bogle’s more alarming findings: young women inaccurately perceive how often and how far their peers are going to hook up. Bogle reports that, despite a 2001 study setting the virginity rate among college students between 25 and 39 percent, the beliefs that “everyone’s doing it” and “I’m the only virgin” are powerful influences on the sexual choices of young women.
Girls are no stranger to hook up culture, as my Teen Vogue readers demonstrate. So here’s my fear: if they get too comfortable deferring to “kind of” and “sort of” relationships, when do they learn to act on desire and advocate for themselves sexually? Will they import these patterns of repressing thoughts and feelings into the more formal dating arrangements that follow after college? Will young women feel pressure not to challenge hook up culture because it appears uncool, unfeminine or antifeminist? (hint, hint: college women, please comment and let me know if I’m off here.)
This book opened my eyes to the need to begin teaching girls to pull back the curtain on the all-powerful hook up culture and deconstruct its terms and conditions. I, for one, am hard at work on lesson plans.
UPDATE: In Which I Get Taken On and Schooled in Mostly Awesome Ways – Don’t miss Salon Broadsheet’s inimitable Kate Harding responding critically to my piece. Nona Willis Aronowitz offers an honest and compelling perspective on the importance of learning hard lessons about sex. I want to make a billboard out of Feministing Community’s Maya Dusenberry’s poetic take on what a feminist’s responsibility is today (it’s the last paragraph). Amanda Marcotte sends up a searing rebuke. For another challenge, check out blogger Jaclyn Friedman’s post on a recent study that says casual sex does not damage young men or women psychologically. Finally, blogger Per rips me a new one here.
Rachel Simmons is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. As an educator and coach, Rachel works internationally to develop strategies to address bullying and empower girls.