Boys on the Side

The hookup culture that has largely replaced dating on college campuses has been viewed, in many quarters, as socially corrosive and ultimately toxic to women, who seemingly have little choice but to participate. Actually, it is an engine of female progress—one being harnessed and driven by women themselves.
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The business-­school women I met were in an extreme situation. Wall Street culture had socialized them to tolerate high degrees of sexual crudeness, and they were also a decade past the tentative explorations of their freshman year. But they are merely the most purified sample of a much larger group of empowered college-age women. Even freshmen and sophomores are not nearly as vulnerable as we imagine them to be.

“Rather than struggling to get into relationships,” Armstrong reported, college women “had to work to avoid them.”

On a mild fall afternoon in 2011, I sat in a courtyard with some undergraduates at Yale to ask about their romantic lives. A few months earlier, a group of mostly feminist-minded students had filed a Title IX complaint against the university for tolerating a “hostile sexual environment on campus.” The students specifically cited a 2010 incident when members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity stood outside freshman dorms chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!” I’d heard this phrase before, from the business-school students, of course: on spring break, they had played a game called “dirty rounds”—something like charades, except instead of acting out movie or book titles, they acted out sex slogans like the one above, or terms like pink sock (what your anus looks like after too much anal sex). But the Yale undergraduates had not reached that level of blitheness. They were incensed. The week before I arrived, an unrelated group of students ran a letter in the campus paper complaining that the heart of the problem was “Yale’s sexual culture” itself, that the “hookup culture is fertile ground for acts of sexual selfishness, in­sensitivity, cruelty and malice.”

At Yale I heard stories like the ones I had read in many journalistic accounts of the hookup culture. One sorority girl, a junior with a beautiful tan, long dark hair, and a great figure, whom I’ll call Tali, told me that freshman year she, like many of her peers, was high on her first taste of the hookup culture and didn’t want a boyfriend. “It was empowering, to have that kind of control,” she recalls. “Guys were texting and calling me all the time, and I was turning them down. I really enjoyed it! I had these options to hook up if I wanted them, and no one would judge me for it.” But then, sometime during sophomore year, her feelings changed. She got tired of relation­ships that just faded away, “no end, no beginning.” Like many of the other college women I talked with, Tali and her friends seemed much more sexually experienced and knowing than my friends at college. They were as blasé about blow jobs and anal sex as the one girl I remember from my junior year whom we all considered destined for a tragic early marriage or an asylum. But they were also more innocent. When I asked Tali what she really wanted, she didn’t say anything about commitment or marriage or a return to a more chival­rous age. “Some guy to ask me out on a date to the frozen-­yogurt place,” she said. That’s it. A $3 date.

But the soda-fountain nostalgia of this answer quickly dissipated when I asked Tali and her peers a related question: Did they want the hookup culture to go away—might they prefer the mores of an earlier age, with formal dating and slightly more obvious rules? This question, each time, prompted a look of horror. Reform the culture, maybe, teach women to “advocate for themselves”—a phrase I heard many times—but end it? Never. Even one of the women who had initiated the Title IX complaint, Alexandra Brodsky, felt this way. “I would never come down on the hookup culture,” she said. “Plenty of women enjoy having casual sex.”

Books about the hookup culture tend to emphasize the frustration that results from transient sexual encounters, stripped of true intimacy: “A lot of [boys] just want to hook up with you and then never talk to you again … and they don’t care!” one woman complains to Kathleen Bogle in Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. “That might not stop you [from hooking up,] because you think: ‘This time it might be different.’ ” From her interviews with 76 college students, Bogle also deduces that the double standard is alive and well. Men tally “fuck points” on their frat-house bulletin boards. Women who sleep with “too many” men are called “houserats” or “lax­titutes” (a term of art denoting women who sleep with several guys on the lacrosse team) or are deemed “HFH,” meaning “hot for a hookup” but definitely not for anything more. The hookup culture, writes Bogle, is a “battle of the sexes” in which women want relationships and men want “no strings attached.”

But it turns out that these sorts of spotlight interviews can be misleading. Talk to an individual 19-year-old woman such as Tali on a given day, and she may give you an earful of girl trouble. But as her girlfriend might tell her after a teary night, you have to get some perspective. Zoom out, and you see that for most women, the hookup culture is like an island they visit, mostly during their college years and even then only when they are bored or experimenting or don’t know any better. But it is not a place where they drown. The sexual culture may be more coarse these days, but young women are more than adequately equipped to handle it, because unlike the women in earlier ages, they have more-important things on their minds, such as good grades and intern­ships and job interviews and a financial future of their own. The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relation­ships that don’t get in the way of future success.

Some women had fake boyfriends, whom they considered sub–marriage quality. “I don’t want anyone else to influence what I do after I graduate.”

In 2004, Elizabeth Armstrong, then a sociologist at Indiana University, and Laura Hamilton, a young graduate student, set out to do a study on sexual abuse in college students’ relationships. They applied for permission to interview women on a single floor of what was known as a “party dorm” at a state university in the Midwest. About two-thirds of the students came from what they called “more privileged” backgrounds, meaning they had financial support from their parents, who were probably college-educated themselves. A third came from less privileged families; they supported themselves and were probably the first in their family to go to college. The researchers found their first day of interviewing so enlightening that they decided to ask the administration if they could stay on campus for four years and track the 53 women’s romantic lives.

Women in the dorm complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic,” Armstrong writes, because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career. “If I want to maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with,” one woman told Armstrong, “I have to work. I just don’t see myself being someone who marries young and lives off of some boy’s money.” Or from another woman: “I want to get secure in a city and in a job … I’m not in any hurry at all. As long as I’m married by 30, I’m good.”

The women still had to deal with the old-fashioned burden of protecting their personal reputations, but in the long view, what they really wanted to protect was their future professional reputations. “Rather than struggling to get into relationships,” Armstrong reported, women “had to work to avoid them.” (One woman lied to an interested guy, portraying herself as “extremely conservative” to avoid dating him.) Many did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.

Armstrong and Hamilton had come looking for sexual victims. Instead, at this university, and even more so at other, more prestigious universities they studied, they found the opposite: women who were managing their romantic lives like savvy headhunters. “The ambitious women calculate that having a relationship would be like a four-credit class, and they don’t always have time for it, so instead they opt for a lighter hookup,” Armstrong told me.

The women described boyfriends as “too greedy” and relation­ships as “too involved.” One woman “with no shortage of admirers” explained, “I know this sounds really pathetic and you probably think I am lying, but there are so many other things going on right now that it’s really not something high up on my list … I know that’s such a lame-ass excuse, but it’s true.” The women wanted to study or hang out with friends or just be “100 percent selfish,” as one said. “I have the rest of my life to devote to a husband or kids or my job.” Some even purposely had what one might think of as fake boyfriends, whom they considered sub–marriage quality, and weren’t genuinely attached to. “He fits my needs now, because I don’t want to get married now,” one said. “I don’t want anyone else to influence what I do after I graduate.”

The most revealing parts of the study emerge from the interviews with the less privileged women. They came to college mostly with boyfriends back home and the expectation of living a life similar to their parents’, piloting toward an early marriage. They were still fairly conservative and found the hookup culture initially alienating (“Those rich bitches are way slutty” is how Armstrong summarizes their attitude). They felt trapped between the choice of marrying the kind of disastrous hometown guy who never gets off the couch, and will steal their credit card—or joining a sexual culture that made them uncomfortable. The ones who chose the first option were considered the dorm tragedies, women who had succumbed to some Victorian-style delusion. “She would always talk about how she couldn’t wait to get married and have babies,” one woman said about her working-class friend. “It was just like, Whoa. I’m 18 … Slow down. You know? Then she just crazy dropped out of school and wouldn’t contact any of us … The way I see it is that she’s from a really small town, and that’s what everyone in her town does … [they] get married and have babies.”

Most of the women considered success stories by their dormmates had a revelation and revised their plan, setting themselves on what was universally considered the path to success. “Now I’m like, I don’t even need to be getting married yet [or] have kids,” one of the less privileged women told the researchers in her senior year. “All of [my brother’s] friends, 17-to-20-year-old girls, have their … babies, and I’m like, Oh my God … Now I’ll be able to do something else for a couple years before I settle down … before I worry about kids.” The hookup culture opened her horizons. She could study and work and date, and live on temporary intimacy. She could find her way to professional success, and then get married.

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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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