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.

Does this mean that in the interim years, women are living a depraved, libertine existence, contributing to the breakdown of social order? Hardly. In fact, women have 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. Since 2005, Paula England, a sociologist at New York University, has been collecting data from an online survey about hookups. She is up to about 20,000 responses—the largest sample to date. In her survey, college seniors report an average of 7.9 hookups over four years, but a median of only five. (“Hookups” do not necessarily involve sex; students are instructed to use whatever definition their friends use.) This confirms what other surveys have found: people at either end of the scale are skewing the numbers. Researchers guess that about a quarter of college kids skip out on the hookup culture altogether, while a similar number participate with gusto—about 10 hookups or more (the lax­titutes?). For the majority in the middle, the hookup culture is a place to visit freshman year, or whenever you feel like it, or after you’ve been through a breakup, says England. Most important, hookups haven’t wrecked the capacity for intimacy. In England’s survey, 74 percent of women and about an equal number of men say they’ve had a relationship in college that lasted at least six months.

The broad inference that people are having more sex is just wrong; teenagers today are far less likely than their parents were to have sex or get pregnant.

When they do hook up, the weepy-­woman stereotype doesn’t hold. Equal numbers of men and women—about half—report to England that they enjoyed their latest hookup “very much.” About 66 percent of women say they wanted their most recent hookup to turn into something more, but 58 percent of men say the same—not a vast difference, considering the cultural panic about the demise of chivalry and its consequences for women. And in fact, the broad inference that young people are having more sex—and not just coarser sex—is just wrong; teenagers today, for instance, are far less likely than their parents were to have sex or get pregnant. Between 1988 and 2010, the percentage of teenage girls having sex dropped from 37 to 27, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By many measures, the behavior of young people can even look like a return to a more innocent age.

Almost all of the college women Armstrong and Hamilton interviewed assumed they would get married, and were looking forward to it. In England’s survey, about 90 percent of the college kids, male and female, have said they want to get married.

One of the great crime stories of the past 20 years, meanwhile, is the dramatic decline of rape and sexual assault. Between 1993 and 2008, the rate of those crimes against females dropped by 70 percent nationally. When women were financially dependent on men, leaving an abusive situation was much harder for them. But now women who in earlier eras might have stayed in such relationships can leave or, more often, kick men out of the house. Women, argues Mike Males, a criminologist at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, “have achieved a great deal more power. And that makes them a lot harder to victimize.”

We’ve landed in an era that has produced a new breed of female sexual creature, one who acknowledges the eternal vulnerability of women but, rather than cave in or trap herself in the bell jar, instead looks that vulnerability square in the face and then manipulates it in unexpected, and sometimes hilarious, ways. In the fall of 2010, Karen Owen, a recent graduate of Duke University, became momentarily famous when her friends leaked her pornographic PowerPoint presentation cataloging her sexual exploits with 13 Duke athletes, whom she identified by name, skill, and penis size (“While he had girth on his side, the subject was severely lacking in length”). In Owen’s hands, scenes of potential humiliation were transformed into punch lines. (“Mmm tell me about how much you like big, black cocks,” Subject 6, a baseball player, told her. “But, I’ve never even hooked up with a black man!” she told him. “Oh … well, just pretend like you have,” he responded. “Umm ok … I like big, black … cocks?”)

The 2012 successor to the iconic single-girl show of a decade ago, Sex and the City, is Girls, a new HBO series created by the indie actress/filmmaker Lena Dunham, who plays the main character, Hannah. When Hannah has sex, she is not wearing a Carrie Bradshaw–style $200 couture bra and rolling in silk sheets, but hiking her shirt up over belly flesh loose enough that her boyfriend, Adam, can grab it by the fistful. In one scene, they attempt anal sex: “That feels awful.” In another, Adam spins a ridiculously degrading fantasy about Hannah as an 11-year-old hooker with a “fucking Cabbage Patch lunch box.” Hannah plays along, reluctantly. But when they’re done, she doesn’t feel deep remorse or have to detox with her girlfriends or call the police. She makes a joke about the 11-year-old, which he doesn’t get, and then goes home to rock out with her roommate to Swedish pop star Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.”

In Hannah’s charmed but falling-apart life, her encounters with Adam count as “experience,” fodder for the memoir she half-jokingly tells her parents will make her “the voice of [her] generation.” She is our era’s Portnoy, entitled and narcissistic enough to obsess about precisely how she gets off. (Adam, meanwhile, plays the role of the Pumpkin, or the Pilgrim, or the Monkey, the love or lust objects from Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint—all merely props in Portnoy’s long and comical sexual journey.) The suspense in the series is not driven by the usual rom-com mystery—will she or won’t she get her man?—because she snags him pretty early in the series. Instead it’s driven by the un­certainty of Hannah’s career—will she or won’t she fulfill her potential and become a great writer? When, in the season finale, Adam asks to move in, she rejects him. We’re left to believe that one reason is because she’s afraid he might get in the way of her bigger plans to be a writer.

There is no retreating from the hookup culture to an earlier age, when a young man showed up at the front door with a box of chocolates for his sweetheart, and her father eyed him warily. Even the women most frustrated by the hookup culture don’t really want that. The hookup culture is too bound up with everything that’s fabulous about being a young woman in 2012—the freedom, the confidence, the knowledge that you can always depend on yourself. The only option is what Hannah’s friends always tell her—stop doing what feels awful, and figure out what doesn’t.

Young men and women have discovered a sexual freedom unbridled by the conventions of marriage, or any conventions. But that’s not how the story ends. They will need time, as one young woman at Yale told me, to figure out what they want and how to ask for it. Ultimately, the desire for a deeper human connection always wins out, for both men and women. Even for those business-school women, their hookup years are likely to end up as a series of photographs, buried somewhere on their Facebook page, that they do or don’t share with their husband—a memory that they recall fondly or sourly, but that hardly defines them.


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Hanna Rosin is an Atlantic national correspondent. This story is adapted from her new book, The End of Men, out this month.

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