A lot of women and men are dissatisfied with hook-up culture. Here's a way to encourage an alternative.
In the spring of 2008, when I was a junior in college, I was sitting in the student center, waiting to meet up with a friend—let's call her Nicole—for coffee. Nicole was a freshman girl who had graduated from an elite northeastern high school at the top of her class. She came to school hoping to study economics. In the nine months that had passed since she first stepped foot on campus, she had become a different person. She talked less. She stopped exercising. And she started walking around with her eyes to the ground. The lively girl I had known in the fall, who reminded me of so many freshman girls I had met as editor of a campus publication and vice president of my sorority, had recently been placed on suicide watch by the university health clinic.
What had happened?
Not long after she arrived on campus in September, Nicole had started hooking up with a guy who belonged to one of the more popular fraternities on campus. As she explained to me over coffee that day, one night in the fall, she got drunk and ended up having sex with this guy in his dingy frat room, which was littered with empty cans of Keystone Light and pizza boxes. She woke up the next morning to find a used condom tangled up in the sheets. She couldn't remember exactly what had happened that night, but she put the pieces together. She smiled, looked at the frat brother, and lay back down. Eventually, she put her clothes on and walked back to her dorm. Mission accomplished: She was no longer a virgin.
This was a routine she repeated for months. Every weekend night, and on some weekday nights, she would drink so heavily that she could remember only patches of what happened the night before and then would have sex with the same fraternity brother. One night, she was talking with someone else at the frat when the brother interrupted her and led her upstairs to have sex. On another occasion, they had sex at the frat, but Nicole was too drunk to find her clothes afterward, so she started walking around the house naked, to the amusement of all of the other brothers. She was too drunk to care. Eventually, everything went dark. Next weekend, she returned to the frat.
On that spring day, as Nicole told me these stories, she didn't make eye contact with me.
When I asked Nicole if she was still hooking up with the same frat boy, she shook her head. She explained that the entire time she was having sex with him he never once spoke to her or acknowledged her outside of his fraternity's basement. Not in the library, not in the dining hall, not at the bookstore.
"One time, I waved at him in front of the food court and said hi, but he just ignored me."
"Was he with anyone?" I asked—as though that would make a difference.
"A bunch of his friends."
I later told Nicole's story to a close guy friend. "What a jerk, right?" My friend, also a frat brother, objected: "After the first time, it starts becoming the girl's fault, too." Nicole and the frat brother were just hooking up, after all—what didn't I get?
In her Atlantic article "Boys on the Side" (September 2012), Hanna Rosin argues that the social progress of women depends on the hook-up culture. Women in their 20s and 30s are, for the first time, more successful than their male peers. These alpha females not only outnumber men on college campuses, they have also overtaken men as the majority of the work force. This would not have been possible without sexual liberation, which has let women delay marriage and child-rearing to pursue their educational and career ambitions without worrying about the emotional burdens of a relationship. Women are better off in part because of the hook-up culture, the argument goes.
But are they really?
On most college campuses, the hook-up culture is the norm; there is little to no dating. Various academic studies have found that anywhere between 65 to 75 percent of undergraduates nationwide have participated in the hook-up culture. Part of the reason the culture is so widespread is, as Rosin correctly notes, because women are choosing to have casual sex. But in another respect, they don't have a choice. Women make the hook-up culture possible, but men are the beneficiaries of it.
The balance of power in the hook-up culture lies with the men, an issue that has become more pronounced as women outnumber men on campuses, creating a surplus of girls and a scarcity of guys. According to a 2010 report by the American Council on Education, 57 percent of all undergraduates are female. Robert Epstein, a professor of psychology at Harvard and an expert in relationships, said in an interview with me that the more women there are on campus, the more prevalent the hook-up culture is: "You have a situation in which relationships are bound to fail and men keep switching off from one woman to the next," he told me. What motivation do men have to ask women out on a date when sex is so widely and easily available?
The feminist sociologist Lisa Wade, based at Occidental College, who did a qualitative study of 44 of her freshman students (33 of them women), found that most of them were "overwhelmingly disappointed with the sex they were having in hook ups. This was true of both men and women, but was felt more intensely by women." College women today, as Wade points out, feel "disempowered instead of empowered by sexual encounters. They didn't feel like equals on the sexual playground, more like jungle gyms." According to a 2010 study by Carolyn Bradshaw of James Madison University, only 2 percent of women strongly prefer the hook-up culture to a dating culture.
Miriam Grossman, author of the 2006 book Unprotected, reports that women long for emotional involvement with their partner twice as often as men following a hook up; 91 percent of women experience regret; 80 percent of women wish the hook-up hadn't happened; and 34 percent of women hope the hook-up develops into a relationship. NYU sociologist Paula England, whom Rosin cites, says that 66 percent of women and 58 percent of men want their hook up to develop into "something more."
When it doesn't, problems arise. A 2010 psychology study out of Florida State University found that students who have casual sex experience more physical and mental health problems, defined as eating disorders, alcohol use, stress, depression, suicidal feelings, than those who are in committed long-term relationships. Put bluntly, the ethos of the culture is: "Hook up now; get therapy later," as one of my fellow students, writing in the campus newspaper her sophomore year, declared.
Rosin admits that the hook-up culture is not satisfying to all college women, who eventually want relationships, not just a string of meaningless sexual encounters. But overturning the hook-up culture comes at too great a price, says Rosin: "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."