A Plan to Reboot Dating

As a young woman in 2012—and as a feminist—I think that the hook-up culture has the opposite effect as that described by Rosin. Sexual liberation may be indispensable to female progress, but the hook-up culture is not empowering for all women. This isn't to say that early marriage or abstinence is the solution. But these are not the only alternatives to the hook-up culture, either. There is a middle way: meaningful sex in the context of a non-marital relationship.

In other words, the solution is a dating culture, which still allows women to delay marriage and pursue their careers, and also lets them have those intimate relationships with men that they don't want to delay. "I've tired of hookup culture's dictatorial reign over modern courtship. It doesn't feel so free when it doesn't feel like an intentional choice," writes Tracy Clark-Flory in Salon. Clark-Flory, who spent her 20s hooking up, has discovered that courtship is not such a bad deal: "I'm a feminist, but I really like flowers. Next time, I'm getting him some," she says, referring to a guy who asked her out on a date and brought her a bouquet. While Clark-Flory is not interested in getting rid of the hook-up culture, she wishes that traditional courtship were more of an option for young women and men. As she writes, "I'm an outspoken defender of casual sexual culture, but there are times—like when encountering more traditional courtship—that it seems less about a pursuit of pleasure than an avoidance of actual intimacy."

The problem today is that it's not clear how to get a dating culture now that the hook-up culture is the entrenched norm. Should women ask the guys they like out on dates? Should they wait for men to ask them out?

***

Curious about how campus authorities view the hook-up culture, I spoke to a woman who works at the Center for Women and Gender at Dartmouth (where I went to college) and acts as an advisor to female students. Her official line is that the point of hooking up is "for both people to get something out of it. If it's to get off, then that's great. . . . If it's to work some issue out—like sexual assault—then that's great. It's basically to get pleasure and enjoyment out of it . . . the hook-up culture is good for experimentation, and what someone does for experimentation is up to them."

I ask her, "What role does love play?"

She said, "I don't think [love is] necessary. Yeah, you know—it's nice. But if you're talking about sex and the hook-up culture, it's not needed. The point of the hook-up culture is not to get attached—no strings attached."

"Is that possible?"

"I know people who think it is. My personal experience—no." Then she added apologetically, "but I might be different. The point of sex is to get something out of it. For me, hooking up was not the best way to do it, if you're asking me personally." She added: "When I have that kind of a bond with somebody, I'm not capable of not thinking 'I don't want him to be with somebody else.'"

She concluded on a different note: "Women need to take some responsibility—they're allowing themselves to be used. It can lead to sexual assault."

Hooking up, in fact, shares the defining feature of a sexual assault: using another person for your own sexual gratification, without any regard as to what that person wants or how he or she feels. The philosopher Immanuel Kant—who warns against using another person as a mere means to some end—was closer to the truth than many of today's sexual health experts when he wrote that sex "taken by itself ... is a degradation of human nature."

While sex necessarily involves another person, in the hook-up culture, it is predicated on the disregard of another person. "If all you are is your sexual nature," a male student tells me, "you're not a human anymore. You have no dignity." If you only think of your hook-up buddy as a sexual object, then you have deprived that person of dignity, too.

***

Is it possible to move beyond the hook-up culture? Not back to 1950s-style courtship, parietal rules, and early marriage—but forward, to sex founded on friendship, dating, and relationships?

Most of the women I spoke to have resigned themselves to the fact that the hook-up culture is here to stay. They don't see the social and cultural landscape of college campuses changing anytime soon.

One friend tells me that the girls on campus would prefer a culture of dating to one of hooking up, but they would never admit it or ask for it. If girls demanded dating before hooking up, guys would be unmoved, she explained. "There are always going to be other girls for them to hook up with so we'll just get left behind."

These women are looking at the problem the wrong way, I think. They need to realize that, in spite of campus sex ratios and prevailing cultural trends, they hold the power when it comes to the hook up culture. They hold the power when it comes to sex.

This was the insight of Lysistrata, the shrewd heroine of Aristophanes' marvelous play by the same name. Lysistrata was able to diagnose a problem in her society and to take actions and overcome obstacles to solve it.

In the heat of the Peloponnesian War, Lysistrata gathered the women of various Greek city-states at a meeting and proposed that they withhold sex from their husbands until these men end the war. The women, though reluctant at first, agree. Throughout the play, though they desire sex just like the men do, they resist the temptation to break their oath with Lysistrata. The Athenian and Spartan men eventually become so desperate for sex that they begin peace talks. The women's strategy works.

Lysistrata, a tough and independent woman, understood how the sexual marketplace works, and harnessed that knowledge to get what she wanted. Many men want sex with women. As Lysistrata knew, women have the power to say yes—or no (assuming men respect their wishes, of course. There are far too many examples of times men disregard women's "no"s). They set and execute the terms to which the men surrender.

Today's American women have reached a stage where they can be sexually free, and also selective and strategic in how they deploy their sexuality. But many of them are missing this critical second piece.

If women refused to spend time with men who disrespect women, if they refused to hook up with guys who don't acknowledge them the next day—then they could begin to resurrect a culture where dating and romance, not casual sex, are the norm.

The question is, will they?


Editor's note: Two Dartmouth administrators have responded to this story here.

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Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. She is the Manners and Morals columnist at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor of Acculturated.

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