A Plan to Reboot Dating

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."

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?

Presented by

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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