Feminism | Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz on 03/1/2010

Thoughts on “Hook Up Culture,” or What I Learned From My High School Diary

hook up culture, as demonstrated by Blair and Chuck

hook up culture, as demonstrated by Blair and Chuck

Debates about “hooking up,” swinging from genuine concern to hysteria on both sides of political spectrum, have been raging throughout the 2000s (Most of the freakouts over the “hookup scene” happens in the context of heterosexual relationships, since according to the majority of sexual conservatives, queer teen girls don’t have peen-in-vadge sex and therefore, as Kate puts it, “don’t exist.) And this week, it’s seemed to bubble up to the surface again. I’ve spent the day reading ruminations by teen girl expert and Teen Vogue advice columnist Rachel Simmons, the always-thought provoking Kate Harding of Broadsheet, and Amanda Marcotte, who gives us a searing and passionate rebuff of any sort of nostalgia we might have about dating rules and traditions.

This rips open a wound for me–I spent most of 2007 contemplating this issue. But I’m gonna weigh in afresh now that I’ve just celebrated 2 years with my healthiest, post-high-school, Completely Committed Boyfriend (technically husband, but that’s another story)–the sex-and-love “holy grail,” according to the many women’s and teen magazines Kate lists in her Salon piece. Before, it was my “sorta” this or my “fuck buddy” that or my “I wish I knew what he was thinking” friend-with-benefits. And I gotta say, no matter how much I railed against Laura Sessions Stepp and Dawn Eden and Miriam Grossman and all the other rightwing, anti-feminist cautionary matrons, the facts remained: I knew how it felt to agonize over a text message. I knew how much it hurt to hear that the guy I’d been hooking up with “didn’t do relationships.” And I knew what it was like to use sexuality to coax a guy into being with me, only to have it fail miserably.

Feminist or not, that shit sucks. And it happens a lot, to women and girls everywhere. And yet, if you consider me and the vast majority of America who eventually couple up, it seems to end up okay. What to make of all this?

Rachel asks in the aforelinked post:

Now, just to be clear, I’m all for the freedom to hook up. But let’s face it: despite our desire to give women the freedom to plunder the bar scene and flex their sexual appetites, it would appear a whole lot of them are pretty happy playing by old school rules, thank you very much. Incidentally, one of the women smart enough to figure this out just sold her 5 billionth book, or something like that.

Does that make me a right-winger? Can I still be a feminist and say that I’m against this brand of sexual freedom? I fear feminism has been backed into a corner here. It’s become antifeminist to want a guy to buy you dinner and hold the door for you. Yet – picture me ducking behind bullet proof glass as I type this — wasn’t there something about that framework that made more space for a young woman’s feelings and needs?

I do feel where Rachel is coming from. But those old models are based on the idea that girls are fragile, that they need to be sheltered from the ills of the world. They’re based on, as Kate says, being the girl that guys want. They’re based on, as Amanda outlines, sexism plain and simple. So if we don’t want to go the “Girls Gone Mild” route and start waiting for dudes to ask us on candlelit dates, does that mean it’s hopeless to find a happy sexual medium as teens and young, single women?

Kate says no. “[I]f we teach all kids that there’s a wide range of potentially healthy sexual and emotional relationships,” she says, “and the only real trick (granted, it’s a doozy) is finding partners who are enthusiastic about the same things you want, then there’s room for a lot more people to pursue something personally satisfying at no one else’s expense.” That’s one of the smartest statements I’ve ever read on this topic. Amanda, meanwhile, says we need to stop making women shoulder the burden of keeping men in check, and concentration on getting “boys to appreciate girls more as human beings.” A-fucking-men. (No pun intended.)

But there’s also this: We need to admit as a culture that teens are sexual beings, and that more often than not, sexual maturity has a completely different timeline than emotional maturity. This is, to be sure, skewed by sexism and restrictive gender roles to make sexual coming-of-age worse for girls. But beyond that, maybe discovering what you want sexually and emotionally is just part of growing up–and that’s okay.

And for that matter, what’s with this still-dominant narrative that all teen girls should want a monogamous, snuggly, worshipping boyfriend? I wanted relationships from fantastic fucks all through high school and college, but something tells me that I repeatedly confused lust for love and convinced myself that I wanted a boyfriend, when really I just wanted a screwfest (although I can’t be sure). For the record, I am not–I repeat, am not–saying that when girls write Rachel about the pain they’re going through, they’re not being honest with themselves. I know better than anyone how that pain feels. It’s just that we never consider the power of cultural messages amid the mysterious phenomenon of girls wanting relationships more often than boys. I agree with Amanda that I don’tthink it’s biological–there are societal patterns at work here. If we’re told that casual sex is unfulfilling and that we’re going to want relationships, chances are we’ll end up wanting them. And why not? That’s what SeventeenGlamour, and all my friends always told me.

The interesting thing about my particular sexual history–the kind of narrative that I have yet to read about in all these books and articles about hooking up–is that I had great, pleasurable, safe sex in high school and college with guys who were nevertheless emotionally immature and uncommital and who hurt my feelings all the time. Does that mean I shouldn’t have had sex with them at all–or does it mean I should have been honest with myself (and them, too) about what our relationship was really about? I do remember obsessing, crying, wishing he’d want a “real” relationship with me, as many girls who write to Simmons express. But do I regret the sex, do I feel like I “gave myself away” too early at 15? Hell No. It was one of the most exciting, fascinating, and interesting things about high school. Girls deserve to discover themselves sexually at their own pace, to be neither rushed into having sex nor shamed into not having it.

So, as Rachel worries: Was I permanently affected by this nebulous, masochistic phase, from accepting less than what I wanted emotionally? Yes, but not in a bad way. In fact, I’d venture to claim that without all those past experiences, I wouldn’t have been equipped to be in the honest, nuanced, decidedly modern relaish I am in now.

The “hookup culture” must not be that new of a phenomenon if I was experiencing this stuff in the late nineties–and now at 25, I can employ my 10-year-old hindsight. Today, I found a fascinating piece of writing in my diary about “E,” my first “boyfriend” and first lay in high school who made it perfectly clear he was not into a relationship. In a rare moment of clarity, my 15-year-old self wrote this:

“I think people are wrong when they say that sex and love HAVE to be together. I figured out why me and E have good sex. Physically, we’re in love. Our bodies are perfect for eachother, we satisfy eachother’s sexual urges like we were born for one another. And we’re not really like that personality-wise. But that’s okay! I don’t know why that’s a bad thing, and why everyone looks down upon it. Just because mentally we’re not in love doesn’t mean it’s emotionless sex. It’s not. It’s kinda like our bodies have emotions. Like our minds don’t particularly click, but our kisses and heartbeats and waves of sex drive do. What’s wrong with that???? We’re not USING eachother; we just have a connection that is very hard for people to understand. If they saw us together, they would know what I mean. I’m fine with it, and I think it will go on as long as it takes for me to find someone I have mental AND physical perfectness with, because that’s what I need to be in a relationship…And as long as I got one half, why give it up because OTHER people think its morally wrong? I mean, I wish me and E had both, but it’s been clearly established that we don’t, so fine. It doesn’t automatically turn into a bad thing.”

There you have it. Love and sex don’t always go together, especially for horny 15-year-olds. I could be totally off-base, but I don’t think I was a freak for thinking this. If you’re comfortable with accepting that teens are sexual people with their own desires, there’s no getting around that boys and girls sometimes feel this way. I said this in 2007 and I still believe it now: Sex is the ultimate risk, a risk that makes human relationships complicated, intoxicating and wonderful. It’s an emotional risk when you’re 18 the same way it’s a risk when you’re 40. Each time, as long as you’re safe and armed with the right info, it’s amazing to feel alive and take that risk.

Granted, I was armed with the right info. I had good sex education and candid parents. But many girls are getting scolded by their elders and pressured by their peers. Some are in abstinence-only education classes and told they’ll be too “used” or “dirty” for their future husbands if they have sex. The vast majority are not given the space they need to figure out what they truly want from their sexual relationships.

I agree with Simmons that it feels awful to have to compromise yourself, but testing out your sexual and romantic bottom lines may just be a rite of passage for teenagers experimenting with their sexuality–which is what the sexual revolution should have been about, rather than expecting women to simply indulge men’s fantasies. I doubt things will ever be perfect the first time a girl tries to define a sexual reality that works for her–especially if she’s told to follow age-old dating rules that clearly didn’t work the first time around. What I do hope for the future is that young women be allowed to take moments of sexual confusion in stride without conservatives breathing down their necks, without being called sluts by their peers, without feeling like they’ve ruined their chances at marriage forever, without being made to think that boys are emotionless sexbots, without letting an unsatisfying relationship cross over into the abusive zone–all while getting factual information about sex and STIs from their schools and families. Don’t girls deserve that much?

Nona Willis Aronowitz is the author of one of the fbomb’s favorite booksGirlDrive and runs the GirlDrive blog.

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  • Claire @ at 5:30 pm, March 1st, 2010

    A very perceptive and thought provoking post. Thanks for writing it.

  • Brenna @ at 5:51 pm, March 1st, 2010

    It’s so weird that I’ve been seeing talk of “hook-up culture” all over feminist blogs, because last Thursday I had my first “hook-up.” I didn’t have an emotional connection to the guy, and I knew I didn’t want to date him, so this experience was really great for me.

    I read the article by Rachel Simmons on Friday, and I realized how hurt I could have been if I DID like that guy. Before we did anything, we both said that it was just a one night stand, but he didn’t actually ask if I liked him or not until afterwards.

    I think hook-ups are perfectly fine, but they can be dangerous for both people involved. The people involved need to be completely honest with themselves and each other before doing anything, and share the same feelings about each other and the situation.

    I love what you said here: “But do I regret the sex, do I feel like I “gave myself away” too early at 15? Hell No.” I usually tell my mother everything, but I haven’t told her about this situation with this guy because I knew she’d say something about how he didn’t deserve that part of me, but that’s not how I see it. We didn’t give each other any part of ourselves, just an experience, and experiences like this only have the meaning that you attach to them.

  • drewsiedrewsie @ at 9:53 pm, March 3rd, 2010

    this article is glorious. you deserve a medal.

  • Libby @ at 11:13 am, March 7th, 2010

    I wish your 15 year old self had been friends with my 15 year old self. I don’t think your path would have been right for me, but just to know that it could have and did make you happy would have been worthwhile.

  • VJ @ at 5:11 am, March 8th, 2010

    “There you have it. Love and sex don’t always go together, especially for horny 15-year-olds.”

    OK, so evidently you had plenty of ‘strange dick’ & liked it well enough to continue for the next decade blithely enjoying same. Good for you. And then you ‘technically married’ your bartender/student BF, for his health care benes. I’m sure he’s a swell guy. But you describe this success as ‘now that I’ve just celebrated 2 years with my healthiest, post-high-school, Completely Committed Boyfriend’. Yeah! But no, that really does not sound much like a ‘love match’, (as you make vividly clear which is fine), but despite your accolades, everywhere you seem to describe this ‘event’ & phenomenon in less than stellar terms. Actually in a pretty ‘compromised’ fashion. So what you’re telling the world is despite what all those scary conservative matrons might say & want for ‘the youth of today’, you’ll agree with Lori Gottlieb and just ‘Settle, Now!’ Have we got the bottom line message right here? Onward feminist tribes into the future past…’Settle while you still can! Early!’ Yes, quite. Ever hopefully, Cheers, ‘VJ’

  • Nona @ at 7:37 pm, March 23rd, 2010

    VJ–dont really think I need to respond to your “strange dick” remark (why the eff is that in quotes?) but to the rest: I gave *him* health insurance, not the other way around. AND, in my article about marrying him, I said I loved him, which I do. AND, finally, not that this has anything remotely to do with my hookup post, I never said I was going to stay with him forever. Hopefully it works out, but you can only “settle” if you consider a health insurance marriage the end of the line.

  • Saturday Vids: Nona Willis Aronowitz & Feminist Experimentation | fbomb @ at 11:02 am, August 7th, 2010

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  • Ryan @ at 5:52 am, August 8th, 2010

    Come on lets get real, 40%,of all births in the U.S. are to single women.

    Besides what self respecting man would get mrried after the major changes in family and divorce law made in the70′s.

    This is what women wanted.1 in 4 young women now carry a diseae many of which carry HPV. This is a major cause of infertility and cervical cancer.

    Men are not a part of the family. When you look at the statistics marriage is a dying institution. I am a major fan of PUA and Game. I meet women, have sex and go home. There is absolutely no reason to commit to women. Women think the same thing, why else would they be hooking up?

    No woman now a days will commit their sexual value to “the right man”

    Listen, women are independent, liberated and self supporting. Men don’t have an obligation to pay for you or open doors etc. I resent any woman who doesn’t pay her own way. Men don’t have an obligation to provide for nor protect women and chivalry should die.

    Women’s sexuality is no longer private and monogamous but public and promiscious. Do you really think men should have any obligations to women?

    Ask yourself, what obligations women have toward and for men and you will realize that chivalry, commitment and obligation of men to women and what is now seen as “her children” should fade away.

  • blakerivers @ at 3:19 am, August 27th, 2010

    I agree with drewsiedrewsie. Congratulations on writing a truly intelligent post; this is impressive.

    -Ryan – I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at here. I agree with much of what you say, but you seem to be discussing an entirely different issue than the one the author writes about. If you’re going to rant, at least it could be pertinent?

    The author hints at the fact that it is the sexual miseducation of youth and inculcation of twisted conservative values that underlie the horrible relationship that people have with sexuality, their own and others.

    Here’s the recipe for perversion:
    -Take one of a human being’s strongest biological urges (sexuality)
    -Add to that hearty amounts of self-loathing and guilt
    -Allow several centuries for things to cook

    …and Voila! You now have a delicious culture in which sexual repression and unfulfillment abound!

  • Rosemary @ at 8:26 pm, March 7th, 2011

    Thank you so much for this post. Well-written, very well-thought-out, and thought-provoking.

    I do have some thoughts though!

    1. On the idea that men should no longer pay for dates: Men have been very quick to adopt and perpetuate this assertion for their own benefit, using ostensibly-feminist lingo to back it up: “If women want to be independent and self-sufficient, great! I’ll help by not paying for dinner.” The problem is that this is where their alliance with feminism ends. As a woman, I am still expected to get a $65 bikini wax, buy a $100 dress, and spend hours getting ready. Now I get to pay for dinner and gas too! How liberating.

    It is also erroneous to conclude that when a man pays for my date, picks me up, and/or holds the door open he does so because he believes me to be incapable myself. Rather, it is a sign of respect for my time and trouble; a way of showing that he regards it as of equal value to his.

    2. I think the following is an overgeneralization:
    “If we’re told that casual sex is unfulfilling and that we’re going to want relationships, chances are we’ll end up wanting them. And why not? That’s what Seventeen, Glamour, and all my friends always told me.”

    I think the truth about MY generation (I’m 20) is more complex. On one hand, yes, I am told that I will constantly be dealing with sexually deviant, instant-gratification-seeking men who are only interested in sex; I am told that I will have to tame, trick, or plead them if I want a relationship. But there is a contradictory, harmful, yet equally-strong message that is present not only in this article but in Sex and the City and magazines like Cosmopolitan. That is the message that having no-strings-attached sex is the equivalent to being sexually liberated.

    This is another message that has been appropriated by patriarchal society and the media. I am told that modern women are “fun, fearless females” who can have sex with whom they choose, when they choose. Great!

    But wait. What about NOT having sex? To be “fun and fearless” do I have to find random hookups fulfilling? Apparently. It took me five years to discover the exact opposite–that sex doesn’t make me happy. Nor does it make me more realistic, more satisfied with myself, or a “better feminist.”

    After spending a year and a half at college, I’ve also realized that I cannot engage sexually with males on this campus without perpetuating female oppression. I have watched dozens of my female friends, many of whom identify as feminists, struggle to reconcile their desire to be “fun” with the way men treat them. Because of the way our “system” works (the way the guys here are socialized by upperclassmen, the expectations about what each sex is owed by the other, ideas about what it means to be grown up), as soon as women start having sex with guys on campus, they lose the power and are treated like dirt. Even when the male was the pursue-er and the woman the pursue-ee, the ball is put right back in his court after they have sex. Yet these same women are told that not having sex makes them less woman or less feminist. It is clear how this message works in the favor of males.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t I guess…

  • Catherine @ at 3:11 pm, June 3rd, 2011

    Yes, we all have to get through life’s daily challenges, but if you back off a bit and view this thoughtful discussion from a longer perspective, it becomes clear that the backlash aganst feminism has successfully (and historically not for the first time)reduced a serious political critique and a line of action against men’s oppression of women as a class to an individualized obsession with physical appearance and personal relationships with men. This round of the same old same old fell for confusing feminism with the trivializing Playboy “philosophy” and its line of exponents like Madonna and Lady Gaga, just as the pop feminists of the pre- and post World War I era bought into the men’s system in the form of the new “scene” of Sexology and its formulaic liberated “New Woman” and later the wild and crazy Flapper image. Diversionary tactics abound and all are dubbed feminism. Given the fact that feminism has failed to keep the focus on women united through critical attention to the reality that the personal is political, feminism is doomed to maintain a defensive posture and an internalized dialogue devoted to navigating a sexist environment instead of confronting it.
    An added note: Use of “tough girl” language as occasionally done here, starting with the blog title, signals collaboration, not rebellion.

  • Catherine @ at 3:14 pm, June 3rd, 2011

    Correction: replace “scene” with “science”

  • Kamala @ at 6:10 pm, August 21st, 2011

    Rosemary you give me hope for young women. I was convinced that the media had turned you all into promiscuous porn actress wannabe’s in the name of feminism. What modern feminism fundamentally misunderstands is men. This new era has been a boon for men who get to have free sex, not hold doors open, not treat women to at least a meal or with respect for that matter and what do women get for all of this fun loving freedom? A never ending string of one night stands. Talk about shooting ourselves in the feminist foot. Thankfully young women like Rosemary are starting to wake up and see that this, quite frankly, sucks.

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