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Thoughts on the “hookup culture,” or what I learned from my high school diary

February 28th, 2010 · 16 Comments

Debates about “hooking up,” swinging from genuine concern to hysteria on both sides of political spectrum, have been raging throughout the 2000s.* 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 in my healthiest, post-high-school, Completely Committed Relationship (technically marriage, 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’t think 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 Seventeen, Glamour, 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 noncommital 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 Rachel 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. They deserve to have their very own “This is bullshit” moments without wearing a chastity belt.

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 Rachel 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?

*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.”

Tags: Sex Ed Series · Stop chastising young people · Young Women in the News

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Barbara // Feb 28, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    I’ve thought about this issue a lot. The thing about saying that “we need to learn from our mistakes,” which is granted a lot better than shaming young women into sex–is that you’re right, women don’t get the kind of sex ed that you did, have the kind of parents you have, have the self-reflection to realize this. And yeah, they maybe will turn out fine in the end, but does that mean girls should go through all that pain while guys sail through? I dunno, I just think that seems like an unfair tradeoff.

  • 2 Delila // Feb 28, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Ia agree…that yeah it sucks to sexually come-of-age but that doesn’t seem to be indicating anything for our future love lives. I do think that the barriers between boys and girls should be broken, that all the backslapping that goes on between boys ultimately feeds this pattern of making the girl pine and want more. But I don’t think that telling teens not to have sex is the answer because as you said, it can really be great on its own.

  • 3 Julie // Feb 28, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    Beautiful piece.

    The thing is, boys go through pain and confusion as well. It may (without reducing this to gendered differences) be a different kind of pain, or less accessible, but I knew/know plenty of guys in high school and college who were confused, alienated, or worst, passed over by a lot of girls – who, as Nona pointed out, thought they wanted a relationship but really wanted consistent sex with the same person – who had been in a sense, trained by our culture, to want the emotionally inaccessible boys.

  • 4 Nona // Feb 28, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Good point Julie. I didn’t even mention that, which is that so many girls (including me) specifically go for the guys who don’t want commitment. It’s all part of this construction of sexuality–on one hand, that you want what you can’t have, but on the other hand that good sex must equal relationship potential or be attached to a warranty of love.

  • 5 Rachel Simmons // Feb 28, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Wow, Nona, this is such a smart, honest piece of writing. I really appreciate your responding to my blog. I have been schooled in mostly awesome ways about some of my points over the last few days, and I’ve loved almost every minute of it. :) I think your points are right on the money, and I, for one, will hope for a day when we can look at the sexual experimentation/journey of young women as a purely developmental and fortifying roller coaster ride. As Kelly Clarkson one sang, “Since you’ve been gone/I can breathe for the first time/I’m so movin on/yeah yeah/thanks to you/I finally get/I get what I want” or something like that (this quote is totally serious, btw. I love the Kelly).

    But as you correctly point out, sexism continues to play a powerful role, and as I am about to post in my response to Amanda Marcotte’s blog, I write as an educator — someone who has worked, lived with and interviewed girls for over ten years. I see this stuff up close and personal, and when it’s knocking on your door crying at 12:30 in the morning, it’s a pretty different perspective from which to view the situation than the countless critical responses I’ve gotten that are typed from college dorm rooms. Yeah, I said it — and I will say it again — getting out there and working in the field does a bit of a number on radical politics learned in the women’s studies classrooms at Vassar (from which I happily graduated), and I refuse to surrender my feminist credentials for calling it like I see it and having a few gray hairs. Not that you are asking me to — and again, I agree pretty much entirely with what you’ve written here — but my perspective and position here bears restating.

    I look forward to reading much more of what you write. I’ll link to your post on my website. And btw your 15 yr old diary entry took my breath away. Wow. Thanks again.

  • 6 Nona // Mar 1, 2010 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for commenting Rachel–I’m touched! I totally see that I had more perspective than most on it–my parents were supportive, I lived in liberal NYC, I had good sex ed–and as I say, I don’t doubt for a second that the girls who write you are in some real pain. I’m just saying that there comes a point where girls need to and will sexually explore. We should be concentrating on how to make that easier rather than telling them their job is to be gatekeepers (not that you were doing that exactly, but ya know…) Either way, you still have more than your share of feminist stripes in my book :)

  • 7 AntoniaF // Mar 1, 2010 at 10:39 am

    This is incredibly well-said. It’s ridiculous that people won’t admit that teenagers deserve a sex life. Of course there are varying degrees of maturity, but bottom line, sex is invariably going to be part of a young person’s life.

  • 8 westwood // Mar 1, 2010 at 11:14 am

    You make a tremendous amount of sense, in absolutely the best way.

    I would like to play devil’s advocate and say something controversial, but alas, your tent is too neatly woven for me to rain out your parade.

  • 9 How Feminism Got Drunk and Hooked Up With a Loser | Hooking Up Smart // Mar 1, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    [...] Willis Aronowitz writes on GirlDrive: I knew how it felt to agonize over a text message. I knew how much it hurt to hear that the guy [...]

  • 10 Miranda // Mar 1, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    I love this post!

  • 11 Esau // Mar 2, 2010 at 6:44 am

    ” I didn’t even mention that, which is that so many girls (including me) specifically go for the guys who don’t want commitment. ”

    I think it’s very gutsy for you to be able to admit this out in public (though you might find yourself being drummed out of the feminist corps for doing so). Be aware, though, that you’re somewhat contradicting yourself from earlier, where you wrote:

    “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.)”

    There are a lot of different kinds of boys in the world, some will appreciate you as human beings and some will not. If you choose to grant your favor to the latter over the former, then, well, you’ve chosen and it has nothing to do with getting boys to behave differently. In fact, if you favor those who refuse to commit over those who might cherish you, then guess which behavior you’ve been teaching boys to follow?

    So, as far as “getting boys to appreciate girls more as human beings” you should realize that it is _you_ who is doing exactly the opposite. Think on that for a while.

  • 12 Nona // Mar 2, 2010 at 7:15 am

    @Esau–to be clear, I just meant that *in high school* I went for those kind of boys. The guy I’m with now is pretty opposite from that noncommittal, bad-boy prototype. And I don’t think high school girls are the ones responsible for making guys treat girls like human beings (aside from being honest with themselves, but that comes with emotional maturity, as I said in the post). I think parents/teachers/mentors are responsible for not winking at them in that “boys will be boys” way and instead emphasizing communication and honesty.

  • 13 Esau // Mar 2, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    Nona, be careful what you wish for. If a boy’s authority figures are telling him one thing, and the girls around him are effectively telling him the opposite, then the result can be very, very bad for everyone, innocent bystanders included.

    You might wish for boy’s authority figures — parents, coaches, rabbis, etc. — to try to instill a value like “treat girls well and with respect” or even “try to be honest and communicate” in their young charges. However, any boy who follows those values at a young age, say 14-22, and who doesn’t happen to be handsome, popular or athletic, will almost certainly find, in modern America, that treating girls with respect and trying to be honest and communicative will _not_ help him get laid; and, worse, he will sooner or later figure out that following these values is hurting his chances for having anything like a normal life (for any young man, a normal life includes at least some sex).

    Past this point, once he makes the realization that he’s been lied to and that following the rules has actually degraded his life, many things can happen and very few of them will be good. He has a very good chance to become resentful, bitter, and to some extent misogynistic. He may learn how to disguise his bitterness and become outwardly charming, but with misogyny still underneath he could then be very dangerous. He could decide to just drop out of the whole corrupt (as he’s experienced it) system, or become fodder for one or another kind of cult (PUA’s, Republicans, etc.). I could go on, but the list is not good, not good, not good.

    So, please be careful in what you wish for. If girls and young women, even of high-school age, are rewarding one kind of behavior in boys, then you DO NOT want authority to tell those boys that the path to a good life is through a different, incompatible behavior. Only disaster and heartache will follow from that kind of betrayal of trust.

  • 14 Robin Shapiro // Mar 3, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Great essay! I’m 54, was committed to a jerk in high school, had open relationships, some casual and some not until I wanted a monogamous marriage in my 30′s, and have had a great marriage for 18 years.
    Communication is the key. Knowing what you want and seeking that, up front, worked for me. Sometimes it was sex. Sometimes it was friendship with sex. And when I was ready for exclusivity, I found a man who said up front that he wanted a long term relationship.
    As a therapist, I’ve met teen-aged boys who wanted serious girlfriends and girls who didn’t want a serious boyfriend. I caution all dating people that their hearts often follow their “parts”, so be careful who you have sex with. And I’ve told girls that they, who have more capacity for attachment, may want more from a guy who is just a sex-buddy. If you want more, start with that on the table. At any age.

  • 15 The Hook-Up Culture & Honesty // Mar 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    [...] Where this gets sticky is in the conditioning on how to feel about hook-ups and  boyfriends. Girl-Drive sums this up beautifully in her post on the matter “If we’re told that casual sex is [...]

  • 16 Anelle // Mar 16, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    I just spent the day reading all of these different essays on hookinup and i like yours a lot because u shot things straight and didn’t try to place moral judgement either way. Another good one I read is :

    because it doesn’t just say what’s right or wrong it says how to do casual sex right

    I really hated:
    because it was so rude to rachel who wasn’t trying to be rude to anyone to begin with.

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