Is Hooking Up Good for Girls?

By | February 25th, 2010 | 118 comments

As a relationship advice columnist for Teen Vogue, I get a lot of mail from girls in “no strings attached” relationships. The girls describe themselves as “kind of” with a guy, “sort of” seeing him, or “hanging out” with him. The guy may be noncommittal, or worse, in another no-strings relationship. In the meantime, the girls have “fallen” for him or plead with me for advice on how to make him come around and be a real boyfriend.

These letters worry me. They signify a growing trend in girls’ sexual lives where they are giving themselves to guys on guys’ terms. They hook up first and ask later. The girls are expected to “be cool” about not formalizing the relationship. They repress their needs and feelings in order to maintain the connection. And they’re letting guys call the shots about when it gets serious.

My concern led me to Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus by sociologist Kathleen A. Bogle. It’s both a short history of dating culture and a study of the sexual habits of men and women on two college campuses. Hooking Up is a nonjudgmental window into the relational and sexual challenges facing young women today. It’s also a fascinating read.

Bogle opens with some downright cool history: In the first decade of the twentieth century, a young man could only see a woman of interest if she and her mother permitted him to “call” on them together. In other words, the women controlled the event.

Cut to a hundred years later: in today’s hook up culture, physical appearance, status and gender conformity determine who gets called on, and Jack, a sophomore, tells Bogle about party life at school: “Well, talking amongst my friends, we decided that girls travel in threes: there’s the hot one, there’s the fat one, and there’s the one that’s just there.” Er, we’ve come a long way, baby.

Like the girls who write to me at Teen Vogue, most of the women Bogle interviewed crammed their dreams of a boyfriend into casual connections determined entirely by the guys. Susan, a first year student, has a typical story: “…We started kissing and everything and then he never talked about…having it be a relationship. But I wanted…in my mind [I was thinking] like: ‘I want to be his girlfriend. I want to be his girlfriend.’….I didn’t want to bring it up and just [say] like: ‘So where do we stand?’ because I know guys don’t like that question.” Susan slept with the guy several times, never expressed her feelings, and ended the “relationship” hurt and dissatisfied.

Bogle’s interview subjects cope by using mental tricks like denial and fantasy to rationalize their choices, even going so far as to “fool themselves into believing they have a relationship when this is actually not the case.” They try to carve out emotional attachments within relationship categories determined by guys – “booty calls,” “friends with benefits,” etc. You can pretty much guess how that ends up.

According to Bogle, in the “dating era” (just the use of the word “era” tells you where college dating has gone), men asked women on dates with the hope that something sexual might happen at the end. Now, Bogle explains, “the sexual norm is reversed. College students…become sexual first and then maybe go on a date someday.”

So what’s the deal here? Is a world in which guys rule the result of the so-called man shortage on campus?  Fat chance. More likely, we’re enjoying some unintended spoils of the sexual revolution. As authors like Ariel Levy and Jean Kilbourne and Diane Levin have shown, the sexualization of girls and young women has been repackaged as girl power. Sexual freedom was supposed to be good for women, but somewhere along the way, the right to be responsible for your own orgasm became the privilege of being responsible for someone else’s.

Which is exactly what’s playing out on today’s college campuses. College men, Bogle writes, “are in a position of power,” where they control the intensity of relationships and determine if and when a relationship will become serious. In case you haven’t caught on yet, us liberated girls are supposed to call this “progress.”

To be sure, although it may be a form of “enlightened sexism,” the hook up culture kicks it old school when it comes to the sexual double standard. Bogle writes that the system is “fraught with pitfalls that can lead to being labeled a ‘slut.’” Hook up with too many guys in the same frat, or go too far on the first hook up, drink too much, act too crazy, dress revealing…you know the drill. It’s high school with a better fake ID. Women who went too far and hit the trip wire were “severely stigmatized” by men. Liberating indeed.

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?

What, and who, are we losing to the new sexual freedom? I realize a guy buying you dinner is not the only alternative to the hook up culture (and I, like Bogle, am not discussing the lives of GLTBQ students here). Still, the question bears asking. Is this progress? Or did feminism get really drunk, go home with the wrong person, wake up in a strange bed and gasp, “Oh, God?”

Worth noting is one of Bogle’s more alarming findings:  young women inaccurately perceive how often and how far their peers are going to hook up. Bogle reports that, despite a 2001 study setting the virginity rate among college students between 25 and 39 percent, the beliefs that “everyone’s doing it” and “I’m the only virgin” are powerful influences on the sexual choices of young women.

Girls are no stranger to hook up culture, as my Teen Vogue readers demonstrate. So here’s my fear: if they get too comfortable deferring to “kind of” and “sort of” relationships, when do they learn to act on desire and advocate for themselves sexually? Will they import these patterns of repressing thoughts and feelings into the more formal dating arrangements that follow after college? Will young women feel pressure not to challenge hook up culture because it appears uncool, unfeminine or antifeminist? (hint, hint: college women, please comment and let me know if I’m off here.)

This book opened my eyes to the need to begin teaching girls to pull back the curtain on the all-powerful hook up culture and deconstruct its terms and conditions. I, for one, am hard at work on lesson plans.

UPDATE: In Which I Get Taken On and Schooled in Mostly Awesome Ways – Don’t miss Salon Broadsheet’s inimitable Kate Harding responding critically to my piece. Nona Willis Aronowitz offers an honest and compelling perspective on the importance of learning hard lessons about sex. I want to make a billboard out of Feministing Community’s Maya Dusenberry’s poetic take on what a feminist’s responsibility is today (it’s the last paragraph).  Amanda Marcotte sends up a searing rebuke. For another challenge, check out blogger Jaclyn Friedman’s post on a recent study that says casual sex does not damage young men or women psychologically. Finally, blogger Per rips me a new one here.

118 Responses to “Is Hooking Up Good for Girls?”

  • pinkochick says:

    Overall, I think hook up culture is fine as it allows us women to actually choose our mates and with those persons choose whether or not to pursue a relationship. The fact that there are lines about sleeping with too many frat guys and shaming etc. is a holdover of the former regime of hyper-regulated female sexuality. The borders have shifted, but still exist.

    For me, hooking up allows an instant litmus test of a guys real inner sexist or egalitarian attitudes. If we wake up in the morning and I’m a slut, and he’s not cuz we went too far the first time etc etc, I have wasted all of one night on a douche and need not call him back. If however, he’s respectful and we both recognize we had a consensual good time, and presuming chemistry led us to wake up together etc. then we can see where it goes – perhaps casually at first and then more serious. I don’t understand the fear of asking questions or clarifying the parameters of a relationship – the cloak and dagger guessing game of girl wanting BF/serious and guy wanting f#ck-buddy and never addressing that – THAT’s the problem. Not the initial freedom to hook-up.

    Also, whoever looks for a BF in a frat needs to examine their conception of feminism, cuz frats are heteronormative, male-conformist incubators. Try the philosophy department, or some less hyper-hetero-masculine-competitive environments, where men are individuals not noisy conformists.

  • Libby says:

    I enjoyed the comments on this post.
    As a young woman just out of college, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy navigating the hook-up culture. It’s mostly been fabulous. I appreciate that I’ve learned a variety of tools for determining what I want, and when something isn’t right, and, yeah, sometimes that is through process of elimination. Even this past January, I was trying to persuade a male friend that a casual, respectful sexual relationship was a great idea for us. He countered that “friends with benefits” wouldn’t work for him, that he would likely grow emotionally attached and his priorities were elsewhere (ie, personal healing, career challenges).
    I think where the Simmons’ article is on thin ice is where it flattens men into single-motive, emotionally undeveloped beings. Feminism should be as much about women empowerment through undermining gender norms, as it should be about allowing men to be complex, variable beings.

  • […] shaming the pro-sex third wave– was an unusually fresh “girl’s expert” Rachel Simmons who writes advice for TeenVogue.  Basically her argument was that during this era of easy hook-ups […]

  • Julia Barry says:

    Thanks for this post, Rachel! You point to really important issues, and have sparked an important debate too :) I know I’m a bit late in jumping on the bandwagon, but for what it’s worth, here’s my related response piece: http://inherimageblog.blogspot.com/2010/03/caught-between-casual-sex-and.html

  • […] whole thing off. She posted her thoughts on hook-up culture on her blog, in a piece titled “Is Hooking Up Good for Girls?” Simmons was inspired to write the piece after receiving countless emails and letters from […]

  • […] annual evening of misogyny punctuated with occasional outbreaks of football”; or even the current debate in the fem-o-sphere about hook up […]

  • […] a monolithic and clumsy term? “adult”? madeup panic? Most recently sparked by Rachel J Simmons, Kate Harding, Amanda Marcotte and more… and always, our blogger Carmen’s first-person […]

  • abe says:

    Here’s the thing: all these girls are throwing themselves at the same alpha males who constitute 20% of a school’s male student population. That’s how one of these guys can manage to have several girlfriends at once. If they tried to find a boyfriend from the other 80% of the male student population they’d discover that those men would be content with a traditional girlfriend/boyfriend relationship.

    80% of a schools male population is sex starved whereas most of the girls (as long as they have no deformities) can get laid. And when they want to get laid, they all exclusively go after the same alpha males. THAT’s the real issue: that college aged women are willing to share alpha males rather than have exclusive possession of beta males.

  • Dr. Elise Rose says:

    I’m really concerned that no one is bringing up the issue of physical diseases. Having sex with many partners, especially if it’s more than 6 per year, is correlated with enormously increased incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, some of which are very antibiotic-resistant and some of which, like HIV, can mean a lifetime of consequences. Many young people do not even use condoms, but even for those who do, the failure rate for condoms is 10-15%, and failure is highest for people under 25. Hurt feelings are not the only bad outcome of hookups.

  • Judith Holiber says:

    Rachel, I loved reading your blog and all of the insightful and brilliant comments and articles it incited. If only I could do nothing but read and respond all day long.

    What strikes me is the notion that the real issue here, as you have so eloquently articulated in your work, is that teens, like all women and all people for that matter, have to learn to be authentic to themselves. Whether it’s in their choice of career, their choice of friends, or in their sexual practices. This is a life-long journey. Authenticity takes practice and lots of stamina. You have to be able to sift through all the cultural noise. While the current “hook-up culture” may be a positive experience for some and a negative experience for others, it’s no different in that way from other life experiences (though admittedly intimacy can obviously make you more emotional/vulnerable). Some may enjoy the freedom, some may suffer pain and hurt, and others may choose not to participate. All that we can do, as parents, teachers, and responsible adults, is try and prepare and guide the young people in our lives through the expericnes and realities they will undoubtedly face. This is a difficult and daunting task, that requires much honesty and authenticity on our own parts – as I know you are well-aware.

    While I still consider myself a feminist (as much as I’m not exactly sure what that means anymore), I hesitate to deconstruct the current “hook-up culture” from only a feminist v. sexist perspective. It’s sex. It’s human. And it’s as incredibly multi-faceted and complex as each of the individuals participating.

    I do think that men and women bring different innate biologically “pre-programmed” goals or yearnings to the sexual experience, and that those differences should not and cannot be ignored – as uncomfortable as it might make some people. While those differences have evolved over time and have been significantly influenced and complicated by our social and economic development, they have not disappeared entirely and I don’t think it’s illegitimate for some people (men and women alike) to “push back” and long for a different time. They just need to be true to themselves and find themselves partners and mates that meet their needs.

  • Kaycee Jane says:

    Dear Rachel

    Have you heard of the book Laid? I did a guest post recently on Laid’s site…

    When people read Laid: Young People’s Experiences with Sex in an Easy-Access Culture, author Shannon Boodram hopes they will learn rather than judge.

    One thing I learned was that the difference between a positive and negative hookup experience lies in the same things that make for a healthy relationship. It may be hard to believe that a positive hookup and a healthy relationship would have much in common, but they do…

    To read more-go to Laid’s site at http://laidthebook.com/blog/

  • Amy says:

    What an interesting discussion! I think that the world of dating and relationships has obviously changed quite a bit in the last 100 years, as you discuss. However, I don’t think it’s a pendulum shift, but rather a widening of possibilities. 100 years ago, the only option for a woman was to “hook” a man into marrying her in order to protect her honor. Today, women have WAY more control over our sexuality, so we have choices. You can go out and have sex with ten men in a weekend, or you can have a committed monogamous relationship, and everything in between. Some women really do want a knight in shining armor to come rescue them. Though that wouldn’t be my personal choice, the whole point of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution is that that choice is fine as long as it is the woman’s own choice and not something that is forced on her by society.

    I think a lot of young feminists have a strong gut reaction to relationships based on traditional gender roles because that’s what we’ve been trying to escape from, but for some women, that is what they want. And I strongly believe that women have the right to get what they want out of their relationships.

    As for hookup culture, I think the same holds true. There are some women in the world (particularly in college) who actually just want to “hook up” with men, with no strings attached and no promise of a relationship to come. Although I am in a committed relationship now (that does not involve traditional gender roles), I spent much of my college years having casual flings with many different men with no shame and no desire to take it any further emotionally.

    There are certainly women who get involved in hookup situations in which they want something else but feel like they can’t speak up for themselves, and that is very problematic. But I think the problem is not the hookup culture (which is actually very important to some women in their personal and sexual development) but the fact that women are still socialized to put men’s needs before their own. That is the crux of the problem, and that is what needs to be addressed so that the college hookup culture can realize its full potential as a source of growth and self-discovery for young people.

  • […] 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 […]

  • rachel says:

    I think that we should be telling women to be upfront with the men they are “hooking up” with. If they want a casual relationship, fine but if they are hoping things are going to end up more serious they aren’t doing themselves any favors but keeping quiet and hoping things magically process on their own. If you tell someone you aren’t interested in just hooking up and that makes them not interested in you, then fine. One less person you have to worry about. Move on to someone who is happy to have a real relationship with you. There are plenty out there.

  • Great discussion!

    We should take into consideration the enormous pressure from the tsunami of sexually laden messages girls receive throughout their lifetime. As the mother of two young women I have watched them digest and grow up struggling to deal with the Spice Girls, Britney Spears and the many other scantily clad popular female celebrities dangled like carrots in front of their impressionable faces. I was but one lone voice versus the onslaught of a well-oiled marketing machine. They all promote one relentless message. GIRLS = SEX!

    Check out my recent opinion piece at Associated Content about the lyrics in Rihianna’s new song Rude Boy at http://www.RosemaryDanielis.com

  • […] provoking Kate Harding of Broadsheet, teen girl expert and Teen Vogue advice columnist Rachel Simmons, and Amanda Marcotte’s searing and passionate rebuff of any sort of nostalgia we might have […]

  • Haley says:

    i think part of the issue with the hook up scene is that girls feel like if they dont give in to the guy’s terms,that he will just go find some other girl who has already accepted these norms. I hope guys do not get it in their heads that most girls are okay with these random hook up terms and that they can stop treating girls with the respect we deserve. I think part of changing this trend is for girls to stand up for our feelings and needs, even though it might feel ‘uncool’, because we wont be happy if we allow guys to control the relationships and our needs. I know that when i go home this summer and if the guy i was seeing wants to keep hooking i will, i have to, speak up for what i want.

    • Rachel Simmons says:

      Good for you! One thing I am seeing in the comments is that there are a lot of women like you who have experienced this pressure, and who are not rejecting my argument outright. I myself am also realizing that I cannot only focus on teaching girls to express themselves in their friendships. I have to expand this work to helping girls advocate for themselves sexually. Thanks for your voice here.

  • M Dubz says:

    As a college student who has had relationships and casual hookups, and enjoyed both, I think there is a serious problem with the way that you equate no-strings-attached or few-strings-attached sex to lack of communication and young women subverting their needs, both physical and emotional, to the needs of young men. I think that the problem that you place at the hands of hookup culture is not that college students are having sex without dating and relationships, but rather that young women are socialized in this society not to communicate their needs and wants, for fear of being rejected. In most of my hookups, both my partner and I have been absolutely clear from the beginning about what we hope to gain from the arrangement and the amount of emotional work that we are willing to put in. If the terms are unsatisfactory and don’t meet my needs, I move on and find someone else before I get too emotionally invested. Sometimes, girls aren’t looking for boyfriends, and just want no strings attached sex, and that’s okay. And when they do want a boyfriend, our society needs to do a better job of teaching them that that is a wonderful thing to want, and they should settle for nothing less than the commitment they deserve.

    • Rachel Simmons says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more. I should have been more nuanced in my argument – thanks for making your points and sharing your story. I wish I could connect more with commenters like you, who are clearly skilled and successful at communicating in sexual relationships. We need to get that kind of comfort and self-authorization to all girls. Thanks for your voice here.

  • C.L. says:

    Also, I just clicked the link for “old school rules” and read the article about Twilight, and sorry but, that guy is full of shit. There are a lot of girls who don’t like Twilight. There are a lot of girls who like Twilight, but only as silly entertainment and still have different values from “girls bake cookies and get saved.”
    That just made me really mad.

    • Rachel Simmons says:

      Honestly, it makes me really mad, too….but I think it’s worth paying attention to nevertheless. I have said this repeatedly in the comments, so forgive me, but just to respond directly: I really think we need to make room in feminist discourse for the reality that some girls may in fact want to push back against the hook up culture, and that books like Twilight do appeal to something inside of girls that allows for a return to different times. Even — especially — if it makes us uncomfortable, we have to look at that and think critically about it, and not chase out of town the people who try to talk about it.

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