Is Hooking Up Good for Girls?

By | February 25th, 2010 | 117 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.

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

  • Cindy says:

    It is absolutely good!

  • [...] Rachel Simmons, relationship advice columnist for Teen Vogue: “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. “ [...]

  • [...] of young women who are unhappy with the hook-up scene and thank her for her work (Shalit 2008) . Rachel J Simmons, advice columnist at Teen Vogue, also gets letters from young women all the time who are miserable [...]

  • College Girl says:

    So, I liked this guy, and he liked me. Instead of going on dates to see if we just liked each other as potential flings or potential boyfriends. Because of girl code, I could not date him. He was my friends ex. He was also one of my very good guy friends. He never really dated her, and she does not consider him as a relationship or as a boyfriend, just as an ex. Although she has a boy friend, she still does not want to see him with anyone. He is also my Ex’s friend. My ex and I are on really good terms and hang out once a week or so. He encouraged me, and told me that the guy I liked is a good guy and that we would be great together. It is a weird triangle where everyone is really good friends, and lots of awkward tension, and my ex just thinks it is stupid. If 2 people like each other for months, and have tried to get rid of the feelings, and still cannot, they should go for it.
    She knows I like him and she knows he likes me. Heck, everyone knows it, but we still cannot date.
    I told him my feelings for him did not matter. We made out once, and it was still not awkward. I encouraged him to find a girlfriend or another girl. The sooner we both got over each other, the better. After 3 days of “friends with benefits” I told him I could not continue it. I felt guilty.

    He asked if I wanted to be his gf, regardless of everything. I just could not do that. It would really really hurt my other friend. So, he was really sad, and almost cried for an hour. He was more emotionally attached to me than I was to him because the break did not hurt me as much.
    Girls define the relationship, as long as they communicate. Guys do develop feelings about others. Hooking up is also a form of “masturbation”. It allows one to take care of needs without a relationship or a significant other. Sure, tell girls to masturbate, but some cannot get off by masturbation. Some need actual intercourse. I have had 2 guys offer to go down (oral) and get me off, and when I ask if I need to return the favor, they say that I do not need to.

    The key is communication. As long as both parties know what the other wants, it is okay. If emotions develop, and no one talks about it, it is horrible. If you are comfortable making out with someone, you should be comfortable talking to that person. Oh, and by hooking up, I mean making out with someone who you are not dating, or someone that you have no interest to date.

  • jake says:

    Let’s be fair ladies. You have all the right to exercise your freedom of choice to let as many men inside you as you’d like. And men should have the freesom to decide if the amount of people a woman has slept with matters or not. Fair enough? Feminists really overthink these things. Do you question why people are sad when someone dies? Or why someone is happy when they land a new job? Well, same applies to a promiscuous woman. Its just a natural feeling most men get when they have feelings for a woman, only to find out she has a long sexual history. Not really much to explain. I don’t know why I feel this way, or pretty much every other guy I know. Its just a instinctual feeling and it is really unfair to attack men for having feelings they can’t control. Do you women truly know what it is like to be a man? Can u appreciate what it feels like to be a man? I hardly believe any of you wuld take well to a male movement premised on demanding that woman think like men, with complete disregard for that fact that you are woman. You realize you are merely telling men how they should think. That’s not cool at all.

  • E. R. says:

    I am bewildered by the degree to which you as a feminist are predisposed to believing that men have no romantic or genuine feelings and I think that you are making an equally more egregious mistake in neglecting the effects of peer pressure on female behaviour.

  • E. R. says:

    A response to peer pressure? As a guy I see things fro the other side: If you “date” a girl publicly, her friends will often pressure her for being with you because “you are not good enough for her”. This can simply mean that the less attractive ones lose an eyecatching companion, and free party entrance ticket. When a girl tells her friends that she is just “hooking up”, she is giving in to an immediate need, and is momentarily allowed an escape from peer pressure. Also, it means less of face if after a few months she drops the guy or gets dumped by him – after all it was not a relationship, she tells everyone, just a hookup, and so she didn’t fail in her choice or in her ability to retain.

  • Unfortunately I get to look at this form of relationship through the eyes of my oldest daughter. ((“Friends with Benefits”)) The thing that stands out is how girls “hooking up” end up walling up their emotions. They try so very hard not to feel, to just enjoy. This can be such a wonderful time for them, but shoving their feelings into a tiny box isn’t the way to enjoy any of it.

  • [...] year after my friend Kaycee Jane sent me a link to Rachel’s heavily discussed blog post on hooking up. After a few clicks around her site, I liked what I saw so I headed to the library to grab her [...]

  • [...] year after my friend Kaycee Jane sent me a link to Rachel’s heavily discussed blog post on hooking up. After a few clicks around her site, I liked what I saw so I headed to the library to grab her [...]

  • [...] Girl Exposed” post within the next week. On her blog she wrote a very controversial post, “Why The Hookup Culture is Hurting Girls” The article sparked rebuttals from several blogs and a lengthy conversation from hundreds of women. [...]

  • [...] AND MORALLY OBLIGATED never to hurt your feelings? Like, ever! To be fair, though, I think that the Simmons piece – and I have always really liked Rachel Simmons’ work, so maybe I am partial – did have SOME [...]

  • Genia Stapf says:

    Great idea this, this site has really been an eye opener. I never comment on those blogs, even when the content is great

  • [...] post or article or study about the Hook-Up Culture, and how it’s scary, bad for women, etc. (e.g.), and the writer tends to phrase things like this is a new cultural development.  Well, if the [...]

  • Kathleen says:

    Hey Rachel,

    You need to write a book on how the hookup culture corrupts boys and men. It’s no wonder you get so much criticism.

    Also your statement about “helping girls and young women grow into authentic, emotionally intelligent and assertive adults” is soooooooooooo patronizing.

    Hey Rachel, just be a good feminist activist and tell men to take equal responsibility for their sexuality.

  • oem hook says:

    good post,yeah,so interesting post

  • Jenny says:

    I see a big difference in girls being given social permission to hook up, without being branded as sluts, and girls being expected to hook up.

  • [...] Girl Exposed” post within the next week. On her blog she wrote a very controversial post, “Why The Hookup Culture is Hurting Girls” The article sparked rebuttals from several blogs and a lengthy conversation from hundreds of women. [...]

  • [...] Girl Exposed” post within the next week. On her blog she wrote a very controversial post, “Why The Hookup Culture is Hurting Girls” The article sparked rebuttals from several blogs and a lengthy conversation from hundreds of women. [...]

  • [...] Is the Freedom to Hook Up Good for Girls? « Rachel Simmons [...]

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