19 September 2012

Sex: Hookup Culture

Stephen Kershnar
Hookup Culture: Good for College Women
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 11, 2012

The hookup culture appears to be a growing part of college life. The culture occurs when college women and men engage in casual sex that is not part of marriage or even a relationship, other than friendship. Let us consider whether this culture is good.

One study by New York University sociologist Paula England found that the average woman who is a college senior had 7.9 hookups (sex outside of relationships) over four years with about a quarter having had 10 or more. College women also go in and out of the hookup culture. About 74% of the senior women have had a relationship that lasted at least 6 months.

This pattern is likely connected to the avoidance of marriage. Writing in The Atlantic (which has done breakthrough work discussing the topic), Derek Thompson notes that marriage is becoming less frequent. In 1960, he points out, 72% of all adults were married. By 2010, 51% were. The pattern with younger adults is more pronounced. In 1960, 59% of 18-29 year olds were married. In 2010, 20% were.

Class differences are moving rich and educated women in the opposite direction from their poorer and less educated counterparts. Wealthy and highly educated women are more likely to get married than other women and much less likely to have children out of wedlock.

When marriage is not avoided, it is often delayed. Writing in The Atlantic, Kate Bolick points out that in 1960 the average (median) age of marriage for women was 20. Today it is 26. She notes that the rate of marriage is also dropping for recent generations. In 1997, 22% of Millennials (born in the ‘80s or later) and 29% of Gen Xers (born in the ‘60s to the ‘80s) were married. This is far less than the greater than 50% of 18-29 year old women who were married in 1960. In part this represents less emphasis placed on marriage. Bolick points out that 44% of Millennials and 43% of Gen Xers think marriage is obsolete. This is also affects parenting. Bolick notes that 40% of children are currently born to single mothers.

With these changes as background, college women are more often engaged in recreational sex. Hanna Rosin, writing in The Atlantic, argues that the hookup culture is good for women. She argues that single young women are for the first time in history more economically successful than single young men. One widely cited study, for example, shows that single childless urban women make substantially more (8%) than comparable men. They are also more educated. In 2010, 55% of all college graduates 25-29 were women. Rosin argues that being tied down to a less successful man, especially a local one, is a drain on women’s time and energy that they simply can’t afford in the competitive academic world. Women, she argues, don’t merely accept the hookup culture, they perpetuate it and it is in their interest to do so.

In addition, as part of the hookup culture, Rosin argues, women are comfortable in the sexualized atmosphere widespread on college campuses. They are comfortable around pornography and graphic discussions of sex. Widespread drinking accompanies the hookup culture. For example, among college students, Leonard Sax (author of Girls on the Edge) points out that more women than men abuse alcohol. He notes that over the last 40 years, the rate at which men abuse alcohol has remained constant, while the rate at which women do so has increased fourfold.

Others disagree. The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan argues that the hookup culture too often degrades women and makes them feel cheap, used, and heartbroken. She illustrates this notion with the story of Karen Owen. In 2010, Owen, a recent graduate of Duke University, sent a PowerPoint to three friends chronicling her hookups with 13 Duke athletes. She released their names and rated them sexually along different dimensions, for example, sexual performance, body, and personality. When her friends leaked the PowerPoint, it went viral and she became famous. Flanagan argued that the sexual hookups ruined Owen and made her pitiable.

Others, such as Ariel Levy (author of Female Chauvinist Pigs) argue that far too many women are like Owen in promoting the exhibitionist raunch culture that includes things like revealing clothing, flashing their breasts, public girl-on-girl sexuality, and so on. She argues that the raunch culture is driven by women and that the accompanying objectification of them (viewing them in sexual terms) leads to their being disrespected in a variety of contexts.

In the absence of empirical evidence, it is hard to assess whether the hookup culture is good for young women. The conceptual claim, such as that found in Levy, that the hookup culture and the loosely associated raunch culture objectifies and degrades women is likely false. Objectification in itself is not itself a bad thing. A husband who finds his wife attractive in the same way that he finds porn stars like Jenna Jamison and Sasha Gray attractive does not always have a bad attitude toward her. Objectification is compatible with love and respect.

Objectification might have good effects that outweigh its bad ones, we just don’t know. Objectification is likely a way of combating backward religions and traditions. Consider the view of women that is inherent to the Muslim religion and culture, with its attempt to keep women covered, uneducated, and out of cars and the workplace. This worldview would have a hard time competing against the hookup and raunch cultures. The same might well be true for the offensive, but less destructive, Catholic culture, with its emphasis on virginity, ban on contraception, view that sex is only to be used for procreation, attempts to criminalize divorce, and so on.

Without data on whether balancing hookups and long-term relationships makes college women more successful in the workplace and in their long-term pursuit of marriage and children, the issue of whether it is good for women is hard to assess. It likely varies significantly between individuals. Some college women can handle it, some can’t.

My guess is that on the whole, hookup culture does benefit college-aged women. It allows them to separate sex from relationships and to avoid rushing into marriage or otherwise get tied down at the expense of their education and career. Because college-educated women are more likely to get married, less likely to get divorced, and more likely to have children in wedlock than less educated women, they don’t seem to pay too high a price for the culture. They also likely gain confidence and ability in sexuality by switching partners and via experimentation. Overall, then, my guess is that the hookup culture is probably good for college women.

In any case, it is not clear it is reversible. Once hooking up becomes part of people’s lives, it might be just too exciting to give up.