Friday, August 29, 2008

The "Hook-up Generation": You Talkin' About Me?

You may have heard that the Bush administration's latest attempt to infringe on women's reproductive rights could give health-care workers the right to refuse contraception to their patients. Yes, it all sounds a bit pre-Griswoldian. I'd like to say I'm shocked. But I'm not. After all, we live in a world of abstinence-only sex ed and, for a time, Eric Keroack. More especially, we live in a cultural climate intent on pathologizing and condemning young people's sexual practices, and governmental encroachment on the sexual habits of legal adults seems like the obvious next step. But let's be honest, they're really concerned with the sexual habits of young women, and are we surprised?

In 2007 when I first opened the Atlantic Monthly to discover Caitlin Flanagan's take on Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked, which chronicles "the semi-anonymous 'hooking up' that is now the norm," I was floored. After noting Stepp's conclusion that the "girls" were “exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually” by the practice, Flanagan carried on her own paternalistic diatribe on "girls" who change "in some ugly ways when left on their own." I was shocked. They were talking about me. Or, at least, they thought they were talking about me. After all, I was a 23-year-old woman who had hooked up with men I was not nearly in love with throughout college. Did this make me an "ugly-wayed" girl?

With other things on my mind (a grad school thesis, job search, friends and flings), I promptly forgot about it. However, soon I realized that this trend wasn't going away. What has followed, from both the religious right and so-called cultural studies of my generation such as Unhooked and Girls Gone Mild by Wendy Shalit, has been an attempt to convince young women that by engaging in pre-marital, or more broadly "pre-love," sexual activity, they risk their emotional and psychological well-being. With women no longer prohibited by fear of pregnancy or STDs, purity propagators are now on a mission to tell women that, like smoking and fatty foods, sex is bad for their health.

The recent publication by the The Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute of Sense and Sexuality, subtitled: "The college girl's guide to real protection in a hooked-up world" highlights this fact.
According to Sense and Sexuality, girls should avoid hookups because oxytocin, released during sex, will cause a girl to "develop feelings for a guy whose last intention is to bond with you." Further, it scientifically observes that "as the number of casual sex partners in the past year increased, so did signs of depression in college women." In sum, once you have sex with a guy, you're a goner. You fall in love, you get attached, you're bound to become love-sick and depressed when it doesn't work-- all because you had intercourse.

Don't you find it odd that such arbiters of high culture and higher religion center their definition of "love" on sexual intercourse? While troubadours once spun tales of romantic despair and literal illness caused by love unrequited, today's story-tellers have pared that soulful feeling down to a simple physical act. As my generation would say, how ironic. As I would say, how wrong. In a recent Vanity Fair article, British bon vivant Nicky Haslam, now 68 and with many lovers come and gone, says, "The truth is I’m not that interested in sex... I’m about love. It’s wonderful once or something. The quickest way to fall out of love is to sleep with somebody. Don’t shatter the crystal.” Go ahead. Call me a romantic. But my greatest heartache was not caused by the guy who hopped in and out of my bed and got away, but by the guy who seemed to fulfill my ideal of what I want in a partner, and got away.

Let's talk about agency and subjectivity, because I think it's about time the media published more first-hand accounts from the "hookup" generation itself. Tracy Clark-Flory, my own age (24), wrote a great article at Salon about her "hookup" experience--she's had about three times as many hookups as relationships, and concludes, "like innumerable 20-somethings before me, I've found that casual sex can be healthy and normal and lead to better adult relationships." Like many my age, who will wait to marry until they are well into their late twenties and thirties, she has found hookups to be a way to romantically vet men. I whole-heartedly agree.

And about that term "hookup"--so amorphous, so undefined. To be clear, if I tell a friend that I "hooked up" with so-and-so last night, her first reaction will be "So how far'd you go?" A "hookup" can range anywhere from making out to a full romp in bed. It might include slinking out at midnight or staying over, cuddling in the morning, going out for brunch. It is one of the most ill-defined terms of my generation, which makes it surprising that so many adults have such firm opinions on it. And while a hookup may be "semi-anonymous" as Flanagan says, it often involves a classmate or an acquaintance or friend you've known for years. It can last a night, a month, or three years on and off.

In college and beyond, the line between hooking up and dating has become increasingly blurred. I've known couples now engaged who began with an orientation-week hookup. I've known wine-and-dine daters who have dropped out of the picture with nary an explanation. Do I worry about girls who engage in hookups because they think the only thing they have to give are their bodies? Of course. And as Shira Tarrant recently noted in Bitch, "the modesty movement makes some good points about the effect a hypersexual culture can have on women’s well-being and sense of self."

Yet why are our moral watchdogs so quick to condemn women's sex-positive behavior as primary culprit? As Tarrant goes on to argue, such an analysis leaves women with only two choices: to be either virgin or whore. And personally, I'd like to think of myself as neither. Writes Tarrant, "If we refuse to acknowledge that judgments about women and modesty come from an extremely narrow-minded, controlling view that has more to do with punishing female sexual agency than with modesty itself, all we’re doing is restating that good girls don’t, bad girls do, and each gets what’s coming to her. 
" By targeting immodesty and hookups, in fact, such commentators only undermine their mission, ignoring the complex social influences that actually do lead some women to value their bodies over their selves. Self-destructive sex is a symptom of a greater social pathology--not the cause.

But haven't I ever felt "exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually" from "hooking up"? Yes, sometimes, just as I've felt exhausted by tested friendships and challenged beliefs. Show me a Bildungsroman protagonist, or an average American college student, who doesn't need to go through emotionally and physically trying times to develop a better understanding of what he or she wants in a career, a friendship, a partner, in him- or herself.

At the end of her Atlantic article, Flanagan writes: "The bitter pill for many parents sending their daughters to college is that there is no possible way to protect them from what they will encounter once they have been dropped off at the freshman dorm." As a woman who is very different today from the tremendously introverted and scared 18-year-old her parents dropped off at her freshman dorm, all I can say is: thank goodness for that.

-Kristen Loveland


Anonymous said...

Hooking up as it is termed now isn't even new. That was the way of things when I was in college back in the early to mid 80's. It has been the way of things always if people want to be truthful.

I do think though that as teens girls are schooled culturally to equate giving sex to someone as a way to gain love and acceptance and since boys are taught pretty much the opposite, it doesn't serve any of us very well.

Sex/reproduction is the most efficient means of controlling women.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kristen:

I just wanted to thank you for your fantastic post on this issue. Unlike other responses I have read floating around the blogosphere since the unveiling of Laura Sessions Stepp's "study," your post was extremely thoughtful, authentic, and communicated the utter indignity that I and so many other young women have felt, and did so without using expletives and unproductive insults which might then undermine and discredit your point.

Your post is a long overdue, meaningful response to the ridiculous conclusions of armchair journalists and so-called "policy institutes," both of which could use some serious education in the history of sex, love, marriage, and families in American culture.

From a fellow member of our generation, thank you for what you wrote!

Annie said...

>>Self-destructive sex is a symptom of a greater social pathology--not the cause.


Kristen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristen said...

Thanks everyone for your great comments! Anniegirl1138, I completely agree that this has been going on for generations (centuries), and yet what is new is the media portrayal of the phenomenon as something of an "epidemic" that reflects the devolution of our society. Well, I suppose the same was once said of Rome, but that reportage always seemed a bit more gender-balanced to me. And while the way, starting from an extremely young age, girls can be taught to view their bodies as the primary thing they have to offer is problematic--delineations must be drawn between this phenomenon and the hookups young women actively seek and engage in while also developing the many other important areas of their lives.

Em, I'm so glad you enjoyed the piece! Your comments reflect my ultimate reason for wanting to write this. I do feel utter indignity whenever I read yet another polemic by some social or moral crusader against what perfectly healthy and self-aware young women practice (quite happily) in their daily lives.

And Annie, glad you liked my take on self-destructive sex.

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