Hook-up culture

[22 February 2007]

By Rob Horning

Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked seems like a ludicrous book (it’s about the shocking fact that girls these days seem to enjoy sex rather than using it as relationship bait), and it’s good to see scorn being heaped on it appropriately. Zuzu at Feministe parses some of the book’s repugnant imagery. Stepp writes: “Your body is your property. . . . Think about the first home you hope to own. You wouldn’t want someone to throw a rock through the front window, would you?” To which Zuzu responds, “I dunno about you, but if someone throws a rock through my window, it’s a safe bet I didn’t give them permission. I let my guests in through the door. And it’s not going to fall off the hinges if I let more than one person through (even at once!).”

Julian Sanchez is skeptical about the insistence that sex and love always be joined:

“Is it excessively cynical of me to think that the first casualty of an insistence on love and sex always going together might be your criteria for being “in love?” As in: “Holy hell, I’m 25 and have never had sex… You! SOUL MATE! NOW!”

Matt Yglesias links to a Washington Post review that makes the fair and self-evident point that “Both males and females should work hard to gain another’s affection and trust. And one’s sexuality is not a commodity that, given away too readily and too often, will exhaust or devalue itself.” At Slate Meghan O’Rourke suggests the problem isn’t that girls are hooking up but that they have such a joyless approach to it:

The hookup culture is part of a wider ethos of status-seeking achievement. As one girl puts it: “Dating is a drain on energy and intellect, and we are overwhelmed, overprogrammed and overcommitted just trying to get into grad school.” So they throw themselves into erotic liaisons with the same competitive zeal they bring to résumé-building: “If you mention you think a guy is hot, your friend may be, ‘Oh, he is hot. I’m gonna go get with him,’ ” Anna, a high-school student, reveals. The combination of postfeminist liberation and pressure from parents to “do it all”—as one kid puts it—has led girls to confuse the need to be independent (which they associate with success) with the need to be invulnerable. Thus, they frame their seemingly explorative sex lives in rigid, instrumental terms, believing that vulnerability of any sort signals a confusing dependence. The result? Shying away from relationships that can hurt them—which includes even fleeting obsessions that can knock them off balance.

I’m a little skeptical of that analysis, if only because it’s not only girls but adolescents in general who confuse independence with invulnerability. (That’s why my auto insurance rates were so high when I was 18.) Not that teenage girls are not under unique pressures—just look what society does to celebrity teenagers (aka the Lindsey Lohans of the world) as they verge closer to adulthood. Female sexuality obviously evokes all sorts of hysterical responses among those who want to lock it down and control it. I think Echidne is more on the right track with this: “Session Step does have a point in worrying about the increasingly early sexualization of girls, a sexualization that comes from outside and has very little to do with what ten-year old girls, say, actually think about or want to do, and much more to do with the popular culture and the porn world. I also think that it is hard for women to understand their own sexual needs in a world which blasts them with messages about how best to service men for the pleasure of the men, and I think that the real sexual liberation of women is a very unfinished business.” For much more on how sexualization harms girls, here’s a comprehensive report from the American Psychological Association—it’s obviously a problem, but it seems the Session Stepps of the world draw the wrong conclusion and think girls must be convinced to be nonsexual, or to treat their own sexuality like a precious valuable commodity, as was mentioned above. Perhaps superficializing sexuality may be a way of retaining control over it as the problem it poses for every one else becomes more apparent. But ultimately the point is that whatever young women choose to do sexually needn’t be pathologized automatically; it seems that the search for explanations for whatever sexual behavior a woman exhibits is ultimately an attempt to wrest it from her.

Echidne also notes that “Session Stepp’s point is naturally that it is the women who are supposed to do the relationship-work. Men can just do whatever they always have done in the past, and if that happens to be exactly what the author worries about, well, who cares. It’s not a guy thing.” This sounds a lot like sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s analysis of the extra burden of emotional work women are expected to assume. This work is alleged to come naturally for women, but it is really one of the more insidious patriarchal exploitations, to keep women performing this arduous and self-abnegating work of relationship preservation with no reciprocity.

UPDATE: Tyler Cowen reprocesses Unhooked into a rational-choice model here.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/hook-up-culture/