Does Hookup Culture Hurt Women?

Women say they’re happy having no-strings sex, but new research casts doubt on how ’empowering’ casual trysts really feel.

In the show Parenthood, Berkeley freshman Drew develops a crush on a girl in his dorm. He tells her how he feels, but she hems and haws; she doesn’t seem interested, though she tells him she “likes him as a friend.” But then sometime later she shows up at his door, tipsy, and kisses him—she is the clear aggressor— before they retreat off camera to likely do more that we don’t see (this is network TV, after all). The next day, Drew wants to talk about their “relationship.” She tells him she’s not after anything serious, and sweetly says, “You understand, don’t you?” He doesn’t; not at all.

It’s clear that the show’s writers have created this character dynamic to represent the shift in gender roles among high school and college students, in which the modern young woman eschews tedious relationships in favor of far more “liberated” casual hookups. This is a phenomenon that has been widely documented, most recently in writer Kate Taylor’s New York Times story called “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” which echoed a 2012 piece by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic called “Boys on the Side.” In both pieces, the writers chronicled a number of women (Taylor’s at the University of Pennsylvania, Rosin’s at Yale): smart, pretty, and most of all, independent women who use casual sex for pleasure in a way once monopolized by men. They sleep with guys but don’t date them. They talk almost clinically about the “‘cost-benefit’ analyses and the ‘low risk and low investment costs’ of hooking up.” Hooking up is about satisfying a physical need, and nothing more.

Now, though, new research raises questions about just how satisfying casual hookups really are for college women—or whether the hookup culture is just another example of women getting the short end, so to speak, of the stick. Still.

In both of these articles, most of the women say they’re happy having no-strings sex, and enjoying the benefits of commitment-less orgasm as much, if not more than, their male counterparts. At the same time, many freely admit to using alcohol in order to feel comfortable during their casual hookups. One woman told Taylor that she often gave oral sex because it was quicker, and because “by the time she got back to a guy’s room she was starting to sober up and didn’t want to be there anymore.” So much for equal opportunity enjoyment. New research recently presented at the annual meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research, in fact, found that, in a study of 600 college students, women were twice as likely to reach orgasm from intercourse or oral sex in serious relationships as they were in hookups. Researchers noted that while women do not like to say what they want and need, neither do men really ask.

There is other evidence of lingering inequality. Consider the language often used to describe college hookups. If the relationships are becoming more equal why, then, is the language used to describe them becoming more misogynistic? For example: A popular synonym for sex—or, at least, a certain kind of sex—on college campuses is the word “pound.” Young men pound (and the act of pounding is as un-tender as it sounds). Young women, however, get pounded. As a sexual descriptor, the word has its roots in porn, which is perhaps why both genders use it, despite its decidedly unequal connotations. (A recently released Pew Research Center report found that eight percent of female video viewers said they watched adult videos online, up from two percent just three years ago).

But, really, is there any liberation in being pounded; in being on the receiving end of porn-style sex? Unlike “hooking up,” which at least applies to both genders, “pounding” describes a dynamic in which one party—the pounder—invariably benefits more. Megan, a senior at a New York college, said that girls who repeatedly engage in being “pounded” take on a certain worn out look. “They’re not liberated, or free, as much as it’d be nice to believe,” Megan told me. “They’re a receptacle, and the guys don’t view them as ‘equals.’” This calls to mind the excellent book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, in which author Ariel Levy pointed out that perhaps certain “empowered” young women who show up at parties dressed as porn stars or make out with one another for show are doing so less to satisfy their own personal desire than out of a desire to be seen as “hot” by men.

There are actual numbers that seem to indicate the pervasiveness of hookup culture is likely greatly exaggerated, and therefore not as empowering or pleasurable as some women might have you believe. A study presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association found that just under one-third of college students have had more than one partner in the past year—a number comparable to rates in 1988, 1996, 2002, and 2010. Which means that hooking up has not, in fact, actually replaced committed relationships at all.

But what remains most unchanged, among all this talk of liberation and freedom from gender stereotypes, is that the classic double standard is still very much alive in hookup culture, however it may exist, and elsewhere. A recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that both men and women judge promiscuous women—and that even promiscuous women judge other promiscuous women. Again: Girls get pounded. Boys do the pounding. Girls become sluts far faster than boys become, well, is there even a word for it? Which is, of course, the point: If we’re going to ask whether young women are enjoying casual hookups, should we be asking the same of young men?

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