In the past few years, there’s been shift in gender roles among high school and college students, one where modern young women eschew what-can-be tedious relationships and monogamy in favor of more “liberated” casual hookups. This phenomenon has been widely documented, most recently in writer Kate Taylor’s New York Times story, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” which echoed a 2012 piece by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic, “Boys on the Side.” In both pieces, the writers chronicle experiences of a number of college students (Taylor’s at the University of Pennsylvania, Rosin’s at Yale) who were (are, presumably) smart, independent women who use casual sex for pleasure in a way once monopolized by men (this concept is not new—see Sex In The City—but the emphasis on younger women is newer). 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. Nothing wrong with that, right?
Well, 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.
Research presented last month at the annual meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research found that, in a study of 600 college students, women were twice as likely to derive physical, sexual pleasure when they were in serious relationships with a sex partner than they were in hookup situations.
These findings could be the result of comfort and communication, which generally increase the longer we stay with one partner. And it makes sense that most women are not entirely comfortable asking for what they want sexually from a new hookup (in the study, the International Academy of Sex Research found sexual communication challenges exist for women and men alike). The language used to describe sex and sexuality has become increasingly misogynistic, even as the sexes have become more equal. 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 8 percent of female viewers watch adult content online, up from two percent just three years ago).
But, really, is there any liberation in being pounded? Unlike “hooking up,” which at least applies to both genders, “pounding” describes a dynamic in which one party—the pounder—invariably benefits more. 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. Which is not modern, not about liberation or personal power, but really just an ages-old habit of trying to please someone else.
There are actual numbers that indicate the pervasiveness of hookup culture is likely greatly exaggerated, and therefore not as empowering or pleasurable as some articles might have you believe. A study presented at the 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. This means that hooking up has not, in fact, actually replaced committed relationships at all.
And 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 men judge promiscuous women—and that even promiscuous women judge other promiscuous women. Again: Girls get pounded. Boys do the pounding. Slut shaming remains a rampant form of bullying and abuse for young women. Girls become sluts far faster than boys become, well, is there even a word for it?
Which is the point: If we’re going to ask whether young women are enjoying casual hookups, should we be asking the same of young men? Is hookup culture possibly just bad for everyone?
Featured image courtesy of HBO