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Relationships in the digital age

Looking for Christian Grey

It's not easy graduating from Hook-Up U.

Even though scholars are still trying to figure out when, exactly, the hook-up culture became the predominant sexual script, it’s become sufficiently institutionalized that it’s actually become a part of  the Senior rite of passage at some colleges.  At Bowdoin, for example, you get to act on your fantasy of hooking up with the hot brunette from bio, the one with the long legs, or the nonchalant dude who was always late for French Diaspora Lit, along with six others. (Seven people, one for every day of Senior Week.) All you need to know is their names, log onto a website, and start praying that he/she will have your name on his or her list and—voila!—the opportunity to hookup with the person you’ve been secretly dreaming about all these years. (Yale and Harvard, as well as other schools, have similar traditions.) 

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What’s presumably appealing is that you not only potentially have a shot at the hookup of your dreams but you don’t have to put yourself out there and actually approach the person. If you don’t end up matched, there may be a pinprick of rejection but no more. Fantasy hookups are all in the imagination, after all. (Amusingly, as quoted on the website HerCampus.com, one young man likened it to the college application process—with “safeties,” “reaches,” and others in between.) And if it works but it turns out not to be wish fulfillment, you’re graduating anyway and besides, with all the booze around, you’re not likely to remember every painful detail anyway.

So that brings me to Fifty Shades of Grey, the fantasy novel du jour. While the buzz generally has consigned it to the “mommy porn” heap—a romp for wives who have been sleeping with the same men for way too long—the book turns out to be a Millennial fave. So I borrow the book from one and, in the name of research, I submit  myself (sorry, I can’t help it) to actually reading it. Execrable, excruciating prose aside, where’s the appeal?

Suddenly, I get it. Compared to the hook-up scene, Fifty Shades is a slow, respectful waltz, a veritable dance of kinky seduction, with a virgin, no less, and a guy who gives amazing gifts, knows his wine, and flies a helicopter. As the heroine keeps saying too many times to count, he’s hot and the participants are actually sober, a rarity since, as one twenty-four-year-old woman remarks dryly, “In college and even now, people don’t meet each other or hookup sober.” Not in this version of Seattle. While the heroine actually passes out early on in the book, Christian Grey eschews the opportunity, saying “Anastasia, you were comatose. Necrophilia isn’t my thing. I like my women sentient and receptive.” I ask a Millennial what she thinks of that and she says without hesitation: “That’s when I knew he wasn’t a dude. He may be weird but, my goodness, he’s a gentleman.”

And, then too, there’s the orgasm part, something which—according to researchers at least—is famously lacking from the hook-up scene which isn’t precisely engineered to pleasure female partners.  As another Millennial—who has read all three books twice since Easter, in between working fulltime and living with her boyfriend—emails me: “The whole premise of the story was a kind of modern fairytale: a young girl meets a hot wealthy guy. They fall into this whirlwind romance and get married. Additional bonus: he is good in bed.” Even though the sex the heroine enjoys isn’t her kind of thing, this young woman does go on to say that the romance seems to capture the way things are today: “Truly representing the modern-day romance, their relationship is best related by email and text throughout the books and even songs Christian puts on the iPad he gives her.”  

And the relationship is monogamous, unlike the hookup—unless you reach the Promised Land of Girlfriend and Boyfriend. (It happens that Fifty Shades has a bead on that too, so much so that despite all the kink, the lovers actually meet each other’s parents! No walk of shame here. And he refers to her as his girlfriend so forget the “sub” thing. It’s not that important.)

Is this the zeitgeist at work? Another Millennial shakes her head and tells me that I’m over-thinking it, as she digs into the second book: “It’s fun, brainless fun. A read without thinking, more like reality shows than not. You feel better about your own life reading it.”

So, is it really about schadenfreude—the same self-validation you get from watching the Kardashians or something? That gets me thinking about a research article by Caroline Heldman and Lisa Wade that explores possible reasons for the emergence of the hook-up culture. Among the causes they list are the changes in college policy (the advent of the coed dorm); the relative scarcity of men on campus which may promote a sexual script more amenable to them (57% of undergrads are women); changes in alcohol use (44% of college students binge drink).  More pertinent to Fifty Shades, though, is what they have to say about the consumption of pornography, what they call “the pornification” of mass media, and the “self-objectification ” of women. While, on the one hand, Fifty Shades looks like a respite from the hook-up culture, it’s clearly tied to it in other ways.

The authors note that in today’s mass media world, the line between “pornographic” and mainstream has become increasingly thin. The extraordinary popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey is both an example and a product of that trend. Sexually explicit themes abound on the television—both network and cable—and encourage young women to “self-objectify”—that is, “learn to think and treat their bodies as objects of others’ desires.” The sexualization of young girls has been going on for the last two decades or so, as is evident to nearly everyone and so endemic that we’re no longer as alarmed by it as we should be. I think this explains why the Millennial women I speak to aren’t bothered by the theme of dominance in Fifty Shades; they’re used to that so they focus instead on the heroine’s agency. She does negotiate her contract with him, doesn’t she? She stands up to him! She makes him jealous! 

There’s a world-weariness to the Millennial point of view, as witness the sex scene in the pilot episode of Girls in which the heroine shows up to service the MIA dude in her life. It bothered me terribly; I haven’t found a Millennial who agrees with me. It may well be that graduating from Hookup U. isn’t as easy as it seems.

 

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Heldman, Caroline & Lisa Wade. 2010. Hook-Up Culture: Setting a New Research Agenda.  Sexuality Research and Social Policy 7, 4: 323.

Peg Streep, author or coauthor of nine books, is a New York City based writer currently working on a book about the Millennial generation.

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