Maria, a 28 year old woman I interviewed for my book on twenty-something women and sexual freedom, had a number of one-night stands in her twenties. At the time, her attitude with men was, “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.” Hooking up gave Maria a sense of power because she did not care about the other person, or about what happened. She was not a victim of exploitation in these encounters, and instead was very much in charge. But while she may have had power in these hook-ups, Maria wasn’t having good sex.
Something is amiss in the promise of sexual freedom for women. If twenty-something women are the most liberated women in history, then a troubling bit of data casts light on the fact that more sex does not necessarily equal good, satisfying sex. Through my own research and psychotherapy practice, I hear young women echoing the same sentiment again and again: “Why is good sex so hard to get?”
If recent coverage in the Style and Opinion pages of major US news outlets is to be believed, young women are participating to a greater degree than ever in casual sex. The veracity of these claims, however, is debatable. We have some excellent data on the frequency of hook-ups among college students, an average of three instances throughout their college careers according to the Online College Social Life Survey (OCSLS) of over thirteen thousand undergraduate heterosexual women across the county. We do not, however, have good historical data about participation in hook-ups vs. sex in heterosexual relationships among college students and twenty-somethings since the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1960’s. Whether the level of participation in hookups has or hasn’t changed, what’s new about the current incarnation of hook-up culture is the pressure that women feel to participate in it. Many young women now feel as though they ought to be having casual sex in order to find themselves, be empowered, and have good sex.
Hook-up culture may be positive for some young women in that it provides opportunities to feel powerful and in control. And the existence of hook-up culture is surely positive for women. That women can feel unashamed, uninhibited, and entitled to sexual desire and pleasure is an outcome for which our feminist foremothers passionately fought.
While there are indeed benefits to the hook-up culture, there are in fact some problems. Hook-up culture, while it may offer young women empowerment and freedom, doesn’t generally get young women the sexual satisfaction they want. In my research on twenty-something women and in the research of sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Paula England, and Alison C.K. Fogerty, we all find that some women do learn a great deal about themselves and their desires through casual hook-ups. But many more women have sub-standard sex in heterosexual hook-ups and are less likely to express their desires and advocate for themselves in hook-ups than they might in relationships.
Using data from the OCSLS, combined with qualitative interviews of 85 women, Armstrong, England, and Fogerty have found that while women orgasmed less often than men (80 percent as frequently) in close heterosexual relationships, they reached orgasm even less often than men (only 32 percent as frequently) in first heterosexual hook-ups. This suggests that men engaged in hook-ups are less invested in their female partners’ pleasure than they are when in relationships, becoming more attentive and concerned about their partner’s pleasure as the relationship progresses. And that women engaged in hook-ups are less likely to express their desires and advocate for themselves in sex than are women in relationships.
So while hooking up provides young women with diverse sexual experiences, it doesn’t necessarily help women become good advocates for themselves, or have good sex. My research, and that of others, shows that it’s in relationships that women practice asserting themselves and getting what they want. It’s in relationships (with the right partner) that women learn how to advocate for themselves, risk asking for what they want, and tolerate the vulnerability of desire. It wasn’t until a boyfriend gave Maria a homework assignment to masturbate that she realized what she’d been missing. In subsequent relationships, Maria began letting her partners know what she wanted, and having good sex.
To be sure, relationships are not a panacea for young women – they can still be sites of violence, coercion, unsatisfying sex, and inhibition. But at the same time, nor are hook-ups universally good for women. Rather that portraying hook-ups in either glossy terms or dismissing them out of hand as bad for women, we should educate young women about the complexities of hooking up. And instead of proclaiming relationships to be refuges of security and safety, we should speak honestly with young women about the pleasures and complications of relationships.
Responses to young women hooking up tend to fall into one of two camps: hysteria about how hook-up culture is bad for young women, making them out to be victims; or hyperbole about how hook-up culture is good for young women – making them out to be victors.
In my research I find that young women are neither primarily victims nor victors in hook-up culture, but they are often misinformed. I’m neither for nor against young women hooking up. What I am for is young women going into hook-ups with their eyes open – knowing what they’re likely to get out of them and cognizant of what is unlikely to result from them. Hook-ups are unlikely to include satisfying sex for women. And they are unlikely to provide women with the skills needed to have either good sex or relationships.
I would certainly never advocate a return to pre-1960’s sexual norms and prescriptions for women. But I do advocate that women participate in relationships to learn about how to have satisfying sex. I want women to have the same sexual freedoms as do men, to feel entitled to whatever sexual desires and pleasures they’re after, to participate in hook-ups if they want. But I also want them to have good sex. And it’s in relationships, not hook-ups, that young women are likely to find the satisfaction they seek.