Lost in Hook-up Land
Are the new sexual scripts screwing things up?
Posted Feb 08, 2012
One thing is clear: the old script called dating is dead, supplanted by the hookup, at least for high school and college kids. Ironically, single Millennials who are out of college ("the bubble," as one young woman calls it) find themselves navigating new terrain that looks pretty much like the old dating scene. And they're finding the going tough because they're novices. Successful dating requires specific social skills and mastery of the art of conversation, neither of which are honed by the hookup or digital communication.
The hookup is of a piece with the digital communications that have supplanted spoken conversation. Like texting, the hookup is spontaneous and pretty much thoughtless; it's not dependent on much conscious or verbal seduction since alcohol, lots of it, is typically involved. (Dr. Paula England's huge study of over 10,000 college students, reveals that median number of drinks consumed by a male before a hookup is five and four for a female!) Like Facebook postings, the hookup takes place publicly in a group setting, with other people observing at least the first stages of sexual connection. (As one young woman, 24, put it, "And so I found myself making out with him by accident.") The group setting, according to a study published by Amanda Holman and Allan Sillars, also helps to "normalize" hookups since talking about them makes students believe that more people are engaged in them than they actually are. Younger Millennials – even the tweens and young teens who watch the hookups on shows like Gossip Girl – are likely to believe that too.
Generalizations about any group as large as the Millennials are always tricky. I know this personally as a Baby Boomer who missed all of the drugs, the "free" love, and a lot of the Rock 'n Roll consistently associated with my peers. Because "hooking up" is a deliberately vague and open-ended term – it can mean anything from kissing to vaginal or anal intercourse – it encompasses a variety of sexual behaviors which range from benign to risky, particularly when combined with alcohol. How many Millennials hook up? The data vary but not as many as the mainstream media would have us believe. Dr. England's survey finds that a full 25% of students don't. Other surveys show that more than half of a given college's population do.
Numbers aside, the important part is that Millennials don't date and if they do connect, it's in the context of the hookup. Dating requires social investment and forethought: you have to think about whether you're attracted to the person, want to spend time with him or her, take the risk of being rejected if you're doing the asking, and then you have to decide what you'll actually do together. It's planned, not spontaneous, and, in that sense, completely out of sync with how most Millennials are used to socializing. The purpose of most dates is to find out whether or not the person is someone you might want to have a relationship with. Amanda Holman, the lead author of the study on hooking up, is a Millennial herself (she's 28) and spends her time teaching younger Millennials; she observes that "The goal of a hookup is not a long term and committed relationship."
While some hookups actually end up evolving into committed relationships, it's hardly typical. In their book Premarital Sex in America, published last year, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker offer up a pretty convincing explanation: "When the habit of going out for dinner, a film, and dessert trails rather than precedes sex, even simple conversations take on a strange aura. After all, such a couple know more about what each other looks like naked than about what each other thinks about school, work, politics, religion, family, or future plans - life in general." It certainly doesn't help either that there's little else in their text/G Chat experience to make that one-on-one post-sex conversation any easier.
Even worse, the hookup doesn't provide much of a template for how either men or women should behave when they go out into the world and have to date. As Laura Sessions Stepp and Kathleen Bogle have argued in their respective books, Unhooked and Hooking Up, and more academic research has confirmed, the hookup isn't exactly egalitarian. Thanks to the endurance of the double standard for sexual behavior, men are more likely to win kudos for their sexual exploits while women run the risk of being labeled sluts. If you're in search of a committed relationship and you also live in a digital world where news travels fast and there's no delete button on your past, that's not a good thing.
And then, too, there's the whole question of who gets what in a hookup, which hardly sets a standard for a long-term, healthy sexual relationship. In broad terms, the hook-up scenario has the female in the "pleaser" role. According to Dr. England, while 44% of men reach orgasm in a hookup, only 19% of women do. And in a hookup which includes oral sex but no intercourse, oral sex is reciprocal only 30% of the time. Most disturbingly, men are the sole recipients 60% of the time.
So are Millennials lost in hook-up land? I don't think there's any question that a large number of them are. What has a man learned about pleasing a woman from a hookup? What has a woman learned about what she needs to do to snag a boyfriend or a husband? More important, has the hookup made it even harder for them to understand how physical intimacy connects to emotional and psychological intimacy? What does it mean when sex precedes a real conversation and neither party has much experience conversing with the opposite sex?
"I really want a relationship," one twenty-seven-year-old confides,"but there seems a lot of stuff gets in the way." She's a medical student and, as she says, "It's not easy to find someone who's not intimidated by how planned out my career is. The guys I've met are either scared of me or just want to hook up." A younger woman, just 24 and a scant two years out of college, is trying to figure out how to combine what she's used to and the prospect of dating. "I don't like to initiate getting to know someone with a date. The formality of it is unappealing. Instead, I ask a guy if he wants to hang out which could involve drinks at a bar, watching a movie at one of our houses, or just coming out with my friend and me when we go out on the weekends. That seems to relieve the pressure of the situation." What's missing from the agenda – just talking one-on-one without distraction – is worth noting.
Close relationships, intimate connections, between men and women have always been hard to forge and even harder to maintain. For all of its technological advances, the digital age, it seems, doesn't offer very fertile ground for them to flourish.
For a summary of Dr. England's results, see http://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/244/studyguide_.
Holman, Amanda and Alan Sillars. "Talk about 'hooking up': The influence of College Social Networks on Nonrelationship Sex." Health Communications,=, 2012. Feb,27 (2) 205-16.