Thoughts on the "hook-up culture," or what I learned from my high school diary
Crossposted at Girldrive
Debates about "hooking up," swinging from genuine concern to hysteria on both sides of political spectrum, have been raging throughout the 2000s.* And this week, it's seemed to bubble up to the surface again. I've spent the day reading ruminations by teen girl expert and Teen Vogue advice columnist Rachel Simmons, the always-thought provoking Kate Harding of Broadsheet, and Amanda Marcotte, who gives us a searing and passionate rebuff of any sort of nostalgia we might have about dating rules and traditions.
This rips open a wound for me--I spent most of 2007 contemplating this issue. But I'm gonna weigh in afresh now that I've just celebrated 2 years with my healthiest, post-high-school, Completely Committed Relationship (technically marriage, but that's another story)--the sex-and-love "holy grail," according to the many women's and teen magazines Kate lists in her Salon piece. Before, it was my "sorta" this or my "fuck buddy" that or my "I wish I knew what he was thinking" friend-with-benefits. And I gotta say, no matter how much I railed against Laura Sessions Stepp and Dawn Eden and Miriam Grossman and all the other rightwing, anti-feminist cautionary matrons, the facts remained: I knew how it felt to agonize over a text message. I knew how much it hurt to hear that the guy I'd been hooking up with "didn't do relationships." And I knew what it was like to use sexuality to coax a guy into being with me, only to have it fail miserably.
Feminist or not, that shit sucks. And it happens a lot, to women and girls everywhere. And yet, if you consider me and the vast majority of America who eventually couple up, it seems to end up okay. What to make of all this?
Rachel asks in the aforelinked post:
Now, just to be clear, I’m all for the freedom to hook up. But let’s face it: despite our desire to give women the freedom to plunder the bar scene and flex their sexual appetites, it would appear a whole lot of them are pretty happy playing by old school rules, thank you very much. Incidentally, one of the women smart enough to figure this out just sold her 5 billionth book, or something like that.
Does that make me a right-winger? Can I still be a feminist and say that I’m against this brand of sexual freedom? I fear feminism has been backed into a corner here. It’s become antifeminist to want a guy to buy you dinner and hold the door for you. Yet – picture me ducking behind bullet proof glass as I type this — wasn’t there something about that framework that made more space for a young woman’s feelings and needs?
I do feel where Rachel is coming from. But those old models are based on the idea that girls are fragile, that they need to be sheltered from the ills of the world. They're based on, as Kate says, being the girl that guys want. They're based on, as Amanda outlines, sexism plain and simple. So if we don't want to go the "Girls Gone Mild" route and start waiting for dudes to ask us on candlelit dates, does that mean it's hopeless to find a happy sexual medium as teens and young, single women?
Kate says no. "[I]f we teach all kids that there's a wide range of potentially healthy sexual and emotional relationships," she says, "and the only real trick (granted, it's a doozy) is finding partners who are enthusiastic about the same things you want, then there's room for a lot more people to pursue something personally satisfying at no one else's expense." That's one of the smartest statements I've ever read on this topic. Amanda, meanwhile, says we need to stop making women shoulder the burden of keeping men in check, and concentrate on getting "boys to appreciate girls more as human beings." A-fucking-men. (No pun intended.)
But there's also this: We need to admit as a culture that teens are sexual beings, and that more often than not, sexual maturity has a completely different timeline than emotional maturity. This is, to be sure, skewed by sexism and restrictive gender roles to make sexual coming-of-age worse for girls. But beyond that, maybe discovering what you want sexually and emotionally is just part of growing up--and that's okay.
And for that matter, what's with this still-dominant narrative that all teen girls should want a monogamous, snuggly, worshipping boyfriend? I wanted relationships from fantastic fucks all through high school and college, but something tells me that I repeatedly confused lust for love and convinced myself that I wanted a boyfriend, when really I just wanted a screwfest (although I can't be sure). For the record, I am not--I repeat, am not--saying that when girls write Rachel about the pain they're going through, they're not being honest with themselves. I know better than anyone how that pain feels. It's just that we never consider the power of cultural messages amid the mysterious phenomenon of girls wanting relationships more often than boys. I agree with Amanda that I don't think it's biological--there are societal patterns at work here. If we're told that casual sex is unfulfilling and that we're going to want relationships, chances are we'll end up wanting them. And why not? That's what Seventeen, Glamour, and all my friends always told me.
The interesting thing about my particular sexual history--the kind of narrative that I have yet to read about in all these books and articles about hooking up--is that I had great, pleasurable, safe sex in high school and college with guys who were nevertheless emotionally immature and noncommital and who hurt my feelings all the time. Does that mean I shouldn't have had sex with them at all--or does it mean I should have been honest with myself (and them, too) about what our relationship was really about? I do remember obsessing, crying, wishing he'd want a "real" relationship with me, as many girls who write to Rachel express. But do I regret the sex, do I feel like I "gave myself away" too early at 15? Hell No. It was one of the most exciting, fascinating, and interesting things about high school. Girls deserve to discover themselves sexually at their own pace, to be neither rushed into having sex nor shamed into not having it. They deserve to have their very own "This is bullshit" moments without wearing a chastity belt.
So, as Rachel worries: Was I permanently affected by this nebulous, masochistic phase, from accepting less than what I wanted emotionally? Yes, but not in a bad way. In fact, I'd venture to claim that without all those past experiences, I wouldn't have been equipped to be in the honest, nuanced, decidedly modern relaish I am in now.
The "hookup culture" must not be that new of a phenomenon if I was experiencing this stuff in the late nineties--and now at 25, I can employ my 10-year-old hindsight. Today, I found a fascinating piece of writing in my diary about "E," my first "boyfriend" and first lay in high school who made it perfectly clear he was not into a relationship. In a rare moment of clarity, my 15-year-old self wrote this:
"I think people are wrong when they say that sex and love HAVE to be together. I figured out why me and E have good sex. Physically, we’re in love. Our bodies are perfect for eachother, we satisfy eachother’s sexual urges like we were born for one another. And we’re not really like that personality-wise. But that’s okay! I don’t know why that’s a bad thing, and why everyone looks down upon it. Just because mentally we’re not in love doesn’t mean it’s emotionless sex. It’s not. It’s kinda like our bodies have emotions. Like our minds don’t particularly click, but our kisses and heartbeats and waves of sex drive do. What’s wrong with that???? We’re not USING eachother; we just have a connection that is very hard for people to understand. If they saw us together, they would know what I mean. I’m fine with it, and I think it will go on as long as it takes for me to find someone I have mental AND physical perfectness with, because that’s what I need to be in a relationship...And as long as I got one half, why give it up because OTHER people think its morally wrong? I mean, I wish me and E had both, but it’s been clearly established that we don’t, so fine. It doesn’t automatically turn into a bad thing."
There you have it. Love and sex don't always go together, especially for horny 15-year-olds. I could be totally off-base, but I don't think I was a freak for thinking this. If you're comfortable with accepting that teens are sexual people with their own desires, there's no getting around that boys and girls sometimes feel this way. I said this in 2007 and I still believe it now: Sex is the ultimate risk, a risk that makes human relationships complicated, intoxicating and wonderful. It's an emotional risk when you're 18 the same way it's a risk when you're 40. Each time, as long as you're safe and armed with the right info, it's amazing to feel alive and take that risk.
Granted, I was armed with the right info. I had good sex education and candid parents. But many girls are getting scolded by their elders and pressured by their peers. Some are in abstinence-only education classes and told they'll be too "used" or "dirty" for their future husbands if they have sex. The vast majority are not given the space they need to figure out what they truly want from their sexual relationships.
I agree with Rachel that it feels awful to have to compromise yourself, but testing out your sexual and romantic bottom lines may just be a rite of passage for teenagers experimenting with their sexuality--which is what the sexual revolution should have been about, rather than expecting women to simply indulge men's fantasies. I doubt things will ever be perfect the first time a girl tries to define a sexual reality that works for her--especially if she's told to follow age-old dating rules that clearly didn't work the first time around. What I do hope for the future is that young women be allowed to take moments of sexual confusion in stride without conservatives breathing down their necks, without being called sluts by their peers, without feeling like they've ruined their chances at marriage forever, without being made to think that boys are emotionless sexbots, without letting an unsatisfying relationship cross over into the abusive zone--all while getting factual information about sex and STIs from their schools and families. Don't girls deserve that much?
*Most of the freakouts over the "hookup scene" happen in the context of heterosexual relationships, since according to the majority of sexual conservatives, queer teen girls don't have peen-in-vadge sex and therefore, as Kate puts it, "don't exist."