When I first started college, I felt like a kid in a candy store. I was living on my own for the first time, had consistent invitations to parties, and was suddenly an object of desire after being dismissed as a high school nerd.
The culture surrounding sexuality was also different. While I’d heard women in high school labelled “sluts” for having casual sex, most people in my college had a liberal attitude toward sexual expression and understood the harmful effects of sex-shaming.
So, basically, the “hookup culture” that supposedly oppresses college women was a breath of fresh air to me.
During the first semester of my freshman year, I engaged in casual hookups often. But by the spring of that school year, I had stopped.
I’m still trying to figure out why.
The best way I can describe it is that I wanted something more profound. I got more fulfillment out of nights spent engrossed in philosophical discussions, having heart-to-hearts with friends, and working on art projects.
While hookups were physically pleasurable, they weren’t giving me the sense of well-being that those other things gave me.
I wanted a relationship that would fulfill me emotionally, intellectually, and physically – and purely physical relationships were fun, but starting to feel incomplete.
But when I tried to explain this, people didn’t understand. They told me sex and love were very intertwined for women, so it was hard for us to enjoy sex without an emotional bond.
But I did enjoy emotionless hookups. I just enjoyed them the way I enjoyed marathoning TV shows, rather than the way I enjoyed writing poetry – and I didn’t like that.
People told me women got attached after sex due to hormones, so it was no wonder I wanted more.
But that wasn’t it either. I wasn’t attached to anyone I’d hooked up with. Actually, I felt quite distant. I didn’t even know them. That was precisely part of what I disliked about it.
Plus, I found the women-get-attached theory a bit insulting to women’s judgment. As a cognitive neuroscience major, I happened to know that sex can release bonding-related hormones for people of all genders.
And while I sometimes recognized this reaction in myself, I could separate it from actually feeling like I knew someone well or he’d make a good boyfriend.
Because others didn’t take my explanation at face value, I felt like I was making no sense. I discounted my own reasons and explained my decision in others’ language. “I craved an emotional connection,” I’d say, disappointing myself by confirming the very stereotypes about women I resented.
But I’ve spent the years since thinking, reading, and talking about this issue, and I’ve encountered some theories that make a hell of a lot more sense to me than “women get attached.”
So here are some explanations for why I (and other women, as well as many people of other genders) might choose not to have casual hookups – that have nothing to do with biological gender differences.
1. Gender Minorities, Like Women, Have More Safety Concerns
One possibility I first learned about from the book The Ethical Slut is that women are less likely to engage in casual hookups because they involve being in an intimate setting with someone they may not be able to trust.
Even though most people are sexually assaulted by someone they do know and trust, it’s still common to be more wary of strangers, especially since we’re taught to be.
And it’s hard to get in the mood when you’re wondering if someone’s going to sexually assault you.
The possibility of getting assaulted was definitely on my mind when I sought out hookups. My friends and I would text one another to make sure we were okay if we ever went home with anyone after a party. We wouldn’t leave our drinks unattended.
We shouldn’t have to take these precautions, but we live in a culture that teaches women to be constantly on guard.
Given that one in three women and two in five trans and gender non-conforming people experience sexual misconduct during college, we knew it would likely happen to at least one of us – probably more. And it did.
During my freshmen year, my cousin and I met a group of guys at a party. I thought one of them was really cute. We stood outside and talked for a while. Afterward, I excitedly went back to his apartment.
After making out for a while, he told me to give him oral sex. I said no. He begged me. I said no again. He pushed my head downward. I told him not to push me. He said he never pushed me. He insisted once more.
At that point, I felt like a royal pain in the ass. I felt it was easier to just do it than to keep arguing. So I did. And I told myself I liked it.
Afterward, as we talked to his roommate, he got behind me and made a humping motion to show off. “It’s a masculinity thing,” he told me. The next weekend, I tried to call him, and he told me he’d since gotten a girlfriend.
I spent a long time believing that this encounter was consensual. I thought being pressured into sex was just something women had to deal with.
But it made me more wary of future hookups. After all, that guy had seemed so sweet and innocent. Who else could unexpectedly pressure me, embarrass me, and treat me like a conquest?
My experience is extremely common. Even when women are not sexually assaulted, they often deal with partners who treat them like objects.
Going home with someone at the end of the night is a gamble for anyone, especially women and other gender minorities, who are more likely to be sexually assaulted and constantly told to protect themselves from assault.
The decision is about so much more than whether we’ll have a good time.
Our very safety is at stake.
2. Hookup Culture Deprioritizes Women’s Pleasure
Let me make it clear that my experience with casual hookups, particularly in college, exists within a set of cultural norms that apply particularly to cisgender men and women hooking up with each other.
While queer relationships certainly can involve casual hookups, they don’t necessarily have the same gendered expectations and power dynamics, although they are sometimes imitated and reified in those relationships.
And within the hookup culture that I’ve experienced, men, specifically, are supposed to be in the driver’s seat. They’re supposed to initiate sexual encounters, they’re supposed to decide what happens, and they’re supposed to get the most out of it.
Remember the guy who insisted I perform oral sex on him? He refused to perform it on me – which he had the right to do, but the asymmetry of his expectations was telling. And a lot of women I knew had experienced the same.
In fact, a recent study of Canadian college students found that 63% of men had received oral sex during their last hookup – but only 44% of women had.
The oral sex gap could partially explain the orgasm gap between straight men and women, which is larger in casual hookups than in relationships. In hookups, men have three orgasms for every one a woman has. In relationships, the ratio is only 1.25:1.
So, when a woman goes into a hookup, one possible scenario is that she’ll be assaulted, and if she escapes that, she gets to be treated as an afterthought. There aren’t that many good choices here.
When you’re not sure if your partner will even care about your pleasure, the risk of being disrespected and objectified doesn’t really seem worth it.
3. Women Are Taught Not to Have Too Many Sexual Partners
Sex-shaming is very real, and it has drastic effects on women’s lives. One study, which unfortunately stuck to a gender binary, found that adolescent girls actually lost friends when they had sex, while boys gained friends.
Another study showed that women want casual hookups just as much as men – when they know the sex will be good and they won’t be judged.
Yup: When women are free from BS societal norms, they act “like men” – which makes it all the less believable that men are innately more interested in casual hookups. That belief stigmatizes normal human behavior for one gender.
Funny enough, though, the sex-shaming explanation didn’t resonate with me initially. I’ve certainly heard people concern-troll women, including myself, about their casual hookups, but I didn’t think it affected my own behavior. I thought I’d brushed it off. After all, I’m a sex and relationships writer. I don’t even put my sex toys away when my friends come over.
At age 25, though, I’m finally coming to terms with how much sex-shaming has affected me. Because even during my “sluttiest” phase, I imposed a restriction on myself: I wouldn’t have penis-in-vagina intercourse unless I was in love and in a committed relationship.
This breed of shame is based on a heteronormative definition of sex in which everything else “doesn’t count.” Hand stuff was okay. Mouth stuff was okay. But a penis would change me.
I’ve taken pride in following this rule, and I shouldn’t. Your number of sexual partners says nothing about you.
To this day, I have nightmares in which I’m fooling around with someone and the penis slips in by accident, and I panic as I recalculate my “number.”
Throughout my adulthood, I’ve strived to keep this number low to feel self-disciplined and in control, and if it were to become high, I’d feel like a failed woman. As an anorexia survivor, I can say there are a lot of similarities between how I’ve thought of my number of sexual partners and how I’ve thought of my weight.
There’s nobody I would talk to about sex who would judge me based on my number. But it powerfully shapes the way I think of myself. And I grew up in a secular, liberal environment. This is not the worst of it – just standard, society-wide sex-shaming.
I’m still trying to detangle my genuine lack of interest in casual hookups with my irrational feeling that each new penis introduced into my body will somehow alter it.
I maintain that there was more to my decision to forgo casual hookups than sex-shaming, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how much the sexual double-standard played into it.
4. That’s Just Not the Kind of Relationship They Want
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter why a woman doesn’t want to have casual sex. She should be able to decide she’s not into it without her decision being used to prove a point about gender differences.
This hit me when I started to speak to men who also weren’t interested in casual sex. These conversations provided validation that even if my reasons matched a gender stereotype, they weren’t necessarily due to my gender. I could want an emotional connection with sexual partners without reducing that desire to female hormones.
And my story didn’t have to be comparable to anyone else’s. This could just be how I was, as an individual.
It’s hard to do something “feminine” as a woman without feeling responsible for confirming people’s beliefs about women. And it’s hard to do anything as a woman without it being labeled “feminine.”
To me, abstaining from casual hookups isn’t an expression of femininity, and it’s not a result of biological instincts. My reasons are much deeper than that.
I prefer more intellectually stimulating, emotionally intimate, trusting, secure, communicative relationships. And while some people might find casual hookups with these qualities, hookup culture doesn’t foster them, and the risk of being assaulted or disrespected doesn’t seem worth the search for me.
Others’ reasons might be different. Asexual spectrum women, for example, might not feel attracted to people at all – or may not feel attracted to people they’re not close with. Saying they lack interest in casual hookups just because they’re women neglects their identities.
Whatever a woman’s reasons, she has the right to have them treated as her reasons, not forced into a narrative of why women turn down casual sex.
I’m still determining precisely what kinds of relationships work best for me and probing why I’ve made the decisions I’ve made, and it’ll be an ongoing process. But I deserve the chance to go through that process and get to know myself, not a flattened stereotype of women’s behavior.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.