Hookup culture. Everybody’s doing it.
Most of you have already heard – or used – this term many times. But for those left in the dark, Urban Dictionary describes hookup culture as “the era that began in the early 1990s and has since prevailed on college campuses and elsewhere when hooking up has replaced traditional dating as the preferred method of heterosexual liaison.”
The American Psychological Association offers a more clinical description of “brief uncommitted sexual encounters between individuals who are not romantic partners or dating each other.”
But for the sake of brevity, hookup culture can be defined as “casual sex.”
And it’s on the rise: 91% of college students say that hookup culture dominates their lives.
But let’s take a step back and think about how – and who – this upward trend in casual hookups is affecting: Is it healthy? Is it fostering equality between the sexes? Is it mutually beneficial for all sexes? Or does it continue to uphold patriarchal memes?
There are two main schools of thought – one says that hookup culture supports women’s sexual empowerment by giving them the ability to have casual sex on their own terms; the other states that it helps sustain sexist double standards and disempowers women by depriving them of emotional connection.
By looking at both sides, we may be able to shed more light on the matter – or at least work towards a better understanding of each point of view.
Casual Sex in History
Historically, men who engage in casual sex or extramarital affairs have not been ostracized from society – rather, it has been almost (if not entirely) expected of them.
Women, on the other hand, have suffered punishments ranging from banishment to stoning to death for any sexual activity outside of the marriage bed.
Hell, just look at the Tudors.
King Henry VIII kept at least 12 mistresses during his married years and was decidedly sexually active before he was wed, while two of his six wives were beheaded because they were accused of sexual activity – including activity that took place before their betrothal to the King.
See the contrast between the sexes? One got to sleep around all he pleased while ruling a powerful world empire, while the other lost their heads for youthful sexual exploration.
Henry VIII is a common and well-known example of historical sexual discrimination, but these values used to be commonplace and routine in society.
And not much has changed.
The Dreaded Double Standard
We’ve come a long way since the 16th century in terms of gender equality and the way we view sex, particularly in the Western world. But there’s no question that most of Western society still gives men a “free pass” when it comes to sex outside of relationships, while women are much more likely to be judged, disliked, or called sluts for having noncommittal sex.
Studies show that this double standard leads to more hookup-related depression and anxiety in women than in men, and my personal experience supports this.
While there are anomalies, my female friends (and myself) invariably have a harder time dealing with the repercussions of casual sex than the dudes I know because they are more worried about what other people will think.
And why wouldn’t they be, considering how detrimental casual sex can be to a woman’s reputation? (Thanks, society!)
Hooking Up Today
While there is no question that Western society maintains an unfair double standard for men and women when it comes to casual sex, there are many individuals of all sexes who choose to engage in hookup culture on a regular basis – and enjoy it.
A lot of women say that casual hookups relieve them of the pressure that comes with trying to balance a career or educational path with a committed, time-consuming relationship.
In Kate Taylor’s New York Times article “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too,” one young woman talks plainly about the “low risk and low investment costs” of casually hooking up.
In another defense of hookup culture, author Hanna Rosin argues that casual hookups actually benefit women, giving them the opportunity to focus completely on their career goals without having to sacrifice having their sexual needs met.
And that’s just the question, isn’t it? Do casual hookups actually meet women’s needs? Let’s explore.
Are Hookups ‘Good’ for Women, Too?
That might all depend on what you think the end goal of casual sex is.
If it’s an orgasm and an orgasm only, then we have a problem. Simply put, women are just less likely than men to climax during a casual sexual encounter.
According to research conducted over a five-year period involving 24,000 students at 21 different colleges, twice as many men as women reached orgasm during their last experience with casual intercourse (80% of men versus 40% of women).
However, this same survey yielded very different results for women in committed relationships, about 75% of whom said that they had orgasmed the last time they had sex.
These numbers seem to lend credibility to the Masters and Johnson theory, which states that women need an intimate emotional connection with someone in order to reach orgasm.
However, most modern human sexuality experts believe that the real answer is more complex than this. In fact, many of the possible reasons why women don’t have as many orgasms during casual sex have little to do with emotions.
Investigating ‘Plain’ Sex and Orgasms
For starters, let’s get something out of the way. Guys, good old-fashioned penile thrusting simply doesn’t get a lot of women off.
A compilation of studies conducted over three-quarters of a century and compiled by Dr. Elizabeth Lloyd indicate that only about 25% of all women reliably reach their climax during “plain” sex (vaginal intercourse with no “extras”), while about one-third rarely or never have orgasms from intercourse at all.
Many women are, however, more likely to climax if they engage in other sexual activity with their partner, such as oral sex or manual clitoral stimulation.
So how does this relate to hookup culture? Simple. Casual hookups usually consist of vaginal intercourse and a focus less on other activities that help women reach orgasm.
Add what we already know, that women are more likely to orgasm from oral sex or an oral/vaginal combo than vaginal sex alone, to this fun fact: women are much less likely to get oral sex during casual sex. During casual hookups, men get it about 80% of the time, while women are on the receiving end of oral less than 50% of the time.
Benefits of Casual Sex Outside of the Big O
So we’ve already established that there are some roadblocks on the road to orgasm for women who have sex casually. But does having an orgasm have to be the goal of a hookup? Absolutely not.
Indiana University scientist Dr. Debra Hebernick believes that many women get sexual satisfaction and emotional benefits from intercourse that doesn’t lead to orgasm. Sometimes, according to her research, casual sex works wonders merely by providing a sense of intimacy for both partners involved.
Self-Centered Sexual Tendencies
What else is it about casual hookups that even further lessen a woman’s chance at climaxing?
Perhaps another answer lies in the interaction between the men and women who are participating in hookup culture, and in the indoctrinated societal messages that women absorb throughout their early lives.
Casual sex is usually more spontaneous, less emotionally-charged, and often experienced by partners who don’t know each other extremely well. Because of this, there is a much lower chance that women will ask their partner for what they want.
Not only this, but studies demonstrate that most men will admit to not trying as hard to please a partner that they do not have a deep emotional connection with. Some men say that it is awkward to ask a new partner what they like, and many even admit to being focused primarily on their own satisfaction.
Just Another Reason Why the Patriarchy Sucks
The cherry on top of the proverbial bad sex sundae is that despite how far we’ve come with gender equality and sexual liberation, society still judges women more harshly for being sexually promiscuous.
It’s not uncommon for women to express feelings of guilt or shame for hooking up casually – talk about a mood killer!
When women grow up being told to keep their number of sexual partners as low as possible, to only have sex inside the context of a relationship, and to stay virgins as long as they can, we end up with a problem: the difficulty of balancing a healthy casual sex life with a lifetime’s worth of slut-shaming.
It may very well be that this fucked-up socialization prevents many women from reaching orgasm in casual sex due to an underlying fear of disgrace.
In conclusion, I don’t think we can’t say that hookup culture is strictly bad or good.
Hookup culture can be, in my opinion, both harmful and helpful to women’s empowerment. Casual sex is an individual decision, and has individualized results for different people. There isn’t a “one size fits all” answer for this debate.
But I’m damn well sure of one thing: Patriarchal views that look down on women who participate in casual sex are hurting us. They are just another vestige of a long-gone time, like Henry VIII-era sexual discrimination and injustice, watered down and tied up in a pretty package that pretends to be equality.
Casual sex should be only a personal choice, free from society’s judgment and condemnation– whether you are man or woman, black or white, straight or gay, young or old.
Only when this is true for everyone – and I mean everyone – will I be able to answer the question of “Was it good for you?” with a resounding yes.
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Danica Johnson is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism and the Communications Manager at the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of national organizations working together to promote public policies addressing the needs of low-income and other vulnerable populations. Living in Washington, DC, this West Coast native uses her free time to write for her blog Duckyfem, practice yoga and spend as much time with animals and in nature as possible. Follow her on Twitter @duckyfem and read her articles here.
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