When I was in college, I held a belief I’m a little ashamed of now: that casual hookups are intrinsically disempowering and demeaning for women.
It was a sentiment echoed by many conservative commentators whose books and articles I eagerly read, feeling that they affirmed my own feelings and experiences.
Looking back on it, though, I can understand why I believed that: I thought that casual sex was degrading because I had felt degraded every time I had it.
But as I later realized, the reason I felt degraded wasn’t because casual sex is inherently degrading. It was because my hookup partners had treated me like an object, like a means to an end. They didn’t care about my pleasure, they disrespected and ignored me afterwards, and they were often pushy and coercive.
The more I learned about feminism, the more I realized that my experiences with casual sex with men fit into a much broader pattern of structural sexism. They treated me that way because that’s how they’d learned to treat women (often not just in hookup situations, either), and the reason they’d learned to treat women that way was because they, like all of us, were raised in a sexist society.
Unfortunately, while there are real and important critiques to be made of the way that hookup culture tends to function, many of the critiques we hear most often are coming from a place of sex negativity and a fear of young people’s sexuality.
Through their coded language and their failure to look at hookup culture through a feminist lens, these critics reveal the fact that, ultimately, they think that people (especially young people, and especially young women) having casual sex is just kind of immoral and icky.
Well, it’s not. The problems we see in hookup culture aren’t there because it involves casual sex, but because it involves sexism – and sexism is deeply embedded in our society.
Of course hookup culture is sexist. It’s sexist for the same reason that serious relationships are sexist, and TV shows are sexist, and workplaces are sexist.
In order to completely remove sexism from hookup culture, we’d have to completely remove it from society, and that’s a tall order – for now. There are still things we can do to make our hookups less sexist and more empowering.
Before I get started, though, I just want to note that I’ll primarily be examining heterosexual dynamics here because that’s what criticisms of “hookup culture” have primarily focused on. But some parts of this article will also apply to queer hookups.
Let’s look at five ways sexism plays out in hookup culture and how we can address it:
1. There’s a Lack of Focus on Women’s Pleasure
In many heterosexual hookup situations, the focus is on the man having an orgasm, and when he does, the hookup is over.
One study of college students found that 80% of men had orgasms during their hookups, but only 40% of women did. By comparison, 75% of women in relationships had orgasms during sex.
That’s quite a substantial gap, but it doesn’t mean we all have to commit to serious relationships in order to get the pleasure we want.
The researchers of that study pointed out that women may not feel comfortable asking for what they want in a hookup situation because they don’t know the person well. But being upfront about your sexual desires is always okay, whether you’ve known the person for years or minutes.
If you still feel awkward talking about sex, these tips may help.
However, when it comes to sex, it takes (at least) two to tango. Even when women ask for what they want, their male hookups may not always care enough to make the effort. One young man quoted in the New York Times article about this study said, “I’m not going to try as hard as when I’m with someone I really care about.”
Men (and everyone): if you don’t care enough to give your partner a good time, maybe you shouldn’t be having sex with other people.
And if your partner doesn’t care enough about you to bother asking you what you’re into or making sure that you’re enjoying yourself, it might be time to find another hookup. Casual doesn’t have to mean careless or boring.
2. Men Are Expected to Conform to Unrealistic and Toxic Standards
What do I mean by unrealistic and toxic standards? Let’s start with the fact that men, straight and queer, are expected to want tons of casual sex all the time.
Men who are asexual, have low sex drives, prefer sex in committed relationships, or feel too shy to initiate sexual encounters are seen as less “manly” and often find themselves ridiculed by other men (and sometimes by women, too).
Men are also expected to “perform” sexually in ways that aren’t always possible (or preferable).
If cis women’s orgasms are supposed to be “complicated” and difficult to achieve, cis men are expected to be “easy to please” and to have orgasms readily during a casual hookup. At the same time, they’re not supposed to orgasm too quickly, or else they’re viewed as inexperienced and not in control. They’re not supposed to be sexually submissive or unsure of what they want.
If you hook up with men, remember that their needs and desires are as diverse as those of folks of other genders.
Some men may not be interested in casual sex (or any sex at all), and that doesn’t make them any less male. Some may have a difficult time reaching orgasm and may need a particular type of play or stimulation in order to get there.
When you meet a guy who breaks your expectations of what men are “supposed” to be like in hookup situations, treat him with kindness and an earnest curiosity, not ridicule. And if it turns out that you’re not sexually compatible with him, say so honestly and directly, without putting him down in a gendered way.
3. The Emphasis On Heavy Drinking and Minimal Communication Promotes Rape Culture
A typical hookup happens after both partners have consumed a lot of alcohol – and doesn’t involve much talking or negotiation. While you can definitely have a little bit to drink and still be able to consent, the drunkenness that’s become almost synonymous with casual hookups is another thing entirely.
The idea that hookups shouldn’t involve verbal consent is likewise problematic.
And because so many of us believe that hookups don’t need to involve any talking, it’s easy for us to excuse sexual assault as “just a miscommunication,” especially if one or both partners had been drinking.
Part of dismantling rape culture is getting rid of these tropes about casual sex once and for all. The onus shouldn’t be on someone to say “stop” or “I don’t want that”; it should be on their partner to ask them what they want and check in with them to make sure they’re still into what’s happening.
If you’re initiating a hookup, it’s your responsibility to make sure that your partner is both physically able to consent and actually consenting. If you know that drinking heavily causes you to misunderstand and overstep other people’s boundaries, then it’s your responsibility to drink in moderation.
If your hookup partner is unwilling to be clear about what they want to do or doesn’t seem to care about finding out what you want to do, that’s a red flag. Casual shouldn’t mean non-communicative. Always get consent!
4. The Way Some Men Talk About Women They’ve Hooked Up With Promotes Sexual Double Standards
When I was a naive college freshman who hadn’t yet learned much about sexism and feminism, I was completely perplexed to see guys enthusiastically pursuing women for casual sex, hooking up with them, and then…talking trash to all their friends about how “slutty” and “easy” the women were.
Then and now, I’ve heard guys claiming that they can’t respect a girl who hooks up with them or has sex on the first date, even if the guy was the one who initiated it.
It’s a weird sort of entrapment: These men pursue women and try to convince them to have sex – sometimes even using coercion – and then turn around and call them sluts for agreeing. It would be like if I invited you over for a home-cooked meal and then called you greedy for accepting some food.
You can’t have it both ways, though.
If you can’t respect someone who chooses to have sex with you, that’s something that you, not them, need to work through and deal with. And on the flip side, remember that you never deserve ridicule or disrespect for choosing to have sex with someone who wants to have sex with you.
It doesn’t matter how recently you met or if you knew their last name or which sex acts you did. People who pursue you for a hookup and then turn around and shame you for agreeing to it aren’t worth your time.
5. The Way We Stigmatize Emotions in Hookup Situations Hurts People of All Genders
The “rules” for a stereotypical hookup are simple: No feelings. Don’t get attached. Don’t be jealous when they sleep with someone else. Don’t be awkward or insecure about sex. Don’t act like you’re all that into them, or want to see them all that much. Don’t get upset if they don’t text again. If you have feelings, then you must be trying to manipulate them into a Serious Committed Relationship.
Wait, that doesn’t sound so simple after all. While the idea that casual sex can’t include any actual emotions is ostensibly meant to keep things fun and easy for everyone, the amount of emotional self-policing involved can actually get pretty exhausting.
Some of this is pushback against the sex-negative trope that having sex necessarily causes people (especially women) to fall in love and therefore shouldn’t be done before marriage. That trope is false.
However, for many people, sex does cause emotions – sometimes positive, sometimes negative. It can deepen pre-existing attachments or cause new ones to form. You can still choose to keep things casual even if you have feelings for someone, or you can talk to them to see if they might be interested in making the relationship more serious.
Even if the feelings you experience in a hookup scenario have nothing to do with The Relationship itself, they might still be worth processing or expressing.
If your partner does something sexually that triggers you, they need to know, even if you don’t ever plan to see them again after tonight. You don’t have to go into the details if you don’t want to, but the fact that something made you feel bad during a hookup is nothing to be ashamed of, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing the hookup “wrong.”
The ways in which emotions are stigmatized in hookup culture are often gendered. Women’s emotions are viewed as “crazy” and “clingy”; men’s emotions make others view them as less “manly” and strong.
These sexist tropes don’t help anyone form healthy relationships (casual ones included). It’s okay to expect your casual hookup not to include a ton of talking about feelings, but it’s not okay to imply that your partner’s emotions are somehow wrong or shameful.
There’s a lot wrong with how many hookups go down in practice – but that doesn’t mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Many people find casual sex empowering, fun, and totally unregrettable.
If you don’t – even if that’s purely because of bad experiences you’ve had in the past – that’s valid, and nobody should ever be pressuring you to have casual sex (or any other kind of sex). I was in that place myself for a while, and some people stay in that place longer than I did, or forever. Opting out is okay. Choosing to have sex only in committed relationships or not at all is okay.
But for those who are into hookups, try to hold both of these truths: one, that it’s possible and totally okay to choose partners and arrangements that work for you and that minimize sexism; and two, that the sexism you may experience in your hookups isn’t your fault. It’s there because it’s embedded in our society, and you’re not going to be able to fix that on your own.
Ending sexism is work that all of us must share, regardless of how (and with whom) we have sex.
Miri Mogilevsky is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a recently graduated with a Masters in Social Work and is starting a career as a counselor in Columbus, Ohio. She loves reading, writing, and learning about psychology, social justice, and sexuality, and is working on her cat photography skills. Miri writes a blog called Brute Reason, rants on Tumblr, and occasionally even tweets @sondosia.