When I was in grade 12, Samantha from Sex and the City was my idol. She was funny, loud, confident, and had a lot of shameless sex.
It took me a while to learn that, unlike in Samantha’s world, in real life, casual sex can be the result of more than just a personal choice. We live in a society that glorifies casual sex while simultaneously expecting virginity from every woman. It is no longer the case that all women who have casual sex are “sluts”, because female sexuality is no longer about the simple virgin/whore dichotomy; now, young women are required to follow new sexist sexual scripts – the sequence of socially expected behaviours in a given context – that demand they ‘undermine’ this dichotomy by being a Charlotte and a Samantha at the same time. I realized that the concept of the “sexually liberated woman” was a mythical – or at least romanticized – image of femininity that doesn’t apply to me and many of those around me.
It’s because of my own discomfort with sexist and racist sexual scripts that I have intentionally tried to carve myself a space outside of straight white culture. Reflecting back on years of pining after white men, listening to stories of friends’ love lives, and reliving daily the trauma of sexual assault, it has become clear to me that the idea of the sexually liberated woman in cis-heterosexual relationships is deeply flawed and limiting. When today’s women are forced to toe the undefinable line between hooking up ‘enough’ and ‘too much,’ striving to be a Samantha doesn’t seem to be all that liberating.
“Hookup culture” is used to describe the ethos of millennials on university campuses where casual sex is the dominant sexual script. Through one-night stands or “friends with benefits” arrangements, the focus of hookups is solely on physical pleasure and de-emphasizes emotional bonding or commitment. But “hooking up” is an ambiguous term. According to research published in Gender & Society by Danielle Currier, a professor at Randolph College, women take advantage of this ambiguity to downplay their sexual encounters while men tend to exaggerate these encounters to boost their masculinity is cis-heterosexual relationships. Having penetrative sex and making out, activities that are subject to different societal reactions based on someone’s gender, can both be placed under the “hookup” umbrella.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
To be clear, nothing is wrong, per se, with having sex. Moral panic in conservative media tends to portray hookup culture as a unique issue plaguing millennials while others write about it as a liberatory new phenomenon. However, casual sex is nothing new; according to research by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, young people now have less casual sex than their parents’ generation did.
Sex, sexed bodies, and sexual relationships are not neutral entities floating in a vacuum; they are very much informed by broader societal realities.
I realized that the concept of the “sexually liberated woman” was a mythical – or at least romanticized – image of femininity that doesn’t apply to me and many of those around me.
Hookup culture tends to assume that people should be and are having sex, that sex is almost always positive or a good thing, and that if you are having sex it will happen in certain ways. I interviewed some friends, most of whom wished to remain anonymous, about their experiences in heterosexual hookups to gain some insight as to how these norms affect different people.
“These ideas ignore people who don’t enjoy sex for a variety of reasons, including asexuality [and] trauma, and assume sex has to be penetrative, for example, or [has to] engage with certain body parts over others, or values genital contact over other kinds of sexual and physical intimacy,” said a friend, Lucie.
Another friend, Sarah, having been in a monogamous relationship since high school, told me about how her sexual unavailability made her seem “uninteresting” to even chat with. “I found it hard to navigate social life in my first year – rez and other first year events especially – where it seemed as if the point of getting to know someone was to eventually get into their pants. And I found it harder to make friends with more ‘open-minded’ individuals because they alienated me based on my choice of [a monogamous] relationship,” Sarah said.
An asexual friend pointed out the downside of availability of safer sex material all over campus. “Of course I’m cool with people having sex however they [want to], and of course it’s amazing that resources are freely accessible, but it’s not fun feeling out of the loop for not taking part in the whole ordeal.”
I have also heard many times from abstinent friends that since sex often precedes a possible relationship, they are not even trying to date anymore. “How long can I say no to sex? One week into dating? Two weeks? One month?” said Nur, a friend who practices abstinence. “I feel bad even going on one date because I know I have to break up with the person since at some point he’s going to want sex.”
The expectation of sex necessarily excludes a lot of people, but many who actively seek to participate in the culture are also excluded. In a white supremacist patriarchy, white, conventionally attractive bodies are deemed valuable – look at the majority of supermodels, TV stars and movie stars. Everyone else is either ignored or fetishized. “As an Asian woman, I’m super terrified of white guys liking me because I’m Asian and [I’m always wondering if] they have some gross Asian fetish and are really into anime or K-pop or something, so they want me as their China doll,” one female friend told me.
Obviously, not all men exotify women of colour, but enough do that this feeling of discomfort is persistent in communities of colour. Conventional beauty is not just about whiteness; ability, thinness, gender conformity, and so on position some bodies at the highest level of the hookup-worthiness hierarchy. While hookup culture is assumed quintessential to the “college experience,” it is not part of everyone’s rite of passage to adulthood, nor is it necessarily liberating – for some it can be harmful and marginalizing. As such, framing hookup culture as necessary to young women’s liberation is harmful both to those whom it includes as well as those who it excludes.
What does engaging in it mean?
But what happens if a woman does participate in hookup culture? Melanie Beres of Otago University spent several months in Jasper National Park interviewing seasonal workers and tourists about their engagement in casual sex during their stay at the park. Beres found that, even though women’s engagement in casual sex is generally socially accepted in Jasper, men and women had vastly different experiences with their sexual encounters. Beres also found that a superficial acceptance of female sexuality often conceals the reality of rigid sexual scripts through what she calls “sexual permissiveness discourse.”
Beres writes, “Without […] the feeling that it is acceptable for women to have casual sex, it would be much more difficult for men to find willing partners. This discourse […] is necessary for men to engage in a lot of casual sex.”
I see a clear parallel between Beres’s findings in Jasper and the dominant sexual behaviours I’ve noticed on our campus. While on the surface women’s sexual desires are approved of, it’s really about the men; it seems that only a certain type of sex that revolves around male pleasure is acceptable, and women must still adhere to normative constructions of femininity (created by men) if they are to participate.
Much of hegemonic masculinity – the dominant standard of masculinity most easily met by white, cis, heterosexual, conventionally attractive men – is still largely based on how much sex a man has. According to Currier, men’s insecurities about their sexual performance are largely rooted in expectations of masculinity: that their inability to ‘perform’ or have enough sex is “unmanly” or “gay.” Many in Currier’s sample also responded that they were out to “make a name” for themselves based on their sexual behaviour, in stark contrast to how many women try to avoid getting a “reputation” and being labelled “a slut”. As such, according to Currier, much of men’s sexual pursuits are mainly to receive validation from other men.
So, according to societal norms, for men, more conquests will only bring a higher social standing. One friend, Anna, told me that at her old liberal arts school in the southern U.S., a particular frat house had a statue at its entrance that was repainted every week to match the colour of the panties of any girl whose virginity was taken at the frat that weekend. I once received a snapchat from a male friend who had just had sex with a girl he’d been pursuing with the caption “Bae #conquered.” Another friend told me that after having sex, he usually texts his buddies “score.” The pressures of masculinity combined with the permissiveness of hookup culture render men’s sexuality to be seen as inherent and central, while women’s sexuality is merely something for men to brag to each other about.
Before any “conquests” can be made in the first place, there’s the question of how potential sex partners are going to meet each other. In a study of 832 university students published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers found that white upper-middle class students approach university with a certain sense of entitlement, confident that they will graduate with relative ease. Equipped with more financial resources and higher parental income, these students have more free time, and are able to attend more social gatherings, and drink more alcohol – important prerequisites on university campuses for casual sex.
The study found that the centrality of alcohol and drugs to hookup culture is one of the reasons for the significantly lower rates at which students of colour hook up – because students of colour just don’t drink as much. According to Beres, in addition to lowering reservations against having sex, alcohol also makes it easier for people to relinquish responsibility over casual sex. A woman can potentially avoid being slut-shamed for a sexual act by simply saying, “I was really drunk.” Beres calls this the “it just happens” discourse: nobody is responsible for sex, sex just happens. This narrative also obscures situations where one partner could have encouraged another to drink in order to facilitate non-consensual sex.
Hookup culture tends to assume that people should be and are having sex, that sex is almost always positive or a good thing, and that if you are having sex it will happen in certain ways.
Lack of expectation for commitment and exposure to multiple sexual partners when paired with intoxication can make hookups risky. Risky behaviours can include sex with partners with unknown STI histories and failure to use protection. In cis-heterosexual relationships, women are at a higher risk for contracting most STIs. Researcher Meg Lovejoy noted that none of her respondents use protection for oral sex, even though a wide variety of STIs are contracted through oral sex. This is not to shame people for their choices – most respondents said this was due to heavy drinking and were not aware of STI risks with oral sex, or that it was just “awkward.”
Patriarchy pressures women to bear the responsibility of birth control, abortion, and child-rearing, while simultaneously making it more difficult for them to ensure safer sexual encounters. Once a friend told me, “If a girl doesn’t want to get pregnant, she should say no to pressure to not use a condom. It’s as simple as that.” Not only do women face higher risks from unprotected sex, but this is compounded by pressure from their partners to take on these risks.
Why it’s no fun anyway
Women are rarely socialized to take a dominant position in relationship to men and, according to Beres, women who come off as sexually aggressive threaten men’s sexual dominance. In a patriarchal society, taking an active role and initiating anything from buying someone a drink to proposing, falls to men. At a pre-party before going to a club, a friend of mine was musing over how she needed some “action” but was not likely to get any. I suggested that she approach men instead of waiting for them to approach her. “I mean, I could go over to the guy and start something, but guys don’t like it,” she said. “They always go talk to the next girl instead.” Last time she “went for it,” she said, she was called “one of those girls” with a smirk.
Even when women try to assert their power, they can only do so on men’s terms. On her Tinder bio, one of my friends had posed the question, “Are you afraid of empowered women?” She told me, “So many guys were like, ‘I like empowered women, they’re sexy as long as they don’t boss me around. But feminists are scary.’”
When it actually comes to having sex, men and women have vastly different experiences. The way most people think about heterosexual sex is centred around men’s bodies and men’s pleasure; cis men generally reach orgasm more easily through penetrative sex than cis women do since penetrative sex often does not stimulate the clitoris. Thus penetrative sex is defined as “real sex.” “Real sex” is then the only act that “counts” toward the number of people one has had sex with. Many times I have corrected friends who told me “they didn’t have sex” to emphasize that oral sex is sex.
While non-penetrative sex is largely viewed to be optional foreplay, only 25 per cent of all cis women experience orgasm through penetration. This is not to claim that orgasm is the most important aspect of a sexual encounter, but rather that many women are deprived of sexual pleasure due to patriarchal definitions of a fulfilling sexual experience. Women tend not to expect reciprocation for oral sex; from middle school onward, it comes to be understood that “third base” just translates to a blowjob. And, once a man gets off, sex ends; women are supposed to “finish” themselves, if orgasm at all.
This discrepancy leads to an “orgasm gap” – according to a survey in The Social Organization of Sexuality, for every three orgasms a man has, a woman has only one. Much of this sexual failure is due to poor sex education. I was never taught in sex ed that, more than just a metaphorical doorbell, the clitoris is actually huge and that the “G-spot” is actually a place where the clitoris can be internally stimulated. The clitoris is also the only human organ with the sole purpose of sexual pleasure. Further, research on female anatomy and sexuality has been slow and halting – the complete anatomy of the clitoris was unknown until 1998. I know people who have never seen “what it looks like down there” because “it’s gross.” This is no surprise in a body-shaming culture where unattainable aesthetic perfection is deemed more important for women than an understanding of and comfort in our own bodies.
Women, too, often socialized to be selfless and submissive, tend to prioritize their partners’ sexual pleasure over their own. According to a study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2014, up to 81 per cent of women have reported faking orgasms to keep their partners happy; many moan and make other noises of sexual pleasure “to ‘speed up’ their partner’s ejaculation due to boredom, fatigue, and discomfort.” There are hundreds of websites and magazines aimed at teaching women different techniques to “make him go wild.” Naysayers of these publications are quick to point to what Beres calls the “male sexual desire discourse” – men’s sex drives are insatiable and women’s role is to humour and fulfil men, as passive objects seemingly without sexual desire of their own. “Men tell me, ‘wow, you have so much energy,’” a female friend once told me. “It’s like, I like sex. Women can also like sex.”
Patriarchy pressures women to bear the responsibility of birth control, abortion, and child-rearing, while simultaneously making it more difficult for them to ensure safer sexual encounters.
Worse than no fun
Beyond just being underwhelming, hookups can also be alarmingly exploitive. Substance use during sex and a lack of emotional accountability in casual encounters remove social checks on people’s actions and facilitate a self-focused experience to use other people as instruments for sexual pleasure. Lovejoy calls this a “laissez-faire attitude” in casual encounters.
Objectification is another common occurrence in hookup situations, when men view and treat women exclusively according to their appearance. While most women in Lovejoy’s sample felt objectified, this objectification takes a whole other meaning when it comes to women of colour. As myself and many other people of colour I’ve talked to have experienced, we have felt at times that we would be a “failure” if we weren’t dating white people. Dating people of our own ethnicity, usually when we were younger, meant we hadn’t integrated well into the white culture. White supremacy has taught people of colour to be ashamed of their bodies, their cultures, and their communities, and sometimes sleeping with white people becomes a way for people of colour to lessen their shame.
Many white men, in turn, fetishize women of colour. There are those with “Asian fever” that serially date Asian women. One of my otherwise very assertive friends once told me that she stopped initiating sex at the risk of affirming the societal hypersexualization of Black women. As for myself, the last white man I had sex with kindly updated me that the count of Persian girls he’s slept with is now five.
Furthermore, in many hookup situations, women report romantic exploitation. In these scenarios, one partner takes advantage of another’s romantic interest in order to continue reaping the benefits of their sexual relationship. According to Lovejoy, women report higher rates of romantic exploitation; they are “led on” more often. Women also describe hookups in which they had been treated in a hurtful, rude, or even demeaning manner by their partner. “To him I was a piece of meat,” a friend told me. According to a 2015 survey in New York Magazine, one of young women’s main fears about hookups is “coercion” – being tricked or pressured into sexual situations, which is a form of sexual assault.
None of this is to deny the fact that there are many women who do have mostly positive experiences with hookup culture, and that is great. But this in no way negates the validity of the experiences of so many women who have felt lost and been ignored, humiliated and violated by this culture; it is important to give space to those whose experience does not conform to the “typical college experience.” Sex does not happen in a vacuum of reciprocal physical pleasure, but in the context of a white supremacist patriarchy – we need to more critically examine the narrative of the “sexually liberated woman.”