Hookup Culture and the Perpetuation of Gender Inequality

By Olivia Heersink

 

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Tangled feet of a couple in bed.

The term hookup is ambiguous, referring to different levels of sexual intimacy depending on the social group and individual. It can range from kissing a stranger to having sex with your best friend. There is no set meaning—ideally allowing participants to self-define their experiences.

Youth today are not having more sex; however, we are organizing our interactions differently. Hooking up has come to replace dating as the most common way to socialize or initiate a relationship. The hookup script, however, has maintained the strict gender roles of American culture, where men are defined as active, seeking, and desiring sex and women are expected to be the passive gatekeepers to sex, responsible for ending a hookup before intercourse.

While men are expected to benefit from sexual interactions, women are still stigmatized for engaging in casual sex. We can see this in the language we use to describe sex where men “get laid” or in anti-rape discourse, “get consent” while women are chastised for “giving it up.” Gendered roles reflect more than just double standards; they define the roles of women in opposition to those of men, meaning all interactions rely on a script of coercion.

We’ve come a long way in terms of gender equality over the centuries, especially in regards to the way we view sex. 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 slut-shamed for having noncommittal sex.

There are two main schools of thought in regards to casual sex—one states 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.

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 marriage. And not much has changed, over time, in the eyes of society—certain punishments have been deemed antiquated, but the ostracizing judgment remains.

Studies show that this double standard leads to more depression and anxiety in women than in men. While there are anomalies, in my experience, women invariably have a harder time dealing with the repercussions of casual sex than our male counterparts 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?

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. 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, however, there is a much lower chance that women will ask their partner for what they want. Simply put, because of the lack of communication, women are just less likely than men to climax during a casual sexual encounter.

The perception that hookup sex is barrels of fun for women is everywhere; from ads to TV shows to music videos, we are sold scripts showing women embracing a hookup lifestyle with relish. However, growing research evidence verifies that the orgasm gap between men and women exists and is widest during hookups.

Studies also 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, but yet, they still do not suffer judgement over it. Despite how far we’ve come with gender equality and sexual liberation, society still judges women more harshly for being sexually promiscuous.

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.

Whether we like it or not, sex is intrinsically biased against the woman and during a hookup, a woman is unlikely to have an orgasm, is subjecting herself to an unequal power dynamic with her partner, and faces the real potential to be ridiculed socially for having sex.

What seemed like the exciting solution to patriarchal dating systems now seems at best anti-climactic—literally. While this system does offer new opportunities, it maintains many of the same limitations of dating culture.

Sexual empowerment has been conceptually linked to casual sex. It is incredibly important to have space for sexuality outside the institutional structure of marriage, which privileges upper class heterosexual couples and ritually subordinates women.

However, casual sex as the exclusive option for empowerment is incredibly problematic. While the hookup script might be movement in the right direction, the dominance of this script obscures alternatives to pursue intimacy, depriving participates of real choice to engage.

Hookup culture isn’t inherently problematic, but through the lens of gender performativity and compulsory heterosexuality, it is clear these scripts have maintained problematic inequalities. To pursue sex, and life, consciously, we need to critique these strict gendered narratives limiting our behavior.

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