On hookup culture and an imagined sexual liberation: Hanna Rosin’s “Boys on the Side”
Much of the response to Hanna Rosin’s latest Atlantic piece, “Boys on the Side” runs something like this Jezebel headline: “Finally Someone Says It! Hookup Culture is Great for Women!” Rosin’s article details the rise of “hookup culture” (a phrase I detest but can’t think of anything better, or at least anything as self-explanatory) on college campuses, and states that the culture is not only supported by female undergrads, but driven primarily by them.
Though there are things to be said about the nature of a sexuality that conforms rigidly to contemporary male ideas about what liberal female sexuality should look like – She’s always up for it! No strings attached! – most of those things have already been said many times elsewhere, including here on Feminist Current. Instead I want to talk about Hanna Rosin’s presentation of this particular kind of liberal female sexuality, specifically her complete and utter lack of critical engagement, or any willingness to look beyond the anecdotes of the women she talked to and situate them within a larger context. That tendency is summed up by this unqualified sentence from the article: “women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure in a world without commitment or all that much shame” – and indeed they would, if that were the world we lived in. But, obviously and alas, it is not.
For starters, which women is she talking about? It certainly isn’t all of them. As it turns out, it’s mostly middle-class white women with career objectives who are participating in this culture; like many other aspects of I-choose-my-choice libertarian feminism, low-income women and women of colour are not only excluded from the article, but – as Rosin herself observes! – often from the culture itself. How can it be an unequivocally good thing for women if such a large percentage of the female population is left out of it? They get a few sentences in the piece, when she’s discussing a study of women’s responses to hookup culture conducted over four years at an American university:
The most revealing parts of the study emerge from the interviews with the less privileged women. They came to college mostly with boyfriends back home and the expectation of living a life similar to their parents’, piloting toward an early marriage. They were still fairly conservative and found the hookup culture initially alienating (“Those rich bitches are way slutty” is how [researcher Elizabeth] Armstrong summarizes their attitude). They felt trapped between the choice of marrying the kind of disastrous hometown guy who never gets off the couch, and will steal their credit card—or joining a sexual culture that made them uncomfortable. The ones who chose the first option were considered the dorm tragedies, women who had succumbed to some Victorian-style delusion.
So there’s no shame, ostensibly, in taking part in hookup culture, but plenty of shame in not taking part. Rosin goes on to note that the girls “considered successes” revised their plan and opted for a career path instead of early marriage – basically she’s suggesting that the hookup culture was incidental to their success, that the girls who really “went somewhere!” after post-secondary are the ones who, I guess, decided not to be uncomfortable and joined the culture. Or who continued to be uncomfortable after they had joined the culture, but perhaps the quotes Rosin offered from some of the privileged girls (“She would always talk about how she couldn’t wait to get married and have babies,” one woman said about her working-class friend. “It was just like, Whoa. I’m 18… Slow down. You know? Then she just crazy dropped out of school and wouldn’t contact any of us”) made them more uncomfortable still. If hardened internet-feminists have such a difficult time making reasonable critiques heard above the clattering of these kinds of accusations, imagine how hard it would be for an 18-year-old, especially a less-privileged 18-year-old right in the middle of all those pressures to conform.
Let me state here that I believe that women’s sexual emancipation and our political and economic liberty are two sides of the same coin, absolutely – it was and is extremely important to be able to discuss the possibility that female sexuality might exist, and that it might not be terribly, terribly dangerous. And for sure, it can be really difficult to give women space to be wrong while still having conversations about context and trying not to get bogged down in the rhetoric of personal choice (even more difficult because the women trying to have those conversations rightly also want space to be wrong). But by holding hookup culture up as an inevitable, natural alternative to the coercive path of marriage and babies, and to present those two positions as binary, Rosin seems to be using hookup culture to imply that the work of sexual liberation is done with, when it seems to me to be mostly evidence of the huge amount of work still to be done, and how easily our best intentions can be co-opted out from under us.
At one point in the piece she states that “women don’t feel pressure to join in hookup culture, many prefer it” and “young men and women have uncovered a sexual freedom unbridled by the convention of marriage, or any conventions.” I actually laughed out loud at this – no conventions whatsoever? A truly free and liberated sexual marketplace? One that makes many women exposed to it uncomfortable and puts them in a position where they must choose between two equally unappealing options?
This brand of sexuality is absolutely riddled with conventions – the convention that the women must love unattached sex as much as men are supposed to, or risk ridicule both from men and from their female friends; the convention that they are heterosexual or that their homosexual encounters are conducted mostly for the benefit of male viewers and not out of any genuine homosexual feelings; the convention that these women must be ‘up for anything’; the convention that women find their power in the male gaze; and on, and on, and on. To quote Sady Doyle quoting Barbara Ehrenreich, “there’s nothing deeply subversive about the straight swinging-singles lifestyle at all”. That Rosin can also state that “women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame”, and still doesn’t recognize how dramatically she’s contradicted herself, is a further dismissal and silencing of any member of the female population that doesn’t subscribe to the benefits of the hookup culture. Rather than being shamed for participating in casual sexual encounters, they are shamed for not participating, or for daring to critique what it might mean for women in general.
Many of those critiques are, indeed, problematic: she’s right to harpoon the “demise of chivalry” stands, which are without exception based in the idea that women are better protected than free, and that it is specifically the duty of men to protect them, and its next-of-kin “feminism ruined everything for women”. But she never distinguishes any other modes of thought or conversation, of which there are many, because it is much easier and more entertaining to scoff at people like Caitlin Flanagan and hold them up as representative of the entire realm of opposition to the glib acceptance of a particular, highly proscribed sexual culture.
Any critique of the compulsory and male-centric nature of this particular brand of female sexuality is summarized in the most moralizing, restrictive terms possible and dismissed on the basis of that summary. On more than one occasion, she frames the discussion as a battle between women who want to have sex with no strings and not be ostracized for it, and people – male and female – who want to see a return to the days of treating women’s virginity like a precious flower to be passed creepily from the hands of her father to the hands of her husband.
When she acknowledges the cultural critiques of I-choose-my-choice feminism, it is only to insist that they are robbing women of their agency, claiming that they are pawns in a scheme over which they have no control. Of course no one is suggesting that women have no say in the matter (Or, as she states, that “Now it’s too late to zip it back up and they don’t have a choice” [Aside: I know this isn’t quite what she means here, but I just want to point out that it is NEVER TOO LATE to zip anything back up. If you don’t have a choice but to be unzipped, that’s rape]), simply that your choices do not exist free of context. That in fact, they exist within a context which insists, over and over, that a woman’s true power is to be found in her ability to make men want to have sex with her (so buy this product!), and that possibly that has something to do with women buying into subcultures that follow that pattern. Obviously, to frame any kind of reasoned critique in terms of “going back to the good ol’ days”, fear that “no one [is] guarding the virtues of honour, chivalry, and lasting love”, accusations of victimization, or wanting women to feel guilty about having sex does nothing but preclude having a real conversation.
Finally, hookup culture can be raunchy, Rosin acknowledges, “but it is not a place where [women] drown.” So I have to ask: what about the ones who do? There are certainly plenty – what about date rape or acquaintance rape? What about the broad coercion of telling girls that they must be ‘up for it’ in order to be ‘liberated’ and ‘free’? I was most definitely one of those girls – a one-of-the-boys girls, a sure-i’ll-go-to-the-strip-club girls, a yes-i-love-casual-sex girls – except I didn’t. Meghan gets all that pretty bang on right here. It took me a long time to recognize that having men want to fuck you certainly does feel like power, but it is power of a meaningless variety. A temporary, highly conditional, very exclusive kind of power which rests solely on your ability to conform to whatever arbitrary and demanding standard of male-designed female beauty happens to be prevalent at that moment – so though Rosin frames the culture as being female-driven, the quotes from her subjects (“It was empowering, to have that kind of control,” she recalls. “Guys were texting and calling me all the time, and I was turning them down. I really enjoyed it!”) make me ask: what about the dangers of drowning in a culture that centers feminine empowerment explicitly in male sexual desire?
I am certainly in favour of many aspects of the culture, aspects Rosin notes: that it functions as a delay tactic for serious relationships; that it is a way to practice being in a relationship without necessitating the time or energy commitment of a long-term one; that it is a way to explore and understand your sexuality without the care and maintenance of a relationship; that it represents the fact that (some) women are able to put off getting married or not get married at all and still be financially independent, (some) women are able to explore (some) aspects of their sexuality without feeling (much) shame. Great! All great things! But if – if – sexuality is being learned in the context of hookup culture, then it is doubly important to make sure that the culture is as meaningfully accepting, open, and filled with genuine choice as possible. I stress the “if” because it seems obvious to me that you don’t only know what you learned in college: you practice your sexuality in every encounter; every relationship for the rest of your life, long- or short-term, is about exploring your desires and needs in sex and love in a never-ending process of growth and learning. Every single interaction, then, should take place within a culture as filled with meaningful choice and opportunity as Rosin wrongly assumes this one to be. A culture that we certainly don’t have yet, but we could – as long as we resist the urge to keep talking like it’s already here.