Hanna Rosin argued in the Atlantic last fall that the hook-up culture, far from harming women, is actually “an engine of female progress.” Some of the research she used to make that argument, however, does not support her thesis.
The standard analysis of the hook-up culture says (in Rosin’s words) that the sexual revolution “liberated men to act as cads” and “left [women] even more vulnerable and exploited than before.” But this analysis “downplays the unbelievable gains women have lately made” and “forgets how much those gains depend on sexual liberation”:
Single young women in their sexual prime . . . are for the first time in history more successful, on average, than the single young men around them. They are more likely to have a college degree and, in aggregate, they make more money. What makes this remarkable development possible is not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom—the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career. To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture.
In a paper delivered at a Boston University School of Law conference on Rosin’s book The End of Men, from which the Atlantic article was excerpted, law professor Katharine K. Baker contests Rosin’s interpretation of the research she cites and comes to very different conclusions about the hook-up culture. From her abstract:
Unpacking the same data that Rosin uses to defend hook-up culture on women’s behalf, the essay argues that hook-up norms facilitate rape and may help explain the high rate of sexual assault on college campuses. Hook-up norms also perpetuate the sexual double standard, disproportionately hurt lower income women who cannot compete in hook-up status games, and valorize boorish, selfish male sexual behavior. In doing so, hook-up norms likely hurt young women’s ability to secure what they say they eventually want, which is sexual relationships rooted in equality.
She points out that one study Rosin draws on described fraternity parties with themes including Pimps and Hos, Victoria’s Secret, Playboy Mansion, CEO/Secretary Ho, School Teacher/Sexy Student, and Golf Pro/Tennis Ho. “This was the study that Rosin argued showed that women ‘benefited greatly’ from hook-up norms,” she writes.
“Presumably,” she continues, “the benefits she is referring to stem from women’s ability to experiment sexually without being tied to a relationship, but . . . if the price of having sex or making out is assuming the role of someone whose job it is to service men’s sexual needs, what are women learning from the experience?”
Baker also flags one mistaken assumption Rosin makes about the desires of those who participate in hook-ups:
Implied but never explained in Rosin’s defense of hook-up culture is some belief that both men and women are hard-wired to want sex. The thought is that if we keep women from getting sex in hook-ups, they will be compelled to get it in relationships and those relationships can be stifling. . . .
Most people want sex because they want attachment, more than they want sex because sex feels good. Perhaps the emerging norms in hook-up culture will constitute an empirical rejection of [psychological theories about men and women's desire for relationships as well as sex], but that is not what the participants themselves express.
She does not go into much detail on this last claim; however, research on hook-ups supports her point. In one study from 2008, researchers asked some three hundred college students who had hooked up “to identify their (possibly multiple) motivations for having done so.” Nine in ten named physical pleasure as a factor. But over half also cited emotional reasons or the desire to start a romantic relationship.
On a separate question, 37 percent of the students said the ideal outcome of a hook-up would be a traditional romantic relationship, even though just 7 percent expected that outcome. The researchers say “this [gap] indicates that the innate desire for a relationship is quite powerful, and can (and often does) lead to relationship-typical (sexual) behavior even when conscious awareness and all external cues suggest the probability of an actual relationship is really quite low.”
Rosin’s assumption that young people hook up because they want sex without the emotional and personal investment of relationships may sound plausible, in short, but it’s not borne out by relevant research.
You can download the rest of Katharine K. Baker’s paper here. I don’t agree with every viewpoint she expresses, but the fact that she belies the stereotypes about those who object to the hook-up culture (only repressed and misogynistic fundamentalists would consider it harmful!) makes her analysis all the more worth reading.
h/t Elizabeth Schiltz at Mirror of Justice