Sex and the Millennial Girl
Hookup culture: liberating freedoms or friends with lopsided benefits?
The young woman, an upperclassman we’ll call Jo, was reminiscing about her freshman year at U Dub. “Oh my gosh…so fun,” she recalled dreamily. “I grew up in a strict household, so when I got to college I was like a puppy off the leash!”
A puppy who was for the first time enjoying that oh-so-vaguely defined activity, hooking up. “Everyone seems to have their own definition,” Jo told me. For her it was whatever sexual recreation that followed the query: “Wanna come up to my room?”
Shocked yet? Me neither.
The hookup—a brief sexual encounter between individuals who aren’t romantic partners—has made enough alarmist news over the last two years as the millennial generation’s horny replacement for dating that I felt like I should know something about it, being the mother of a teenage girl and all. (To define millennials, think roughly those who have come of sexual age since the turn of the century.) But as I gathered up anecdotes from talkative college and twentysomething young women, their stories kept sounding familiar.
That’s because hooking up isn’t the news. It’s ancient as lust. What’s new is the cultural expectation surrounding it.
Consider Elsa, a 27-year-old who grew up watching Friends, spent her sorority years with Sex and the City, and as a young career woman is now discovering Lena Dunham’s Girls. “Casual sex is what my generation grew up thinking dating was for,” she said.
For Elsa and her peers, sex ed came early and often and birth control was a birthright—they just asked (O brave new world!) their moms for it. For extra security there was the morning-after pill, which came to Washington state before anywhere else in the country, in 1998. As for finding the right hookup, there is now—what else—an app for that, in the form of Tinder, wherein prowling singles can size up the photos of available others within a certain radius of their location. (So rabid was Tinder’s popularity in Sochi’s Olympic Village this winter, its cofounder issued a statement exhorting Team USA to put down their Tinder profiles and get their heads back in the game.)
Today’s teens and twentysomethings live in a society that’s all but turning down the beds and setting out the dental dams for the little dears. Make no mistake: Improved sex ed and access to birth control are stunning advancements, essential for the health of the world and the individual; for the agency and equality of women. But to deny that these advancements also enabled the hookup culture is silly. In some quarters, the pursuit of casual sex by young women has even become a badge of feminist correctness. “To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture,” wrote Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic, explaining that sexual freedom enables women to delay the marriage and childbirth that limit careers.
Hook up! It’s liberating! screams the culture—a message that would be fine if casual sex actually served a woman’s interest.
Instead, Centers for Disease Control reports, chlamydia is up. So, says staff at the UW’s Hall Health Center, is herpes type 1. Women, as ever—being more vulnerable to STIs in the first place, and, as in the case of chlamydia, more prone to long-term dangerous outcomes from them—still get saddled with the more enduring downsides of sexual encounters. The granddaddy, so to speak, would be an unwanted pregnancy.
When the morning-after pill debuted here in the late ’90s, abortion rates in Washington didn’t plummet, as expected. Instead the pill that had been created to rescue women from the most permanent outcome of a broken condom or a date rape—which nearly every young woman I spoke to had at least once rushed panicking to the pharmacy for—was accompanied during the same time frame by a spike in sexually transmitted infections.
Biologically, it would appear, sexually active young women still couldn’t win for losing.
But what struck me most in my conversations with millennials was that the downsides of hookup culture weren’t just biological. “Hooking up is liberating in that it’s fun,” said Jo, the college upperclassman. “But ultimately, it doesn’t work for girls.” Jo herself cut out the casual sex after her freshman year. “Girls get emotionally attached.”
What?! This was the demon I’d just assumed the young, empowered, post–Title IX generation of women must have finally slain. Instead every young woman I interviewed offered stories of girls, sometimes themselves, whose casual hookups took unbidden root in their hearts. “Yeah, [casual] sex isn’t a great thing for girls,” mused Elsa. “The fact is, girls want to be loved, and sex is sold as a means for that.”
That a unanimous sample of women, from the first generation to be raised under modern feminism, still grappled with this familiar issue felt…well, it didn’t exactly feel like optimal hookup mentality. For hooking up to deliver benefits to both parties, after all, young women have to be as capable of enjoying sex on a solely physical level as men are.
And there’s the rub, so to speak. Because whatever sex is for young women—physically satisfying it still, famously, is not.
“What I don’t get about hookup culture is what’s in it for the girl,” marveled a childhood friend of mine, mordantly recalling her own backseat gropings with guys whose own happy endings were usually, well, the endings. Indeed, we caution our daughters to insist on condoms and know their STI protocols, but we never think to mention that the sex probably won’t be that great. We don’t warn them that the young guys they’re looking to hook up with—guys weaned on the laptop lap dance of performance porn, staged solely for their own pleasure—are probably unschooled and, dare I venture, uninterested in all the complex Georgia O’Keefeness a girl’s got going down there.
“From what I’ve heard about hookups, the male is experiencing more sexual pleasure than the female,” sighs Marci Reichert, a community educator at Planned Parenthood. “[Women] know how not to get pregnant, but I don’t know if they’re advocating for themselves and their own needs.”
My childhood friend, now the mom of her own teenage daughter, couldn’t agree more. “Honestly, I don’t think one-night stands are sexually gratifying for a woman. So, while my husband tells her to not have sex—I tell her to make sure she has fun when she does.”
Now that we’ve handed our daughters the hookup, packaged “yes” as a feminist statement, empowered them to be as casual about sex as men are, and promoted unsatisfying sex as somehow worth a ton of health risks—perhaps it’s time to change the terms of the dialogue. Alongside the “no” our elders once insisted upon and the “yes” we’ve lapsed into expecting, may I suggest a third response that hookup culture doesn’t promote but which is infinitely worthier of value: only if it’s good for me.