Professor Ron Osborn
The Interloper recently published an eloquent and justifiably outraged article by Daniella Lollie on USC’s violent, degrading and dangerous hook-up culture as evidenced by the Facebook page “USC Hook-Ups.” Yet Lollie prefaces her words by saying that she is not criticizing hook-up culture as such, which she considers “morally neutral.” This idea—that there is an aberrant, violent hook-up culture that we can neatly isolate and filter out from hook-up culture in general—is echoed by the Interloper’s editors in a recommendation note at the bottom of the page. Rather than calling on readers to critically examine the hook-up script that has come to dominate much (though by no means all) of American college and university life, the paper actually urges us to participate more enthusiastically in it. We should now flood Facebook with stories of “happy, healthy and CONSENSUAL sexual encounters” in (somehow) “solidarity” with those who have experienced gender-based violence. Clamorous cheerleading for positive hook-ups (“encounters”), we are told, will be “subversive” of negative hook-ups that cross the line between fun and aggression.
But is it really possible, we must ask, to have a hook-up culture that does not produce the detritus of “USC Hook-Ups”? While sexual exploration is a natural and healthy part of human development, can we honestly expect or demand a hook-up culture that will be anything other than coercive, degrading and violent for large numbers of people of both genders but especially for women?
A Feminist Case for Hook-ups?
In a widely cited 2012 article in The Atlantic entitled “Boys on the Side,” Hanna Rosin defends the new college norms of random and “no strings” sex that have replaced former rituals of romance, courtship and dating. She acknowledges that today’s hook-up culture—in which an increasing number of students reject committed relationships in their college years in favor of multiple ambiguous and fleeting sexual encounters—is shockingly “coarse” and pornographic in nature. Nevertheless, she declares, this is actually a sign of “female progress” since women themselves now join in the coarseness in “hilarious ways.” She cites a female student at Duke University who created a pornographic Powerpoint of her sexual exploits with 13 Duke athletes.
At the crux of Rosin’s argument is the fact that women are now able to achieve higher levels of educational and professional success than at any other time in history. The only reason this is possible, she asserts, is because our hook-up culture’s “whole new landscape of sexual freedom” allows women to delay commitment for the sake of their careers. It is savvy women, not men, who are emerging as the primary perpetrators and manipulators of hook-up culture, Rosin says with approval. “For college girls these days an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all cost.”
Rosin arrives at these momentous (and for romantics at heart, disheartening) conclusions largely from the anecdotal reports of a handful of women she interviewed at Yale Business school, and from a 2004 study by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton that followed the lives of 53 women from mostly “more privileged” backgrounds on a single floor of a “party dorm” at an unnamed university somewhere in the Midwest.
But are Wall Street-bound women at Ivy-league schools and women who have self-selected for a “party dorm” the best spokespersons for the experiences of most female college students? And are these women the best guides to more meaningful, more fulfilling and more joyful human lives—including better sex—for both women and men? Or is there a darker side to our hook-up culture that unavoidably fosters a toxic climate of mistrust, coercion and abuse, in which women who have been “liberated” to be as ruthlessly competitive as men in the marketplace must still ultimately pay the highest social, psychological and physical costs?
As USC doctoral candidate Tyler Curley notes, “the most insidious part of the hook-up culture as liberation narrative is that it promotes masculinity as the norm and simply allows women to partake in the masculine side. This is not necessarily feminist; feminism is generally about gender equality rather than privileging masculinity.”
The Logic and Predictable Outcomes of Intentional Uncaring
In her 2010 book, Leaving and Coming Home, Kari-Shane Zimmerman draws on several recent studies of college sexual life to dissect the codes, logic, and inescapable double standards of hook-up culture. Ironically, she points out, “hooking-up” means being emotionally unhooked from one’s partner. A casual encounter might lead to a relationship. However, individuals enter hook-ups without any expectations. Students in fact report that they go farther sexually with persons they do not really like or desire a lasting relationship with.
Hooking-up thus reverses traditional dating scripts in which emotional, psychological, intellectual and even spiritual bonding were expected—and by many empowered women as well as men, demanded—as a prelude to sexual intimacy. Instead, we are left with a situation in which sex is almost entirely a function of one’s physical attractiveness and/or the amount of alcohol in one’s bloodstream. Abiding respect and deep trust—which require true connection—are not only unnecessary; they are undesired since they would require deeper levels of vulnerability and mutual sharing than hooking-up can afford. Hook-up culture, Zimmerman writes, requires that “one must practice being intentionally uncaring toward the other and thus view his/her hook-up partner’s body as an object to be used for the sole purpose of sexual gratification and nothing more.”
Many students are thus spending their college years learning lessons in mistrust, emotional distancing and mutual exploitation that make it hard for them to even imagine the kinds of virtues a lasting and possibly lifelong relationship would require of them and their partner. Hook-up culture plays out well for those possessing the superficial charms and the emotional callousness to chalk up repeated sexual encounters with people they don’t really care about (and who don’t really care about them) without ever pausing to think about the meaninglessness of it all. But the loss of self-esteem and fragile sense of personhood that many students feel after repeated hook-ups and one-night stands might well be linked in pernicious ways with the fact that (according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders) fully 25% of college women in our putatively “female empowered” society will meet the clinical criteria for an eating disorder. Rates of male eating disorders are far lower but on the rise.
While some women enjoy and enthusiastically participate in hook-up culture throughout their college years and beyond, there are numerous signs that the new normal serves primarily male interests and male power. Not only must women face the risk of pregnancy and much higher risks of contracting an STD than men in any casual sexual encounter. They must also now navigate a terrain that can only be described as mutually predatory but with one side in the hunt possessing a much higher capacity for physical aggression, as well as typically longer desire to stay “in the field.”
These facts about the culture of sexual uncaring and emotional disconnecting we have created are not unrelated to other social realities. New York University’s Student Health Center reports that one in five women will be raped during her college years, that 60% of rapes will occur inside a dorm or residence hall, that alcohol will be involved in more than 70% of these college sexual assaults, that more than 80% of attacks will go unreported and that more than 70% of the attackers will be friends and fellow classmates.
Reforming Hook-Up Culture Does Not Go Far Enough
The response of still critically engaged and socially conscious students to these grim facts should not take the form of prudish moralizing or nostalgia for the rigid gender roles of bygone ages (which we are happily free of). But neither should it take the form of passive acceptance of, or complicity in, a culture that promotes both male and female coarseness, uncaring and emotional deadening or unhooking in the name of individualistic self-expression, careerism, “liberation” or “empowerment.” Women should not be burdened or shamed into acting as USC’s moral Gatekeepers while troglodyte men are given a free pass to run amok with devastating results for everybody. But the evidence is overwhelming that our hook-up culture is a culture run amok. Something more radical than reformism that tries to somehow save hook-up culture from its own inner logic of uncaring is now needed—something on the order of a genuine revolt.
The most deeply subversive answer to “USC Hook-ups,” I would suggest, is not to try beat people living sexually fragmented lives at their own game but rather to opt out of the game altogether in a bold and risky quest for something more—something that will be very different for each individual but that will include clear boundary setting, elements of what was once known as chivalry (which can be practiced by enlightened men and women alike), refusal to settle and a radically counter-cultural commitment to commitment.
Ronald Osborn is an adjunct professor in the Department of International Relations. He teaches courses on terrorism and liberal democracy and on religion and violence. He has interviewed Shining Path insurgents in Peru and both victims and perpetrators of LRA violence in Uganda. He recently participated in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament for peace in Pyongyang, North Korea, resulting in a most unfortunate quote in the Daily Trojan that makes him sound like a lackey of Kim Jong Un and fellow traveler with Dennis Rodman. As a doctoral student at USC he led a campaign to raise awareness of rights abuses in Burma. His articles may be found in Z Magazine, Health and Human Rights, Commonweal, First Things, and Review of International Studies among other places. Osborn grew up in various parts of Asia and Africa and thinks that swimming, Latin dancing, and (vegetarian) Thai food are off the hook. He welcomes your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org, unless they are really unpleasant, in which case they should be sent elsewhere.