Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: Is hookup culture bad for young women?

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Frisky in bed
Frisky in bed

Boringly, I had a steady boyfriend all the way through my university days, so I never really experienced the carousel of college "hookups". But I remember that for a lot of my girlfriends it was a time of sexing up a bunch of different guys - to put it frankly/crassly. And as far as I could tell they had a pretty good time doing it, minus an embarrassing moment here or short-lived heartbreak there.

So it's interesting to me that casual sex at university has become an area of research, positioned almost solely as something that's harmful to young women. Just two days ago for instance, a new study was released that found university students who had casual sex before university are more likely to have casual sex during university. And that female first year college students who smoke marijuana are more likely to "hook up".

In other words, virgins have sex less than non-virgins, and substance use leads to sex among young people. Pretty obvious stuff. But according to lead author Robyn L.

Fielder, it's important to figure out what has an effect on "hookup behaviour" because of the potential "for negative emotional and physical health outcomes as a result of sexual hookups, including unplanned pregnancy and depression."

The study, called Predictors of Sexual Hookups: A Theory-Based, Prospective Study of First-Year College Women defines "hooking up" as "engaging in sexual interactions outside of committed relationships" and why it focuses on solely on what leads young women to hook up is unclear. Does there need to be a reason for young women's sexual activity? Is there no need to study men's reasons because duh, they're men, of course they're all pro-hooking up? Do we overlook the idea that maybe young women kind of just like sex, and find their first sexual forays fun?

Or is university "hookup" culture a genuine cause for concern?

The language of this particular study seems to say yes. Factors that posed a "risk" - i.e. lead to hooking up - were "hookup intentions", impulsivity, sensation-seeking, pre-college hookups, alcohol use, marijuana use, social comparison orientation, and situational triggers. And factors that acted as "protective measures" (my italics) against casual sexual encounters were self-esteem, religious service attendance, and "having married parents".

There are two things I'd take out of that mixed bag to examine more closely. Firstly, if students are getting wasted and having sex they regret, what's the ethics for men around sleeping with a young woman whose judgement is impaired?

The issue of "self esteem" also warrants further inspection. The study reports:

"Students also experienced emotional consequences as a result of their most recent hookup, with 20.8% of students reporting experiencing a loss of respect, 27.1% of students indicating feeling embarrassed, [and] 24.7% of students reporting emotional difficulties."

If female students' participation in casual sex is strongly linked to poor self esteem, that's cause for concern. Why is hooking up seen as the route to validation, for instance. Is it because there's a culture of sexual peer pressure for young people? Has sex become so "cheap" - the ultimate manifestation of a world steeped in porn culture - that not hooking up means a sort of alienation from your peers?

It's hard to say. Other research suggests not - that actually, women are less likely to befriend peers they consider promiscuous.

Donna Freitas, author of new book The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, argues yes. That the culture of casual sex at universities is rife, compulsory, unfulfilling, and the direct cause of epidemic levels of unsatisfactory sex.

Hookup culture "can be just as oppressive as a mandate for abstinence" she tells The Washington Post.

"When students are expected to hookup with lots of people, doing so becomes dutiful, not daring. Older ideas of sexual exploration - be it same-sex encounters or one-night stands - have become a basic expectation."

In 2006, Freitas had 1,230 students answer an optional survey question about casual sex: "36 per cent at nonreligious private and public schools said their peers were too casual about sex, and they said privately that they wished this weren't the case," she says.

What's more, from the pool of students who reported hooking up, "41 per cent used words such as 'regretful,' 'empty,' 'miserable,' 'disgusted,' 'ashamed,' 'duped' and even 'abused' to describe the experience." According to Freitas, "Traditions such as dates and get-to-know-you conversations before physical intimacy are deemed unnecessary or even forbidden."

It's hard to know whether the writer's research gives genuine reason to worry, or whether it's tainted by personal (and conservative) moral factors. It is hard to deny that young fumblings do not generally constitute great sex - something the TV series Girls is helping to get across - but are young people really as laissez-faire about sex as we imagine?

Amanda Hess of Slate thinks not: "Students on college campuses aren't actually hooking up that much," she says, pointing to research by sociologist and hookup-culture researcher Lisa Wade, who found that about a third of (US) college hookups actually end with kissing. Wade also found that eight out of ten students who did engage in casual sex only did so nine times or less in total. Which is about two to three partners per year.

And what of empowerment? Who's to say hookup culture isn't simply a reflection of a generation of young women free of dated assumptions that multiple sexual encounters is immoral? To suggest otherwise risks also suggesting that women always have an ulterior motive when it comes to sex - be it validation or otherwise. That when it comes to sex, women are naturally and always the passive party. Maybe - as posed by journalist Hannah Rosin - hookup culture is actually "an engine of female progress".

Which isn't to say bad sex with some horny goon you meet at a party is the most fulfilling, life-affirming decision you'll ever make, age 20. But it's still a decision you made, and who are we to say why you made it?

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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