The hook-up culture kerfluffle continues

Posted at 1:09 PM Feb 26, 2010

By Andrea Grimes


The evil spectre of hook-up culture rears its ugly head yet again, this time in an essay from Teen Vogue relationship columnist Rachel Simmons, who seems to really need to know whether hooking up is Definitely Good or Definitely Bad for All Girls, Everywhere. You know, not that that's an impossible, stupid, and unrealistic desire or anything.

It's almost not even worth reading, because it brings up every yawn-inducing scare tactic favored by people who can't seem to picture women as anything but relationship-desiring, fragile things which must either be taken care of by Men or Feminism, nuances of being an actual human be damned. It's as if everyone who writes about hook-up culture can't believe that there are a diversity of people, loves and lives out there that make blanket answers to questions raised by shifting relationship standards hard to find. Anyway, here's the big, sad gist:

As a relationship advice columnist for Teen Vogue, I get a lot of mail from girls in "no strings attached" relationships. The girls describe themselves as "kind of" with a guy, "sort of" seeing him, or "hanging out" with him. The guy may be noncommittal, or worse, in another no-strings relationship. In the meantime, the girls have "fallen" for him or plead with me for advice on how to make him come around and be a real boyfriend.

These letters worry me. They signify a growing trend in girls' sexual lives where they are giving themselves to guys on guys' terms. They hook up first and ask later. The girls are expected to "be cool" about not formalizing the relationship. They repress their needs and feelings in order to maintain the connection. And they're letting guys call the shots about when it gets serious.

Well, you don't fucking say, Rachel! These girls are writing into a Teen Vogue relationship column because they have problems in their relationships. Of course it's going to seem like there's some vast terrible cry-fest going on among teen girls who are being taken advantage of by the mass crowd of hateful boys in the world, because the girls who are happy in their hook-ups, or relationships, or singledom, aren't going to be writing in to Teen Vogue for advice, now are they?

Now, just to be clear, I'm all for the freedom to hook up. But let's face it: despite our desire to give women the freedom to plunder the bar scene and flex their sexual appetites, it would appear a whole lot of them are pretty happy playing by old school rules, thank you very much. Incidentally, one of the women smart enough to figure this out just sold her 5 billionth book, or something like that.

Does that make me a right-winger? Can I still be a feminist and say that I'm against this brand of sexual freedom? I fear feminism has been backed into a corner here. It's become antifeminist to want a guy to buy you dinner and hold the door for you. Yet - picture me ducking behind bullet proof glass as I type this -- wasn't there something about that framework that made more space for a young woman's feelings and needs?

Anyone who wonders if she can be a feminist and be against sexual (or any other) freedom probably has such a limited understanding of actual feminism that even asking the question is pointless. It has not "become antifeminist to want a guy to buy you dinner and hold the door for you." It has become antifeminist to believe that deep down, that is what every girl wants--which is what Simmons is more or less arguing, based on the fact that much of her interactions with teens are with sad girls who want relationship advice, which is basically like an employee of Taco Bell saying everyone in the world loves tacos because that's all she ever sells to people. Rachel, feminism is about choice. And somebody's choice might be to have a dude buy her dinner. Or to fuck him without having to commit to him. Welcome to the third wave, lady.

(As a perhaps obvious aside: is it any wonder people get their drawers in a wad over teenage girls and sex when pretty much no one has thought to ask teenage boys if hooking up makes them feel bad sometimes, too? It doesn't even occur to people. As a girl who was once a teen, and who once had teen boy friends, I can say for certain that boys can and do feel taken advantage of--emotionally and sexually--by girls.)

Of course, one could be forgiven (well, if one were not, say, supposed to be a person to be asked advice of and respected) for thinking hooking up is bad for girls and contrary to what they really want in their heart of hearts. Take, for example, one of the most dominant narratives in American culture: bad boy meets good girl, treats her badly, then realizes his mistake, changes his life, and ends up all kittens and rainbows with her forever.

It's basically the plot of every romantic comedy made in the last 25 years. It's in Twilight. It's Garden State. It's in The O.C. and it's in Grey's Anatomy. It's Carrie and Big in Sex and the City. Almost all of our modern love stories revolve around some magical realization on the part of one man, who had only but to meet the right woman, and he was forever changed. Is it any wonder many guys feel like they have free reign to poke away until they meet that "right" girl, and that many girls will continue to allow said poking hoping that they have the magical vagina--even if, given some critical freedom and divergent narratives, girls might realize that that's not even what they really want? That, if shown even a few examples of alternative storylines, they might pick something different? You shove enough crud down peoples' throats, and they're eventually going to learn to swallow, and then like, it. I mean, the magic of hegemony is that you can't see it working. Hence desires that are, in fact, culturally constructed are allowed to be seen as natural and naturally gendered.

The answer to the so-called disservice that hook-up culture does to girls is not, as Simmons and many conservatives suggest, to lament some magical time when people only went steady and got married at the first opportunity (seriously?), but to educate young men to be emotionally sensitive and mature, and to reward that sensitivity culturally and socially, and to stop pressuring girls to believe that the only good or real relationship is filled with magical lifetime commitment.

As it is now, we are teaching our kids two very different life models: adolescent boys are encouraged to be players, to be tough, to keep their emotions at bay (or only to express them in rock music, after which they are allowed to go screw a bunch of groupies they shouldn't care about). And the messages sent to adolescent girls are extremely complicated: on the one hand, love rules all and finding The One True Boy (and changing yourself to be with him) is the goal of all life--yet on the other hand, one should be sexy (on men's terms), but not promiscuous, a willing receptacle for whatever men want, but also to be "her own" woman (again, as long as "her own" really means adhering to specific hetero-normative ideas).

The hook-up panic just plain never rings true for me, mostly because out of my own personal experiences, I simply do not see a pattern among men doing one thing and women doing another thing. I have counseled many, many male friends through times when they felt they were being taken advantage of by girls. I have stopped dating guys who really wanted to be in relationships with me, and I didn't want one at all. I have dated guys who expressly wanted to be married to me. I have dated guys who never wanted to fuck the same thing twice--and I have ladyfriends who also love to bed-hop, and it doesn't bother them at all.

Fact is, if you're lazy and ignorant, it's easier to default to watered-down explanations for very complicated behaviors than to think critically about how complicated human relationships really are. After all, once you start thinking critically, you become responsible for your own actions. Terrifying. If we stopped listening to mass generalizations and really thought hard about all the diverse people and friendships and relationships we had, people would see very quickly that cultural narratives often obscure and oversimplify the truth rather than explain it.


erika said:


That is all.

DJRM said:

I also want to say Thank You.
For this post and everything in it.

Thank You.

Seminymous Coward said:

This is truly a damn fine piece of writing. "[F]ragile things which must either be taken care of by Men or Feminism" is a golden phrase. The "poke away" section was also a particular treat.

Regarding Simmons' tripe:
sampling bias FTL
+ critical thought fail
+ claim that college men have near-magical "power"
+ writing a book report
= epic fail

T said:

I think my problem with this issue is that I'm in high school where I am surrounded by the immature, naive type of it. By this I mean that boys my age go to parties to all get their dicks sucked by the same young girl who's sitting in a room, on the verge of passing out, waiting for them. These guys don't think of the girls as people, they usually go for girls as young as 12 or 13 who have seen all over the TV that being sexy is what guys want, and the guys have grown up believing that the more chicks they can fuck = the cooler they are. This is why the hook-up culture really bothers me. I see these poor girls being treated like shit and trash-talked after the guys are done with them. I try really hard to be accepting, but I just can't stand it. I know that there are females out there who aren't in this position and who have no-strings-attached sex because they want to and because they're okay with it. That's fine, although me personally, I would never do anything sexual outside of a committed relationship. I struggle with this issue all of the time in my head. I know I can't look down on people for feeling differently than me and I'm still trying to sort of ease off and become content with people who don't need to be in a relationship to have have sex. I'm sorry if this will offend anyone but honestly I really want to come to terms with this because I don't want to limit choices and be thought of as anti-feminist. :S (Sorry that this is poorly written, I'm rushing to write this before I get caught in class)

onna said:

oh goodness, as a raging feminist and as a hopeless romantic, i LOVED, LOVED reading this. it hit my soul on so many levels. thank you!

Adri said:


RubyRoses said:

Just wanted to add too the compliments. Loved this.

Autumn said:

Also wanted to add to the compliments! THANKS!... Oh and you rock.

Spark. said:

Andrea, I want to be you when I grow up.

Sara said:

Very well put!

comicshopgrl said:

Someone needs to tell this to the readers of Teen Vogue.

Susan said:

Hey T -- Dudes taking advantage of 12-year-olds who are on the verge of passing out is not hook-up culture so much as sexual assault/pedophilia. That shit needs to get reported. 12-year-old girls aren't making choices as sexually empowered women, so don't misread the argument Andrea is making.

Nima said:

Great article, "Magical Vaginas" lol, thank you, I tried to explain this to my husband, thank you for putting it into words for me!!

J. Mill said:

Wow! I love reading things written like this. I love seeing foo foo nonsense being taken to task for what it is! You get mad girl! You are totally right on! (and i'm even a guy!)

Rachel Simmons said:

Congratulations, Andrea: You've managed to serve up the most personally attacking and vitriolic response to my blog. While I have truly loved the criticisms I've received from the blogosphere -- evidenced by my posting every critical response I've seen on my own website -- I'm not going to bother finishing reading this, much less sharing it with my world. Nor will I bother responding to your inaccuracies about who I am or what I stand for.

I would have really enjoyed the opportunity to listen to your insights. I just caught wind of the last graph -- "lazy and ignorant?" Seriously?

Regards --

Rachel Simmons

Mari said:

"12-year-old girls aren't making choices as sexually empowered women, so don't misread the argument Andrea is making."

Was this not a teen vogue article being discussed? I agree with pretty much everything that Andrea said, but you can't forget, Susan, that we're not talking about "sexually empowered women" we're talking about teenagers and that doesn't mean just the 18 year olds or the 17 and 16 year olds. You are talking about 15, 14, 13 year old girls, and sadly, you're also often talking about 12 year olds. Andrea mentioned the divergent life models, and this is where the main problem with the "hook-up culture" comes in to play. You've got these pre-teen girls growing up with the message that this is what's normal and this is what is expected of them. Before they've even got any sort of handle on what sex is about they're being told that they should "hook up" with guys and not make a big fuss about it because that's just how it's done these days and all that stuff your parents tell you is just old fashioned and out of date. My little sister lost her virginity at 13 in a "hook up" situation because she was the last virgin in her group of friends, ranging in ages from 12-14, and she was tired of her friends giving her grief about it. That's pretty much the opposite of empowerment right there. Some guys do get used or emotionally involved when the girl isn't. I know guys this has happened to, but they are closer to being the exception than the rule in high school settings. While they are being "socially engineered" to believe, just as the girls are, that they are supposed to see sex as no big deal, guys are still maneuvering around the old "good girl vs slut" paradigm. This often results in the issue that T mentioned where guys see these girls as objects to be used and discarded/passed around. Until the life models change and young men are taught to see young women as equal partners in casual sexual encounters and young women are taught that sex is something they can choose to do or not do without social pressures being a factor, I just don't see anything particularly empowering about it.

I don't know if I've said everything I meant to say or worded it the right way, but I'm putting it out there anyway.

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