Theories about "hookup culture" are just another way of telling us what to do with our lady parts

Which is more offensive - being called a "slut", or being slotted into a sweeping cultural theory?

Good news, guys: "hookup culture" - or, as anyone else without a Gender Studies textbook might call it, "sleeping with people every now and then" - has been dominating the cybersphere. So novel and fascinating is this subject that articles have popped up in their droves in the last few weeks, and here we are jumping on the lubed-up bandwagon. Partly, this is because we never quite tire, as a society, of patting ourselves on the back for those "crazy college years" when the permanently stationed condom in your wallet waited faithfully for the day when a party got just out of control enough to make you do something spontaneous and kooky. And partly, it’s because of a book on its way to your local Waterstones’ any day now, rather sensationally entitled The End of Men.

"Feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture", wrote Hannah Roisin, in an excerpt from the book in The Atlantic, which comes out later this month. The "hookup culture" to which she refers is the prevalence of no-strings-attached sex on American college campuses, which, she argues, represents an engine of female progress. It’s quite a claim. Who knew that a cheeky blow behind the bins after an evening of dancefloor dry-humping at Tiger Tiger could hold so many sociological connotations? Yep, next time you’re peeling last night’s knickers off some paralegal’s laminate flooring as he farts loudly beneath the duvet, try and remember that you did it for the ladies.

Hannah Roisin is, of course, not the only person to try and reinvent the wheel. Journalists have been claiming that casual sex is a "new thing" since the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s. Despite the fact that Erica Jong coined the term "zipless fuck" way back in 1973, and the more mundane physical fact that there are only so many ways to insert a penis into any given orifice, the media insists on finding every generation more depraved than the next. It’s made for a popular opinion piece since the dawn of time (or at least the dawn of The Times), and it goes a little something like this: journalist declares the generation in question liberated or doomed, and extrapolates wildly on chosen position. Either today’s young people are morally corrosive hedonists on a path to seventeen different strains of Chlamydia/ the apocalypse, or, by having sex with each other all the time with little care for commitment, we represent the absolute zenith of sexual progress*.

Roisin opts for the latter position, and by doing so represents the minority viewpoint. The problem is that ultimately, like many on the opposing side, she forgets that sex is just sex: an activity that the human race has been engaging in since its inception, and that has, despite the best efforts of certain women’s magazines, remained pretty much the same mechanics-wise. Sex itself has changed very little over the years: it is society’s attitudes and value systems which have changed, and we’re sure we’re not the only ones who feel somewhat patronised each time some jumped-up theory is projected onto us and our bedroom antics. People are not cut from the same cloth, and while many may enjoy a casual shag, others will feel that a long term relationship is more their thing (that goes for both men and women, by the way.) Boiling down the central tenets of feminism to a one night stand feels just a teensy bit reductive.

Casual sex as a "delaying tactic" for women who refuse to allow inconveniences such as "love" to get in the way of their single-minded career ambitions is a great theory of Roisin’s in capitalist America. It’s unfortunate for her that in real life terms, it’s all crap. In many ways, it also teeters on the edge of being a plotline for a dystopian novel: women enter the market, become the most ruthless competitors of all, brazenly renounce true love, and single-handedly do away with decency forever. Meanwhile, men get off scot-free with a shrug and a ‘boys will be boys’. How did they manage that, when all we’re hearing right now is either "girls getting out their fannies will carry us to a more enlightened society" or "girls will be the engines of everyone’s destruction"?

We’re all different, and so are our sex lives. To quote HBO’s Girls: “I AM NOT ‘the ladies’”. Some of us want to save ourselves for Mr Right, and some of us are ecstatic to find Mr Right Now outside a club in Clapham every Friday night. Hell, some of us like to dress up in animal-shaped onesies and act out bestiality fantasies at furry parties. Not that this will prevent newspapers regurgitating Roisin’s wild theories until the book comes out (the Sunday Times got there already) and crowing about how men are like, so over, and women are now perfectly in control of their own vaginas, while ignoring the fact that shaming sexually adventurous women remains a national sport. Thank you feminism, and goodnight.

All this begs the question: which is more offensive? Is scrutinising a woman’s sex life and coming up with the enlightened conclusion that she’s a "slut" really that much worse than a load of social theorists crowding around the proverbial bed and deciding that her aforementioned sex life symbolises a dramatic shift in the cultural zeitgeist? Both represent Other People telling "the ladies" what to do with their bits, or making wild aspersions about the power of some fairly unremarkable flaps of skin. We know we’ve said it before, but can the party that wasn't invited please GET OUT OF OUR VAGINAS.

*For something a bit more nuanced, do read Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs (£), which looks at the impact of pornography and raunch culture on today’s young women, and is written by someone who is intellectually capable of holding two conflicting thoughts in her head at the same time.

Women having fun on a night out in Newcastle. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear