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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.