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.

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.