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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder