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21 July 2021

Regret, distress, low self-esteem: Why today’s hook-up culture is a terrible deal for women

I propose a solution to the sexuality gap based on a fundamental feminist claim: unwanted sex is worse than sexual frustration.

By Louise Perry

The heterosexual dating market has a problem not easily resolved. Male sexuality and female sexuality, at the population level, do not quite match. Decades’ worth of research evidence reveals that – crucially, on average – men desire casual sex more than women do. This might be a product of nurture, or of nature, but either way, the sexuality gap presents a challenge.

Hook-up culture is one solution, although not a particularly satisfying one. In a society that normalises “no strings” sexual relationships, women are encouraged to surmount the gap by imitating male sexuality, or having sex “like a man”, as it was once described on Sex and the City, the late 1990s/early 2000s TV show that presented casual sex as a glamorous leisure activity.

Some women are happy to have sex “like a man”, and relish the opportunity to rebel against conservative sexual mores. But it’s more common for women to find casual sex unpleasant, or even distressing. One study of students at Middlebury College, Vermont, found that 100 per cent of female interviewees and three-quarters of female survey respondents stated a clear preference for committed relationships, and only 8 per cent of female respondents reported being happy in what the study’s author Leah Fessler termed “pseudo-relationships”, defined as:

… the mutant children of meaningless sex and loving partnerships. Two students consistently hook up with one another – and typically, only each other – for weeks, months, even years. Yet per unspoken social code, neither party is permitted emotional involvement, commitment, or vulnerability. To call them exclusive would be “clingy” or even “crazy”.

Other studies consistently find the same thing: following hook-ups, women are more likely than men to experience regret, low self-esteem and mental distress. In other words, hook-up culture is a solution to the sexuality gap that benefits some men, at the expense of most women.

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Nevertheless, both popular culture and survey data indicate that a youthful period of hooking up is now the convention among Western youth and, although it is possible for dissatisfied young women to opt out, only a minority do so. Absent some kind of religious commitment, this is now the “normal” route presented to girls as they become sexually active. Young people tend to be very anxious about being normal.

[see also: Dan Savage interview: why it’s impossible to separate sex and politics]

Progressive media outlets contribute to this normalisation by churning out articles with headlines such as “Your Seven-Point Intersectional Feminist Guide to Hook -Ups” and “Five Fantastic Ways to Engage in Feminist Hook-up Culture”, all arguing that, with consent, anything goes. These outlets then encourage women to achieve their proffered feminist ideal by overcoming a perfectly healthy preference for intimacy and commitment in sexual relationships. Guides with titles such as “12 Ways To Not Fall For The Guy You’re Casually Hooking Up With” and “The Relationship Game: How to Avoid Catching Feelings for Someone” advise readers to, for instance, avoid making eye contact during sex, in an effort to resist “making an intimate connection”.

Readers are told that taking cocaine or methamphetamines before sex could dull the dopamine response, but to avoid alcohol, since for women (but, tellingly, not men) this seems to increase “the likelihood they will bond prematurely”. All sorts of innovative methods of dissociation are advised, for example: “Another way to prevent the intimate association between your f*** buddy and the heightened activity in your brain’s reward centre is to consciously focus your thoughts on another person during sex.”

These guides are all carefully phrased to present the issue as gender-neutral, but research on male and female attitudes towards casual sex, combined with what we know about the sexuality gap, makes clear that it is overwhelmingly women who are being advised to debilitate themselves emotionally in order to gratify men.

But what if there were a way of opting out of this miserable dynamic? Michaela Kennedy-Cuomo, the 23-year-old daughter of the New York governor Andrew Cuomo, is among those attempting just that. In a recent interview, Kennedy-Cuomo described herself as “queer” and, when pressed, explained that, having experimented as a younger woman, she believes that “demisexual” is the label that fits her best. This she defines as someone who can only be sexually attracted to a person if it comes with an emotional bond. She’s not the only one to have adopted this identity – the demisexual community has been described in Elle magazine as “a select few members of society” who aren’t into casual sex. They even have a flag.

But what the term describes is not a niche preference, but typical female sexuality. Kennedy-Cuomo isn’t special: she’s a normal woman who has enough emotional insight to recognise that hook-up culture doesn’t make her happy, but not the political insight to recognise the bigger problem. I don’t blame her for trying to opt out, but her strategy is misdirected.

I propose a different solution, based on a fundamental feminist claim: unwanted sex is worse than sexual frustration. I’m not willing to accept a sexual culture that puts pressure on people who don’t want to have casual sex (overwhelmingly women) to meet the demands of those who do (overwhelmingly men), particularly when sex carries so many more risks for women, in terms of violence and pregnancy.

Hook-up culture is a terrible deal for women that has been falsely presented as a form of liberation. A truly feminist project would insist that, in the straight dating world, it is men, not women, who must adjust their sexual appetites.

[see also: The sex recession: How our love lives are stunted by hyper-sexualisation]

This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century