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I don’t often get nostalgic or feel thankful that I grew up when I did because things were better back then. But I just finished reading two books about what’s happening on college campuses now — American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus by sociologist Lisa Wade and Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by feminist and social critic Laura Kipnis — and I actually do feel quite blessed that my college days are long past.

When I went to college, in the ’70s and ’80s — post ’60s sexual revolution and The Pill and pre-HIV — there was lots of casual sex, and sex with professors, without the pressure to be hot, look hot or only have sex with someone hot. Not to say that I didn’t want to have sex with hot men — I do and often I did. But my status wasn’t somehow dictated by that.

Even though I have two 20-something sons, one a recent grad and one in his final year, and I read a lot about popular culture and was quite aware of hookups, I still was kind of clueless about how hookup culture’s changed how college students enjoy — or, more accurately, don’t enjoy — sex.

There were a few things that were mentioned in both books that I find extremely disturbing. For one, women binge drinking in an effort to loosen inhibitions and have fun, but to the point that they get sick or pass out or both. How can that be fun? It also makes them more vulnerable to sexual assault, and Kipnis’ book is an exploration of how that plays out in a world dictated by Title IX — the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination against girls and women in federally funded education that was expanded, in 2011, to include sexual harassment. It’s not pretty.

Cruel hookup rules

Mostly, I was saddened by the rules of hookups — seem rather cruel — and the extremely narrow version of consensual non-monogamy it’s offering young people.

Students have to go out of their way to have sex that doesn’t mean anything. They don’t want to appear emotionally attached to their sexual partner, so they have to act like they care less than the other person. And the way to do that is to avoid anything that is even remotely kind. As Wade writes:

Students may have spent hours or even weeks working up to a hookup by taking opportunities to interact, being attentive and flirtatious, offering compliments, and getting to know each other, but once a hookup is in progress, it’s time to get down to business. No sissy stuff. No niceties. Everything must be hard and furtive. Expressions of tenderness — like gentle kisses, eye contact, holding hands, cuddling and caresses— are to be avoided. tweet

Even eye contact is considered too intimate. Wow!

As I mentioned above, there was lots of casual sex when I went to college. I assumed that hookups were the same thing as casual sex. But casual sex didn’t mean no kisses, cuddling or eye contact — it just meant you were generally enjoying sex with someone with no expectations (OK, but sometimes with hopes) of a relationship. You could still talk to the person if you ran into him or her in the hall, in class or on campus after. Casual didn’t mean cruel. There weren’t strict rules about what you should or shouldn’t do. I have no idea why young people want to create so many rules around sex, instead of deciding for themselves what’s OK and not OK. I’m all about busting out of societal norms and here are these young people — growing up in a time when there’s more freedom than ever — instituting oppressive rules around sex.

I just don’t understand.

Narrow views of non-monogamy

Just as disturbing is how hookup culture is creating an extremely narrow view of non-monogamy. Because they don’t want to seem to care, students have to have a cold, unfeeling hookup; if they want kissing, cuddling and eye contact, then they need to be in a committed monogamous relationship.

How limiting!

Caring relationships, Wade writes:

are almost exclusively understood to be monogamous ones. So much so that words like “relationship,” “serious,” “commitment” and “romance” are usually used as synonyms for monogamy. … Students simply flip this logic around and conclude that non-monogamy involves no kindness at all. These arrangements, they argue, are supposed to be “easy” and “simple.” … Students see two categories of engagement — hard and easy, caring and careless, emotional and emotionaless — and nothing in between. tweet

In their sexual world, all that’s available are two choices: hookups with no strings attached or monogamous relationships. And, as she writes, it reinforces narrow, dated views of what it is to be a man or a woman.

I hate to break it to them but consensually non-monogamous relationships are a lot of work, as those who are in it say. And so are committed monogamous relationships. Any relationship between or among people is going to require some sort of work, unless it’s just about sex. So pick your poison.

Still, I’m confused — there have been so many articles recently about how more young people are embracing consensual non-monogamy. (At the same time, there have been articles about how today’s college students are more likely to be unfaithful.) Is it a happy, willing choice or is it buying into what we think we “should” do?

Long-term impacts

I’m really curious about what this narrow view of non-monogamy might mean in the long run. Some have said that hookup culture’s rules speak to the adulterous kind of non-monogamy — affairs are OK as long as it’s just about sex,  just no emotional attachment, please.

Maybe the rules and expectations of hookups disappear after graduation. But it still may be affecting our views about love, relationships, marriage, monogamy, infidelity. I’m all for questioning those views but I’m also for busting out of rigid ideas about them, which is why the exhausting rules about hookups seem, well, exhausting. Couldn’t young people do better than that?

The casual sex of my day and the hookup culture of today don’t seem to have lasting imprints; most of us who have had random sex with virtual strangers — be it casual sex or hookups — have come out the other side OK. Some have settled into relationships, monogamous or not, some have become serial monogamists — that’s me — others have decided they’re not interested in dating, romance or marriage, and others want a partner but haven’t found one yet.

Still, why should young people have to endure years of unkind sex, limited options when it comes to non-monogamy, and rigid views of what it means to be a man or a woman? I think we can do better.

Want to learn more about consensual non-monogamy? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon.

One Response to “Is hookup culture limiting our views on non-monogamy?”

  1. Jono says:

    I have to have some touching and closeness. It doesn’t necessarily have to be love, but I at least want to like a person and have her like me if we are going to be intimate. Even hookers offer a GFE (girl friend experience) so I must not be alone in my thinking. If I can’t enjoy her company I certainly don’t want to have a sexual relationship with her.

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