By Jonathon Van Maren
When I was researching the various manifestations of North American hookup culture for my 2016 book The Culture War, one of the things I found was that contrary to popular belief, many people—especially women—were deeply unhappy with the state of affairs. In fact, one researcher found that the more young men and women liked each other, the less likely they were to get physical quickly—they instinctively recognized that “putting out” quickly could result in a loss of respect from the other person. And now The Daily Beast has released a fascinating report, delving into the tensions that arise when people realize that they can’t “have it all”—and the pressure on young women to embrace hookup culture.
Journalist Caroline Kitchener follows dilemma of one young woman who was hoping she’d get into the same medical school as her boyfriend—and was crushed when she got into a better one that was across the country from him. Her emotions were mixed:
In our world, if a young woman factors her boyfriend into a major decision, like which medical school to go to, she isn’t taking her career seriously. Prioritizing a relationship is shameful—something to hide.
As Kitchener put it: “For a young professional woman in her twenties, settling down can seem like a conflicting betrayal of feminist values.” This tracks with the author of The End of Men Hanna Rosin’s observation that hookup culture is necessary for feminist progress. Which of course begs the question: what are feminist values, anyway?
Millennials are famous for their blasé attitude towards sex. Kitchener lays out the well-known statistics:
Millennials are waiting longer than any other generation to commit to a romantic partner. Today, the average age of first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men. And we’re not just moving in with long-term partners instead of marrying them. A 2015 Gallup poll found that the number of 18- to 29-year-olds who are single and not living with a partner rose from 52 percent in 2004 to 64 percent in 2014. To explain these numbers, most recent reporting on millennials and relationships has cast us as “commitment-phobes,” self-absorbed and interested only in the instant sexual gratification offered by dating apps like Tinder and Hinge.
But, fascinatingly, Kitchener highlights another possible reason for these numbers—one that goes beyond a “fear of commitment” and into a “fear of being judged for committing.” In her words:
But there is an alternate explanation: Many millennials—particularly millennial women—want committed relationships, but are afraid of being judged for them. To sustain a serious relationship in your early-mid twenties, when members of your cohort change jobs an average of once every 16 months, you have to be willing to make sacrifices.
My book, Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College, follows four women in my class at Princeton for one year after graduation, jumping back and forth between their stories and my own. While researching, I found that men in my age group were generally applauded for following their girlfriends after graduation, while women were condemned for it. When I made the decision to move to D.C. to be with my boyfriend, my friends looked concerned: “Caroline, are you sure that’s what you want to do?” After a while, I started telling people I was moving to D.C. just because I liked the city.
This stigma against committing to a romantic relationship begins while we are in college. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, sociologists at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Merced, interviewed 46 women at a Midwestern university over the course of their four years in college (PDF). Overwhelmingly, these women thought committed, romantic relationships should “take a back seat to self-development.” At this point in their lives, they thought they should be prioritizing other things—classes, friendships, networking opportunities—over a significant other.
In other words, young women deciding to prioritize their relationships—and presumably, children—are often viewed as gender traitors by a generation of feminists who fought to bring women into the workplace. When young women decide to structure their future plans to accommodate a relationship, the message they hear back is simple: Are you sure you don’t want to be more selfish? On the other hand, men deciding to sacrifice for their partners is considered progress.
Back to Kitchener:
The problem with this idea is that, sometimes, it’s worth prioritizing a partner in your early twenties. It’s a turbulent time, and a committed relationship can often help ground us. Immediately after graduation, the women in Post Grad (myself included) started missing the community we had in college—and that school had brought to our lives since kindergarten. We were lonelier than we’d ever been before, which led all of us to either begin a new romantic relationship, or deepen one that we already had. But these romantic relationships left us deeply conflicted. At one point or another, every woman in the book felt ashamed of her relationship, and tried to distance herself from it. We didn’t want to look weak, so we moved away, even if that wasn’t really what we wanted.
Over and over again, one fact emerges with each new study that surfaces: Hookup culture isn’t making anybody happy. Even Hollywood comedy flicks purporting to celebrate hookup culture almost inevitably end with the guy and the girl getting together and committing to each other. The sexual chaos of universities and increasingly, high schools, are simply leaving people confused, lonely, and longing for something more. In my conversations with high school students, I’ve heard many of them express the desire for relationships that in an age where casual sex is expected and pornography and sexting are the norm are now considered almost unattainable.
But the truth is, they are attainable. It’s time we stopped telling people that focusing only on themselves is the road to happiness and fulfillment. Selfishness and self-gratification at the expense of others may give us temporary pleasure, but in the end, they will leave us empty. Pleasure is not the same thing as happiness, and we need to stop confusing the two.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.