Sex and Relationships - 50 Shades of Hookup Culture

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When the young rebel, it often comes in the form of exerting bodily autonomy. Hookup culture may be relatively new, but its underlying ideals are not.

When the young rebel, it often comes in the form of exerting bodily autonomy. Hookup culture may be relatively new, but its underlying ideals are not. Situationships are to Generation Z and millenials what Flappers were to the roaring twenties, and free love was to the hippies. It may be repackaged and rebranded, but not repurposed. All of these movements are driven by the same core desire: changing the status quo. 

A hundred years ago, Flappers fought restrictive societal values by showing glimpses of their skin. The proliferation of sex-crazed youth and nudist colonies during the political upheaval of the sixties and seventies isn't a coincidence, either. 

Hook up culture has become a prevalent feature of our generation's coming-of-age - especially our college experience. It's not just the Boomers or our parents that recognize this. On the first page of Google alone, I found student publications from Brown University, Boston University, Kansas University, and the University of Michigan addressing sexual culture on college campuses. Indeed, our very own Law Society had a debate on hookup culture on November Tuesday 14th.  

People talk about hookup culture all the time. More importantly, we talk about it! My concern over our new sexual culture isn't that it is underrecognized, but that when this phenomenon is discussed, too often it's done in absolutes: conversation flip-flops between unbridled praise and sharp criticism. There is a lack of nuance in a conversation that desperately needs it. Hookup culture is treated as purely black and white, when the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between.

There are actual, measurable benefits to this new sexual culture. A 2016 study from the International Journal of Sexual Health evaluated how hooking up impacts women in their first year of college. 71% of participants recorded benefits such as improved confidence, happiness, sexual satisfaction, and general connection with others. 

In some ways, hook up culture serves as a reaction to purity culture that's dominated Western, Christian culture. As someone who grew up in a majority Christian community, I have first hand experience with the shame embedded in cultural Christianity. There's the unfortunately pervasive idea that women's sexuality is something to be shunned. Even looking at how men fit into this framework - being portrayed as “out of control" with lust - sexual desire is viewed extremely negatively. Obviously, not everyone shares this background; still, many were raised in this sort of environment. Even if these ideas weren't so overt, it teaches that natural desires are labeled as wrong and should therefore be repressed. 

This suppression is naturally combated by the embracing of sexuality. People are allowed to have sex for the pleasure of it. The emotionally intimate relationship that was counted as a prerequisite is optional now, whilst the unmentionable aspect of sex, in many ways, has been removed. You can talk freely about your personal relationship with sex. Sexual encounters and attraction, consent, kinks, non-monogamous relationships; all of these things previously glossed over entirely are now treated much more casually. There's far more space for relationships that lay outside the straight, monogamous norm. It's revolutionized how our generation talks about consent. Just a few decades ago, it would have been absurd to suggest rape can happen within a marriage; now, because of the new atmosphere around sex, there's such a greater emphasis placed on consent. 

During periods of sexual liberation, it’s typically women who have the most to gain. And usually, they face considerable resistance. When we look back on past phases of counterculture, though, we see the people who resisted society's values as trailblazers. Degenerates of their time are remembered as feminists in ours. There is a precedent of baseless backlash against these kinds of movements. It's easy to disguise desire to uphold a social norm as genuine concern. However, that doesn’t discount all criticism of modern hookup culture; while some counter arguments are interested in maintaining the status quo, many identify real issues with hookup culture. 

There is a physical danger that accompanies active sex lives (namely STDs) as well as an emotional one. A study from the Journal of Sex Research examined feelings of regret and embarrassment associated with hooking up: respondents indicated they've felt shame over past hookups, sexual dissatisfaction, and regret over a hookup that went too far. These negative effects were also associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Another concerning trend is this emphasis on body count. Having sex becomes a quest, and your exploits are nothing more than a tally. This is wildly dehumanizing, contributing to even more shame surrounding sex. There's pressure to be sexually "experienced” and inferiority associated with inexperience. Perhaps counterintuitively, sex positivity aims to deconstruct this shame. 

For every con, though, there's seemingly a pro, and vice versa. That can be admittedly frustrating. What should you think? What should your takeaway be? I won't tell you how to think. You don't need a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis to get the main point, though. Hookup culture is complicated. Really complicated.

There's something to be said for the openness that's been introduced to sexuality. Queerness is in part more visible because of lessened sexual stigma. Women are more prioritized than in the past, evidenced by a rise of men proudly labeling themselves as "munches". But at the same time, it raises valid concerns. For instance, is there an overemphasis on sex? Are people missing out on genuine connection in the pursuit of sexual satisfaction? Have we created an environment that's hostile to Asexuals and otherwise sex-adverse individuals? If so, how can we remedy that?

I don't claim to have the answers to these questions. At the end of the day, sex is a very personal matter. For some, sex is liberating; for others, sex carries emotional baggage or trauma. And in between these two extremes is a spectrum of views. That variety doesn't invalidate any other experience. It just needs to be considered in discussion. Sex is a multidimensional issue, and needs to be treated with the sensitivity and understanding it deserves.