the hookup culture

Those who are responsible for adolescents and college students are worried about the “hookup culture.” Quite a few young people have sex frequently with different partners within the same large social network. Their choice not to repeat sex with the same partner seems deliberate, probably a way to avoid commitment.

I think the hookup culture is new and troubling. It’s an example of treating other people merely as means, not as ends in themselves. Participants must constantly estimate their own desirability as sexual partners based on their success in the hookup market. That seems stressful and likely to cause pathologies, such as eating disorders. Because we have a natural proclivity to become emotionally connected to our sexual partners, people who “hook up” are likely to use drugs or alcohol to suppress those feelings. Finally, these young people are missing an opportunity to practice intimacy. I worry that when they actually try to settle down with a partner and start a household or a family, they won’t be good at it.

No doubt, this phenomenon has several causes. I suspect that one of them is economic. Young people are coming of age at a time of high risk and high opportunity, when they feel that they need lots of “human capital” to compete in the job market. They want as many experiences and awards as they can obtain to list on their resumes. Human entanglements don’t help, and an emotional relationship might hold someone back.

The deepest problem may be that successful students now do everything (studying, volunteering, exercise, and sex) for instrumental reasons: to prepare themselves for the moment when they graduate from their final level of college. I worry that they are going to find young adulthood very disappointing, and they will regret missing the chance to do things for their own sake.

I would guess that quite a few participants in the hookup culture (especially young women) are actually rather discontented with it. But it would take collective action and reflection to change that culture. Adults are poorly placed to take this on, because our questions are likely to be seen as censorious. (Or we may seem to be challenging freedom and sexual equality.) Although we should stand ready to help, the Millennials themselves will have to deal with this problem, much as previous generations changed gender roles and sexual mores.

[PS See the Washington Post’s excerpt from Laura Sessions Stepp’s new book Unhooked, which includes this quote from a young woman who is afraid to fall in love:

Her number-one goal, for as long as she could remember, was to excel in school so that she might someday land a great job that would make her financially independent. In high school, she maintained an A average, played volleyball and rowed crew, edited the digital yearbook and played on a church basketball team that won the state championship. Her pace in college was similarly brisk, and she didn’t see how, even in her senior year, she could afford to invest time, energy and emotion in a loving relationship.

At her 21st birthday party she talked about this with a girlfriend who understood. As the friend said, over the recorded sounds of rapper Jay-Z, “I don’t have time or energy to worry about a ‘we.’ “

This concern for financial independence (not affluence) seems symptomatic of a high-risk/ high-opportunity economy that provides weak social supports.]

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3 Responses to the hookup culture

  1. Interesting post. Two questions: Why is this a new (rather than a retro) trend? Sounds like the ’60s to me. Also, why especially young women?

  2. Peter Levine says:

    Mike,

    My sense is that there was plenty of casual sex in the 1960s, and of course at other times in the past. But there was also a lot of talk about “love.” The hookup culture doesn’t seem to involve even a pretense of–or quest for–love.

    Three quarters of young Americans believe that their generation has more casual sex than their predecessors. However, they also think they abuse drugs more, resort to violence more, and volunteer less than young people of 20 years ago. They are actually wrong about those three trends. (See this new Pew poll for the data.)

    On the question of whether young women are more dissatisfied with hooking up than young men are–I have no evidence of that. But I strongly suspect it.

  3. Pingback: the hollowing-out of youth « Peter Levine

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