bad for
young women?
by elizabeth a. armstrong, laura hamilton, and paula england

Photo by Lucky Girl Lefty via Creative Commons


pop culture feminists such as Jessica Valenti. electronic ISSN 1537-6052. “hooking up”— casual sexual activity ranging from kissing to intercourse — places women at risk of “low self-esteem. sexual encounters known as hookups. And have correctly zeroed in on sexual double standards as a key still a third set of writers like Ariel Levy. She asserts that “young people have virtually abandoned dat- Following on the heels of the mass media obsession. pp. On the other side.” “hot” by men. In this essay. The research today are not having more sex at younger ages than their par- shows that there is some truth to popular claims that hookups ents. In her view. published in 2007. The sexual practices of American youth changed in the are bad for women. soci.” Her sensationalist tone cent and young adult hookups more systematically. even though they think they can. DOI: summer 2010 contexts 23 10. All rights reserved. . 9. author of Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex. we need to look more carefully at the rather that these young women seem less focused on their facts. suggests that young people are having more sex at earlier ages we draw on systematic data and studies of youth sexual prac. ing” and that “relationships have been replaced by the casual ologists and psychologists have begun to investigate adoles. Vol.ucpressjournals. but a “moral panic” over casual sex. and eating disorders.“Girls can’t be guys in matters of the heart. see http://www. Young people sudden and alarming change in youth sexual culture. Unhooked author Stepp describes girls “stripping in the own sexual pleasure and more worried about being seen as student center in front of dozens of boys they didn’t know.” says Laura Sessions Stepp. source of gender inequality in sexuality. long-term relationships are not an ginity is Hurting Young Women (2010). but the big change came with the Baby Boom Contexts. alcoholism. 3. but girls and young women.2010. ideal alternative. depression. No.3. 22-27. For permission to photocopy or reproduce. author of Female Chau. argue that the prob. tices over time to counter claims that hooking up represents a This characterization is simply not true. © 2010 American Sociological Association. hookup experiences are quite varied and far from uniformly neg- author of The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Vir. ative and that monogamous.1525/ctx. Scholarship suggests that pop culture feminists lem isn’t casual sex. vinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005). it also demonstrates that women’s 20th century.asp. and Lose at Both. questions whether it’s empowering for young women to show the rise of limited liability hedonism up at parties dressed to imitate porn stars or to strip in “Girls Before examining the consequences of hooking up for Gone Wild” fashion. in more casual contexts than their Baby Boomer parents.9. ISSN 1536-5042. Delay Love.22.” Stepp is only one of half a dozen journalists currently engaged in the business of detailing the dangers of casual sex. Levy’s concern isn’t necessarily moral.

and relationship experiences. born after 1948. imentation with friends are actually some young people’s ways age. the big change in adolescent and young adult sexual sex by age 20 (65-76 percent) is roughly the same for all cohorts behavior occurred with the Baby Boomers. hook up that with the highest physical and emotional risks (e. Lawrence . The National Hooking up hasn’t replaced committed relationships. not understanding that oral sex and sexual exper- more hookups. Ongoing sexual about gender equality in sexuality on the grounds that girls are relationships without commitment are labeled as “repeat. of balancing fun and risk. and only 20 percent in ten or ture—that is. What the Boomer panic may gloss over.” or “continuing” hookups. 1991-2007. Pepper Schwartz speculated that the slowdown in youth sex- cent of survey respondents in their fourth year of college had ual activity in the 1990s might be a result of “girls’ increasing never had vaginal intercourse. upon level of exclusivity and the willingness to refer to each ining the National Survey of Family Growth. Reports of condom Contemporary hookup culture among adolescents and use increased.” Director of Domestic Research for the Guttmacher Institute. They expressed optimism the same person multiple times is common. roughly 40 percent of those who ever intense relationships). however. Health and Social Life Survey—the gold standard of American Students often participate in both at different times during col- sexual practice surveys—found that those born after 1942 were lege. Barbara Risman and only involved kissing and non-genital touching. as did numbers of partners. finally. As suggested found that the percent of women who have had premarital above. less than once per semester over the course of college. For instance. The Centers for Disease Control. They college. England sur. on aver. The other third of hookups Contexts addressed youth sex in 2002.” Often there is friendship or socializing both progress of the gender revolution in sex. common. on average. 1933-42. cohort who came of age more than 40 years ago. friendship is leges about their hookup. much. 69 percent of heterosexual students more sexually active at younger ages than those born from had been in a college relationship of at least six months. and sometimes as “friends now that these scholars were overly optimistic about the with benefits. By their senior year. Hookups may be the most explicit the survey reported at least one hookup by their senior year in example of a calculating approach to sexual exploration. This makes sense. He also found that the women in the youngest as the forces giving rise to casual sexual activity among the cohort in this survey—those born from 1979-1984—were less young—the availability of birth control pill. a sort of limited liability hedonism. is make it possible to be sexually active while avoiding behaviors the fact that college students don’t. A full 20 per. 40 percent least in part a result of adult confusion about youth sexual cul- between four and nine hookups. Another third had engaged in oral sex or movement of sexual activity outside of relationships. About 80 percent of students hook up. Media panic over hooking up may be at hooked up had engaged in three or fewer hookups. Exam. They get the message The pervasiveness of casual sexual activity among today’s that sex is okay. and the decline of in loco par- them. commitments of adulthood while they invest in careers. reporting on the results entis on college campuses—took hold in the 1960s. dating. Not only is casual sex before and after the hookup.” more empowered in relationship sex than casual sex. hedonistic free-for. families—are expected to delay the all portrayed by the media. report that rates of changes in youth sexual culture did not stop with the major sexual intercourse among 9th-12th graders decreased from behavioral changes wrought by the Sexual Revolution. By senior year. And. Young people today—par- ticularly young whites from affluent Hooking up isn’t the rampant. those born from 1963-72. It appears “regular. as long as it doesn’t jeopardize their futures. hookups between control over the conditions of sexual intercourse. youth may be at the heart of Boomers’ concerns. prioritized a bit more than romance. Finer. while hooking up with the restriction of sex to relationships. other as “girlfriend/boyfriend. But of the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. and oral sex appeals Seventy-two percent of both men and women participating in because of its relative safety.g. the trend toward greater sexual activity Hookups sometimes became committed relationships and vice among young people appears to halt or reverse among the versa.” marked by total strangers are relatively uncommon. Only about one third engaged in intercourse in their nistic free-for-all portrayed by the media. STDs and early pregnancies are to be avoided. the sexual activity in hookups is often rela.000 students from 19 universities and col. Even though hooking up in college isn’t the rampant hedo- tively light. In addition. hooking up isn’t radically new. intercourse. In addition. the women’s and likely to have premarital sex by age 20 than those born before sexual liberation movements. it seems that romantic relationships themselves are riddled with gender inequality. However. 24 contexts. This generates veyed more than 14. So what are young people doing to cause such young adults may rework aspects of the Sexual Revolution to angst among Boomers? get some of its pleasures while reducing its physical and emo- tional risks. it does involve the most recent hookup. When manual stimulation of the genitals.. generally the distinction revolved around the agreed youngest cohort in the NHSLS.

that relationships made though.” Sexual labeling among adolescents and young adults may only loosely relate to actual sexual behavior. In contrast. Fraternities are often the only venues where large groups of underage students can readily access alcohol. the Greek scene. As one woman Hamilton interviewed explained. Consequently. relationship pleasures Hookups are problematic for girls and young women for several related reasons. one woman complained in her interview that she was a virgin the first time she was called a “slut.g. Relationships are “greedy. and they are often character- too heavily. not compatible with the demands of a boyfriend. more likely to be reciprocal. “I wouldn’t mind having a boyfriend again. This is in part because sex in relationships is more ple… I feel like I’m doing what a college student likely to include sexual activities conducive to women’s orgasm. one of the easiest relationship problems. for example.” Another told one of us (Hamilton) that her major was offer love and companionship. I don’t need to be tied down to my In hookups. they context. should be doing. it difficult to meet people. for example. “[My provide a context in which sex is viewed as acceptable for boyfriend] doesn’t understand why I can’t pick up and go see women.. protecting them from stigma and establishing sexual him all the time. relationships kid. As many observers of American youth sexual culture have found. She said. The women we The most commonly encountered disadvantage of hookups. men report more concern with the sex- The most commonly encountered disadvantage of ual pleasure of girlfriends than hookup hookups is that sex in relationships is far better for partners. a sexual double standard continues to be pervasive. boyfriends. In addition. but it’s a lot of work. summer 2010 contexts 25 . Eng. On college campuses. But I have school… I just want to be a college reciprocity as a basic expectation.” The lack of clear rules about what is “slutty” and what is not contribute to women’s fears of stigma.” getting in often use their control of the situation to undermine women’s the way of other things that young women want to be doing ability to freely consent to sex (e. relationships competed with schoolwork. The continuing salience of the sexual double standard Women also complained that committed relationships mars women’s hookup experiences. by pushing women to drink as adolescents and young adults. oral sex is time to be meeting people. In relationships. fraternity men have a dark side as well. As a woman who had just ended a land’s survey revealed that women orgasm more often and report relationship explained: higher levels of sexual satisfaction in relationship sex than in I’m happy that I’m able to go out and meet new peo- hookup sex. them rides home). and the dynamics of this strong) found that committed relationships detracted from scene predictably produce some amount of sexual assault. or refusing ized by gender inequality—sometimes even violence. As a variety of scholars have observed. Women report varying degrees of sexual Talking to young people. is that sex in relationships is far better for women. unfortunately. In interviews conducted by England’s research team. what women saw as main tasks of college. “Guys can have sex with all the girls and it makes them more of a man. while women seem equally invested in pleasing hookup partners and women. but if a girl Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald via Getty Images does then all of a sudden she’s a ‘ho’ and she’s not as quality of a person. two of us (Hamilton and Arm- disrespect in the fraternity culture.hookup problems. this sexual double stan- There are are up-sides and down-sides to both monogamous relationships dard often finds its most vociferous expression in and hookups. interviewed complained. men are much more likely to receive fellatio than high school boyfriend for two years when this is the women are to receive cunnilingus. One woman remarked. hookup pleasures places to find hookup partners is in a male-dominated party Relationships are good for sex but. barring their exit from private rooms.

Coping with jealousy was painful courts. One woman described her boyfriend.” depression. One woman noted that she would The abuse that women reported to us is not unusual. Bad hookups were isolated events. ‘What are you wearing wrecked friendships. their friends. Being open to hooking up means being able to go out and fit into the social scene. In a survey of 15. In the time even to see him. do. 26 . and can involve jealousy. and few reported regretting their last hookup. and abuse.” Other women changed the way they dressed. saying. and learn about sexuality. the costs of bad hookups tended to be less than costs isolated events. get attention from young men. As one noted. ing with a boyfriend who accused her of cheating on him. mate partner violence among adolescents and young adults is “I was so nervous being with Dan because I knew he had common. it is no wonder that young women sometimes opt for casual sex. the costs of bad relationships: bad hookups are For most women.” She elaborated. tonight?’… It’s like a joke but serious at the same time. very controlling person… He’s like. If relationships threaten academic achievement. cheated on his [prior] girlfriend… [but] I’m getting over it. and even what they safety was threatened. stalk- When women attempted to end relationships.” Women feared that they would be course of interviewing 46 respondents. get in the and where they went in the hope of keeping boyfriends. manipulation. or physically hurt on purpose by I stayed in his apartment because there was nothing else to their boyfriend or girlfriend” in the last 12 months. but bad relationships wreak havoc of bad relationships. Subjects told us that relationships were not only time-con. And a third woman reported that her wore. the Centers for Disease Control found that 10 perecent of stu- When I go [to visit him] now…I let him go to the bar. while bad relationships with whole lives. Another woman tried to end a relationship. slapped.” Women reported enjoying hookups. the time they spent with friends. It was a big fun party. Abu- sive relationships led to lost semesters. Over half the time women par- Problems posed by relationships range from time conflicts with schoolwork to the more serious ticipating in England’s survey issue of relationship violence. When she tried to break up. damaged property. aborted pregnancies.” They reported turning on their “make out radar. and emotionally absorbing. and time-consuming involvement with police and Women also became jealous. and blocking her entry into The costs of bad hookups tend to be less than her workplace until the police arrived. “He is a ex-boyfriend stalked her for months—even showing up at her workplace. way of friendship.000 adolescents conducted in 2007. but also marked by power inequalities and abuse. suming. they often ing. but was forced to Women reported that boyfriends tried to control their social flee the state when her car windows were broken and her lives. wreaked havoc with whole lives. he cut his wrist in her apartment. Right now with [my major] and everything… I wouldn’t have reported that men’s efforts to control them escalated. two of us (Hamilton devoured by relationships and sometimes struggled to keep and Armstrong) heard ten accounts of men using abuse to their self-development projects going when they did get keep women in relationships. “Everyone was Photo by Cyndy Andrews via Creative Commons so excited. whatever. dents had been “hit. One woman spent months deal- involved. Inti- “do anything to make this relationship work.” explaining that “it’s fun to know that a guy’s attracted to you and is willing to kiss you. showering her with flowers and gifts. Women we interviewed gushed about par- ties they attended and atten- tion they received from boys.

this “Hooking Up: The Relationship Contexts of 'Nonrelationship’ Sex. Ironically. 2008). Aronson (eds. 72: 143-164. Hooking Up. relationships Flawed Options: Gendered Sexuality in Early Adulthood. Provides methodological details are also plagued by inequality. Bogle. Fostering relationships among young adults should go hand-in-hand with efforts to decrease inti. 2001). Manning. The Gendered Society Reader. Kreager and Jeremy Staff. notion that women shouldn’t want sex outside of relationships Derek A. Part of a series likely to tolerate “greedy” or abusive relationships if they were on sexual activity among younger adolescents. K. Fogarty. The gender gap in Campus (New York University Press. Armstrong. and Relationships on tionship both before and after hookups. Overview of the role of gender in the college hookup scene. and Alison C. Her research focuses on gender inequality in labor markets and how gender and class affect family life. 23: 589-616. (2009). Longmore. research suggests two Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth A. Second. for women than hookup sex. Hooking Up: Sex. Elizabeth A. Stepp. social. suggests that Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt. treated better in hookups.” Social Psychology Quarterly challenge gender inequality in both relationships and hookups. recommended resources although more women than men showed interest in a rela. New empirical research confirming the con- tinued existence of sexual double standards. Hanging Out. One of the first empir- inequality in youth sex. Together. leads men to disrespect their hookup partners. and Hoping for Mr. 3rd edition (Oxford University Press. A better approach would and Adolescent Peer Acceptance. Kimmel and A. Peggy C. valorizing relationships of Hamilton and Armstrong’s interview study and elaborates on as the ideal context for women’s sexual activity reinforces the costs and benefits of hookups and relationships for young women. with 48 Paula England.reported no relational interest before or after their hookup. Certainly. Kathleen A. 2008).). toward gender equality in sex Like others. California-Merced. the author of Unhooked. AD summer 2010 contexts 27 . College Campuses. and Monica A. work. and romantic pathways through and out of the university. Dating. and friendship. Armstrong is in the department of sociology at the University of Michi- mate partner violence and to build egalitarian relationships gan. Paula England is in the department of sociology at Stanford University. 21: 459-483. sex in relationships is better ical investigations of college hookups. relationship interest is slightly larger after the hookup. and Laura Hamilton is in the department of sociology at the University of that allow more space for other aspects of life—such as school. However. It is critical to attack the tenacious sexual double standard that Wendy D.” could improve relationships because women would be less Journal of Adolescent Research (2006). A provocative investi- gation of college hookups based on 76 interviews. Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer.” Gender & Sexuality (2009). “Double Binds and reasons why Stepp’s strategy won’t work: first. Right: College Women on Mating and Dating restricting sex to relationships is the way to challenge gender Today (Institute for American Values. Giordano. they study how social class shapes women’s academic. “The Sexual Double Standard and stigmatizes women who do. percent of women and 36 percent of men reporting interest in “Hooking Up and Forming Romantic Relationships on Today's a relationship.” In M.