According to popular discourse, what apparently binds our generation together is our collective affinity for binge drinking and hooking up. There are countless studies, books and articles outlining the many threats posed to society by beer pong and pre-marital sex on college campuses, such as our very own College of William and Mary. The conversation generally paints all men as sex fiends, all women as victims and all couples as heterosexual. Our attitudes toward sex are perceived as immoral, dangerous and completely modern.
In spite of the common inference that society is doomed because of the “hook-up culture,” casual sex is by no means new. In the July 2004 issue of the Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, Richard Godbeer noted that despite Puritan influence, pre-marital sex was common in colonial New England, where roughly one-third of all brides was pregnant. Increasingly liberal approaches to sexuality in the 18th century induced generational conflict, as they did in the 1920s, 1970s and likely, on a less-noted scale, in every other decade of American history. Even if we gave a name to hooking up, it is inaccurate and naive to pretend that our generation invented it.
In their conversation about our sex lives, older analysts tend to covet dating and courtship as the ideal system, conveniently forgetting that about half of the marriages that started under that system are now ending in divorce. Good relationships are dependent on the compatibility and mutual respect of the people in them, not on the circumstances of their beginning. A study released in August by the University of Iowa found no difference in relationship quality based on whether or not the couple was abstinent. According to the university’s press release, sociologist Anthony Paik found that, “Couples who became sexually involved as friends or acquaintances and were open to a serious relationship ended up just as happy as those who dated and waited.” Despite many old fashioned ideals, the current prevalence of hooking up does not mean the end of relationships — it means they have become an individual choice rather than a societal dictate.
Older commentators need to realize the complexity of the hook-up culture instead of viewing it through an outdated lens. In “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both,” Laura Sessions Stepp depicts hooking up as degrading and psychologically damaging to women, while men reap the benefits. Although the double standard is undoubtedly prevalent, and men and women are by no means equal, we are no longer restricted to such a distinct binary. We have moved past the days in which women’s most viable option for security was marriage. The discourse needs to do the same.
Gender premeditates neither desperation for companionship, nor lack of emotion or compassion. Casual sex can, in fact, be consensual. Like men, women can now consider options outside of the home. It is sexist and ignorant to assume that we are being harmed because of it. Both sexes can be hurt by the ambiguity of “hooking up,” just as both can benefit from a system that encourages companionship for love rather than necessity. Hooking up is not what’s detrimental; the harm comes from the categories that call all men “heartless” and all women “needy.” Rather than succumbing to the precedent of blindly reproving successive generations’ sexuality, we need to acknowledge that systems adapt to circumstance. Individuals can make their own choices. whether they are male or female, and the quality of relationships is not correlated to their lack of sex. Perhaps older critics should focus on the prevalence of divorce in their own generation, rather than use their sexist biases to analyze ours.