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Hanna Rosin, The Hook-Up Culture, and the Dangers of Moral Utilitarianism

09/08/2012

Hannah Rosin, The Hook-Up Culture, and the Dangers of Moral Utilitarianism

     Journalist and writer Hanna Rosin has just released a new book entitled, provocatively, “The End of Men,” detailing the (awesome and praiseworthy) rise of women in our educational system, the workplace, and society at large, albeit with a distinctly antagonistic edge that I find, to put it kindly, troublingly hypocritical on several levels.  While the title of her book makes me wince with its cynical pandering to both male paranoia and female hyper-partisanship, she makes thought-provoking arguments about gender relations that are worth considering thoughtfully.

     This week, Rosin published an article in The Atlantic detailing what she sees as an important aspect of this nascent female empowerment: the hook-up culture.  Specifically, Rosin highlights the hook-up culture’s permissive capacity to let young, ambitious women “delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career.”  Rosin argues that this freedom not only allows young women to participate in the sexual proclivities many men have enjoyed for millennia, but also allows them to better harness the advantages they currently hold “over men” in academic success and aggregate earning power.  “To put it crudely,” she says, “feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.”  Thus, Rosin combines traditional goal-oriented notions of achieving gender equity by overcoming misogynistic obstacles with a more modern substantive endorsement of hookup culture as an exercise of female sexual freedom and power.

     The problems with this perspective are, to my mind, manifold, but first, to ward against the instinct to label critics of these ideas as anti-feminist (in the classical sense) or misogynist, let us address the ways in which Rosin’s argument is persuasive in its realism.  I agree with the idea that any hypothetical hook-up culture should distribute sexual autonomy equitably between men and women.  If these are a pair of shoes our society wishes to wear, it should wear them standing squarely, putting equal weight on both soles. Similarly, any way that women can breach the boundaries of the “old boys’ clubs” is to some extent a good thing; I appreciate the weakening of misogynistic sexual hierarchies the rise of the hook-up culture could represent.  And, in the end, if we are content to view society’s sexual mores as a matter of democratic exercise, we must accept the hook-up culture as a paradigm that’s here to stay, and endorse its most equitable permutation as a utilitarian necessity.

     Nevertheless, I persist in my opposition to Rosin’s analysis.  I believe that Rosin’s conception of hookup-as-empowerment legitimizes a dangerously self-centered vision of the human sexual relationship.  I also think that Rosin carelessly uses correlative statistics to paint an opaque gloss over a more honest and substantive conversation about the trivialization of sex and the cognitive hierarchy of physical and emotional intimacy.  Finally, I reject the implicit assumption that hook-up culture is the natural and inevitable “liberal” solution to “conservative” (read: patriarchal) establishmentarian scepter-thumping.  I believe that we can have full gender equality, and can quash gendered sexual intimidation without sacrificing the idea of sex as a mutually sacred, selflessly giving, agape-driven ideal.

     At the very least, I don’t think it’s quite wise to bootstrap social consequence to moral principle.

     I could take issue with a number of smaller things in Rosin’s article.  In the interest of readability and length I will condense this criticism.  For example:

  • The article notes an Asian student’s “imitation” of an Asian prostitute (the ubiquitous “Me love you long time”) in passing, and applauds the woman’s command of the six men vying for her attention, while completely ignoring the fact that the student is making herself a hideous racial parody, a degradation of herself, to do so.  If the student in question was African-American, and her form of “sexual aggression” involved throwbacks to slavery and indentured servitude, I can’t imagine Rosin would have included the anecdote, and rightly so.
  • Rosin casually quotes women calling boyfriends “too greedy” or “too involved,” notes others who have “fake boyfriends” who they fully intend to drop once they have outlived their usefulness, idealizes Girls and Sex in the City as enviable life narratives, and broadly characterizes “serious suitors” for young women as obstacles to be avoided at the expense of personal ambition, all without even the slightest hint of self-reflection, criticism, or even irony.  While gender-reversal hypotheticals are not useful in all situations, here imagining men saying these sorts of things about women conjures up all kinds of horrible instincts.  But Rosin doesn’t even notice.
  • Her analysis in general is deeply and utterly heteronormative, with nary a single mention of LGBT youth.  As I will elaborate on later, this lends her article an antiquated notion of the spectrum of sexuality that ironically assumes tired gender constructions even as it seeks to be liberated from them.
  • Rosin often slips into tired, hackneyed depictions of male brutishness as unavoidably normative behavior.  Understandably, she’s tackling the issue of hooking up from the perspective of female benefit, but in her unsubtle and clumsy wielding of antagonistic gender concepts, she appears to promote women as being fundamentally above the fray, “manipulating” the sexual depravity of the male for her own ends, a picture that is not only patently offensive, but also simply false as a generalization.

     My deeper criticisms of Rosin’s article remain.  First is the notion that equity inherently confers virtue.  It is undeniable, I think, that hook-up culture is fundamentally and deeply self-centered.  It is pleasure-seeking, the short-term high of adventurous questing for orgasm without emotional attachment or commitment.  Rosin believes that this divorcing of physical and emotional intimacy confers empowerment.  It is in many ways a Randian dream, as it privileges the ego and the individual motive as not only the primary motivation but also the cardinal virtue.

     The problem with this idea, as countless works of narrative and poetry have contemplated since antiquity, is that the immiscibility of physical and emotional intimacy is a constructed barrier.  It is in the course of human nature to develop feelings as the natural consequence of sex.  Often these feelings may not exist coequally between the participants – Rosin’s model of empowerment through hookup assumes an idealistic “equitable non-exchange” of emotional ties that is both functionally unrealistic as a standard and deeply counterintuitive to human beings’ natural state.  Not to say that it can’t happen – it obviously happens all the time – but the fundamental nature of the hook-up is as a divergence from a default state, and I would argue that that willful act of divergence is crucially important.  On a day-to-day level, the “emotional inequity” that commonly results from hook-ups can cause serious emotional distress and trauma with far-reaching consequences for the heartbroken.

     This brings me to Rosin’s use of statistics, and her dogged insistence that hook-up culture is “an island [people] visit, mostly during their college years and even then only when they are bored or experimenting or don’t know any better.” In defense of the hook-up culture, Rosin employs a broadside of percentage-based generalizations about the benign effect of casual, temporary sex.  In doing so, she falls victim to the classical fallacy that the expansion of privilege for some does not inherently limit privilege for others.  Citing Laura England’s online survey of college-age students, she implies that because “a quarter of college kids skip out on hook-up culture,” this means that hooking up is somehow an isolated bubble of student interaction that only affects those involved.  Any college student who’s tried to date “the old-fashioned way” can tell you that the hook-up culture has peripheral effects that bleed into the lives of others.  If the default way for relationships to begin begins with physical intimacy, whole swaths of the population not comfortable with this model will be by definition excluded or pressured away from developing intimate relationships.  This inference is supported by data, which shows that while casual encounters are increasing among college students, so too are the numbers of people who remain celibate.  I would humbly submit that this celibacy is probably due more to social exclusion than monolithic, principled objection to premarital sex.

     Rosin similarly employs subjective statistics such as the perception of happiness or enjoyment to justify the health of hook-ups as nothing more than the fulfillment of a need.  Yet, there is one statistic that Rosin fails to elaborate on.  According to England’s research, “about 66 percent of women say they wanted their most recent hookup to turn into something more, but 58 percent of men say the same.”  Rosin uses this as a way to (correctly, I think) debunk the “weeping woman” stereotype of lost innocence in the wake of assumed male exploitation.  However, Rosin does not consider the bald fact that the majority of men and women wanted “their most recent hookup” (my italics) to become something more – there’s a need for real emotional intimacy there that belies Rosin’s notion of the hook-up as a neatly packed model of self-fulfillment and well-being.

     Finally, I take vehement issue with Rosin’s blithe acceptance of hooking up, as if there were no alternatives to strive for.  She assumes that the “soda fountain nostalgia” of dating, of a man “show[ing] up at the front door with a box of chocolates for his sweetheart,” is irrevocably rooted in patriarchal structures that keep women “in their place.”  This is a false equivalence.  At its core, hook-up culture is about the inversion of physical and emotional bonding.  I would argue that “dating” is the opposite idea, where a chemistry of personality and/or purpose can lead to emotional closeness that then proceeds naturally into the expression of feeling in making love to your partner.  How is this necessarily paternalistic?  Moreover, while Rosin claims that hooking up is “too bound up with everything that’s fabulous about being a young woman in 2012—the freedom, the confidence, the knowledge that you can always depend on yourself,” this too, is a false equivalence.  I personally know many women who choose to forgo hook-up culture who nevertheless are shining examples of individual initiative, drive, and confidence.  There is no intuitive or rational reason why sexual promiscuity has to be monolithically opposed to paternalistic misogyny.

     I would argue that you can have the freedom, the confidence, the self-dependence, while remaining celibate or by pursuing physical intimacy only in the context of a forthright emotional commitment.  At its most beautiful, sexual intimacy can be a deeply fulfilling expression of unconditional, giving love between two people.  This isn’t about placing “conventions” on people, or trying to “restrain” them.  Indeed, this notion of restraint is one of the biggest misconceptions people have about folks who abstain from casual sex on religious or moral grounds.  The idea isn’t that we all want to hook up, but hooking up is arbitrarily “bad,” because “God said so,” and should thus be avoided – such an idea is woefully simplistic. Rather,  the notion behind what I consider to be my personal ideal is a matter of reorganizing our priorities, of changing the way we think.  A hook-up culture, as I said before, is a fundamentally selfish one that privileges the will and needs of the “me” over all others.  In this way, regardless of its benefits, and even if it is “equitable” between the genders, it establishes this equity within a general framework of consumerist, television-conditioned, I-am-the-center-of-the-universe thinking that is, I believe, not only unideal, but utterly broken and unsustainable.  If we start to reorganize our heads, to, as David Foster Wallace once said, “adjust our default settings” to be attuned to the needs of others, and not assume that what we want or what we think is right is automatically the correct course of action, our sexual priorities will change also.  Instead of looking for a hookup, we will seek real and enduring intimacy, from which sexual union becomes an expression of agape, of unconditional love, rather than a selfish desire to be temporarily sated.  We can have this new ideal, I think, and still have gender equality.  In fact, I believe such equality would be greater and more enduring than any consequence of the hook-up culture, no matter how empowering it may seem.  When two people choose to love and give to one another unconditionally, inherent in that giving is the respect, affirmation, and kinship of souls that we all seek.  It is the pursuit of this kinship that leads us to fight for women’s rights, and gay rights, and to aid the poor, the outcast, and the disenfranchised.  If two people want to hook up, no strings attached, I see no reason why society should interfere with that union as a matter between two private individuals.  But we should not be so short-sighted as to mistake that selfishness for a nobler motivation, and should remember that true human equity is built as a consequence of selfless fraternity and unconditional love.

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