Dating culture has experienced significant changes in the past century. In her book Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, Laura Sessions Stepp chronicles the consistently changing dating culture since the early 20th century. She describes the culture of early 20th-century America as one where “women ran the show.” Mothers would invite young men to call on their daughters at the appropriate time, and if the daughters were interested, they could issue their own invitations to men already introduced to them; all of these visits, of course, were chaperoned by the supervising mother.
In this culture, women were seen as “proactors”; when the rise of crowded urban living conditions made such “calling” impractical, women took on the role of “reactors” as men took up the responsibility of asking girls to “go out.” These daughters were eager to escape their mothers’ close supervision, arranging to meet beaus in dance halls and at the movies. But given parental restrictions, they couldn’t seem too eager, which placed power and responsibility in the hands of men. One exception of this era were the Flappers, who seemed to defy cultural restrictions on female behavior by adopting more aggressive strategies.
Then came the Great Depression, and economic hardship reasserted old norms. No major changes occurred in the male and female power dynamic until the counterculture movement of the 1960s, which asserted female autonomy with staggering force. In the past century, the power has shifted from women (mostly mothers), to men, back to women again (this time to the daughters). Daughters of mothers from the 1960s generation (i.e., us) grew up with the constant and consistent message: You can do anything you set your mind to.
And we have. Many millennial women and girls have taken the motto to heart, overachieving in school, sports and life. Stepp suggests that some of us take this overachieving mentality into the bedroom, competing over who can bed the hottest or the most men.
For example, a girl I know at an elite university keeps a “point system” with her roommate — points are based on how far one goes, and with how many guys. This example, shocking to older generations, is common nowadays and reduces sex to a casual high-five between girls who celebrate their ability to “hit it and quit it.” One girl in Stepp’s book describes the overwhelming sense of power and satisfaction she feels from bedding a guy and then abruptly leaving him. Stepp writes that “using sex … makes a young woman feel powerful.”
Some girls I have talked to are under the impression that women have enjoyed such sexual inhibition since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. However, Stepp points out that “the women and men who engaged in ‘free love’ were actually fairly small in number.” This statement contradicts the image we commonly think of that time period. In fact, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, written by Jennifer Moses, suggests that “promiscuity has hit new heights,” citing as examples “sexting” among preteens, “hooking up” among teens and college students and the omnipresence of pornography.
Are pornography and technology the cause of “hookup culture,” which values “varied sexual experiences?” The rise of the 24/7 life — in which downtime is some vague, foreign concept, or when achieved, is instead spent wondering if we should be doing something productive — has limited the amount of time we have for relationships. The motto in college seems to be “work hard, play hard”— because we don’t have time for anything else.
And play hard we do. Stepp writes, “Of the hundreds of young women I interviewed about hookup experiences, less than a half-dozen said they were sober at the time.” This is confirmed in my own conversations with girlfriends who, desiring sexual attention, down their glass of vodka and shimmy seductively onto the dance floor. Asked the question, “Would you hook up soberly?” these girls respond with a resounding “Hell, no!” Grinding, probably the most pornographic creation of our generation, is made acceptable through the haze of alcohol.
I mean, could you imagine grinding on a public dance floor soberly?
Which leaves the question: Is our dating culture better than it was 40 years ago? Hookup culture signifies an important and fantastic landmark in the equality and freedom of women, but for a growing number of women and men, it is leaves many emotional needs unsatisfied. What remains is a sexual power struggle where as men and women strive to keep pace with their peers’ unemotional hookups as indications of “manliness” or “independence.” Many people I know defend hookup culture, while many others feel alienated by it. However, for members of our generation, it is not a question of whether you will participate in hookup culture, but how you will.
Stacy Taber is a sophomore in the College. She can be reached at [email protected]. The Dating Dalai appears every other Friday in the guide.