In 2010, Hanna Rosin wrote a pretty devastating feature article in The Atlantic titled The End of Men, which argued that women are outpacing and outperforming men in the postindustrial economy. That article has since been transformed into a book by Rosin that will be coming out next month.
Her most recent article in The Atlantic, Boys on the Side, is adapted from this forthcoming book. In the piece, she takes up what are, to her, the merits of the hook-up culture. That the hook-up culture is thriving on college campuses--thanks, in large part, to the women who drive it--is another sign that women are replacing men as the alphas of society. So Rosin's argument goes.
But this analysis [Caitlin Flanagan's in Girl Land] downplays the unbelievable gains women have lately made, and, more important, it forgets how much those gains depend on sexual liberation. Single young women in their sexual prime—that is, their 20s and early 30s, the same age as the women at the business-school party—are for the first time in history more successful, on average, than the single young men around them. They are more likely to have a college degree and, in aggregate, they make more money. What makes this remarkable development possible is not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom—the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career. To put it crudely, 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. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.
To Rosin, the hook-up culture is good because women enjoy it and it frees them from the shackles of having a relationship. So the hook-up culture, as Rosin and most feminists argue, empowers women:
At Yale I heard stories like the ones I had read in many journalistic accounts of the hookup culture. One sorority girl, a junior with a beautiful tan, long dark hair, and a great figure, whom I’ll call Tali, told me that freshman year she, like many of her peers, was high on her first taste of the hookup culture and didn’t want a boyfriend. “It was empowering, to have that kind of control,” she recalls. “Guys were texting and calling me all the time, and I was turning them down. I really enjoyed it! I had these options to hook up if I wanted them, and no one would judge me for it.”
Tali may be the exception. Occidental College sociologist Lisa Wade, who did a qualitative study of the hook-up culture among 44 of her freshman students (33 of them women), concludes that most of them "were overwhelmingly disappointed with the sex they were having in hook ups. This was true of both men and women, but was felt more intensely by women.” The psychiatrist Miriam Grossman reports that the vast majority of women who have a hook-up experience later regret it. Wade confirms that the women she interviewed felt “disempowered instead of empowered by sexual encounters. They didn’t feel like equals on the sexual playground, more like jungle gyms.”
Eventually, Tali, like these other women, came to the conclusion that she didn't like the hook-up culture after all. As Rosin writes:
But then, sometime during sophomore year, her [Tali's] feelings changed. She got tired of relationships that just faded away, “no end, no beginning.” Like many of the other college women I talked with, Tali and her friends seemed much more sexually experienced and knowing than my friends at college. They were as blasé about blow jobs and anal sex as the one girl I remember from my junior year whom we all considered destined for a tragic early marriage or an asylum. But they were also more innocent. When I asked Tali what she really wanted, she didn’t say anything about commitment or marriage or a return to a more chivalrous age. “Some guy to ask me out on a date to the frozen-yogurt place,” she said. That’s it. A $3 date.
In other words, once college women get past the initial high of freedom that coming to college and being away from home first entails, they realize that they do want a dating culture, and are willing to settle for even a vague semblance of one. At Yale, I guess that means a $3 frozen yogurt date. I know that at Dartmouth, where I went to school, a game of beer pong suffices as a “date.”
This reality--that women want a dating culture--is not a welcome one for the feminists, who have forcefully argued that the hook-up culture is empowering for women, and certainly more empowering than a dating culture, which allegedly takes time away from work and school, and relies on antiquated ideas of romance and courtship--of reliance on (god forbid) men.
Despite this contradiction, Rosin needs to connect the hook-up culture to power because her entire thesis about the "end of men" relies on the rising power of women--power that they secured through the gains of feminism. This is why she argues explicitly the progress of women relies on the hook-up culture: “The hookup culture 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 "depend on yourself" phrase is another way to say “feel empowered”--the gold standard of feminism. Being empowered means that everything you could ever want or need comes from you. Using that definition then, the most empowered relationship a woman could ever have is with her vibrator. Maybe for Rosin and other feminists, it is.
But most normal college-aged women are like Tali. They want relationships. I recently asked some college women whether the hook-up culture is actually empowering, and one coed told me, “The most empowered woman on campus is not the one who is hooking up, but the one who is in a stable relationship.” The flip-side of that quote is that the hook-up culture is disempowering. The HBO show Girls, which Rosin herself cites, is the perfect example of how disempowering that culture can be, as I have explained before.
It's also degrading. When the feminists cheer that the hook-up culture empowers women, the question we must ask is “empowers them to do…what, exactly?” Power has always been a means to an end. It still is. So what is the true end of the hook-up culture? The true end turns out to be something rather nasty. The reason you feel especially empowered during a hook up--more so than, say, with a vibrator--is because you are not just getting "no strings attached" sex from the hook up (as you would with a vibrator), but you are getting it from a living, breathing person.
So the real reason that someone allegedly feels empowered during a hook up is because that person is using someone else as a means to his/her own sexual pleasure. When feminists do this, it's called empowerment. When men do it, it's called sexual assault. The philosopher Immanuel Kant--who warns against using another person as a mere means to some end--was closer to the truth than the feminists when he wrote that sex “taken by itself . . . is a degradation of human nature.”
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