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NY Times piece on hook-up culture reflects a distinctively American attitude to sex

2013 July 18
by Zoe Strimpel
Sex in America has a certain...hard edge to it.

Sex in America has a certain…hard edge to it.

People like me are always happy when the media favoured by the US intelligentsia – NY Times, Atlantic, New Yorker – releases yet another piece about women and sex, women and porn, women and men, women and motherhood, women and power, women and airplanes, women and bananas….Such pieces allow frivolous people like me to read clever and widely discussed portions of zeitgeist prose without any risk of boredom. Rather than having to struggle through nine pages on inner city school violence, Obama’s political philosophy or healthcare reform, we get to read about women getting drunk and giving blow jobs in frat basements all while heading up a winning Model UN team, setting up initiatives to feed the poor and running Varsity track. It’s a curious mix of rubbernecking (“ooo! drinking and blowjobs!”), voyeurism (“ooo, blowjobs…”), comfortable hand-wringing (“dear me, what have the youth come to?”), narcissism (“those poor deluded girls, I’d never have done that…”) and envy (“lucky 20 year olds with their bouncy blond hair, crazy ambition and stellar resume”)  - for some, it is undoubtedly titillating.

The latest article making waves which you’ve all probably already read –  Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too in the NY Times – has created quite the storm. There was a riposte in Cosmo where we got to find out what it’s “REALLY” like having sex at Penn. Anna North at Salon wrote a cool piece that was angry at “women’s stories” and their limiting elitism. The American press, in other words, has had a good, honest go at the piece, firing on all very reasonable pistons: “we’ve heard it all before”, “piece like these are just another attack on women deemed not to be having sex in the right way”, “the media only cares about sex for rich kids”, “what about ethnic minorities…”

Well, there is one thing the American press won’t be picking out, but which strikes me, having lived half my life on both sides of the pond. And that is the tremendous Americanness of the issue.

Allow me in the first instance to point out a few quotes from the sex-having women interviewed at Penn.

“We don’t really like each other in person, sober…we literally can’t sit down and have coffee.”

“She’ll talk about ‘cost-benefit’ analyses and the ‘low risk and low investment costs’ of hooking up.”

“I positioned myself in college in such a way that I can’t have a meaningful romantic relationship, because I’m always busy and the people that I am interested in are always busy, too,” she said.

A sociologist quoted in the article reported her own subjects saying things like:

“A relationship is like taking a four-credit class” and “I could get in a relationship, or I could finish my film”.

To my mind, the above embodies a particular kind of brutality, efficiency and unabashed mercenariness unique to American ways of viewing intimacy. I’m not talking about American culture in general – I don’t want to reheat the old cannade of snobbish anti-Americanism and anti-hard workism. But sex and dating in America (ok let’s say the urban hubs and elitist institutions of the East Coast) has long struck me as a slightly sinister mutation of these traits that does not make people- particularly women- all that happy.  Threaded through Taylor’s piece, as well as through the comments and discourse surrounding US internet dating, dating in general, and indeed the whole invention of “hookup culture”, is a sense that relationships=time; time=money; and since relationships ≠ money (at least in the first instance), then relationships should be cut out. The only time when relationships should not be cut out is when they equal money’s close sister in arms: status.

Otherwise, relationships out of the picture, we’re left with sex. What is sex? Certainly for the women of Penn, it is not – by and large – money. What is it then? Pleasure? If it’s always done wasted, then it’s hard to believe it confers too much of it. Status? Perhaps – if you sleep with a hot woman, or lots of them, your status as a man soars. But women do not generally experience the same for a mountain of hot conquests. One woman did say that a dreary sordid hookup brushed up and polished as a funny anecdote could be a social chess move. But really, the answer is to be found in history, between the 1920s and 1960s, when dating was literally seen as an economic exchange and a competition of ratings. You dated to rate (in popularity) – it had nothing to do with intimacy.  ”Without a steady [date]” writes historian Beth Bailey of the American 1950s high school system, “you couldn’t rate enough even to participate“. (1988: 54). Substitute the word “drunken hookup” in there and in my view you have the scenario at hand. It’s no coincidence that Bailey’s account of the pervasive economic aspect of dating centred is American – things looked different here, where there wasn’t much “dating” in the clear sense of the word, in the first place. Nowhere has feminism protest been more vehement than in America in the 1970s (aside from the vote-getters) but nowhere in the West have women been more restrained or sex more taboo than in America. No wonder, then, that there is now a brutality in the system- sex, used as a weapon against women even in 20th century America, has become a weapon they now want to wield too – for hookup culture is more like gender war than play, despite what the article’s title suggests.

Sex and romance are different in the UK – at least in the country’s answers to UPenn – not just because there are no  four-credit classes. Rather, there is whole different conception of time, as well as its link in the triangle of productivity and quality of life. Undergraduates here mostly loaf around and drink – at least, they make time to do that. In the US they can’t go for drinks until “senior year” so perhaps they have more time to work. But British undergrads are also doing other things; debating, running newspapers, doing sports, writing essays. But in a culture in which – until recently – being a student was basically an extended paid-for holiday for you to do what you wanted with, it’s no wonder people still think a little differently about the role of adult-style productivity in their undergraduate lives.

I admire American industriousness and creativity. But when I see how dating culture and intimate life is mediated through language of unkind, personhood-denying commerce, it makes me a bit sad for men as well as women (mostly for women). Economic metaphors have a lot to offer. But if you see “meaningful relationships” as a drain on resources above all, it doesn’t bode well for future romantic happiness (not, of course, the be-all and end-all). Certainly, if you have to run a cost-benefit analysis of getting into a relationship, then it really and truly is better to be single. At least the American girls at Penn have that much figured out.

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