"I can't kiss you now," he said after coming in my mouth. “I think I’m going to go smoke… what are you going to do now?” As if it should have been obvious that nothing else was going to happen in that bedroom. I put on my clothes and left.
That night I felt a complicated type of pain. It hurt not just because I felt disrespected (that wasn’t the first or last time), but because I’d blatantly disrespected myself.
It was a practiced and familiar disrespect: a coping mechanism for nights like that one, which epitomized my sex life during freshman year. But why was I so willing to trade self-respect for the opportunity to give head? Why the blurry nights full of unreciprocated oral sex, a weird tightness in my chest that made me irrationally angry at the Shove Chapel bells as I walked home in the morning?
It’s because I’m obsessed with myself. Or at least trying to be. What I desperately craved was a level of self-tolerance that would allow me to walk into Rastall brunch without wanting to crawl under a table and hide. What I got instead were some hickies and an addiction to the momentary feeling of being “chosen.” If anything, my behavior only exacerbated the insecurities that had pushed me towards these hookups in the first place. For a while I blamed bad luck and bad genes, but the more cycles of regret and repetition I went through, the more I understood that other forces were at play. Last summer I stumbled upon the research of sociologist Lisa Wade and saw myself reflected in the pages of her book, “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.” She describes the complicated reality of what we call “hookup culture,” a culture I’d imagined was full of wild meaningless sex with strangers—the embodiment of the ultimate freedom promised by the college experience. But the hookup culture I encountered wasn’t really about sex. And it was quite meaningful, just not in the ways it should be.
Hookups have become less about sex (college students today are actually having less sex than their parent’s generation) and more about building a sort of sexual resume. Wade argues that to hook up (which can mean anything ranging from a kiss to anal sex) is to be rewarded for one’s sexual prowess. Orgasms, specifically the male orgasm, are a social currency used to achieve inclusion and status within one’s own social groups. I gave blowjobs not because I cared about the guy’s pleasure but because I wanted to be the source of that pleasure—the object of his desire. My own sexual pleasure was secondary. When choosing a hookup partner, I was asking “who will find me attractive?” rather than “who am I attracted to?”
My experience isn’t an isolated case. Women who participated in Wade’s study explained that they defined hookups as successful when they were able to provide orgasms for their male partners. Not wanting to burden anyone with demands of reciprocity, many women focus on appearing sexy rather than on their personal sexual pleasure.
That’s because being sexy is powerful. Wade argues that hookups are not only a reprieve from the fear of being unsexy, but also a reprieve from feeling powerless. But they are only a reprieve. Waking up naked on a frat house couch and crying on the bathroom floor isn’t empowering—it’s crippling. And it feels just as shitty (or even shittier) not to be chosen as it does to be chosen and used. Interactions after hookups further minimize any loss of power. We tend to avoid showing anything like vulnerability, affection and kindness, because this may be misinterpreted as attachment, which in the world of hookups is synonymous with weakness.
Of course, these dynamics have a gendered aspect to them as well. Blowjobs—especially those that end in acting cold and indifferent—become a way for men to hook up with women that are “less desirable” according to the sexual market place (i.e., those who have “gotten around” or lack the approval of other men) but still “get laid” and maintain power. As one respondent in Wade’s study explained, the sentiment is essentially, “Yeah, I hooked up with someone you don’t respect, but I didn’t respect her either.” It’s a way for men to signal their understanding of the social rules of sex.
According to Wade, men are interested in the orgasms of women they care about. They just don’t happen to care about many of the women they hook up with, and don’t want to mistakenly imply such feelings by going down on their partner.
It’s possible to find pleasure, intimacy, and sexual discovery in the current hookup culture, but these are lucky byproducts, often obscured by the search for approval. Most of us who participate in hookup culture aren’t trying to be mean or disrespectful. But the desire to have positive images of ourselves is so strong that we are willing to give up intimacy in order to feel validated. Of course we all want to hate ourselves a little less—it’s a noble aspiration, and one that might be achieved if we realized that genuinely valuing the people we hook up with is a better way to figure out how to like ourselves. Sex can be both casual and respectful, and perhaps that would even make it more fun. Because at the end of the day, no one gives a fuck about who you fucked or how. But you giving a fuck about their perceived “fucks” is ruining the actual fucking, which should be the whole fucking point.
Part of the Four Letter Word issue