I found last week’s “A Response to ‘Hook-up Culture’: The Conversation Continues” a challenging read. On the one hand, I agree with the author’s thesis that “the hook-up culture at our consortium and nationwide is fundamentally backward.” And yet something about the response left a bad taste in my mouth. Was it the heteronormativity? The broad, gendered assumptions that men actively pursue sex and that women passively accept advances? The casual mention of having to “justify a friendship with someone from the lower rungs of the social ladder,” as if such rhetoric isn’t depressingly immature?
As luck would have it, the author delivered his own critique when he stated that “the complaints directed at the hook-up culture only serve to sustain it.” He ironically failed to realize that his article was just that: a self-indulgent exercise in voicing his objections to the current culture.
The primary flaw in the piece is the author’s approach to the negative qualities of the hook-up culture as inherent to the system. He included a parenthetical note inviting readers to “question the paradigm I’ve set up here” (a paradigm in which “the girl who goes home with you… is usually going to feel the same lack of respect for herself”) but then emphatically insists that it’s not his fault—it’s just that “this is the dynamic that the hook-up culture endorses.” The choice of absolutist language privileges his narrative as dominant and excludes all other experiences, thus constructing the hook-up culture as intrinsically negative.
More importantly, the author raged against a broken system but then failed to offer an alternative model—understandably. It’s much easier to criticize than to conceive of a wholly new ideal. But in order to effect real change, we must offer feasible alternatives. As the author himself recognized, criticism without positive construction only perpetuates the culture.
I disagree with the author; I don’t believe that one-night stands are intrinsically bad or shameful. Instead, using Thomas Macaulay Millar’s essay “Towards a Performance Model of Sex” as a framework, I want to change the way we go about our casual sex experiences.
Millar identifies that a great deal of discourse on hetero-sex treats the act as if it were a commodity. You see it in our language: we don’t “make” sex, we “have” it. We lose our virginity, as if it’s an object that we’ve misplaced, and we tell our friends to “Get some!” Think I’m harping too much on language? In his article, the author of last week’s piece explained that “most guys go into these parties with a single-minded focus: they want to hook up with someone, preferably someone hot”—an assumption delineating sex as a commodity, a means to self-pleasure. Instead of reducing sex to the act of “getting it,” Millar advances a performative model of sex, in which sexual activity is about “making it” with a special someone. In this framework, you don’t seek the act, but you seek the person. Those involved in sexual activity are performing together, as if playing music.
In the commodity model, consent is constructed as the absence of “no,” as people look for the slightest affirmation in order to pursue sex for themselves. But in the performative model, consent is given at every moment as a joyous, enthusiastic yes. If a partner seems reserved and unsure, one doesn’t continue but stops and asks them about how they’re feeling. Pleasure is not selfish but an erotic collaboration, as your satisfaction is inherently dependent upon that of your partner.
So how does that translate into real world action? Here are some suggestions: men have the freedom to dance at parties. I’ve encountered that a lot of men think it’s okay to stand to the side until they see an unoccupied girl wiggling in front of them, and then they pounce. And they do this because they think they have no other choice—but they do.
People should verbally ask each other to dance. One might object that the music is too loud for such communication, but eye contact is a poor substitution for affirmation. Approach someone and ask. And when rejected, don’t take it personally; know your own worth and move on.
Again, notice that I referred to people; anyone can ask anyone to dance. We have to take this step forward and remove gendered behaviors. In this (non-heteronormative) model, we allow women to actively pursue their own interests instead of (in the words of last week’s author) “struggling to be liked by the guy.”
Further, we need to stop constructing 5C parties as solely a means for attaining sexual activity. To arrive with such a single-minded goal creates unfair pressures in a random and uncontrollable environment, and often the failure to succeed is manifested as a reflection of oneself as unattractive. But celebrating friendship and dancing and listening to good music and enjoying good times establishes healthy and fulfilling social interaction.
Most of all, we must strive to overcome our selfishness and use sex as a means of an intimate and meaningful connection with another person. Keep in mind that my use of the word “meaningful” doesn’t preclude one-night stands. What’s important to remember is that sex is ideally a celebration of two people coming together in mutual pleasure. To render it a selfish act is to deny the self. We must strive not to seek mere sex but rather sex with a person who is just as engaged as we are.
It’s not easy. Inebriation makes our lips tingle and our bodies yearn for one another. But it was Aristotle himself who identified that our human weakness of will is itself a type of evil. Even if we’re really horny and really want to “get laid,” to act as if we have no control over our desires is to deny our own agency.
I used to say yes to everything. Yeah, I’ll get drunk tonight; yeah, I’ll make out with him; yes, yes, yes. It felt so affirmative and freeing, as opposed to “no,” a destructive, negating response. But what I now understand is that by exercising “no,” we affirm and sanctify the “yes.” And when we do choose to sexually interact with another, whether it’s someone we just met or a long-time friend, we do so to give. And by giving together we transform sex into much more than just carnal pleasure. Maybe then we won’t have to avert our eyes at brunch but shoot a casual smile, the meaning of which only the two (or three or four…) of you could possibly know.