Not just a phase

The redefining of dating and hook-up customs stretches beyond college.

Bronwyn Miller

“The characters on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘Sex and the City’ are not real. In real life, Meredith and Carrie would have warts or herpes. They’d likely be on Prozac or Zoloft.”

Those were the first words I read out of “Sense & Sexuality: The College Girl’s Guide to Real Protection in a Hooked-up World” during the summer before my freshman year; I quickly deemed that pamphlet the worst graduation present ever. What better way to enter college than with the stinging reminder that as a female, I should shun my sexuality so as not to damn myself to an inevitable life of STDs and depression? 

However, four years later, the message has changed. Just in time for school, Hanna Rosin published “Boys on the Side” in the September issue of The Atlantic. Her take? Not only is feminist progress dependent on today’s hook-up culture, but women are taking the reins, “manipulating [the interactions] to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.”

At first, her words feel like cause for celebration. To not be spoken about as a victim is a triumph in its own right, a breath of fresh air from the age-old discussion of the dangers of casual sex for females. “Girls can’t be guys in matters of the heart, even though they think they can,” Laura Sessions Stepp warned in her 2007 book. Rosin’s acknowledgment that many women actually can thrive as active participants in their own sex lives is welcomed.

But her main points fail to impress. Though she claims to be addressing what college students today are “really” up to, Rosin misses what makes the current college hookup climate unique. Caught in her desire to make sweeping statements about female sexual adventurism, Rosin fails to see the full story, even when one of her interviewees spells it out. Tali, when asked what she “really wants,” echoed what I’ve heard from many of my friends: “Some guy to ask me on a date to the frozen yogurt place.”

Rosin writes Tali’s answer off as “soda-fountain nostalgia” and quickly notes that asking Tali and her friends if they wanted the hook-up culture to completely go away resulted in “a look of horror.” But Rosin is forcing female romantic desires into a dichotomy, implying that women, even on a population level, are not allowed to want both the right to casual sex and the desire to be asked on a date.

Moreover, Rosin’s description of the hookup culture as exclusive to college, “like an island [we] visit,” fails to recognize the shift in society as a whole. Graduation day will not magically transform our romantic interactions. The truth is that the “norms” of dating have changed, within college and beyond, and students are not the only ones struggling to navigate this shift. Blame Facebook, texting and the Tucker Max-fueled rise of the everlasting frat boy, among others. Rosin talks about this transformation like we can just return from some four-year vacation and immediately thrive in the traditional dating structure — which no longer exists. If our experience with the opposite sex primarily comes down to after-midnight text messages for four years, where do we go from there?

Rosin misses the point. She highlights an equalized playing field, stating “66 percent of women say they wanted their most recent hookup to turn into something more, but 58 percent of men say the same.” In her opinion, these numbers do not merit “the cultural panic about the demise of chivalry and its consequences for women.” But these close numbers are hardly a victory; rather, the collectively high percentages illustrate that males and females often feel unfulfilled by the way hook-up culture has evolved.