The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Hookup Hangups

Posted by Mel Campbell on August 4, 2008

I’m not sure if Australians really use ‘hooking up’ as a catchall term for casual sexual activity (except deliberately, where a tone of yearning-for-Brooklyn coolsiness is called for) – among friends I’m more likely to discuss “disco pashes”, “picking up” or even “wearing the white shorts”. Nonetheless, it’s a deliberately vague term that encompasses everything from making out at parties to one-night stands, friends-with-benefits or even fleeting relationships.

However, that vagueness often seems to escape media commentators, who draw up a dialectic of Gen-Y sexuality that’s pithily summarised by Salon‘s Tracy Clark-Florey:

…increasingly, young women are being told they are either respecting or exploiting themselves; they’re either with the “Girls Gone Wild,” sex blogger set or with the iron-belted and chaste.

Tracy begs to differ:

Choose a side? No thanks. I’m a 24-year-old member of the hookup generation — I’ve had roughly three times as many hookups as relationships — and, like innumerable 20-somethings before me, I’ve found that casual sex can be healthy and normal and lead to better adult relationships. I don’t exactly advocate picking up guys at frat parties and screwing atop the keg as the path to marital bliss. It’s just that hookup culture is not the radical extreme it is so frequently mischaracterized as in the media.

Tracy goes on to argue that hooking up can help you work out what you want out of a relationship and that abstinence doesn’t necessarily protect you from heartbreak. Most compellingly, I think, she writes that it’s more of a feminist act to refuse the patriarchal commodification of sex by ‘giving it up’ rather than ‘buying’ status or marriage with it. “It isn’t that feminism has taught women to have sex like men, as the argument commonly goes, but that withholding sex isn’t women’s sole superpower,” Tracy insists.

Still, I am still troubled by the way that Tracy uses her own sexual history to advance her arguments. Yeah, yeah, the personal is political, but when does it become ‘oversharing’ and ‘titillation’? It troubles me in general that personal narratives are such a first resort for women writers – for a start, it leaves you open to ad feminem attacks from critics when they should be attacking your ideas.

Some people commented on the Salon story that they were disturbed at the slippery slope between casualness and meaninglessness. Does it erode the intimacy of sex, the ability to ‘be yourself’, so that we’re forced to strike our party poses and wear our social masks in bed as well? Are we treating our partners like commodities to be discarded when we’re tired of them?

I don’t have any easy answers to these questions, but I don’t think ‘casual’ needs to be synonymous with ‘careless’. I don’t think Tracy really nailed (pardon my pun) the strategic vagueness in the term ‘hooking up’. Not everyone wants to live their sex lives in public: it’s preferable to say, “Yeah, we hooked up”. Perhaps it’s the conceptual elasticity of ‘hooking up’ that prevents people from getting bogged down in anxiety and guilt over who and what they should be doing. You go crazy if you think about these things too much.

One Response to “Hookup Hangups”

  1. Great post, Mel. I think my hardest struggle when attempting to come to terms with my own very mixed up ideas about my sex life and sexuality, particularly in my early twenties, was the difference you pointed out between casual and careless.

    I don’t think I was very confident in my own ability to judge what I wanted a sexual encounter for. I didn’t know if I was buying into the idea of ‘casual’ sex as a version of raunch culture (proving to myself I was a liberated woman by simulating not caring about anything beyond the sexual act), or buying into the madonna/whore issue (worrying about my own self respect or the respect and reputation from others) by not allowing myself ‘casual’ sex. I was worried that casual and careless were on in the same. I didn’t want to have careless sex.

    I really didn’t have a clear sense of my own moral compass… perhaps moral isn’t the right word… I suppose I wasn’t sure where my own comfort level was in sexual experiences that weren’t within a relationship. I think I was very hard on myself, or perhaps overthought the issue. I just didn’t know what was respecting myself and what was participating in a sexual experience because I felt I could/should/would because of my own preconceptions or what a sexual partner wanted from me.

    Did that make any sense?

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