Sunday, January 27, 2013

Where Is The Love in Hookups?

One story that I'm writing is about a woman in her 20's who would like to find a boyfriend and every time I use the word "date" within the story I know I'm, well, dating myself.

Because people in their 20's don't date.

I know this because I have kids in their 20's and I've yet to witness them borrowing a car, using their own or getting picked up for a one-on-one, honest-to-goodness, dinner-and-a-movie kind of date. Ever.

They do sometimes end up with a boyfriend or girlfriend anyway. They meet when hanging out together with friends, or at school, and then they hang out some more, either with friends or at home with family. My daughter who is 25 does go out to dinner with her long-time boyfriend alone at least once a month. Another dozen times or so, they go out with friends. That's as good as it gets.

In a New York Times Style section feature entitled "The End of Courtship?" this month they make note that on "The Girls" on HBO, one of the main characters asks the guy she's sleeping with whether being a "main hang" was the same as dating.

Probably not, but I understand the confusion. If they've never really witnessed real dating, how can they see what they're doing in comparison?

There I go again, using the phrase "real dating" like it's superior. In a conversation with one of my sons a couple of weeks ago he told me how much better he thought things were now. With texting you could be flirty (not the word he'd choose) and casual at the same time, and keep things low-key.

In other words, there's no real gain, but there's no pain either. No one is risking real rejection because nothing real is ever offered. The Times article refers to this as "putting a line in the water and hoping for a nibble."

Way back when, I explained to my son, spending time alone with one other person was important. Relationships were important. Love was important. His face nearly split in half from the agony of even listening to such words.

His take: with no desire to marry before his thirties, what is the need for such things now?

This seems to be the prevailing mindset of guys (doesn't "men" seem not quite to fit?) in their twenties especially, who are so averse to being seen as potentially "serious" about a girl that they will risk never seeing someone again over being seen by her as a potential mate.

I asked how he expected to be in any emotional shape at all to marry in his thirties if he hadn't spent his twenties learning all the intricacies of intimate relationships. Outside of the bedroom. And here's where we got to the heart of the matter.

Despite its risks, casual sex, always an option for men and now for women too, is now the default relationship option for young adults in the form of hookups, with the main alternative hanging out in large groups, drinking. Not that they all have hookups. The average number during college for a graduating senior is 7. For people in their 20's, about 7 a year. Along with a handful of online dating efforts, most of which involve meeting for coffee or a drink, it can be years between dinner-dates.

Most of that time they're alone.

The alternatives of "dating," casually without the option of sex, or of being in a long-term relationship, are both relatively uncommon. Both my daughters have tried, and one has a great and devoted boyfriend. Neither of my sons sees the point. None have friends who were engaged or married until this past year, when there were a total of two.

The hook-up culture in colleges, fueled by texting, has left a generation or two of young people  who have started interactions with people they are attracted to first with Facebook stalking, then a text about meeting up at a party, then with alcohol, and then with sex (all possibly within a few hours or days), without a logical next step.
"Many students today have never been on a traditional date, says Donna Freitas, who has taught religion and gender studies at Boston University and Hofstra and is the author of the forthcoming book, "The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy." (NYT 1/13/13)
Just like texting are a feels-real substitute for real human communication, hookups are a feels-real substitute for real human relationships, and the pleasures they contain can be just as addictive. Why put yourself through all the trouble and awkwardness of getting to know a whole person if you can just fast-forward to the sex and be done with it?

Well, because as Freitas point out, following this pattern a dozen or a hundred times can leave you unhappy, sexually unfulfilled and confused about intimacy.

Especially the difference between physical and emotional intimacy, and between sharing parts of yourself with different friends, and sharing the whole of yourself with one person.

In an essay on the delights of discovering, late in one's twenties, how nice it is for someone to put effort into spending time with you Tracy Clark-Flory's "Who needs casual sex!" says she got her first flowers. But she still defends hookup culture as a right of every willing participant, but also finds it a rite of passage she's outgrowing. Describing her first "date" after years of hookups that sometimes led to longer relationships but mostly didn't, she was freaked out beforehand.

The stakes were higher.

In the end the payoff might be too, not only with a more satisfying relationship than one that starts with sex and attempts to go backwards to "Wanna see a movie?" but also, ironically, better sex.

For women, hookup sex isn't that great. In a study of 13,000 women hooking up in college, they only had an orgasm 11% of the time, compared to 95% of the men involved. This number, for women, rises to 67% in long-term relationship sexual encounters. The difference? Care and affection from a partner and good sexual technique tailored to the individual sexual needs of the woman, all much less likely in a hookup. A common male attitude towards whether a woman has an orgasm during a first-time hookup? "I don't really care."

How do you get from there to the epic sacrifices and pleasures of real love?

How do you get to even the ordinary satisfactions and complexities of two people loving each other enough to marry and pledge themselves to each other's well-being for the rest of their lives, along with that of any children who follow.

How do you get there even by your 30's?

Even though they're doing adult-looking things and growing up during wartime, my kids' path to real adult lives and responsibilities seems to be longer and in slower motion than any generation before them.

With a lot of dead ends.

Love, Lisa



  1. I fear I am setting my daughters up for a let down when we teach them what they should expect in dating. My husband takes them out on mini dates and treats them with a special evening. But if this is the future, then maybe I should be preparing them for a lonely road ahead if they plan to retain their dignity and conscience.

    Something that I have started doing is teaching them to find the things they do everyday that brings them joy. The things that define them as a person. I encourage them to grab hold of those things, because it's looking like that might be all they have in this life. I look at my loving marriage and family, and hurt for my children if this option is going away for them. How sad.

  2. Sometimes I think it's the "meeting new people" part that's the main problem. When my kids have dated friends, those relationships seem respectful and loving from the start. They may still hang out with friends, or at each other's houses (rather than have a formal date), but the race to physical contact seems less extreme.

    But meeting guys at parties? Bars? Giving out numbers? Texting back and forth? Maybe in the moment it seems cool, but longer term I think it perpetuates the culture of all girls as being available. Then guys want to keep their options open due to Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). That's apparently a new kind of phobia. So they won't commit to a weekend plan until they hear all possible options.

    I think it is a very confusing time for girls, and it can be lonely if they resist anything they feel is degrading even if everyone else is doing it and calling it fun.

    Step one, I think, is not to text a boy back, other than to say "Call me." You shouldn't start out as one of five people he's alternating talking to with his thumbs, because your importance may just go down from there.