Hookup relationships are like trying to sustain yourself on empty calories.
Kate Taylor's piece in the New York Times, "Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too", caused quite a stir when Taylor put a sexy new slant on hookup culture: That it's the women, not the men, who are driving the trend—which flies in the face of conventional wisdom: that it's the men who prefer casual sexual encounters to more serious relationships.
Taylor cites young coeds like the "slim, pretty junior" at University of Pennsylvania who, like many other of her cohorts, relies on booty calls to get her needs met. Not because courtship is dead, or because she can't find anyone, but because she doesn’t have time. She uses a rather chilling cost-benefit analysis and "low-risk and low-investment costs" approach to hooking up. She figures, in her estimation, that hooking up is just a smarter use of her time, so she can focus on what she’s there to do: Invest in her future, in her career. A husband and kids, she assumes, will come later.
So is it somehow better or okay if it’s women who would rather pluck the low-hanging fruit (so to speak)?
Nope. And the reason is simple: Hooking up cannot replace or come close to fulfilling the human need for real connection. It doesn't make us smarter, stronger or more in control to avoid connection and intimacy. It doesn't level the playing field in any real way. It purports that a woman must choose between meaningful relationships and meaningful work. This flawed belief doesn't set us up to be better or happier than the women who came before us. It just sets us up to be disappointed in a different way.
Am I implying that we need to scramble to find a life-long mate before graduating college? Hell no. I don't think a woman should even think of getting married until her career is well underway and she's had a few relationships behind her—enough to know what she wants and doesn't want. But while concentrating on earning a Mrs. degree is narrow-minded, the reverse is just as bad: to pretend that we don’t need any relationships at all—or, that when we do, we’ll know what we want when we decide we want one.
That's like saying a person can run a few sprints today and be able to run a marathon a year from now, no sweat. Or, perhaps more to the point, that she can sustain herself on bags of chips for the next 40 years. Snacks hold us over; meals nourish. A woman may have several great such meals over the course of her life. But to say she'll live on power bars and pass on dinner—forever—is to deny herself the very thing she's wired to do: Connect with another human in an intimate, real way. Hooking up as a long-term strategy, with zero connection or attachment, is like trying to sustain yourself on empty calories. That's a lifetime of hunger pangs.
But I Don’t Have Time
The good news is that young women are taking their opportunities and options seriously. The women Taylor describes are "hard-charging," ambitious. They simply don't have time for nonsense. Yet nonsense is simply what they're making time for.
One woman cited in the article said that she shifted her priorities from finding a boyfriend to finding a hookup buddy, which she described as "a guy that we don't actually really like his personality, but we think is really attractive and hot and good in bed.”
Um, I'd call that lowering the bar. Big time. You don’t like his personality? Yikes. If the only time you allow yourself to get close to or enjoy a man is five beers in on a night you don't plan to remember, with a man you wouldn’t even care to eat breakfast with, you’re wasting the little time you have.
Still other women were cited as saying things like: "A relationship is like taking a four-credit class," or "I could get in a relationship, or I could finish my film." To see a relationship as a time suck is to mistake the real investment—and it's not a temporal one, but an emotional one. When you see a relationship only as a liability, a distraction, and potential for hurt, well, why would anyone want that?
The cost-benefit analysis may seem to give you more time now, but there's a real reason people enter into relationships, and it's not because they want to spend all day making out. Because those bonds offer support, resilience—the very things a hard-charging woman needs.
Trust me—I fought this. Hard. I told my mother for years that I didn't want a man getting in my way, making me give up things I worked hard for. I was on the defensive, fearful of what a man would "cost" me. This was what feminism had taught me, after all (read: how it f*cked up my dating life).
She pleaded with me to see things differently: That the right partner wouldn't hold me back, but allow me to flourish. That having someone on my team mattered. I understand that now in a way I didn't then. (And I'll add that it's nice to be in a relationship with someone who likes cooking you dinner, because hard-chargers like myself often forget to eat.)
In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg disabuses us of the notion that you can't succeed and have a relationship. She writes, "I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully—and I mean fully—supportive of her career. No exceptions."
She adds: "And contrary to the popular notion that only unmarried women can make it to the top, the majority of the most successful female business leaders have partners. Of the twenty-eight women who have served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, twenty-six were married, one was divorced, and only one had never married."
But Hooking Up Is More Fun
Now, I have no qualms about sexual exploration when you're not in a formal relationship. I've done it myself, and I encourage it—because sex as dirty is Old Testament sh*t. It took me a long time to come to terms with that, and it wasn't until my 30s that I let myself off the leash a bit to explore no-strings sexual intimacy. A lot of it was fun; some of it wasn’t. But it revealed something about my own intentions that I’d done a good job of hiding.
I engaged in a brief fling with a man I met online: a handsome, put-together dude whom I thought could make a hookup buddy. It seemed like a hot thing to do, and I did it. The first time he left my apartment after having unabashedly wild sex on my sofa, I felt kind of meh. The experience was fun, but it didn't have any staying power. We hooked up again—and during the brief time we chatted before having at each other, he mentioned that he had started seeing someone new. And I was shocked by my response: I felt hurt. I realized he had no intention of taking me out to dinner. Hooking up, in this case, was a closed loop. Part of me secretly believed that he would come around because I was clearly so awesome, right? Wrong.
Let’s Drop the Act
I saw a chink in my tough-girl façade. And I see yours, too. The pseudo-feminist affect you use when you say you just want to get it on and then get on with your life without getting "too attached" isn't believable. It runs counter to your wiring. It's pretending you don't care so that you ward off the risk of getting hurt. Show me someone who's too busy to be loved, and I’ll show you someone who’s afraid of not being lovable.
Now, not everyone gets hitched forever and ever. I don't think everyone needs to or should be married, and I believe committed relationships can be negotiated in many ways. Hell, I'm not even married and have no plans to be. You’ll probably go through many phases. Perhaps a good few years of monogamy, followed by a few years of unattached fun—as well you should. But avoiding real intimacy and connection as a Life Strategy, and choosing people who even you think suck, just to get off? That's not a plan for getting ahead. That's a strategy for avoiding the greatest fear of all—fear of loss.
You want to call yourself a feminist? Conduct your life from a place of power. And that means being in control of your choices, but also being open to risk—the risk that comes with being emotionally vulnerable. Recognize that wanting to love someone doesn't make you deficient or weak, but it does mean being brave in the face of potential loss. Because no one can promise eternal love, or guarantee that you won't get hurt. A mature adult knows this full well and loves anyway. Avoiding any attachments to self-preserve is to operate from a place of fear—the opposite of power.
You don't learn what you don't do. So if you want a relationship, now or ultimately, you have to practice connecting with people, and that may mean having sex, but that also means sharing a meal, exploring other stuff together. You can't do that if you're running scared that you may get "attached." Someday you may run into a dude you knew in college who has matured nicely, but unless you've explored what you like in a relationship, your ability to connect will remain squarely undergrad.
Anyone can keep herself busy with something disposable. It takes a more empowered, confident woman to engage in something that's worth her time, and to put herself in the riskiest position of all—to have something she can’t bear to lose, even if, at some point, she must.
Terri Trespicio is a writer and lifestyle expert. Visit her at territrespicio.com or on Twitter @Territ. She lives in Manhattan.