Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 12, 2024

Is the "hoe phase" really empowering?

The gender disparity of heteronormative hookup culture

By VAN TO | October 16, 2021



To analyzes the ins and outs of hookup culture on college campuses, questioning whether casual sex really empowers women. 

There is nothing wrong with a woman wanting casual sex. There is nothing wrong with a woman wanting something more than casual sex. The game itself is what’s wrong. 

Hookup culture has become increasingly prevalent among American youth, dominating college campuses as the default mode of sexual interactions. Hookup culture became more popular with the rise of individualistic attitudes, as “hooking up,” a purposefully vague word with no single uniform definition, implies the ability to undergo sexual relations without the expectation of commitment or emotional attachment.

With the idea of being tied down as something to avoid, hookup culture allows college students to engage in sexual activity without feeling like they have to compromise their freedom or autonomy. For many women who have traditionally been pressured to choose between a relationship and a career, the freedom of hookup culture is often interpreted as an outlet for women to be as sexually free as men, who are perceived as able to engage in sexual activity without consequence. 

As a senior at Hopkins, I have come across many stories of feminine-presenting people who have been negatively affected by the prominent heteronormative hookup culture on campus. Although this culture is driven by feminist intentions to empower and sexually liberate women, it is not as fulfilling or feminist as many would believe and may lead to negative outcomes for individuals’ mental health and psychological well-being. 

Research on hookup culture and young women’s psychological well-being has been relatively inconsistent in determining causal effects; studies have shown consequences for women and an association between diminished mental health and casual sex that unveil the problematic nature of hookup culture. Students must recognize the pitfalls of hookup culture when considering participating in it because they should be aware of the dangerous consequences of ending up in an uncomfortable situation. 

Additionally, postmodern feminism has already recognized that allowing women to act like men is not the route to empowerment and equality. Women may seek empowerment through the sexual gratification of hookup culture, but many often walk away from a hookup feeling the opposite. 

Women tend to experience more sexual regret than men after a hookup, while men are more likely to feel satisfied. Despite an increasing, conscious effort to subvert sexual double standards, women still deal with stigma and judgement for their hookup activity as they are more likely to express concerns of damage to their reputation after casual sex. 

This is a consequence that men do not have to worry about. In fact, hookups for men are often associated with positive outcomes, like boosted self-esteem and masculinity. A woman’s experience of regret is often characterized by shame or the feeling of being used, while men are more likely to feel regret over the selection of a partner and the partner’s unattractiveness. As women experience internal turmoil following casual sex, men’s sexual regret is based on their choice of women. This reveals how hookup culture for straight men is appearance-driven — like scrolling through a catalog of options with hopes of picking something pretty enough. 

This kind of behavior is especially rampant in the basements of fraternity houses at Hopkins, as the goal of many frat parties is to host as many women as possible while limiting the number of men present. This effectively allows the brothers of an organization to have more options and be more selective when choosing a sexual partner. This behavior not only cultivates a predatory environment, but it also gives an incongruent amount of power to the men who choose to participate in our campus’s hookup culture. 

Once a freshman who participated in these events, I remember a permeating desire among myself and my feminine-presenting friends to be chosen, to be paid attention to, to be wanted. This experience is corroborated by the fact that women are well aware that they are often heavily evaluated in terms of sexual worth. This dynamic encourages many women to obtain sexual validation through hooking up, which reinforces their own self-objectification. The perpetuation of objectifying women reveals the patriarchal nature of hookup culture that stifles the ability of women to assess themselves beyond just how they look and are perceived by men. 

Given the historical context of exoticization and hyperobjectification of Black, Latina and Asian women, the objectification of women disproportionately affects women of color and may cause them to be more susceptible to fetishization and sexual violence. Furthermore, the overemphasis of looks subject women of color to be marginalized in social spaces. Because Eurocentric beauty standards prevail at predominantly white institutions, women of color are often excluded from consideration within the interactions of hookup culture. 

Although encouragement of casual sexual activity for women has become more popular, many women in college still seek more than just casual sex. A survey conducted by the Institute for American Values (IAV) in 2001 found that 63% of young women hoped to meet their future spouse in college, and 83% of women saw marriage as an important goal. However, with hookup culture as the norm for college-aged adults, opportunities to create interpersonal relationships become more scarce, and many women feel pressured to participate in hookups.

In addition, women are also under the pressure of following the trail of the feminist movement, feeling like they must be able to pursue emotionally unattached sex to truly be feminist. These pressures lead to feelings of guilt when women catch unreciprocated feelings for a hookup partner, as they commonly suppress those feelings or blame themselves for violating the expectation of freedom from emotional intimacy. 

When women do reveal that they want more than sex, the expectations of hookup culture work against them to reinforce patriarchal stereotypes of women being inherently unable to remain unattached or unemotional, even though wanting interpersonal connections isn’t bad (or abnormal).

Furthermore, hookup culture has no universally set guidelines or rules to follow. The term “hook up” is intentionally avague to promote freedom and discourage labels. The ambiguity allows for a lack of communication on both ends in terms of expectations, and the ambiguous context of hooking up results in neglected romantic expectations, sexual confusion, emotional vulnerability, regret and self-blame. The IAV study also found that the decision for a casual relationship to turn into a committed relationship was up to the male partner, showing that hookup culture allows men to make choices while providing few options for women. This is yet another example of hookup culture lending more power to men than it does women.

In conclusion, there is an outstanding difference in women’s experiences with hookup culture compared to men’s. It is a reality that does not meet feminist expectations of female empowerment and sexual liberation. Instead, these expectations are met with concerning reports of negative experiences and remorse.

Therefore, we should promote having conversations about intentions: how far either party wants to go in the “hookup” and expectations for how each party wants to be treated. Communication is an initial step to getting to a place in which women can have their cake and eat it too, but there is still much to tackle in addressing the consequences of the overarching game: the institution of patriarchal heteronormative hookup culture.

Van To is a senior from Northern Virginia studying English and Public Health. She is a writer for the NOON magazine.

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