Commentary Sexuality

Hookup Panic: No, Casual Sex Does Not Lead to Rape

Molly Jane Knefel

Antiquated ideas about women's sexuality are extremely damaging. But it is even more damaging to act as if sexual assault and rape are the price women pay for independence and sexual freedom.

“Hookup culture” is an umbrella term—a vague collection of behaviors associated with today’s young people and how they choose to approach sex, romance, relationships, and social life. Thus, “hookup panic” is an equally vague collection of anxieties about said mysterious young people. The confused, moralistic judgement around hookup panic is on full display in a recent New York Times Style column called “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” by Kate Taylor. Taylor sets out to explore women’s role in “propelling” hookup culture, telling the stories of college students who are too busy for relationships or focused on careers, and countering them with the usual concerns—What about marriage? Babies? Romantic fulfillment?—that so often accompany narratives of independent women. But the piece also conflates sexual assault and rape with hookup culture, suggesting that the culture itself creates, or contributes to, men’s disregard for obtaining consent.

The Times piece buys into one of the fundamental concepts of “hookup culture,” the assumption that, as Taylor writes, “traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline, replaced by ‘hooking up’ — an ambiguous term that can signify anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse — without the emotional entanglement of a relationship.”

A number of feminist writers have scrutinized hookup panic. It’s important to push back against the idea that hooking up has completely obliterated college relationships, as well as the assumption contained within such alarm that college relationships of the past always lead to fulfilling, romantic, baby-filled marriages. Hookup panic is deeply paternalistic, its fundamental premise that if girls are in fact leading relatively independent sexual, social, and academic lives, they must be mistaken somehow, that their misguided freedom will lead them toward being old and lonely (or young and lonely).

But an even more sinister paternalism is contained within the Times‘ portrayal of hookup culture: the idea that because young women feel free to engage in sexual interactions without the formalities of a relationship, they are subjecting themselves to sexual assault.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Taylor describes a student at the University of Pennsylvania who attended a party with a boy: “She had too much to drink, and she remembered telling him that she wanted to go home.” The boy took her to his room and raped her—he had intercourse with her despite her drifting in and out of consciousness. Taylor writes that the girl described it as a “funny story” to her friends, but “only later … [began] to think of what had happened as rape.” The piece then devotes eight paragraphs to the idea that the “close relationship between hooking up and drinking leads to confusion and disagreement about the line between a ‘bad hookup’ and assault,” citing a study of two large universities in which 14 percent of the women had experienced sexual assault, and half of those assaults involved drugs or alcohol. Another Penn student quoted in the story describes a boy who physically coerced her into performing oral sex. The next paragraph transitions to discussing women’s sexual pleasure in hookups, compared to relationships.

To include sexual pleasure in a section of the piece otherwise devoted to issues of consent is problematic and dangerous. The transition from quoting two college students describing non-consensual sex to quoting a sociologist who argues, “Guys don’t seem to care as much about women’s pleasure in the hookup, whereas they do seem to care quite a bit in the relationships,” suggests that consent is merely an aspect of female sexual pleasure, rather than a necessity. Forced sexual contact has nothing to  with how women “fare” sexually. Having described an account of forced oral sex only four short paragraphs earlier, Taylor writes, “In hookups, women were much more likely to give men oral sex than to receive it.” Such framing undercuts the gravity of the boy’s actions, reframing a sexual assault as just an act of selfishness in a mutually consensual interaction.

Similarly, to cite studies about drinking and sexual assault, focusing on the girls’ narratives without mentioning the agency of the boys, is to conflate a girl’s drinking with a boy’s disregard for consent. The obligation to obtain consent has nothing to do with the social context of the interaction. By the time Taylor mentions sexual assault, she has devoted considerable space to Susan Patton, aka “Princeton Mom,” who laments “vitriolic messages from extreme feminists” that supposedly discourage women from wanting marriage and families. The primary concerns of the piece in the first three sections (“An Economic Calculation,” “Independent Women,” and “Adapt, Have Fun”) revolve around ambitious students who aren’t interested in serious relationships, who prioritize their studies and their futures, and who have adjusted their romantic expectations since arriving at college. Given these narratives, hedged by Patton’s moralistic judgement, the prominence of sexual assault on college campuses is presented as an aspect of hookup culture—inextricably linked to women’s sexual liberation and independence. It is as if rape and sexual assault were not a problem for women before they were free to prioritize their own lives over relationships—as if women’s satisfaction with non-committal sexual relationships has lead directly to men’s predatory behavior.

This ahistorical logic places blame on women’s independence, rather than on men. As feminists like Zerlina Maxwell have argued, fighting rape culture depends on holding boys and men accountable for their behavior and teaching them to value affirmative consent. It is also ahistorical to suggest that it is a new hookup culture that leads men to disregard women’s pleasure, as if male-oriented values, images, and behavior haven’t been historically dominant in American life. Taylor writes:

Part of the reason men aren’t as focused on pleasing women in hookups, Dr. England said, is the lingering sexual double standard, which sometimes causes men to disrespect women precisely for hooking up with them.

Disrespect for female sexuality did not originate with hooking up—in fact, it is a cultural, deeply powerful disrespect for female sexuality that leads to such anxiety about hookup culture.

It is quite possible to interrogate how drinking complicates men’s and women’s communication of consent without blaming women for rape or negative consensual sexual experiences. But the importance of affirmative consent—not merely teaching boys to hear the word “no,” but to actively seek the word “yes”—must be isolated from the moralistic judgement that surrounds hookup panic. Casual sex does not lead to rape. Having multiple partners does not lead to rape. Focusing on schoolwork or career goals rather than relationships does not lead to rape. Writers can devote as many words as they like to worrying about such behaviors, and Susan Patton can continue to tell women that their new-found liberation (a premise which, as presented, is also worthy of interrogation) will leave them alone and undesirable. Such antiquated ideas are extremely damaging. But it is even more damaging to act as if sexual assault and rape are the price women pay for independence and sexual freedom.

Commentary Politics

No, Republicans, Porn Is Still Not a Public Health Crisis

Martha Kempner

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography.

The news of the last few weeks has been full of public health crises—gun violence, the Zika virus, and the rise of syphilis, to name a few—and yet, on Monday, Republicans focused on the perceived dangers of pornography. Without much debate, a subcommittee of Republican delegates agreed to add to a draft of the party’s 2016 platform an amendment declaring pornography is endangering our children and destroying lives. As Rewire argued when Utah passed a resolution with similar language, pornography is neither dangerous nor a public health crisis.

According to CNN, the amendment to the platform reads:

The internet must not become a safe haven for predators. Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life [sic] of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and well-being. We applaud the social networking sites that bar sex offenders from participation. We urge energetic prosecution of child pornography which [is] closely linked to human trafficking.

Mary Frances Forrester, a delegate from North Carolina, told Yahoo News in an interview that she had worked with conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America (CWA) on the amendment’s language. On its website, CWA explains that its mission is “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens—first through prayer, then education, and finally by influencing our society—thereby reversing the decline in moral values in our nation.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The amendment does not elaborate on the ways in which this internet monster is supposedly harmful to children. Forrester, however, told Yahoo News that she worries that pornography is addictive: “It’s such an insidious epidemic and there are no rules for our children. It seems … [young people] do not have the discernment and so they become addicted before they have the maturity to understand the consequences.”

“Biological” porn addiction was one of the 18 “points of fact” that were included in a Utah Senate resolution that was ultimately signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in April. As Rewire explained when the resolution first passed out of committee in February, none of these “facts” are supported by scientific research.

The myth of porn addiction typically suggests that young people who view pornography and enjoy it will be hard-wired to need more and more pornography, in much the same way that a drug addict needs their next fix. The myth goes on to allege that porn addicts will not just need more porn but will need more explicit or violent porn in order to get off. This will prevent them from having healthy sexual relationships in real life, and might even lead them to become sexually violent as well.

This is a scary story, for sure, but it is not supported by research. Yes, porn does activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that are activated by, for example, cocaine or heroin. But as Nicole Prause, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Rewire back in February, so does looking at pictures of “chocolate, cheese, or puppies playing.” Prause went on to explain: “Sex film viewing does not lead to loss of control, erectile dysfunction, enhanced cue (sex image) reactivity, or withdrawal.” Without these symptoms, she said, we can assume “sex films are not addicting.”

Though the GOP’s draft platform amendment is far less explicit about why porn is harmful than Utah’s resolution, the Republicans on the subcommittee clearly want to evoke fears of child pornography, sexual predators, and trafficking. It is as though they want us to believe that pornography on the internet is the exclusive domain of those wishing to molest or exploit our children.

Child pornography is certainly an issue, as are sexual predators and human trafficking. But conflating all those problems and treating all porn as if it worsens them across the board does nothing to solve them, and diverts attention from actual potential solutions.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist, told Rewire in a recent email that the majority of porn on the internet depicts adults. Equating all internet porn with child pornography and molestation is dangerous, Ley wrote, not just because it vilifies a perfectly healthy sexual behavior but because it takes focus away from the real dangers to children: “The modern dialogue about child porn is just a version of the stranger danger stories of men in trenchcoats in alleys—it tells kids to fear the unknown, the stranger, when in fact, 90 percent of sexual abuse of children occurs at hands of people known to the victim—relatives, wrestling coaches, teachers, pastors, and priests.” He added: “By blaming porn, they put the problem external, when in fact, it is something internal which we need to address.”

The Republican platform amendment, by using words like “public health crisis,” “public menace” “predators” and “destroying the life,” seems designed to make us afraid, but it does nothing to actually make us safer.

If Republicans were truly interested in making us safer and healthier, they could focus on real public health crises like the rise of STIs; the imminent threat of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea; the looming risk of the Zika virus; and, of course, the ever-present hazards of gun violence. But the GOP does not seem interested in solving real problems—it spearheaded the prohibition against research into gun violence that continues today, it has cut funding for the public health infrastructure to prevent and treat STIs, and it is working to cut Title X contraception funding despite the emergence of Zika, which can be sexually transmitted and causes birth defects that can only be prevented by preventing pregnancy.

This amendment is not about public health; it is about imposing conservative values on our sexual behavior, relationships, and gender expression. This is evident in other elements of the draft platform, which uphold that marriage is between a man and a women; ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its ruling affirming the right to same-sex marriage; declare dangerous the Obama administration’s rule that schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room of their gender identity; and support conversion therapy, a highly criticized practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation and has been deemed ineffective and harmful by the American Psychological Association.

Americans like porn. Happy, well-adjusted adults like porn. Republicans like porn. In 2015, there were 21.2 billion visits to the popular website PornHub. The site’s analytics suggest that visitors around the world spent a total of 4,392,486,580 hours watching the site’s adult entertainment. Remember, this is only one way that web users access internet porn—so it doesn’t capture all of the visits or hours spent on what may have trumped baseball as America’s favorite pastime.

As Rewire covered in February, porn is not a perfect art form for many reasons; it is not, however, an epidemic. And Concerned Women for America, Mary Frances Forrester, and the Republican subcommittee may not like how often Americans turn on their laptops and stick their hands down their pants, but that doesn’t make it a public health crisis.

Party platforms are often eclipsed by the rest of what happens at the convention, which will take place next week. Given the spectacle that a convention headlined by presumptive nominee (and seasoned reality television star) Donald Trump is bound to be, this amendment may not be discussed after next week. But that doesn’t mean that it is unimportant or will not have an effect on Republican lawmakers. Attempts to codify strict sexual mores are a dangerous part of our history—Anthony Comstock’s crusade against pornography ultimately extended to laws that made contraception illegal—that we cannot afford to repeat.

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.