At Middlebury College, I lived a double life.
On the surface, I was successful. I was surrounded by diverse, intellectual friends. I led a popular student website and was active in the arts and athletics. I loved learning and made Phi Beta Kappa my junior year. I’m also a white, straight, cisgendered female. If you’re thinking, “Please. Your privileged ass has nothing to complain about,” you’re right.
But my internal life was characterized by paralyzing anxiety and depression. I judged myself harshly, to the point of disgust. I drove myself to excessive exercising and near-anorexia. I felt this way because of men—or so I thought.
While there was a major gulf between my public self and my private one, the one thing that remained consistent were my politics. I told myself that I was a feminist, despite subjecting myself to unfulfilling, emotionally damaging sexual experiences. And I believed it, too.
I had a puppy-love relationship with my high school boyfriend, the kind you see in movies. Losing my virginity was a respectful and patient experience. Entering college, I wasn’t scarred or inexperienced. I was confident I’d find Matt 2.0. He’d be poetic, invested, understand female sexual anatomy and have the perfect amount of facial scruff.
Almost immediately, I buried this dream deep within my new plastic dorm drawers. From dance floors to bedrooms, everyone was hooking up—myself included.
The popular media most frequently characterizes hookup culture as a series of emotionless one-night stands. At Middlebury, such casual hookups definitely occur.
Far more frequent, however, were pseudo-relationships, the mutant children of meaningless sex and loving partnerships. Two students consistently hook up with one another—and typically, only each other—for weeks, months, even years. Yet per unspoken social code, neither party is permitted emotional involvement, commitment, or vulnerability. To call them exclusive would be “clingy,” or even “crazy.”
I soon came to believe that real relationships were impossible at Midd. I convinced myself I didn’t want one anyway. It wasn’t just the social pressure that drove me to buy into the commitment-free hookup lifestyle, but my own identity as a feminist.
The idea that sexual liberation is fundamental to female agency dominates progressive media. True feminists, I believed, not only wanted but also thrived on emotionless, non-committal sexual engagements. Hanna Rosin epitomizes this perspective in her article for The Atlantic, “Boys on the Side”:
“To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of a hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role as an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.”
Kate Taylor, a New York Times reporter, makes a similar claim in the 2013 article “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too.” She opens her story with the tale of a University of Pennsylvania woman who approaches non-committal sex as a “cost-benefit” analysis with “low risk and low investment cost.”
While various academic studies tout the damaging effects of hookup culture, I came across them much more infrequently. Besides, the alternative seemed to me to be abstinence—an equally unfulfilling option. I decided it was time to ditch my antiquated desire for monogamy. As Taylor’s article suggested, I would “play the game, too.”
For years I joked about my “confident Leah” persona, the one I’d tap into with every new crush. I’d send the first text to a cute guy—a frequent taboo at my school—feeling invigorated by being the initiator. And when guys reciprocated my interest, my insecurities were at least temporarily dissolved.
The winter of my junior year, I asked Ben, a quiet, smart philosophy major with bright blue eyes, to a wine and cheese party. We saw each other for a few months. On weekends I’d text him around 10 pm, usually somewhat drunk. We’d meet at one of our dorm rooms, debate philosophy and Fleet Foxes lyrics, talk about our families and aspirations, and then have sex until he came. Give or take some weeknight Netflix-watching or walks in town, I cycled through this routine with at least five guys by senior year.
After I began having sex with these guys, the power balance always tipped. A few hookups in, I’d begin to obsess, primarily about the ambiguity of it all. My friends and I would analyze incessantly: Does he like me? Do you like him? He hasn’t texted in a day. Read this text. I’m so confused. He said he didn’t want anything, but keeps asking to hang out.
When Ben fell asleep, I’d pretend to doze off as well. During the night, I’d pull the covers or brush his toes, craving an arm around my waist. I’d analyze snippets of our conversation. Sometimes I’d leave an earring on his bedside table when I left, before he woke up. A reason to come back.
With time, inevitably, came attachment. And with attachment came shame, anxiety, and emptiness. My girlfriends and I were top students, scientists, artists, and leaders. We could advocate for anything—except for our own bodies. We won accolades from our professors, but the men we were sleeping with wouldn’t even eat breakfast with us the next morning. What’s worse, we really thought of the situation in those terms: “He didn’t ask to grab breakfast, so I walked home.”
We were desperate to know what it felt like to be wanted; desperate for a chance at intimacy. Desperate for a hand held in daylight, for public affirmation of desire typically expressed only after too many drinks. Desperate to try commitment, then decide if it wasn’t working, rather than being prematurely cut off from it.
I wished that I could be like the guys, who seemed not to care at all. Months after things had ended between us, Ben said, “I didn’t think of you as a human being while we were hooking up.” Ironically, once we stopped hooking up, we became friends, and he actually developed romantic feelings for me.
If this was sexual liberation, it was hard to understand how it was helping women. But I was pretty sure my friends and I weren’t closeted conservatives who wanted to go back to an era of sockhops and going steady.
I decided to devote my senior thesis to answering the question of whether Middlebury women really were playing the game—and if anyone was actually enjoying it.
After interviewing 75 male and female students and analyzing over 300 online surveys, the solidarity was undeniable: 100% of female interviewees and three-quarters of female survey respondents stated a clear preference for committed relationships. (My research focus was on the experiences of heterosexual women, although of course many non-heterosexual relationships happen at Midd as well.) Only 8% of about 25 female respondents who said they were presently in pseudo-relationships reported being “happy” with their situation.
The women I interviewed were eager to build connections, intimacy and trust with their sexual partners. Instead, almost all of them found themselves going along with hookups that induced overwhelming self-doubt, emotional instability and loneliness.
Kelsey reported trying “traditional” hookup culture after a relationship ended, sleeping with various guys as liberated experimentation. “I had this façade of wanting to hookup with people,” she explained, “but I don’t think that was ever the entire motive … And the fact that most of these guys wouldn’t even make eye contact with me after having sex or would run away from me at a party is one of the most hurtful things I’ve ever felt.”
Juliet recalled that, after hooking up with the same guy for three weeks, she heard he’d slept with someone else. She’d convinced herself that they were “just having fun,” but she was surprised at her own reaction.
“The funny part is, and maybe it was the sex that did it, but I actually cared,” she said. “I felt like he had meant something to me but how could he? We had only really known each other for a few weeks … He wasn’t exactly taking me out on dates or walking me through the park during the day or night for that matter, like I did with boys in high school.”
Three years later, the experience still stung. “I told my friends I forgot, but I just didn’t, I couldn’t and I can’t explain why. I wish I were the kind of girl that could forget,” said Juliet.
Sophie, a senior, recalled the sheer frustration she’d felt when friends sent photos of the guy she’d been seeing for weeks at the bar with another girl. (He’d told Sophie he was finishing an essay that night.)
“People see ‘exclusive’ and ‘casual’ as being mutually exclusive, and I don’t think that they are,” Sophie said. “That’s what I was trying to convey to him [after the bar incident], but he couldn’t agree to the whole exclusivity part. But I’m just not interested in having a sexually or consistently intimate relation with someone if it’s not going to be committed, and that stems from wanting to be confident and validated and not used, it’s so little to ask.”
My research gave me a sense of solace. Most Middlebury women were “playing the game,” yet almost none of us enjoyed it. I went on to publish my thesis online, and stories from students around the country came pouring in. It was clear we were far from alone.
The truth is that, for many women, there’s nothing liberating about emotionless, non-committal sex. The young women I spoke with were taking part in hookup culture because they thought that was what guys wanted, or because they hoped a casual encounter would be a stepping stone to commitment. In doing this, we actually deny ourselves agency and bolster male dominance, all while convincing ourselves we’re acting like progressive feminists. But engaging in hookup culture while wholeheartedly craving love and stability was perhaps the least feminist action I, and hundreds of my peers, could take.
Men’s experiences with hookup culture are equally complex. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of males I interviewed and surveyed also ideally preferred committed relationships. But they felt strong social pressure to have casual sex. Culturally, men have been socially primed to believe they ought to “drive” hookup culture, and that a crucial part of the college experience is sleeping with many women and then discussing these “escapades” with their male friends. So despite what men might truly want, pervasive hookup culture prompts them to predicate their public identity as heterosexual men on the number and physical attractiveness of the women they’ve slept with. Needless to say, the detrimental effects of this performance pressure are countless and severe.
Yet a year later, I think there’s a missing piece in my work on hookup culture. As writers like Peggy Orenstein have noted, while college students are having a lot of sex, I believe most of us—men and women—know basically nothing about it. I’m not talking about contraception or STDs. I’m talking about female pleasure, and women’s sexual relationships with ourselves.
I lost my virginity at 16. But I never had an orgasm until senior year of college, when my boyfriend and I became exclusive. It wasn’t for lack of trying: my sophomore year, I even had the campus nurse check if I had a clitoris. (A guy had ignored me after I hadn’t gotten wet the night before.)
Almost every woman I interviewed said they’d experienced sexual insecurities. We’d lie about orgasms, then blame our bodies when guys told us “the sexual connection wasn’t there.” After being in a loving relationship for over a year, I’ve realized the root of my pain in college was not the men I’d engaged with, but rather my body and mind, and my overwhelming conviction that I was sexually deficient.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that I was highly unlikely to have an orgasm with a guy who didn’t know me or care to. Even more asinine is that I beat myself up when I didn’t climax.
Since seeking out pleasure-centric education on women’s sexual anatomy, and taking the time to explore the nuances of my body both alone and with my partner, I’ve realized that sex is inextricably linked to emotions, trust, curiosity, and above all, self-awareness. To attempt to separate emotions from sex is not only illogical, given that emotion intensely augments pleasure, but also impossible for almost all women.
Looking back, I’m awestruck by the time and emotional energy that I, and so many of my peers, could have saved if we’d made the effort to explore our sexual selves, ask the questions we deemed “taboo,” and, critically, educate our partners in the bedroom. Given the current state of sex education in America, there’s a lot of learning that young people have to do on their own.
But if public discourse shifted to center women’s sexual pleasure as well as men’s, I wonder if hookup culture might not collapse entirely. If we taught pleasure-centric sex ed, beginning in middle school and high school and all the way through college, I can only imagine the possibilities. Young women who are only beginning to explore physical intimacy would go in armed with the knowledge that emotionless, casual sex is likely to be radically dissonant with their bodies’ desires. Men would know that it’s their responsibility to care about women’s sexual pleasure—which includes caring about their feelings. Pleasure-centric sex ed might even reduce sexual assault and encourage more students to report it, as both women and men armed with a clear understanding of how sex ought to feel would more easily distinguish between assault and “bad sex.”
As the academic year ends, summer offers students invaluable space for reflection. I’d urge all young women to seize this opportunity to seize this opportunity. As feminists, progress demands we build a relationship with our own bodies before engaging with anyone else’s. I think it’s worth it.