Hooking up

Posted: Aug 09, 2001 12:00 AM
Sexual morals went out in the Middle Ages. So says a recent study commissioned by The Independent Woman's Forum and conducted by the Institute for American Values on the mating rituals of women on college campuses across the country. Though 83 percent of respondents placed a high priority on marriage, the study highlighted disturbing new trends in the courtship culture that are eroding the likelihood that these women will find the deep, emotionally fulfilling relationships that they desire. The 18-month study found that daddy's little girl is often engaging in two types of relationships: "sexual intimacy with no hope for commitment" or an intense almost immediate commitment "without first getting emotionally acquainted." Either way, bodies are colliding without the hard emotional work of actually getting to know someone. Or, as the study put it: "women [have] few opportunities to explore the marriage worthiness of a variety of men before settling into a long-term commitment with one of them." In place of the emotionally fruitful kind of relationship that once led to marriage, women are simply "hooking up," or engaging in a series of emotionally detached physical encounters. Forty-one percent of the women surveyed admitted to engaging in such encounters regularly and 1 in 10 said they had more than six one-night stands. Since the sexual revolution, this brand of promiscuity has been glamorized for its symbolic value: women breaking free from gender roles that once enmeshed them, etc. The popular culture is replete with images that equate sexual promiscuity with freedom and liberation. Shows popular with college age women, like "Sex in the City," depict the travails of four women as they work, hang out and pounce on young men with the not-so-subtle élan of a hunter/gatherer. The major implication: The modern woman is not an object to be subdued and prodded; She is in command, and quite capable of initiating sex with predatorial ease. Just one thing: Women continue to want an emotional commitment from their physical encounters. The same cannot often be said of young men. Consequently, the "hook up" ritual leaves many women saddled with emotional confusion and disillusionment (not to mention unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases). Unlike with "Sex in the City," such problems are not resolved in the course of a half-hour. More often Sleeping Beauty awakes, trips over a stack of beer cans and then finds a discarded note thanking her for a good time. Despite what our popular culture would have us believe, young women are not altogether comfortable with this. As psychiatrist and talk show host Dr. Drew Pinsky recently observed on "Good Morning America," "This [hooking up] stands out in bold distinction ... against the other findings in the study, which is that the vast majority of women are looking for a marriage as a very high priority goal in their life. And about 60 percent of them ... want to find a husband during college. And this really doesn't jive with their desire ... I mean ... the hooking up phenomenon doesn't fit with the goal of trying to find a long-term relationship." Much of the problem is rooted in the absence of any clear social customs that might help young women navigate the courtship ritual. Over the past 40 years, women have successfully peeled away many of the pesky rules that a male-driven society once set down to encapsulate their sexuality. Social customs like getting to know someone before sleeping with them now exist largely as vague sentiments, rather than social norms. Sadly, precious few expectations have been created to fill the void. Without mutual expectations, many young women lack any substantial system of social reinforcement from their peers. Consequently, they tend to blame themselves when a "hook-up" fails to lead to a more significant relationship. Often, they respond to this disappointment by twisting their emotions inward so that they may be what their college environment (dubbed "a 17-year-old boy's world," by Dr. Drew) wants them to be. This is one of the sad ironies of the sexual liberation movement. In seeking to free women from repressive social customs, it also isolated them from any real tapestry of social support. More and more, they are simply carried along by the currents of the 17-year-old boy's culture. Plainly this must change. As the study wisely noted, "Adults and college administrators need to take a more active role in guiding young people in their intimate relations." In doing so, adults can work to create a sense of social support that empowers young women to make the decisions that they are comfortable with. At bottom, adults need to work to create new social customs that allow young women to place enough value on their own emotional needs, that they feel comfortable waiting for Mr. Right, instead of Mr. Right Now.