Amy Schumer has been getting a lot of press lately. Heralded as the pop-culture face of feminist comedy, Schumer has indeed done some great work unpacking the idiocy and harms of sexism, rape culture, and sexual violence. But as she gets folded into the Hollywood juggernaut with her new film Trainwreck, Schumer has increasingly become part of the problem, not the solution.
The story of Trainwreck flips things around from the traditional rom-com formula. The girl is the player; the man is the one who wants commitment. The girl is hoping he won’t call, whereas the men like LeBron James giggle and blush at the thought of “sexual intercourse!” While to many this flip from reality may be hilarious, it’s worth taking a moment to pause and acknowledge just how much it is a flip from reality. In real life, women suffer far greater from hookup sex than the film portrays.
THE MOVIE . . . IS NOT . . . REALISTIC
Famous for its poster showing Schumer holding a bottle of booze in a drunken state and its trailer that starts out with the chant “monogamy . . . is not . . . realistic,” Trainwreck has billed itself as a film about hookup sex and undergoing an emotional makeover. If this sounds like a familiar trope, then you may have seen some of Judd Apatow’s films that specialize in adult males locked in adolescent immaturity until they find loving women who nurture them into being grownups. As the director and producer of Trainwreck, Apatow made a twist to this now-tedious narrative by making the “girl” the screwup in need of saving. The film fails on so many levels, not least because although hookup sex may be a great hook on which to build a “comedy,” it is neither fun nor funny for many women.
Here’s the problem: In a society choked with male violence against women, you can’t take a potentially explosive situation such as hookup sex and simply flip the genders of the “savior” and the “screwup.” Hookup sex is way more complicated for women than men because for women it is filled with emotional baggage and the potential for physical danger. As someone who speaks across the country with college students, I hear story after story about how hookups for women go horribly wrong.
To put this in context, we need to cycle back to a few hours before most hookups even begin. Many women I interviewed for my book, Pornland, told me that in order to have hookup sex, they have to prepare before they go out partying. The first order of prep is waxing or shaving their pubic hair because, I was told, most guys they hook up with are disgusted by pubic hair. Once “groomed,” they start drinking because hooking up with guys they don’t know is a lot easier when drunk. Once they get to the party or club, they continue drinking so that by the time they hook up, they are often so drunk that they have difficulty standing up. Researcher Jennifer Walsh and her team looked at the drinking patterns of three hundred college women and found that of those who had hookups with a random stranger, 89 percent involved drinking, and a notable 63 percent involved four or more drinks.
What needs to be made clear here is that many of the women I spoke with had come into the situation with clear limits on what they would and would not do during the hookup. But they set these limits when they were sober. One study, for example, found that of the female students who hooked up, more than a third reported that they likely would not have engaged in the level of sexual activity they did had they not been drinking.
The most common act they anticipated performing was oral sex (her on him, of course) and maybe some other sex acts, but intercourse was often not on the list. The guy, however, enters the hookup with a different set of expectations, given that his major form of sex education is porn. He is often assuming that hooking up means vaginal—and, increasingly, anal sex. In other words, what used to be “a girl wants to hold hands/cuddle” and “the boy wants to make out/receive a hand job” has now become “a girl wants to make out/give a hand job” and “the boy wants intercourse/more extreme behavior.”
But because she is drunk by the time the hookup takes place, the woman is often incapacitated to the point that she has difficulty protesting, so his expectations win out. He goes back to his frat house or apartment with a great story of how he laid this really hot girl, and his masculinity quotient gets a boost.
She, on the other hand, got raped. But that is rarely the story she tells. Instead she is often vague, telling her friends that she hooked up with a hot guy but offering few details. The devil is, indeed, in the details, and she carries this painful experience wherever she goes.
One study of college students found that of the female students who experienced “unwanted intercourse,” 78 percent of occurrences took place during a hookup. This makes sense when we think about the lack of clear boundaries set up during a hookup, further blurred by alcohol consumption. In an ongoing relationship, couples can discuss and negotiate sexual boundaries as the relationship develops, but in a hookup, there will typically be little discussion. Talking or establishing boundaries is not what hookups are about. How could they be? Boundaries are like strings, and hookups are famous for having “no strings attached.”
Studies have also found that women who participate in hookups have a higher risk of getting an STI and are more susceptible to low self-esteem and depression. It is not clear whether these women seek hookup sex because they are depressed and have low self-esteem or if these conditions are consequences of hookups. The truth is probably that both are applicable to different people, but neither scenario places hookup sex in a particularly good light.
When it comes to reflecting reality in Trainwreck, Amy does exhibit depression and low self-esteem. But, in what is far from realistic for many women who hook up, none of the men she hooks up with are overtly violent, and when she pretends to fall into a drunken stupor with one hookup, he leaves her be. For a woman who hooks up frequently, she is also surprisingly free of any STIs and isn’t manipulated or coerced into sex acts that she does not want to engage in. This is what makes Trainwreck so problematic. It is, after all, a “chick flick,” and like other media targeted to women, it sanitizes the reality of a pornified and often sexual-assault-filled hookup culture.
To add insult to injury, Trainwreck is a happily-ever-after movie where the guy stays around, not just for another hookup but for an actual relationship. This is counter to most of the research, which shows that whereas women hope that the hookup evolves into a relationship, not so for the men. Many of the male college students interviewed by sociologist Kathleen Bogle for her book Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus “preferred to hook up with no strings attached.” Indeed, one of the men interviewed by Bogle said he saw hookup culture as a “guy’s paradise.”
As it happens, Trainwreck the movie is a kind of paradise for men because it lets them off the hook for all the violence, emotional pain, and STIs that many women suffer. Simply switching the gender roles doesn’t make this movie feminist. Whereas this may be news to Judd Apatow, my guess is that Amy Schumer knows better.
Gail Dines is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College and the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. She is the founding chair of Culture Reframed, a feminist nonprofit health education organization.