Today's decisions affect tomorrow's relationships

Since the dawn of the hookup culture, women have been grappling with its effects—or lack of desired effects. Some women partake in the no-strings-attached alternative to dating thinking it will lead to romance and a deeper relationship; others partake simply because they think it’s a standard part of male-female relations. Given the media landscape depicting men and women jumping into bed with each other on date one without batting an eyelash, it’s not too surprising that real-life young people are exchanging intimacy for drunken encounters. But while many women partaking in the hookup culture may indeed be fitting into what appears normal by the numbers and by media standards, many aren’t feeling normal inside about it.

A 2012 study of college students revealed that both men and women who had hooked up in the last year were more likely to have been drinking when they met their partners the night of the hookup. The researchers also found that “females who were drinking beforehand … were more likely to feel discontent with their hookup decisions.”

Some women report a blurring of lines between hookups and sexual assault, saying they ended up in situations where men took advantage of their lowered defenses. There’s also reason to believe the sexes have different ideas of where an evening is leading when it comes to a hookup encounter. Professor and author of Pornland, Gail Dines, says “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.’”

Whether the hookup-turned-assault encounters we hear about are due to mismatched intentions or opportunizing men, it appears women are not enjoying hookups as much as pop culture suggests they should be. When Babe magazine last year published a story of an anonymous woman who had a bad sexual experience with comedian Aziz Ansari, a national debate erupted about whether a woman’s bad experience in a sexual encounter means makes it a rape, if she appeared at the time to be a willing partner. While Ansari’s name was cleared of the accused assault in the court of public opinion, feminist writer Jessica Valenti described it in a tweet: “A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.”

It doesn’t have to be an aggressive sexual encounter for it to be harmful, either. Last year, one young woman described to the New York Times her experience of a series of hookups with a guy who seemed especially considerate in asking for consent at every stage of sexual advances—but then ceased communication and disappeared without a trace. As she put it, "He asked permission to touch but not to ghost."

When Consent In the Moment Is Not Enough

While we know not all hookups are assaults, the blurring of lines and the increase of regretted encounters suggest we need a more longitudinal context within which to discuss the costs and benefits of our sexual culture today.

If one offers consent in-the-moment but later regrets the encounter (a growing phenomenon researchers are dubbing "sex regret"), or if a woman experiences accumulating pain over a period of time from multiple partners discarding her after encounters, this suggests that droves of women today are acting without informed consent, because many don't realize until later the longer-term costs of these activities.

For instance, a 2014 study surveying a thousand unmarried Americans ages18-34 shows a correlation between the number of sex partners one has had and their future marital satisfaction. Researchers found that 23 percent of participants whose spouse was their only sexual partner reported higher quality marriages than those with additional sexual partners in their past. The dynamic was even more apparent among women. “We further found that the more sexual partners a woman had had before marriage, the less happy she reported her marriage to be.”

Young people still survey that they want to get married one day, and no doubt they want happy marriages. But common misperceptions, such as that sleeping with partners before tying the knot will increase the likelihood of it being a good fit, still seem to be influencing their actions instead.

But, youth will be youth, right? What can we do about any of this?

I think an important component to increasing awareness is simply to speak up. The #MeToo movement is succeeding in bringing attention to sexual assault and harassment by the sharing of people’s stories, a chorus of real stories from women who regret their hookups could similarly help here. We're working against powerful media portrayals of hookups leading to love, which women in great number aren't experiencing. So real women need to tell their own stories to combat these unrealistic portrayals.

At Verily, we’re doing our part. Over the past few years, we’ve published brave women’s voices such as one who admitted, “I Thought Casual Sex Would Be Empowering, but It Was the Opposite.” Another shared, “For Years, I Felt Guilty for Not Liking the Hookup Culture.” Still another: “4 Truths About Hooking Up and Hanging Out I Learned the Hard Way.

The more we share these stories, the more we turn our pain into others’ gain—helping others avoid pitfalls in relationships that some find to be all too lasting. It’d be great if Hollywood would start telling those alternate narratives as well.

Because shows selling narratives that toxic relationship behavior leads to happiness, like the immensely successful Sex in the City, have consequences. One woman who embraced that show's lifestyle, recently shared in a raw confession how it ruined her life. After spending more than a decade modeling her life on the values of fictional Carrie Bradshaw, Julia Allison told the New York Post last year: “Truth be told, I wish I had never heard of Sex in the City. I’m sure there are worse role models but, for me, it did permanent and measurable damage to my psyche that I’m still cleaning up.” She added, “as clever and aesthetically pleasing as the show was—and, as much as I agree with its value of female friendships—it showed too much consumerism and fear of intimacy disguised as empowerment. . . . It’s like candy: In the moment it feels good to eat it, but afterward, you feel sick.”

Sharing our experiences of the longer-term costs of hookups can allow other women to learn with us that feeling good in the moment is not sufficient to determine if an action is good for you.

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