Monday, June 28, 2010

In partial defense of hook-up culture

The Phi Beta Cons crowd are beating the anti-hook-up culture tocsin again. I may be repeating things I've written elsewhere, but it's been a few months, so here we go again:

1)This round of posts cites a particular study for the proposition that women, on average, find casual sex more depressing. That may well be true, and of course I'm all in favor of scientists studying these phenomena as objectively as possible, without having to worry about the political correctness of their conclusions. But... knowing what's true on average tells you very little about what's true at the tails of the distribution, and/or what the correct choices ought to be for any individual woman. Like... looking at the average LSAT for all female test takers wouldn't tell me nothing about whether I ought to go to law school, and whether I ought to have chosen the particular law school that I did. But... at the same time, looking at my actual score, and knowing what made sense given my priorities and interests, was infinitely more helpful in making a law school decision. So, too, I'd like to know how much variability there is among both men and women.

2)The narrative that hook-up culture is disproportionately bad for women doesn't resonate well with my own experiences. I concede that my undergrad friends and I are not representative of the general population in all kinds of ways, but let me at least throw my own anecdotal experience out there. Especially since I'm far closer in age and gender to the target population than most of the PBC staff...

The most truly casual couplings I saw at Dartmouth (and to a lesser extent later) didn't seem to be especially bad for either women or men. The true Don Juan types -- the dashing seducers who care not for settling down -- are easily spotted from a mile away. It's kind of fun to refer to them with Victorian slang terms like "dandy" or "coxcomb," which indicates that their kind have been at this stych for a long, long time. One would have to be very, very unforgivably stupid to wake up next to one and start daydreaming about picking out a house in Westchester together and whether to send the kids to private vs. public school.

No, what's much harder about hook-up culture is that it makes thing more complicated for pairs that could plausibly have had a long term relationship, but for whom some slight mismatch in interest makes it impossible to get things off the ground. Things play out like this: guy and girl meet in the dorm, in an extracurricular activity, whatever. They go to lunch a few times or spend a few evenings in the library. They click on the basis of some shared interest -- often as not conservative or libertarian public policy in the circles that I ran in, but it could be science fiction, web comics, certain film directors, any number of things. I suppose some of the social activities that the pair did together at this point would be considered "dating" under a 1950s use of the term, but would've been more commonly called "hanging out" in the idiom of my own day. Elizabeth Blackwell used to refer to these interactions as "orbiting," as in the pair were kind of like astronomical entities orbiting around each other at that point. It was a cool term, I thought, but one that never gained much traction outside a circle of about five of our friends.

And after a few weeks of this, they find themselves at some event where the libations are flowing. They get to trading witticisms, which thanks to the libations flow faster and more easily than before. And one person thinks, "Ah ha! At long last, our beautiful friendship is maturing and ripening into something deeper, more wonderful!" And the other is thinking, "Okay, so I'm not sure I necessarily want to get married to this person. But it's Winter Carnival, and I've been lonely lately, and it's okay to do casual things with people I don't necessarily want to marry, right?" Thus cue, a la Hitchcock, to trains rushing off in the distance, or possibly birds circling outside the window. So we get to the next morning, and one person is thinking, "At long last! A relationship is nigh!" and the other is all "But it was just a one night stand. I thought we allowed that in this day and age, right. Right?"

It's true that the hook-up in the short run often makes things more confusing for our hypothetical couple. But in most such cases, the real problem is that these people's interests were on a collision course. One person simply had much more invested in this situation than the other. Sometimes this was because of obvious disparities in the partners' looks, social skills, or other conventionally valued attributes. The biocons would no doubt say that 99% of these situations turned on either the girl's being ugly or the guy's lack of "Game." Sometimes yes, which is why people read these guys, I suppose. But in real life, the actual issues at stake often seemed a lot more subtle. Also, often times the guy turned out to be the most attached person in this type of situation. Women were more likely to try to be nice to a desperate admirer, to the point of completely confusing the guy. Men, on the other hand, tended to cut ties more cleanly and more quickly when it was evident that a female friend had much more invested in prospective romance than he. The point is that the problem is the disparities in interest make these situations miserable, not the fact of the hook-up forcing the disparities out into the open.

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