May 24, 2010

Making sense of the hook-up culture

Most of the earnest, worried stories I read about "the hook-up culture" I immediately tune out. After all, these are stories about how supposedly common it is for teenagers or college students to hook up -- to engage in some unspecified level of sexual activity -- at a time when kissing, pawing, jerking, fingering, and fucking have all but gone the way of the drive-in movie theater, especially moving from one partner to another.

However, there's an article in the current New Yorker that I skimmed through and didn't see any such bogus claim about how prevalent promiscuity has become, but rather how strong or weak the emotional and romantic bonds are between those teenagers who are sexually active. (The author is not aware, though, that these are a shrinking minority of teenagers in general.) Her concern is over the impression that those who hook up aren't bound to each other psychologically, that they don't see anything magical or liminal in embarking on a sexual voyage, and that instead their mindset is more like, we might as well just get this outta the way, i mean it's not like it's a big deal or anythinggg.

I can see that -- the culture as a whole is a lot less romantic than it was during wild and dangerous times (roughly the late '50s through the very early '90s), when looming threats turn people's minds toward reproducing before something out there does them in. During safer times (from 1992 and counting) people feel secure enough to delay the various rites of passage that lead to baby-making. This fall in promiscuity and early sex is what shows up in the statistics I linked to above. BTW, the 2009 data will come out on June 3, and I'll formally predict that the promiscuity measures will show no significant increase from the 2007 data.

These data would make the worry-warts ecstatic, if they would bother to look them up -- "Oh thank god my little girl isn't messing around! And hey, whatever it takes to achieve these plummeting levels of promiscuity, let's do it." What they don't realize is that when people are less hormone-crazed, that has effects not only on how carefree -- or reckless -- they will behave, but also on how able they are to fall irrationally in love, to feel as though each act were a vehicle for leaving behind the world of the ordinary, and to want to suck all the juice out of each encounter rather than do it just to get it over with. (These differences show up even in porn made during safe vs. dangerous times.)

Anxiety-stricken parents and social workers could realize this by reflecting on when in life's stages is a person the most capable of forming an uncontrollable emotional bond to a sex partner -- you are most likely to fall head over heels in love when you are also the horniest, namely as an adolescent or young adult. The adorable type of love that older couples have is nowhere as intense, and they're probably glad that it isn't. They lost enough sleep and sweated enough buckets through their palms when they themselves where young. There's nothing cute and innocent about young love, though -- just remember how out-of-your-mind you were and how desperately you would have acted if that's what it took to win over that cute girl who sat across the aisle from you in science class.

I think this is also behind the perception that popular culture, at least music, has become skankier. The content is no less risque than it was during the '60s through the '80s, and female performers were wearing suggestive clothing since at least the '70s. Perhaps what people are sensing is the performer's lack of soul and mercenary attitude toward sex and her own body. And ditto male performers lacking soul and looking at women as strippers. Both trends come together in that terribly boring and undanceable song "My Humps" by the Black Eyed Peas. Back when people actually were promiscuous, pop songs such as "Like a Virgin" and "Little Red Corvette" showed girls who are eager to give in to their desires, rather than frigid women from whom sex can only be wrested through a financial transaction. Sex in those songs was something uniquely capable of sending the couple into a state of ecstasy -- not like someone's lunchtime routine of inserting a dollar bill into a vending machine, pecking at a keypad, and picking up the candy bar that gets dropped.

If the wild or tame strategy paid off more than the other no matter what, then one strategy would gradually replace the other. Instead, we see cycles from mostly wild to mostly tame and so on again. That must mean they pay roughly equal rewards on net, the wild strategy having dazzling benefits but greater costs, and the tame strategy having more meager benefits but smaller costs. But no one wants to accept that there are trade-offs for important matters in life, that the universe appears to conspire to keep them from having too much of a good thing. When times are dangerous and people wild, worry-warts crusade to curb promiscuity, which predictably results in shallower emotional attachments between lovers as people become less hormone-crazed. Then the crusade moves to curbing psychologically distant hook-ups, which will predictably be accompanied by a rise in how horny people are, thus driving promiscuity back up again.

As long as the audience members don't call them on it, professional and lay moral crusaders have a guaranteed full employment plan. Only by telling them to grow up and accept that life has many trade-offs will we clear our minds of the noise of their incessant hand-wringing.


  1. "...just remember how out-of-your-mind you were and how desperately you would have acted if that's what it took to win over that cute girl who sat across the aisle from you in science class."

    I'm still yet to figure out if learning Game to rid me of said chump mindset is good thing or not.

  2. I wonder if this trend is caused in part by the high costs of family formation Steve Sailer was addressing today in his review of The Pinch. If young people see marriage and family formation as a distant prospect the more cautious ones among them would be less likely to allow themselves to become deeply emotionally invested(and consequently sexually active) in a relationship at a young age.

    On an unrelated note, I used to be skeptical of your stories of teenage girls crushing on you but it happened to me recently, complete with colored braces. Thanks for all the free advice.

    Hughman, I don't think being a normal adolescent boy is the same thing as being a "chump."

  3. "Thanks for all the free advice."

    I do what I can to inform. It's only a matter of time before this blog gets subsidized like the BBC.

  4. The number of girls claiming no premarital sex is more a measure of the number of girls claiming their previous eighty seven sexual partners do not count. It does not directly measure hookups, hookups being defined by the instability of relationships.

    The real indicator is the proportion of children raised by their fathers, which is falling steadily and rapidly.


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