After the Golden Globes aired, it seemed the #MeToo movement was reaching its stride. In the aftermath of news stories on the sexual exploitations of Harvey Weinstein and others in Hollywood, it appeared that women’s voices had earned some much-deserved airtime. “Time’s up!” exclaimed actors like Selma Hayak, who penned a December New York Times piece describing Weinstein’s abuse of power from her experience. From all indications, this was just the start of a new year and a new era for women’s voices being taken more seriously in the face of criminal sexual behavior. And given how much male impropriety had thrived in secrecy until now, this may still be the case, and I certainly hope so.
But over the weekend, something happened that produced an immediate chemical reaction within the #MeToo conversation. In an article published on the website Babe, a woman called Grace accused actor Aziz Ansari of sexual assault, citing a rushed and uncomfortable sexual encounter that ended with her leaving in disappointment. By all accounts except hers, the story was not one of definitive sexual assault, so many commentators have since defended Ansari saying he is guilty of nothing but an unsatisfying sexual encounter. While it’s true there is no explicit violation of consent in the story, many still view it as painting an ugly picture of what sexual encounters have become for many participants of the hookup culture.
It would appear that what we have today is more than just a consent problem.
As feminist writer, Jessica Valenti put it on Twitter,
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.
Hookups today are looking mighty grim. Even when they don’t necessarily cross boundaries of consent, it would appear women are not enjoying the results of the sexual revolution very much.
And I’m not just saying this from the Babe-published anecdote. For years, tons of research has revealed that women are not benefiting as much as the popular culture today suggests.
For one, there is the growing phenomenon of “sex regret.” It may not be sexual assault, but it’s another important component of our culture’s sexual crisis that seems to be begging for attention. In a study completed by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and the University of Texas at Austin, researchers found the largest factor in predicting sex regret was whether they were male or female. Women reported greater instances of regret from partaking in a sexual encounter, whereas men were more likely to regret passing one up. Psychology professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair of NTNU, who earlier in 2017 authored a study on sex regret as well, told the Telegraph, “We’re not saying that there aren’t men who regret casual sex. But it is far more common for women to regret saying 'yes.' They are also less unequivocally happy about the experience."
Not surprisingly, alcohol plays a role in all this. A 2012 study of 828 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 same study found that “females who were drinking beforehand...were more likely to feel discontent with their hookup decisions.”
All this suggests that, while not every instance of disappointing hookup activity constitutes sexual assault, a lot of it involves activities women are not enjoying as much. So why are they going along with it?
In The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan described how, as a woman over 50, she could hardly fathom the hookup behavior of young people today (to the point where it sounds like science fiction), and many other commentators have echoed how it’s hard to imagine women putting up with such treatment. But what those of previous generations may be missing is a full awareness of how what was once the exception of inappropriate behavior from some men—the creep who wants to go all the way on the first date, for instance—has become a staple ingredient in the media Millennials have grown up consuming. It is not only depicted more positively in today’s TV shows and movies (and porn), it’s also depicted more frequently.
In her 2016 book Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein notes, “The average teenager is exposed to nearly 14,000 references to sex each year on television," and "young women who consume more objectifying media [report] more willingness to engage in sexualized behavior...such as a wet T-shirt contest, and to find those activities empowering.”
It would appear that since our culture has shed the idea of traditional sexual morality—the idea that sex and marriage belong together and that children have something to do with it—we’re struggling to put a suitable blueprint in its place.
Perhaps we underestimate the power of seeing images on repeat and what effect it will have on viewers. For about 20 years, every sitcom on television has presupposed a hookup culture. Even in Jane the Virgin, which began with the premise of a young woman who chose not to have sex, the hookup culture was the backdrop, making the story’s main character intriguing. Further, nearly all romantic comedies today—from No Strings Attached, to Love and Other Drugs, to Trainwreck—portray women finding love within this setting. It’s fair to say today’s young women go into these situations not because they enjoy them, but because they want to find love, and everything around them is suggesting that casual sexual encounters are the ticket.
Meanwhile, a majority of men and a growing number of women regularly consume online pornography, much of which depicts sexual encounters as aggressive, swiftly escalating, and primarily geared toward male pleasure. If you want to keep a man today, many women gather, give them what they want. Porn has only added to the sense of competition women face. “Either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you,” actor Jennifer Lawrence told Vanity Fair, after her photo leak scandal of 2014. Unfortunately for many women today, their boyfriends look at both.
Perhaps this is why behaviors that women like Flanagan guarded against in the past are now embraced by women and men more quickly and viewed as normal. Perhaps that’s also why, even if they don’t like it, women are more likely to think something is wrong with them for not fitting in, rather than to see the problems with the behavior itself.
It would appear that since our culture has shed the idea of traditional sexual morality—the idea that sex and marriage belong together and that children have something to do with it—we’re struggling to put a suitable blueprint in its place. For some feminists, it may have started with an intention to reduce the shaming of women when it came to sex. But now it seems we’ve gone so far in the extreme, that the only standard for sexual morality is that it must not be traditional.
Somewhere along the way, today’s young people have embraced a distorted male-centric perspective of sexuality. And it seems we have not gained much except a skill to mask our authentic feelings and play along with fantasy—none of which help real intimacy and communication between the sexes.
“You guys are all the same,” Grace told Ansari in the Babe piece. Perhaps like her, most young women today continue participating in the hookup culture in the hopes that one man among the rest will be different. According to Grace, she stayed in Ansari’s apartment past the point of discomfort because she thought things were going to turn out for the better. Maybe he’d finally slow down to read her body language and change his behavior. If this is the playing field you’re born into, and media keeps depicting stories like these with positive outcomes, it’s no wonder many young women continue to hope that one day they’ll find a lasting relationship that will make all the bad (and demeaning) sexual encounters worth it. Sadly, research shows that the greater the number of premarital sexual partners one has, the less marital satisfaction they report later.
All this suggests something very unfortunate: when young women buy into the idea that hooking up is the only way to find a man today, they’re forfeiting much comfort in the present and happiness in the future. These new sexual norms may not translate into inevitable misery or be as bad as assault, but for a lifestyle that doesn’t guarantee it will even lead to a desirable end, hooking up sure comes with high costs. One hopes that with the discussions we’re having as a result of the #MeToo movement, women today can take this moment to reconsider eschewing another stubborn status quo.
Mary Rose Somarriba is a writer living in Cleveland and contributing editor for Verily Magazine.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.