Hookup Panic: No, Casual Sex Does Not Lead to Rape


“Hookup culture” is an umbrella term—a vague collection of behaviors associated with today’s young people and how they choose to approach sex, romance, relationships, and social life. Thus, “hookup panic” is an equally vague collection of anxieties about said mysterious young people. The confused, moralistic judgement around hookup panic is on full display in a recent New York Times Style column called “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” by Kate Taylor. Taylor sets out to explore women’s role in “propelling” hookup culture, telling the stories of college students who are too busy for relationships or focused on careers, and countering them with the usual concerns—What about marriage? Babies? Romantic fulfillment?—that so often accompany narratives of independent women. But the piece also conflates sexual assault and rape with hookup culture, suggesting that the culture itself creates, or contributes to, men’s disregard for obtaining consent.

The Times piece buys into one of the fundamental concepts of “hookup culture,” the assumption that, as Taylor writes, “traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline, replaced by ‘hooking up’ — an ambiguous term that can signify anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse — without the emotional entanglement of a relationship.”

A number of feminist writers have scrutinized hookup panic. It’s important to push back against the idea that hooking up has completely obliterated college relationships, as well as the assumption contained within such alarm that college relationships of the past always lead to fulfilling, romantic, baby-filled marriages. Hookup panic is deeply paternalistic, its fundamental premise that if girls are in fact leading relatively independent sexual, social, and academic lives, they must be mistaken somehow, that their misguided freedom will lead them toward being old and lonely (or young and lonely).

But an even more sinister paternalism is contained within the Times‘ portrayal of hookup culture: the idea that because young women feel free to engage in sexual interactions without the formalities of a relationship, they are subjecting themselves to sexual assault.

Taylor describes a student at the University of Pennsylvania who attended a party with a boy: “She had too much to drink, and she remembered telling him that she wanted to go home.” The boy took her to his room and raped her—he had intercourse with her despite her drifting in and out of consciousness. Taylor writes that the girl described it as a “funny story” to her friends, but “only later … [began] to think of what had happened as rape.” The piece then devotes eight paragraphs to the idea that the “close relationship between hooking up and drinking leads to confusion and disagreement about the line between a ‘bad hookup’ and assault,” citing a study of two large universities in which 14 percent of the women had experienced sexual assault, and half of those assaults involved drugs or alcohol. Another Penn student quoted in the story describes a boy who physically coerced her into performing oral sex. The next paragraph transitions to discussing women’s sexual pleasure in hookups, compared to relationships.

To include sexual pleasure in a section of the piece otherwise devoted to issues of consent is problematic and dangerous. The transition from quoting two college students describing non-consensual sex to quoting a sociologist who argues, “Guys don’t seem to care as much about women’s pleasure in the hookup, whereas they do seem to care quite a bit in the relationships,” suggests that consent is merely an aspect of female sexual pleasure, rather than a necessity. Forced sexual contact has nothing to  with how women “fare” sexually. Having described an account of forced oral sex only four short paragraphs earlier, Taylor writes, “In hookups, women were much more likely to give men oral sex than to receive it.” Such framing undercuts the gravity of the boy’s actions, reframing a sexual assault as just an act of selfishness in a mutually consensual interaction.

Similarly, to cite studies about drinking and sexual assault, focusing on the girls’ narratives without mentioning the agency of the boys, is to conflate a girl’s drinking with a boy’s disregard for consent. The obligation to obtain consent has nothing to do with the social context of the interaction. By the time Taylor mentions sexual assault, she has devoted considerable space to Susan Patton, aka “Princeton Mom,” who laments “vitriolic messages from extreme feminists” that supposedly discourage women from wanting marriage and families. The primary concerns of the piece in the first three sections (“An Economic Calculation,” “Independent Women,” and “Adapt, Have Fun”) revolve around ambitious students who aren’t interested in serious relationships, who prioritize their studies and their futures, and who have adjusted their romantic expectations since arriving at college. Given these narratives, hedged by Patton’s moralistic judgement, the prominence of sexual assault on college campuses is presented as an aspect of hookup culture—inextricably linked to women’s sexual liberation and independence. It is as if rape and sexual assault were not a problem for women before they were free to prioritize their own lives over relationships—as if women’s satisfaction with non-committal sexual relationships has lead directly to men’s predatory behavior.

This ahistorical logic places blame on women’s independence, rather than on men. As feminists like Zerlina Maxwell have argued, fighting rape culture depends on holding boys and men accountable for their behavior and teaching them to value affirmative consent. It is also ahistorical to suggest that it is a new hookup culture that leads men to disregard women’s pleasure, as if male-oriented values, images, and behavior haven’t been historically dominant in American life. Taylor writes:

Part of the reason men aren’t as focused on pleasing women in hookups, Dr. England said, is the lingering sexual double standard, which sometimes causes men to disrespect women precisely for hooking up with them.

Disrespect for female sexuality did not originate with hooking up—in fact, it is a cultural, deeply powerful disrespect for female sexuality that leads to such anxiety about hookup culture.

It is quite possible to interrogate how drinking complicates men’s and women’s communication of consent without blaming women for rape or negative consensual sexual experiences. But the importance of affirmative consent—not merely teaching boys to hear the word “no,” but to actively seek the word “yes”—must be isolated from the moralistic judgement that surrounds hookup panic. Casual sex does not lead to rape. Having multiple partners does not lead to rape. Focusing on schoolwork or career goals rather than relationships does not lead to rape. Writers can devote as many words as they like to worrying about such behaviors, and Susan Patton can continue to tell women that their new-found liberation (a premise which, as presented, is also worthy of interrogation) will leave them alone and undesirable. Such antiquated ideas are extremely damaging. But it is even more damaging to act as if sexual assault and rape are the price women pay for independence and sexual freedom.

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  • fiona64

    But an even more sinister paternalism is contained within the Times‘
    portrayal of hookup culture: the idea that because young women feel
    free to engage in sexual interactions without the formalities of a
    relationship, they are subjecting themselves to sexual assault.

    Yep. It’s the same old “what was she wearing” rhetoric in a new wrapper.

    • Jonathan Kuperberg

      For once, you’re right. Women *and* men into free-and-easy sex will answer to God for their refusal to keep their lust in subjection at the Last Judgment, but it’s not any sort of excuse for sexual assault.

      • Arekushieru

        Men and women having consensual sex with each other is not lust. Methinks you need to learn what the word means in a biblical AND legal context before putting your foot in your mouth, again.

  • Dawn E. Worswick

    What a dumb article

  • maggiebea

    Sorry, folks, there’s nothing new in ‘hookup culture’. Sex on campus in the 60s was a whole lot like sex on campus now. The word ‘hookup’ is new — it appears to have replaced ‘one-night stand’, which was pretty frequent way back then.

    Maybe the current young folks have more honesty (and self-honesty) than we did. Some of us wrecked our lives over trying to pretend that ‘I want to have sex’ meant ‘I must be in love’ and trying to force a one-night stand to become a relationship, even when the other person wasn’t actually someone we wanted to spend a lot of time and emotion with.