Hookup Culture: Navigating Consent, Pleasure, and Empowerment
The Missing Chapters of Sex Education
Your phone chimes with the infamous “you up?” text. Is it excitement you feel? Or disappointment? Maybe a confusing mixture of emotions. Let’s chat about ALL aspects of hookup culture: practicing safe sex, the psychological and sociological, and the straight up sexual. “Hookups” refer to casual sexual activity, prioritizing physical pleasure over emotional commitment. The “culture” part of the term depicts how common this practice has become.
If you were lucky enough to have a formal sex education, it probably didn’t include the social aspects of sex and sexuality. Topics like shame and stigma, deciding who to have sex with, and influences such as religion or our families are skipped altogether. When you’re thrown into the thick of it, during high school, college and post college when there’s an expectation to partake in hookup culture, your only points of references are friends and peers. They can be just as naive as you. When we have a lack of experience, conflicting influences, and missing knowledge about sex; there's no roadmap to making informed and empowered decisions.
My name is Tara Jones, I am a youth sex expert and I explore how social justice and stigma affects sexuality. I founded the Youth Sexpert Program to help my peers and others on their sexual wellness journey. Hopefully this read can prompt some questions you can ask yourself to more healthily be able to engage (or not engage) in hookup culture.
People experience hookups differently based on not only their morals and upbringings, but also their race, sexual orientation, size, disability, and gender (as well as the intersections of these identities). Recently, gender has been put in the spotlight during conversations about hookup culture with people debating whether or not it is “for women”. An argument against women’s participation could center on not wanting to increase your “body count” as it will make you less desirable for men. Another might use pseudo-spiritual terms like “soul ties” which can scare you out of doing what you want by creating false consequences. People seem to think casual sex is simply not something women are built for, that we always need some level of emotional attachment and commitment to enjoy our sexuality. Notions like these are neither informative or empowering. They create a monolith of women’s experiences. They shut down a lot of folks' intrinsic sexual desires by regurgitating the same slut shame-y messaging many of us were raised with. The truth is that deciding to have casual sex is a very personal decision, shaped by what exactly sex means to you. In your journey to figure that out, you may occasionally engage in casual sex that is less than satisfactory, where you don’t orgasm, where you don’t feel valued, where you discover that something about that interaction just “wasn’t for you”. Bad (*consensual*) sex is a part of learning about yourself. At the very least try not to judge yourself for trying something and not liking it, just because that something you tried is taboo. We’ve all tried foods we don’t like, or tried on a clothing item that didn’t fit, but that taught us something.
The Orgasm Gap
Truths about the soul, evolution, and science, can’t confirm that casual sex is inherently bad for all women, BUT we should also acknowledge that double standards and stereotypes often impact women’s experiences in hookup culture. The Orgasm Gap describes statistics about how men report “usually or always” orgasming during sex (91%), vs women (39%). Women in relationships orgasm 60% of the time during sex, compared to a much lower rate of 17% for women engaging in casual/hookup sex. Men are statistically less likely to care if a woman orgasms in a hookup and more likely to care if she orgasms in a relationship, while women are equally likely to care in both scenarios. There is so much pressure on women to perform during sex, and to finish the job. However, there is so little education for men about the clitoris, and how many people with vulvas need clitoral stimulation to orgasm.
Maximizing Pleasure in Hookup Culture
Getting the most out of hookup culture as anyone who’s not a man, not white, or cis, or thin, or able bodied, has to be a conscious effort. It involves knowing what you enjoy sexually (which often requires exploring during self-pleasure) and advocating for yourself (requires overcoming the social pressures to people-please and fake orgasms). It may involve finding ways to boost your confidence when headed into a hookup situation, perhaps by packing your trusty Intimacy Cleansing Wipes to cleanse the vulva before and/or after sex. Feeling physically prepared can contribute to a more positive sexual experience.
Beyond being empowered to hookup, what about being an ethical hookup for the other party involved? What does it mean to consciously care for a person, their wellbeing and pleasure, without necessarily liking or loving them? It means focusing on health, both physical and emotional, both theirs and yours. It is so important to have open conversation about STI testing, contraception, and informed consent. This includes conversations around testing history, barrier method use, and birth control. Most medical professionals advise everyone to get tested for STIs either between each new partner or once every three months depending on your lifestyle. These can certainly be uncomfortable conversations between you and a partner but are a crucial component of informed consent and what it means to ethically hookup. And then there’s emotional health. Both your partner and you should be abundantly clear about what your relationship is and what it is not, what your personal boundaries are and how to say no when you sense one of them may be crossed. These conversations are ongoing and may evolve, and it’s important that you create space for your partner to bring up anything they want to address in the future.
Hookups aren't a universal experience. They're deeply personal. You’ll certainly have better odds of having a pleasurable experience when you continuously advocate for open dialogue, self-awareness, and authenticity. Despite societal hurdles, chasing pleasure and understanding oneself in the context of hookup culture is a journey worth taking.