In “The New Dating Game: Back to the New Paleolithic Age,” Charlotte Allen describes the relatively widespread hookup culture:
Welcome to the New Paleolithic, where tens of thousands of years of human mating practices have swirled into oblivion like shampoo down the shower drain and Cro-Magnons once again drag women by the hair into their caves—and the women love every minute of it. Louts who might as well be clad in bearskins and wielding spears trample over every nicety developed over millennia to mark out a ritual of courtship as a prelude to sex: Not just marriage (that went years ago with the sexual revolution and the mass-marketing of the birth-control pill) or formal dating (the hookup culture finished that)—but amorous preliminaries and other civilities once regarded as elementary, at least among the college-educated classes.
She sees such a culture as a result and driver of devaluing marriage, feminism, and biology, citing as evidence Tucker Max, evolutionary psychology, Roissy in DC (who is despicable yet hilarious), women complaining publicly about their husbands, very long-term educations (medical residencies and PhDs now routinely stretch into the early 30s), and delayed marriage. This is mostly a bad thing in Allen’s eyes. Maybe it is mostly a bad thing, but even if it is, I don’t think the hook-up culture being described is likely to stop for basically economic reasons: the equilibrium for it appears to lean toward hooking up for most people and technology is lowering the “cost” of casual sex.
The second one is probably the most interesting, and the first can mostly be understood by reading Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life and Kathleen Bogle’s Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. The basic problem both describe is that situations in which women outnumber men tend to lead to hooking up, while situations in which the opposite occurs tend to lead to the opposite. But I wonder how much of this is due to technological development driving social change, rather than vice-versa. “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation” shows that parental and institutional attitudes towards premarital sex have softened over time, and “Contraception has reduced the chance of unwanted pregnancies from premarital sex, and this in turn has changed social attitudes.”
The parental attitudes issue can be seen in Perilloux, Fleischman, and Buss’ 2008 journal article, “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis: Parental Influence on, and Emotional Reactions to, Offspring’s Mating Behavior” (Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 217-233). The short version: parents work harder to control and limit their daughters’ sexuality than their sons’, perhaps for evolutionary reasons. They don’t say whether this effect has declined over time, but based on the research in “From shame to game,” I would guess that the answer is yes. Still, if the evolutionary incentive of parents is toward controlling and limiting their daughters’ sexuality, this would help explain why the stigma against extensive sexuality still exists, especially among younger women. And parents might want to limit sexuality because they have to deal with potential costs, like pregnancy, but don’t experience the obvious pleasures. Younger men, on the other hand, don’t get pregnant, and their perceived sexual value doesn’t seem to decline with the number of partners—hence why the double-standard persists, even though, as Allen points out, it is weakening. And technology is probably hastening that, which leads to laments like Allen’s.
One other technologically related issue is there too: porn, and the near-zero cost of its dissemination (cell phones, and “sexting,” can now make anyone a pornographer in under a minute, including those under 18). I remember reading about a study-in-progress in which the lead researcher said,
“We started our research seeking men in their twenties who had never consumed pornography. We couldn’t find any,” says Simon Louis Lajeunesse, a postdoctoral student and professor at the School of Social Work.
Although I doubt porn has the power that some of its detractors imply, it is also hard to believe that pornography’s sheer ubiquity hasn’t had some effect on how women and men treat sexuality—and, presumably, the effect is lowering the stigma of sex by showing that, regardless of what authority figures say, plenty of people are doing it.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes about “… the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore nothing is permitted.” The quote is hilariously out of context but nonetheless gets closer to expressing something essential about modern sexual politics (and it seems like Europe got there first, as it often does socially): sex changes “things,” that nebulous word, but it in its consensual form it isn’t fundamentally harmful. Everything is pardoned in advance, except maybe pleasure for its own sake, and everything is permitted, contra Kundera. Sex is becoming less harmful all the time. Consequently and perhaps not surprisingly, people are having a lot more of it, since it’s probably still as fun as it used to be (although we all know that there’s nothing like forbidden fruit to spark an appetite: consequently the pleasure of novels that take as their impetus a love that exists even though it can’t or shouldn’t). Who can blame the Manhattan woman who’s had on average “20 sex partners during her lifetime,” according to Allen? I’m reminded of Tony Judt describing early 60s Britain in “Girls! Girls! Girls!:”
Even if you got a date, it was like courting your grandmother. Girls in those days came buttressed in an impenetrable Maginot Line of hooks, belts, girdles, nylons, roll-ons, suspenders, slips, and petticoats. Older boys assured me that these were mere erotic impedimenta, easily circumnavigated. I found them terrifying. And I was not alone, as any number of films and novels from that era can illustrate. Back then we all lived on Chesil Beach.
Now very few of us, unless we have unusual religious convictions without the usual hypocrisy those convictions entail (think of Margaret Talbot’s article “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” in which she asks, “Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?“), live on Chesil Beach. Instead, we live in Roissy’s carnival, in a world of options, and the real question is whether we understand that world and our own choices in it. The bigger problem than the sex other people might be having is the gap between our behavior and our understanding of our behavior, which, at least to this observer, seems as wide as ever.