Valentine’s Day in the 21st century means fewer heart-shaped candy boxes for college women than they would have received in the 20th century. Some women with steady, longstanding boyfriends may get a treat, but casual sex — the hook-up — has made dating much less common.
Under the hook-up regime, women who want a man’s attention are expected to dress provocatively and show up at a fraternity house or bar. After drinking too much, some guy will suggest they go somewhere and hook up, which can consist of anything from deep kissing to intercourse. The men are not attentive during or after the one-night stand. Less than half the women have orgasms, and the men frequently ignore the hook-up partner entirely if they should meet again on campus.
Most college women are not happy about this state of affairs. This would be clear to any observer who could sit in on my sex-differences seminar during the week when we discuss contemporary courtship or its absence. This past fall, I asked 16 female seminar participants if they personally knew — not knew of, but knew — a woman who they thought had been very seriously harmed emotionally because of hook-ups. Every hand went up.
The men, typically, have no problems with hook-ups, and many vigorously pursue them. In class they tend to be quiet on the subject, but this year one tall, handsome fellow was willing to engage. He seemed to be speaking for all men he knew when he said “hook-ups aren’t going away.” But he was genuinely surprised and concerned that so many women were angry about them.
The literature on hook-ups shows that what I have observed at the University of Virginia is typical. In the book Premarital Sex in America, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker report that having more sexual partners is associated with “poorer emotional states in women, but not in men.” The more sexual partners a woman has in her lifetime, the more likely she is to be depressed, to cry almost every day, and to report relatively low satisfaction with her life as a whole. Elsewhere I have surveyed the evolutionary and hormonal factors that lead men and women to react so differently to casual sex.
But why do women have casual sex if they don’t want to? First, in their experimental phase, they don’t know that they won’t like it. Men and women in my upper-division classes agree that first-year women participate in hook-ups much more than fourth-years do. Some of the frat boys show up at freshman orientation events to get a head start on their seductions. A few even have a cute name for their prey: “fresh meat.”
Second, sex ratios matter. Now that women outnumber men on college campuses, they must compete with each other to give men more of what they want if they expect to find male companionship. Where there are more men than women on a campus, on the other hand, it’s men who have to compete, so women can successfully make things move more slowly physically. With sex ratios in college consistently lopsided over the past decade — women earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees — men set the mating tone on most campuses.
But young men haven’t always acted this way. In the middle of the last century, being a leader of a group of young men led to “comfortable dating, or perhaps early marriage,” Eleanor Maccoby writes, whereas the same social position today leads to “a greater readiness to exploit sexual opportunities and display sexual prowess.” By the time they reached their twenties, men used to settle down with one woman and raise a family. They used to be willing to answer to a wife and a boss for 40 to 50 hours a week for 40 to 50 years. But men famously hate to be told what to do. Why, then, did they so frequently become reliable partners?
They did it in midcentury because it was clearer what a man’s responsibilities were, and it was important work. Men were the providers and protectors and heads of the family; now they’re told they’re half the provider, sometimes less, and half the nurturer of the children — which they recognize as a cruel joke the moment they learn that, when they comfort her, the infant doesn’t stop crying as she does for her breast feeding mother. Working women have achieved important gains from these changes in behavior and expectations, but for men, going from head of the family to maybe half the provider and less than half with children doesn’t sound like a promotion. They may be slower to get with the program.
But, just as important, men settled down earlier in the past because they could not get good-looking and intelligent women to pay attention to them unless they had “prospects.” Men had to be marriageable and ready to commit to a relationship or most women would not have sex with them. Most men in their twenties still want marriage in the distant future, but they see no reason not to partake of the bodily charms of many attractive, intelligent women in the meantime. To bed women in our age, men find that good pectoral muscles (thus time in the gym) can be as useful as good career prospects (time in the library) — though with the shortage of men on college campuses, they may not need either.
The contemporary mating culture helps explain why men these days take so long to grow up. Sexual mores matter. Today’s lead to remarkably crude men, but also, and perhaps more significantly, remarkably juvenile ones.
The real tragedy is the effect that hook-ups have on the emotional well-being of so many women. Simon Baron Cohen’s The Essential Difference shows that, more than males, females crave connection to other humans from the first months of life, expressing instincts that are essential to happy families and supportive communities.
— Steven E. Rhoads is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and the author of Taking Sex Differences Seriously.