It’s always easier to lament a problem than to find a viable solution to it. And that principle goes double for the hook-up culture. The problems are obvious: emotional struggles, sexually transmitted diseases, distrust between the sexes, a shortage of fulfilling relationships. The solutions — or at least the factors that can lessen the prevalence of the hook-up culture and foster healthier dating relationships — are more complicated. They would require colleges, nonprofit groups, parents, and young people themselves to make significant changes to the ways they currently operate. But if we want to actually replace the hook-up culture with a better alternative, here’s where we should start.
Student Health Services
As the psychiatrist Miriam Grossman explains in her book Unprotected, student health services on most college campuses do a woefully bad job of addressing women’s problems arising from casual sex. They don’t even promote the basic facts that women have a right to know.
For example, women in my classes know that they have more to fear from an unwanted pregnancy than their male peers . But at least half of them don’t know other relevant facts about sex — and not just about the emotional costs of casual sex.
They generally do not know that they’re much more likely than men
to get a sexually transmitted disease from contact with an infected partner, that they’re much more likely than males to become infertile from STDs, or that the birth-control pill dampens their sexual interest and pleasure.
In addition, before taking my classes, my female students were never told that the Pill scrambles the sensory messages that they subconsciously detect with their sense of smell: The hormones in the Pill make them more attracted to men with immune systems similar to their own. Those scrambled signals mean falling in love with a man while taking the Pill is risky. If the couple marries and tries to have children, the woman will have somewhat higher odds of repeated miscarriages and perhaps of having more-vulnerable offspring.
Though today’s “just the facts” sex education is supposed to teach young people how to minimize health risks, it neglects to inform women of facts like these. The college-campus student health center should try to fill these gaps in their knowledge.
College women often ponder what to do about invitations to have sex. Women’s centers could provide an invaluable service if they provided forums and counseling that address the subject. They could mention the emotional costs to women of casual sex and the medical and biological facts discussed above that the student health centers are failing to address.
While it might seem counterintuitive, women’s centers could also benefit women by increasing male enrollment in higher education. On a number of occasions, I’ve asked my classes whether it would be better for women if their percentage on campuses went from 57 to 60 or if it went from 57 to 54. Most of my female students want more men on campus. They know that the presence of even more women would make it still harder for them to find a good man ready to commit. Women want to marry, and they want to marry men who are at least as educationally and professionally accomplished as they are. Perhaps we could encourage women’s centers interested in outside-the-box thinking to sponsor forums on how to get more young men prepared for and interested in college. Leonard Sax, who is a doctor and author of Boys Adrift, and Christina Hoff Sommers, author of a new edition of her classic The War Against Boys, could be asked to help on this project.
Other Campus Groups
Groups that try to combat the hookup culture and create a more female-friendly dating scene already exist on many campuses. The Network of enlightened Women (NeW) for example, tries to encourage the better side of men by sponsoring a “Gentlemen’s Showcase,” in which chapters nominate and campaign for their nominees to become the national network’s outstanding gentleman of the year. The Love and Fidelity Network, another group with chapters at many colleges, sponsors national and regional conferences where speakers and students discuss the benefits of faithful, committed relationships.
These sorts of groups could do more. For example, during orientation week, they could sponsor forums where women who are juniors and seniors explain the hook-up culture to freshmen females. (Freshmen women are particularly vulnerable: In the minds of some college men, they’re “fresh meat.”) These groups could also approach women’s centers in a friendly way to present the evidence about the effects that casual sex has on young women. If women’s centers refuse to take the issue seriously, the groups could picket the centers and take their concerns to the media or state legislatures.
The historic teachings of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all emphasize sex differences, and their doctrines about sexuality condemn casual sex. Their institutions could do more than they now do to teach young people about how casual sex harms both sexes, particularly women. And they could equip young people to form more serious dating relationships, which many college students desire but have little experience with.
It is with reluctance that I make unsolicited suggestions for what parents might say to their daughters about their relationships with men. Young women will have differing life plans and may or may not have boyfriends.
Still, I wonder about the advice that parents give their college-student daughters who have boyfriends, even boyfriends of whom the parents approve. My students tell me that parents often advise their daughter to not even think about getting married until “you have a graduate degree and a job. With a 50 percent divorce rate,” they say, “it’s too risky to get married right out of college.”
The first problem with such advice is that these parents have some facts wrong. The divorce rate for Americans is not 50 but 43 percent. More importantly, it is much lower for college graduates: About 33 percent of marriages between couples without college degrees end within ten years, while among college-educated couples only about 11 percent of marriages end in the same time period. The median duration of marriages that end in divorce is eight years, so that 11 percent is not likely to be doubled over the lifetime of couples who are are college graduates.