Politics & Policy

How to Rebuild a Dating Culture

To achieve it, colleges, parents, and young people themselves need to make changes.

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.  

Women’s Centers

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.

Religious Institutions

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.

Second, parents usually don’t realize that waiting a long time to marry comes with its own risks. Marriages of couples who tied the knot in their thirties are more likely to last than those that commence at an earlier age; however, that doesn’t mean they’re happier marriages. Husbands and wives who marry in their mid to late twenties are more likely to report that they are very happy than are those who marry at later ages.

Possibly the most painful downside of later marriage, however, is the fertility pressure that goes with it. As American women continue to put off marriage and childbearing till later ages, more are struggling to conceive. Not all young people meet the right partner early in life, of course, but parents shouldn’t insist that their sons and daughters put off marriage when a suitable partner is there.

Moreover, the 22-year-old woman in love with a boyfriend with “prospects” might not get another attractive proposal later. For about a decade now, women have earned 57 percent of college degrees every year. This means that about 14 out of every 57 college-educated women — almost 25 percent of them — will not be able to marry a man who is also a college graduate, at least one who has not previously married.  

Parents and young people alike should also keep in mind the probable alternative to early marriage. Many men and women who don’t marry until their early thirties will, while they’re in their twenties, enter a number of sexual and cohabiting relationships that end in breakups. The therapist Patricia Dalton has written of the difficulties she has with thirtyish female clients who are “acting like a wife” while their partners are “acting like a boyfriend.” Dalton is convinced that sex makes the breakups much harder on women. She acknowledges that, though she can help these women in some ways, “the emotional costs of breaking up over and over . . . are hard to calculate.” Therapists “can’t magically restore the hope, optimism, and innocence that these world-weary women have lost.”

Young Women

Economists assume that we can tell what people like by their “revealed preferences”: what they actually spend their time and money on. For example, when people take up tennis or softball and begin playing regularly, we can fairly assume that it is because they have come to enjoy those activities.

As I argued yesterday, this assumption doesn’t work with casual sex for women. There is some amount of “pluralistic ignorance” operating on college campuses: Men and women overestimate each other’s, and even their own sex’s, comfort levels with hook-ups. They participate in hook-ups anyway not purely because they want to but to follow what they believe are widely accepted norms.  For example, men, on average, report being comfortable with oral sex and intercourse during hook-ups, but they think most men are more comfortable than they are. More troubling, men think that women are less comfortable with oral sex and intercourse than they are, but they think women are on average more comfortable than not; in fact women report being decidedly uncomfortable in hook-ups that involve oral sex and intercourse.

I see further evidence of this study’s conclusions in the surprise that my male students show during class discussions when they see how unhappy their female classmates are with hook-ups. My female students tell me that the emotional pain that casual sex causes women is not seen by the men who cause it because the women are often ashamed that they care about men who treat them like strangers the next morning. They don’t want the men involved or the rest of campus to know about their tears. This ignorance can be combated by the groups discussed above, and some men’s behavior should change when they know the truth about women’s feelings.

Even those women who do desire casual sex rarely persist in desiring it for long. John Townsend finds that adventurous, untraditional women who are initially attracted to casual sex eventually find that their feelings will not cooperate. It does not make them happy, and they become less and less inclined to participate as time goes by.  

And frequent casual sex can have downsides for women even after they’ve stopped engaging in it. As unfair as it may seem, men who enjoy sex with lots of women usually prefer to marry women who have not had sex with lots of men. (Evolutionists argue that men’s aversion toward women with promiscuous pasts runs deep: Their aversion makes it less likely that they will end up unwittingly raising other men’s children.)

Obviously, women who conclude that casual sex does not or would not make them happy can choose not to participate. But the relationship culture that surrounds them is shaped by all men’s and women’s choices, not just by their own individual preferences. Women who participate in casual sex make it harder for the majority of women to get dates and committed sex. They make it harder for women to live in a world where they are courted and respected.  

We live in a very tolerant age, but women who prefer relationships to hook-ups should feel free to try to protect their interests. They can choose their friends from among their friends who do not impose costs on them.  

To succeed in developing a more female-friendly mating culture, these women will need to unite with other women. In What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us, Danielle Crittenden has argued exactly this point: “If women as a group cease to be readily available — if they begin to demand commitment (and real commitment, as in marriage) in exchange for sex — market conditions will shift in favor of women.”

Combine women’s efforts with the support of parents and campus groups, and we may be able to rebuild a healthier relationship culture for today’s young people.

— Steven E. Rhoads is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and the author of Taking Sex Differences Seriously.


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