As millennials, we’ve all been subjected to the same tired rants about our loose morals and our casual sex. Millennials suck; our hookup culture is shameful; women these days are “easy.” Chivalry is dead! In its place, apparently, lies a casual sex culture that has shaken the very foundation of sexual propriety, leaving us quivering at the thought of meaningful relationships.
This mainstream critique not only draws upon archaic and heterosexist tropes but also completely misses the mark on the true value of hookups. First of all, there isn’t a single monolithic hookup culture. Each city has its own set of rules—cultural fluency in Montreal, my home city, does not guarantee success in New York or at Columbia. Second, hookups have not replaced committed relationships. In any case, hookups are meaningful. Hookup culture affirms our need for development—erotic and otherwise—and can allow us to flourish into sexually responsible adults.
In relationships, we seek both philia and eros—affectionate love and sexual desire—whereas in hookups, we seek eros alone. For our parents, eros was learned in the shadows of parked cars whereas we millennials are open and outspoken about our sex lives. I believe that hookup culture can position philia and eros as equally valuable. And yet, despite this refreshing cultural space, we seem to be making many of our parents’ mistakes.
Hookups are precious, not because they let some of us get off without paying for dinner, but because they allow us to learn about ourselves. What gives me pleasure? How do I give pleasure? What bodies am I attracted to? Hookups offer a unique opportunity for self-discovery via experiential learning. Is using external bodies to learn about yourself sad? (Maybe, but I’m not your therapist.) From Thurst to Bumble to direct messages, we are able to leverage an ever-growing network to assist us in our sexual liberation; it takes a (STD-tested) village to raise a sexually liberated adult.
I was raised on the island of Montreal (yes, island. Google it), better known as the destination of choice for alcohol-deprived Americans. Growing up francophone, sexuality was omnipresent. It was perfectly acceptable for parents to recount their first times at the dinner table or for my friend’s dad to jokingly tell me that he lost five pounds by getting circumcised. Montreal’s hookup culture is open. By the time I was 16, all of my close friends were happily sexually active, and none were in committed relationships.
When I left for boarding school in Massachusetts at 17, I was shocked to meet several people who had never even kissed someone. I felt confused and partly ashamed of the experience I had. I felt like I had to play by their rules, so I pulled a Netflix and chill and invited a guy over. We started the movie and I waited. Nothing.
Coming from a culture of salient performative machismo, I felt out of place. What was I doing wrong? After about an hour into Silence of the Lambs, I snapped, “Well, are you going to kiss me or what?” I was honestly annoyed—I had homework to do! His reaction was priceless; I surprised him and he was into it. I, on the other hand, was pissed.
We then proceeded to engage in the most subpar hookup of my entire life. I stalled as long as I could, but eventually my inner Montrealer lashed out, yelling, “That is NOT how you do it!” He ran out and my hallmates rushed in. When I filled them in, their jaws dropped: You told him?! They were perplexed and thought I was rude, arguing that I should have waited it out. I felt horrible, but I stood by my decision—why should I have to settle? This was my time as much as his!
The actual problem was that I had not voiced my intentions and hadn’t felt like I could. Hookups, in and of themselves, are neither inherently good or bad. They are a medium for expressing and experiencing our sexual desire—it is how we use them that matters. The pressures from this foreign culture made me question the transparency I was used to at home. I should have been upfront and delineated my preferences. While it was consensual, it definitely was not enjoyable. The holes in American hookup culture exist because of a lack of communication and an asymmetry of expectations. You have to know what you want, communicate your limits, be clear about your intentions, take care of your sexual health and, most importantly, get consent or get out.
To successfully participate in a hookup culture, we need to be honest with ourselves about what we want. Hookups are not for everyone and that’s ok. Never, ever settle for less.
Even if you are only hooking up, you should demand respect and know when to walk away. If you agree to just a hookup with someone, you should not, barring explicit communication, perform a close exegesis of iMessages to parse out a grain of hope. As my best friend Raphaëlle would say, we must not “se faire des filmes” (fantasize, or, literally, make up films in your mind). If you keep finding yourself trying to make it more than what it is, then you just aren’t cut out for hookups—and again, that’s ok.
Hookups are precious, and we owe it to ourselves to do better. A new, reformed hookup culture must rely on fundamental respect and trust. If you set up clear, honest boundaries and expectations, there will be no need to ghost the day after.
In Montreal, it is customary to text someone after a night together to follow up and thank them. At this time, the person can decide to include their desire to meet again, become friends with benefits and, in rarer cases, try for something more serious. We spend hours crafting the perfect responses for job recruiting, right? If the managing director at Goldman Sachs deserves it, so do your peers.
We haven’t ruined love. What millennials have done is affirm our erotic development. You cannot love someone else until you know and love yourself. While many waver between looking for relationships and looking for casual sex, they are separate pursuits. Sexual liberation, to me, isn’t about having sex all the time or at every urge. It is about having sex in the way that is most authentic and most comfortable to you.
The author is a sophomore in Columbia College fulfilling a double major in financial economics and gender studies. Alexandra is passionate about social entrepreneurship and queer rights. She will be interning at Apple in Beijing this summer.