Our own Hanna Rosin's new book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women is coming out next month, and the Atlantic is previewing it in its September issue with Hanna's piece about the so-called "hook-up culture" that has conservatives in a decade-long huff and much of the media in a sex panic.
The typical assumption about hook-up culture is that it's something men imposed on women, exploiting modern contraceptives and sexual liberty to get away with having sex with women without having to commit or do anything icky, like pretend to like them. The narrative has always sat uneasily with me, as it's based on the presumption that women are so foul that men will only put up with them in order to get sex. So I was stoked to discover that Hanna's research led her to conclude that women aren't being victimized by delusions of feminism and the men taking advantage of them. On the contrary, she believes that women perpetuate the hook-up culture. Young women want romance in theory but find that in practice, relationships are more trouble than they're worth. Quoting research from Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, she writes:
The women described boyfriends as “too greedy” and relationships as “too involved.” One woman “with no shortage of admirers” explained, “I know this sounds really pathetic and you probably think I am lying, but there are so many other things going on right now that it’s really not something high up on my list … I know that’s such a lame-ass excuse, but it’s true.” The women wanted to study or hang out with friends or just be “100 percent selfish,” as one said. “I have the rest of my life to devote to a husband or kids or my job.” Some even purposely had what one might think of as fake boyfriends, whom they considered sub–marriage quality, and weren’t genuinely attached to. “He fits my needs now, because I don’t want to get married now,” one said. “I don’t want anyone else to influence what I do after I graduate.”
In other words, young women believe maintaining a boyfriend is so much work that it's impossible to have one while simultaneously building a career and a nonromantic social life—and that the latter two are higher priorities. Which suggests that all the people who are so upset about hook-up culture are attacking it from the wrong angle. Instead of scolding women for their self-defeating bed-hopping, they should be scolding men. If men demand so much time and attention from girlfriends that those girlfriends can't have a life outside of the relationship, that suggests men are asking way too much of women. So needy!
If you want women to be more interested in long-term commitment, the best place to start is with fixing men. Men need to learn to be a value-add to the lives of their girlfriends, instead of a burden. Traditionally, women are expected to spend a great deal of time on their men with tasks like ego-stroking, cleaning up after them, and plan-making. If men could come to relationships with fewer demands, women would be more interested. After all, as Hanna notes, women do want the benefits of long-term love. They just don't want the price to be higher than the rewards.
Clarification, Aug. 24, 2012: The original version of this post did not give credit to researchers Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton.