Thursday, August 12, 2010

Limited Liability Hedonism

I love that phrase, pulled from an excellent article in Contexts called "Is Hooking Up Bad for Young Women?"

Turning conventional wisdom (and severely blown media panic) on its head, the three authors/sociologists argue that "hooking up" isn't nearly as pervasive or dangerous as we might think. As usual, it's the Baby Boomers who are blowing things out of proportion by wanting to restrict the freedoms they enjoyed for their own children.

Young people today are not having more sex at younger ages than their parents. The sexual practices of American youth changed with the Baby Boom cohort who came of age more than 40 years ago. The National Health and Social Life Survey found that those born after 1942 were more sexually active at younger ages than those born from 1933-42. However, the trend toward greater sexual activity among young people appears to halt or reverse among the youngest cohort in the NHSLS, those born from 1963-72.

Lawrence B. Finer, Director of Domestic Research for the Guttmacher Institute, found that the percent of women who have had premarital sex by age 20 (65-76 percent) is roughly the same for all cohorts born after 1948. He also found that the women in the youngest cohort in this survey—those born from 1979-1984—were less likely to have premarital sex by age 20 than those born before them. The Centers for Disease Control reports that rates of sexual intercourse among 9th-12th graders decreased from 1991-2007, as did numbers of partners.

[Concerning college students today], seventy-two percent of both men and women participating in a survey reported at least one hookup by their senior year in college. What the Boomer panic may gloss over, however, is the fact that college students don’t, on average, hook up that much. By senior year, roughly 40 percent of those who ever hooked up had engaged in three or fewer hookups, 40 percent between four and nine hookups, and only 20 percent in ten or more hookups. About 80 percent of students hook up, on average, less than once per semester over the course of college.
In addition, less than one-third of all hookups reported intercourse, which means everything from oral sex to kissing constitutes 2/3 of all hookups. Also, none of is this new or unique to this generation of Millennials.
Hooking up isn’t radically new. As suggested above, the big change in adolescent and young adult sexual behavior occurred with the Baby Boomers. Young people today—particularly young whites from affluent families—are expected to delay the commitments of adulthood while they invest in careers. They get the message that sex is okay, as long as it doesn’t jeopardize their futures; STDs and early pregnancies are to be avoided. This generates a sort of limited liability hedonism. For instance, friendship is prioritized a bit more than romance, and oral sex appeals because of its relative safety.

In addition, hookups between total strangers are relatively uncommon, while hooking up with the same person multiple times is common. Ongoing sexual relationships without commitment are labeled as “repeat,” “regular,” or “continuing” hookups, and sometimes as “friends with benefits.”

Media panic over hooking up may be at least in part a result of adult confusion about youth sexual culture—that is, not understanding that oral sex and sexual experimentation with friends are actually some young people’s ways of balancing fun and risk.
Gasp. I can hear all those Baby Boomers squirming uncomfortably in their relaxed-fit jeans. Not only is this nothing new, but it's normal? Shudder.

However, the authors sound some cautionary notes as well. As sorority and fraternity "rush" gets underway this week, consider this:
On college campuses, this sexual double standard often finds its most vociferous expression in the Greek scene. Fraternities are often the only venues where large groups of underage students can readily access alcohol. Consequently, one of the easiest places to find hookup partners is in a male-dominated party context. As a variety of scholars have observed, fraternity men often use their control of the situation to undermine women’s ability to freely consent to sex (e.g., by pushing women to drink too heavily, barring their exit from private rooms, or refusing them rides home). Women report varying degrees of sexual disrespect in the fraternity culture, and the dynamics of this scene predictably produce some amount of sexual assault.
So why do so many college students seem eager to avoid the traditional boyfriend/girlfriend relationship? The authors explore gender inequality in relationships and why, despite 40 years of sexual revolution, patriarchy and power-differences still put women at a disadvantage within the traditional dyadic context.

Relationships are good for sex but, unfortunately, they have a dark side as well. Relationships are “greedy,” getting in the way of other things that young women want to be doing as adolescents and young adults, and they are often characterized by gender inequality—sometimes even violence.

Talking to young people, two of us (Hamilton and Armstrong) found that committed relationships detracted from what women saw as main tasks of college. The women we interviewed complained, for example, that relationships made it difficult to meet people. Women also complained that committed relationships competed with schoolwork.

Subjects told us that relationships were not only time-consuming, but also marked by power inequalities and abuse. Women reported that boyfriends tried to control their social lives, the time they spent with friends, and even what they wore.

If relationships threaten academic achievement, get in the way of friendship, and can involve jealousy, manipulation, stalking, and abuse, it is no wonder that young women sometimes opt for casual sex. Being open to hooking up means being able to go out and fit into the social scene, get attention from young men, and learn about sexuality.
In other words, the same thing Baby Boomers did back in the 60's and 70's when in college, the same thing us Gen Xers did in the 80's and 90's in college, ad infinitum.

Fundamentally, your 20's are supposed to be about you, and it doesn't seem as though that has changed much. There may, in fact, be some truth to the "sowing your wild oats" idiom, except here as it applies to women as well.

It would seem from this analysis that today's college students are engaging in sexual activity much the same way previous generations did, albeit in a much more planned, calculated and safe fashion. That's somewhat fitting for this overly-prepped generation.

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