Is Casual Sex Intrinsically Demeaning?

Many well-intentioned people decry casual sex (or hooking up, or what have you) and argue that there’s something inherently demeaning about it–that you’re just letting the other person use your body and then toss it aside, that you’re letting them disrespect you.

It’s worth noting that, to these people, it’s only the woman in the (always heterosexual) pairing who gets used, abused, demeaned, and disrespected. But that sexist double standard is a separate conversation from the one I want to have, which is this: is casual sex intrinsically disrespectful? And is committed sex, then, intrinsically respectful?

My views on this issue have been evolving a lot recently. Overall, I’ve had a very negative experience with casual sex. The times that I haven’t been outright pressured and/or forced into it, I’ve been manipulated, insulted, and lied to.

I’m not saying that to get advice or sympathy, by the way. I’m saying it to explain why I can never really view casual sex as an Intrinsically Good Thing–my experiences with it have mostly been awful, whereas my experiences with committed sex have mostly been pretty great.

And that’s not to say that I see it as morally wrong or inadvisable, or that I think it’s too “dangerous” for people to do (that would be victim-blaming!). I do criticize it. But I also criticize people who moralize about it.

tl;dr my views on it are complicated and I can’t boil them down into a convenient soundbite.

But anyway, as I’ve gotten involved with organizations and people outside of Northwestern, I’ve started to realize that my views may be skewed somewhat because I live in a bubble. The Northwestern bubble. I live in it, I work in it, and, well, I have sex in it, too.

I know I should be careful about criticizing Northwestern’s campus culture. It’s not a homogenous thing, first of all, and it shares a lot of similarities with other campus cultures. However, now that I’ve met so many folks who are going (or went) to school elsewhere, I’ve become more confident in the fact that there are some things about this school that are relatively unique.

All of us at Northwestern are very intelligent. Many of us were picked on in elementary and middle school and self-identified as nerds in high school. Everyone I’ve met here has plenty of stories about that.

Many of us didn’t have much sexual experience before college (and many still don’t–a survey done here shows that almost half of the students have not had sex within the past year). However, we are all, to some extent, products of a culture that values sexual experience and “coolness.” We are a Big Ten school located near a huge city, and, to a greater degree than many other elite universities, ours is full of students who are on a pre-professional track–not here just for knowledge and intellectual growth, but to prepare for a career. And we know that in the workplace, we will be judged not only by our abilities, but by our appearance and our level of social aptitude.

Combine that appearance-focused, results-oriented mindset with pressure–both internal and external–to have sex, and you will have our campus’ hookup culture. It can be a lot of fun if you find the right people, but it can also be alienating, dehumanizing, and painful. I know, because I’ve been there.

And until recently, I thought that that’s just the nature of the beast. I thought that most people who like to hook up have stories like mine–if not only stories like mine. But as I’ve been meeting more people who don’t go here, I’ve heard more and more stories of casual sex done right–with respect, enthusiasm, honesty, and consent.

Although I’d long suspected that you don’t have to treat someone like an object just because you’re only hooking up with them for one night, I had yet to hear of any actual evidence for that. I had yet to meet people who could tell me that they’d had a casual thing with someone and it was not only consensual and physically enjoyable, but respectful and affirming, too. But now I have.

I’ve also realized that there are so many situations in which committed sex can be just as demeaning and disrespectful as my experience with casual sex has been. For starters, people can rape each other even within relationships–something that conservatives who wring their hands over casual sex don’t seem to understand (in many countries, marital rape was not criminalized until the late 20th century). In some ways, rape within committed relationships can be even more difficult to address because of expectations that your partner be available to you sexually whenever you want, and/or that you should be sexually available to your partner whenever they want.

Even if consent is actually given, sex within relationships can still be disrespectful (as I’d perceive it, at least). People can still be focused on their own pleasure without regard for their partner’s. People can still take their partners for granted. People can still objectify their partners. A serious relationship–including marriage–does not automatically imply that people are enjoying a healthy, mutually respectful sex life.

Ultimately, I think that any sexual relationship–whether it lasts for an hour or a lifetime–can only be as respectful as the people involved in it. The partners I had were not respectful, and they would not have been any more respectful if I’d been in a serious relationship with them. I felt disrespected and demeaned not because I chose to have casual sex with them, but because I chose to interact with them, period.

I believe that sex is ultimately value-free, as long as it is consensual. No “type” of sex–casual, committed, kinky, vanilla, straight, gay, solo–is intrinsically anything. Sex of any kind with someone who respects you and treats you well can be wonderful, and sex of any kind with someone who does not will probably be terrible.

Unfortunately, fixing the latter problem is much more difficult than shaming and scaring young people out of hooking up. We’d first have to create a culture in which people don’t view each other as a means to an end.

And, I’ll be honest, I have no idea how to do that.

Northwestern Sex Week and Conservative Hypocrisy

Northwestern’s annual Sex Week is coming up next week. Sex Week is basically exactly what it sounds like. I quote their website: “our mission is simple: we want people to start talking. Sex Week is meant to provide students with fun, provocative, and informative opportunities to explore the role of sex and sexuality in our lives. There is no religious or ideological affiliation: just an open forum to learn and discuss.”

Sounds pretty good, right?

Well, according to an organization called the Love & Fidelity Network, Northwestern Sex Week has a major problem:

Northwestern University sponsored its own Sex Week last spring, entitled “Rock her World.” Featured tips for men included how to please their female sex partners.

Despite good intentions for fun and informative sexual health education, many university programs and events lack crucial health information on the emotional and physical harms of casual sex. Health Centers readily distribute condoms as the only real safeguard against STIs (sexually transmitted infections), neglecting to encourage abstinence as a realistic and effective option. Students are not getting the health information they need. [emphasis theirs]

That’s right, our intelligent, well-informed college students are not aware that abstinence is an option. Years of Bush-mandated abstinence-only sex education, along with a heavy cultural stigma against teenage sexuality (particularly female teenage sexuality), have somehow failed to inform us of the basic fact that it is, in fact, physically possible not to have sex.

Who would’ve thought?

They continue:

The institution of marriage and the important role of the family are no longer esteemed and defended, but are instead forgotten or criticized. Students learn to question “traditional” marriage, family, and sexual norms, without being given the appropriate resources to honestly and intelligently evaluate those questions. They learn how to critique these institutions and principles, unaware that a defense exists as well.

Marriage and family are “forgotten?” I don’t know, it’s pretty hard to forget about marriage and family. All around me I see LGBTQ activists fighting for their right to get married in the first place, politicians trumpeting “family values,” and fellow students in serious relationships. I also see that Northwestern actually offers a very popular “Marriage 101” class (apparently that’s not enough to offset the debauchery of Sex Week in the eyes of the Concerned Adults over at the Love & Fidelity Network). Northwestern is also affiliated with an institution that provides family and couples’ therapy, for which I’ve helped with research in the past. This institution is named–wait for it–the Family Institute.

But no, clearly, marriage and family are completely “forgotten” at Northwestern.

According to the Love & Fidelity Network, we lack the “appropriate resources to honestly and intelligently evaluate” questions of marriage and family. Instead, all we can do is criticize and condemn them. In order to evaluate these issues “intelligently,” then, we need resources and events from this completely-unbiased-I-promise-you organization.

First of all, on behalf of Northwestern students, I’d like to thank the folks over at the Love & Fidelity Network for their concern trolling. I really don’t know where we’d be without you.

Second, I’d like to propose a radical idea–what if college students are not actually the dumb, easily brainwashed sheep that you imagine them to be, and what if they are actually capable of critical thinking and of choosing whichever path best suits them in life?

I think I hear crickets.

I want somebody to find me an example of a time when a sexually active college student received information from a conservative group like this one and said, “Wow, abstinence? I never thought of that! I’m totally going to try it now!”

Do college students at times make bad decisions about sex? Of course. They neglect to use condoms. They don’t get tested for STIs enough. They pressure someone into having sex with them. They don’t ask for what they want, or they don’t ask their partner what they want. They’re afraid to give consent, or to withhold it. They use stereotypes to try to understand someone else’s sexuality. They use alcohol to fake a feeling of confidence that they haven’t yet developed.

These are all real problems, and organizations like Sex Week are trying to combat them. These are the problems that college health centers try to solve–and I would know, because I work very closely with my own college health center on many of these issues.

These problems don’t have easy solutions, and sometimes we don’t know what the solutions are.

But you know what isn’t a solution? “Hey guys! Try abstinence! It’s super awesome I swear!”

A caveat–abstinence may be the right choice for some people. No serious sex educator would ever deny this. But the thought process that should lead someone to choose abstinence should go something like this: “You know, I don’t think I’m comfortable having sex yet. I’m going to wait until I feel like it’s right for me.” It should not go like this: “I feel like having sex would make me a slut/mean I have no morals/prevent me from finding a serious partner/make me a bad person.” But that second thought process is the one conservative groups want you to have.

How do I know? I’ll continue to quote from the Love & Fidelity Network’s website:

Today’s college students are the next generation of leaders and parents. There is a desperate need for them to be well-informed about the lifestyles and behaviors that best enable them to live responsibly, reasonably, healthily and morally. [emphasis mine]

So, abstinence = moral, sex = immoral. Surprise, surprise.

These organizations love to pretend that their agenda is based on anything other than their own personal moral codes by claiming that casual sex is “dangerous.” It would take me an entire book to dispel this myth. Maybe I’ll write it someday.

For now, let’s just examine several things that are frequently claimed as “risks” of casual sex. One is STI transmission and pregnancy, which can be almost completely prevented through condoms and other forms of contraception. An inconvenient research finding is that abstinence-centered sex education actually increases the likelihood that young adults will not use proper protection when they inevitably do have sex. (There are many sources for this; Google it.)

Another is sexual assault. Conservatives love to trot this one out, insisting that casual sex is to blame for rape on college campuses. False. Sexual assault is caused by individuals making the decision to have sex with someone else without their consent. It is also caused by a culture that lets rapists go free if their victims seemed to have been “asking for it.”

(Incidentally, why is it that sex-positive organizations and groups like Sex Week and our own campus health center are constantly advocating for victims of sexual assault, whereas conservative groups are always silent except to berate them for “dressing like sluts”? Who’s really looking out for college students’ health and safety here?)

Another “risk” is this amorphous conglomeration of emotional issues that people–fine, let’s be honest, women–apparently face if they have casual sex. In her amazing book What You Really Really Want, Jaclyn Friedman writes:

You may have heard about oxytocin. It’s a chemical that is often released during sexual stimulation. Some studies have shown that when we release oxytocin, it can intensify the feelings (both positive and negative) we have about the person we’re having sex with. Unfortunately, this chemical response has been warped into an argument by abstinence-until-marriage advocates and other social conservatives, who claim that because of this bond, women get hurt by casual sex more than men. And the argument goes further, claimed that if women form an oxytocin bond with too many people, the effect will wear off and they’ll find themselves unable to bond properly with anyone.

Please.

Friedman goes on to cite studies that show that, first of all, it’s too little oxytocin that causes problems, not too much. She also cites research showing that oxytocin is also produced in many other situations, such as playing games, petting dogs, singing in groups, yoga, talking with close friends, and even eating certain foods.

As far as I and other sex-positive writers have been able to find, there is no research actually showing that casual sex is intrinsically harmful.

What is harmful, however, is the shame we choose to burden others with when they express their sexuality in ways that we don’t personally like. And while there are definitely problems with hookup culture, hookup culture and casual sex are not the same thing.

I can go on and on showing the hypocrisy of organizations like the Love & Fidelity Network, but this post is already nearly 1,500 words long. I could talk about how this organization links to the National Organization for Marriage on its site–yes, that one. I could talk about how marriage isn’t a panacea, how many members of our society still don’t have the right to get married in the first place.

I could talk about how great sex and marriage aren’t mutually exclusive, and how nothing about Sex Week suggests that people shouldn’t get married. I could talk about how intelligent and thoughtful my peers are, and how hard they’re working to define their lives on their own terms, and how much they struggle with sex and sexuality. I could talk about how they’re doing just fine without the Love & Fidelity Network.

But all of that would take a book, or many books.

So I’ll just say this: if you’re a Northwestern student, go check out Sex Week. And if you’re not, try to appreciate the fact that we’re growing up and finding our own answers, even if they aren’t the answers you would’ve chosen for us.

Why Hookup Culture Sucks

This week’s Daily column.

Most people over the age of 35 would probably tell you that the college hookup culture is a terrible thing.

To them, the truth is plain to see — casual sex leads to sexual assault, has all sorts of negative psychological consequences, and is usually a sign of low self-esteem. Popular books like Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked and Miriam Grossman’s Unprotected, along with countless news stories and opinion pieces, promote this viewpoint tirelessly.

I agree that the hookup culture as it currently exists is unhealthy, but not for those reasons. The way I see it, the problems writers like Stepp and Grossman identify within the hookup culture are very real, but they are not caused by casual sex itself. Rather, they’re caused by a lack of education and communication.

For instance, two possible negative consequences of hooking up — sexually transmitted infections and accidental pregnancy — could be eliminated almost entirely if people knew how to protect themselves from them. Of course, the issue of obtaining access to contraceptives is also a valid one, particularly given recent political events.

Sexual assault, too, can be curbed by educating people — and no, I don’t mean educating women not to drink too much or walk home alone. According to a 2010 study in the United Kingdom, two-thirds of people think that victims of rape are partially to blame if they initially got into bed with the rapist, and about one-fourth think that the victims are partially to blame if they dressed provocatively. It’s difficult to end rape on college campuses and in our society in general if so many people still don’t realize that rape is caused by rapists, not by revealing clothes.

Furthermore, our culture is saturated with TV shows, songs and other media that make it seem acceptable to “get” people drunk in order to make them willing to have sex, and I would not be surprised if some people take that message to heart. Of course, a drunk person cannot legally consent to sex, so people who try to get potential partners by using alcohol may not realize that they are actually making them legally unable to provide consent. A Columbia University study implicates alcohol in 90 percent of sexual assault cases on college campuses, showing that the relationship between alcohol and sex is not an entirely healthy one.

Even if the hookup is completely consensual, communication frequently gets the shaft. We’ve all seen movies like “The Notebook,” which usually climax with two people having sex for the first time without uttering a single word. Yet the sex still manages to turn out fantastic. I hate to rain on the parade, but that’s not really how it works. Sure, there’s a chance you’ll go to a party one night and meet someone who just happens to like having sex the exact same way you do, but it’s a pretty small chance.

Those lucky people can probably skip the rest of this column, but the rest of us should remember that you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it.

Unfortunately, expressing yourself clearly isn’t easy when you’re slurring your words, which brings me right to my next point: In order for hooking up to be safe and fun, we need to stop depending on alcohol as a social lubricant. According to a study done at Syracuse University, nearly two-thirds of hookups involve alcohol. Though drinking can be great for letting go of inhibitions, it also tends to make people less willing and able to speak up when something’s not right and to treat others with respect.

Respect might seem like an outdated word to use, but I hope it isn’t. I’m sure there are people out there who truly don’t care whether or not their hookup partner respects them, but I think most people do.

One common justification I hear from people who like to hook up is that, “It’s okay if they use me, because I’m using them too.” That is a terrible way to look at it. Just because you’re only spending one night with someone doesn’t mean you should treat him or her like an object.

Besides, the hookup can’t be that enjoyable if each person is simply “using” the other’s body, because sex requires a certain amount of teamwork.

Luckily, Northwestern does not ignore these issues. This past fall, the Essential NU program for freshmen was revamped to include an updated presentation on sexual health and assault. Staged in the form of a play, it emphasized the need for open communication between sexual partners and for challenging the cultural scripts that lead to both bad sex and rape. But this is a conversation that we need to have more often than just once a year during freshman orientation.

Though we do discuss issues like this on occasion — such as in meetings and events planned by organizations like College Feminists, Sexual Health & Assault Peer Educators, and Rainbow Alliance — they need to be higher up on the agenda.

Unlike the authors who write books with titles like “Unhooked” and “Unprotected,” I don’t think that casual sex is intrinsically wrong, unhealthy, or dangerous. I do think, however, that most of us are going about it the wrong way. For those people who want no-strings-attached sex, hookup culture could be a great thing — just not the hookup culture that we currently have.

You Don’t Need Alcohol

[This is my first column for the Daily Northwestern, NU's student newspaper. I can't find the link on their website so I'm not linking to it, but here's the full piece.]

You don’t need alcohol.

Wait, hear me out. You really don’t need it.

Before I came to college, I obviously expected that there’d be a lot of drinking and partying going on here. What I didn’t know is why. I grew up in a large, loud Russian family, where alcohol flows freely at dinner parties and camping trips, but never takes center stage. My parents seem mosty the same to me whether they’ve had five drinks each or not a single drop, and they seemed to have just as much fun without alcohol or with it.

I was puzzled, then, when I came to college and found that alcohol was often–not always, but often–the main event. As far as I knew, most people readily admit that they don’t like the taste of alcohol, at least not of the sort usually served at college parties. Dealing with the unpleasant consequences of drinking too much is a drag. Meaningful connections aren’t usually made while one is drunk. So why?

The answer both suprised and disappointed me: people think they need it.

I started hearing the same story from almost everyone I asked. “I don’t really feel comfortable with people unless I’ve been drinking.” “I can’t talk to girls without a few drinks.” “I could never hook up with someone if we’re not both drunk.”

One friend even confided to me that he literally can’t have sex if he’s not drunk. “Why not?” I asked. “I’m more of a traditional person,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable doing that with someone I don’t really know if I’m sober.”

Could it really be that the brilliant, accomplished people I go to school with can’t make friends or hook up without alcohol?

The answer, I think, is no. I think we’ve been deluding ourselves. Sure, it can be fun to get drunk. But should it ever be something we “need” to function socially?

I think I can attest to the fact that it’s not necessary. I used to be painfully shy and incapable of having a conversation with anyone my age. Since coming to college, I’ve truly branched out and made many friends. Yet I’ve never been drunk and can count the number of parties I’ve been to on the fingers of one hand. People, if the girl who used to bring encyclopedias to read at birthday parties can do it, anyone can.

I also don’t think we should be using alcohol to help us ignore our own values. If you’re just not the sort of person who wants to sleep with people you don’t know, that’s totally fine. I’m not either. If you think it’s perfectly okay but feel too insecure to do it without alcohol, that’s something you can work on.

That applies to making friends, too. This school is full of really cool, really interesting people. You’re going to find people who think you’re awesome. It’s just a matter of convincing yourself of that. So practice in front of the mirror, get friends to introduce you, do whatever you have to do. Having the confidence to approach people and connect with them is a wonderful thing, and it’ll be with you always–long after the party’s over and the alcohol’s all gone.

The Myth of Everyone

It’s right up there with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and true love–the Myth of Everyone.

The Myth of Everyone is invoked whenever someone attempts to justify their own or someone else’s shitty actions by saying, “Oh, come on, everyone does that.” For instance, my recent article against the Greek system generated arguments that all people and all groups of people do the sort of stuff I accused the Greek system of perpetuating, so it’s unfair to criticize the Greek system on those grounds. (I should’ve asked these people to find me examples of photography clubs paddling new members, or of a knitting circle forcing people to do keg stands, but I suppose that’s besides the point.)

At other times, the Myth of Everyone is invoked to explain even nastier, more specific examples of human behavior. For instance, a few months ago, a 17-year-old was gang-raped by a group of college men at a party. One of the lawyers representing the group of men stated, “This wasn’t anyone’s finest moment. It was 20-year-olds at a party behaving like 20-year-olds at a party.” Clearly, the lawyer wanted us to believe that gang-raping a teenage girl is what “everyone” would do in this situation.

Who is this mysterious Everyone? Why do they have such a hold over our collective imagination? Luckily, the field of psychology has an answer for that. It’s called the False Consensus Effect.

The false consensus effect is a cognitive bias that most people have that causes them to overestimate the degree to which their particular beliefs, values, goals, and opinions are shared by the majority of people–hence, a false consensus.

Psychologists believe that this effect occurs because people have a need to fit in and to believe that others share their mindsets. Feeling “normal” increases one’s self-esteem.

The effect is particularly prominent among members of a tight-knit group that rarely interacts with non-group members, and therefore is rarely forced to encounter divergent viewpoints. It becomes really easy for members of such a group to assume that their beliefs are shared by the larger population, even when they actually aren’t. An example of this would be, say, members of a sorority or fraternity.

This aspect of human psychology probably evolved to keep people happy and feeling accepted by society. In prehistoric times, it would’ve been adaptive to keep believing you’re pretty normal up until people convinced you otherwise–for instance, by excluding you from the tribe. But today, it’s become all too easy to convince yourself that “Everyone” shares your viewpoints, since our society is fragmented and we can choose people just like us to interact with.

Unfortunately, this is exactly how things like sexual assault, binge drinking, and all sorts of other problems get delegitimized and ignored. I’ve heard my fellow students making ridiculously overgeneralized statements like “Everyone hooks up” and “Everyone goes out and gets drunk” and even “All guys try to pressure girls into having sex with them.”

It would shock many of these students to know some statistics on these things. Namely, at least at my school, nearly 50% of the student body has not had sex in the past year. 23% percent of Northwestern students do not drink alcohol–AT ALL!–and 60% do not binge drink, meaning that they have four or less drinks each time they go out. (This includes the students who don’t drink at all, too.) This puts the percentage of students who do go crazy and get drunk at a little over one-third of the student body–a sizable minority, to be sure, but hardly the overwhelmingly dominant lifestyle people seem to think it is.

I can’t cite these statistics because I received them directly from Northwestern’s Department of Health Promotion and Wellness, which does official surveys on this sort of stuff. (The surveys are distributed to a representative random sample of the undergraduate student body.) If you’re curious, though, I have contacts in that department and I could probably obtain a report for you.

So, who is this mysterious “Everyone” who has tons of sex, drinks tons of alcohol, and pressures everyone into doing the same? It’s not the average Northwestern student, that’s for sure.

The problem of false consensus goes way beyond the college campus. It helps explain why some people think that cheating, shoplifting, accepting bribes, or using drugs isn’t a big deal (“Oh, come on, everyone does that!”), why right-wing politicians think Americans want to stop gay marriage (when, in fact, 53% of Americans believe in full marriage rights for the LGBT community), and why some people persist in telling racist/sexist jokes, believing that everyone’s still living in the 1950s.

Nowadays, when someone tries to tell me that “Everyone” is doing something, I take that with a grain of salt. Such statements probably tell you more about the person making them than about the majority of people, since most people don’t bother to actually go out and find statistics about things like I’ve just done.

Reason: it’s so inconvenient, isn’t it?