Hooking Up for Sex: Sluts or New Feminists?

Harvard University debates whether feminism gives women right to sex hook ups.

November 11, 2009, 3:46 PM

Nov. 12, 2009— -- "Today's first base is kissing ... plus fondling this and that. Second base is oral sex. Third base is going all the way. Home plate is learning each other's names."

So wrote Tom Wolfe in his 2000 book "Hooking Up" -- a term that describes a wide range of coupling from making out to intercourse.

For more than a decade, the "hookup" has been an integral part of the American college experience -- a result of the increased permissiveness that came with the sexual revolution of the 1970s.

Just recently at Harvard University -- sometimes pegged as "godless and liberal" -- the hookup culture came under fire, mostly from a small but growing abstinence group called True Love Revolution.

They argue that women who invoke a new kind of feminism -- the right to have sex whenever and with whomever they choose -- is demeaning to women.

"A popular thing to say among this intellectual crowd, in the ivies and in feminism in general, is to say that sex is empowering and a real woman uses her sexuality in any way she pleases," said Rachel Wagley, a 20-year-old sociology student who is TLR's co-president. "It's blatantly false and a lie that this culture tells to girls for their own benefit."

Silpa Kovvali, a 21-year-old computer science concentrator, argued in a Harvard Crimson editorial that there is nothing "inherently degrading" about engaging in casual sex -- in fact, she said, it can be "empowering."

But chastity groups seem to be on to something -- a growing unease that although hooking up can be liberating, it can also be annoying and sometimes destructive.

"It's a huge part of life here," said Maariya Bajwa, a senior at the University of Florida. "When I used to take the bus I'd hear random people having conversations about random hook ups they had. I was like, 'Uh guys, we're on a bus. I don't need to hear about your one-night stands.'"

By the end of senior year, the average college student has had 6.9 hookups, mostly after a "good bit of drinking," according to a survey of 4,000 students at five universities by Stanford University sociology professor Paula England.

Her research appeared as a chapter, "Hooking Up and Forming Romantic Relationships in Today's College Campuses," in the 2008 book, "The Gendered Society Reader" by Oxford University Press.

Her work revealed that while 24 percent of the respondents had reported never having hooked up, 28 percent had more than 10 such casual sexual encounters.

England, who set out to explore the dating habits of college students, found they were kissing, having oral sex and sometimes intercourse with "no expectation that either party has an interest in moving toward a relationship."

"There's a lot of degrading treatment of some women and it is empoweringly free for other women," she told ABCNews.com.

Hooking Up Serves Men Better Than Women

The sexual revolution began with the advent of the birth control pilll in the 1960 and legalization of abortion in 1973, for the first time allowing women to have sex without fear of pregnancy.

But while feminist thinking about equal opportunity in the workplace blossomed, it didn't take root in the "personal sphere," according to England.

"First, men initiate more of the interaction, especially the sexual action," she wrote. "Second, men have orgasms more frequently than women. Men's sexual pleasure seems to be prioritized. Third, a sexual double standard persists in which women are more at risk than men of getting a bad reputation for hooking up with multiple partners."

Students seem well aware of the double standard, one that lingered long after women began to strive for equality in the work force.

"When girls sleep with multiple people on different occasions, she is labeled as a 'slut' or 'whore,' but when guys hook up with multiple girls they're seen as heroes to the male race," said Rachel Sloane, a senior at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

"As long as she isn't taking advantage of the other person, why shouldn't she have that right?" she asked.

Sloane said hooking up "represents a certain freedom that many people did not experience while they were in high school."

Still, she said she has "great respect" for people like Wagley who choose celibacy. "It shows a great amount of control during a time when pressure to have sex and 'experiment' with one's sexuality is at its peak."

But others -- even those who embrace a woman's right to choose, say the hooking-up culture can be oppressive.

"I think the hook-up culture certainly dominates the social scene," said Caitie Yaeger, a 21-year old junior at Pennsylvania's Dickinson College. "It seems like you go to a party to get drunk, you get drunk to flirt with someone, and you flirt with someone to go home with them."

"I think many women my age might agree, feminism supports a woman's ability to make decisions for herself," she told ABCNews.com, "to engage in sexual activity or not to engage in sexual activity, to stay at home with her children or to be a working mother." But, according to Yaeger, free-wheeling sex when done for the "wrong reasons" doesn't always lead to fulfillment or a relationship.

And some say the hook-up culture -- though exaggerated in the media -- has done little to advance equality for women, according to Brandon McGinley, who is president of Princeton University's two-year-old Anscombe Society, which promotes chastity.

"I think there's a stereotype of people having rampant sex every night," said McGinley.

But still, the problem is significant enough that his group has proposed a "safe haven" for students who are not comfortable with the hooking-up scene.

"The perception of sexual conduct puts the pressure on students," he told ABCNews.com. "They believe their peers are having more sex than they are."

He doesn't disagree that women have a right to their own sexual decision making.

"But it's not a question of one's right, but what one ought to do," he said.

"What we see in the hook-up culture is the general ethos toward the sexual objectification of a person. And that is problematic for both men and women and harmful for society in general."

But Pepper Schwartz, who teaches sociology and sex at University of Washington and survived the antics of two college students, isn't too worried about the long-lasting effects of hooking up.

"Before, guys did this gross kind of sexual behavior, and we said, 'Boys will be boys,' but now it's boys and girls," she told ABCNews.com. "Let's hope they grow out of it.

"It's a period of flexing their muscles and they will look back and say, 'Oh, God, what was I thinking?' They have the permission I didn't have in my generation to act out, get drunk at frat parties and hook up with somebody."

As long as students are protected against disease and pregnancy, said Schwartz, "they can do these things without impact."

"And I hear," she said, "it's a lot less salacious than it sounds."

ABC News on Campus reporter Adam Yosim contributed to this report.

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