For College Women, Dating Could Be Worse Than Hooking Up


When researchers asked college students to talk about a hookup scenario, they learned that “hookup culture” isn’t nearly as male-dominated as many claim. And in some ways, dating may actually be worse for women.

According to a paper published in Gender & Society, researchers Julie A. Reid, Sinikka Elliott and Gretchen R. Webber presented 273 college students, most 18 or 19 years old, with the following two scenarios:

Scenario A
A woman and a man meet at a party and hit it off. At the end of evening, she takes him to her house and they have a night of wild sex, which they both enjoy. The following weekend, the man asks the woman out and they go to dinner on a date. The date ends with just a kiss, nothing else.
Scenario B
A man and a woman meet at a party and hit it off. At the end of evening, he takes her to his house and they have a night of wild sex, which they both enjoy. The following weekend, the woman asks the man out and they go to dinner on a date. The date ends with just a kiss, nothing else.

Then they asked the students what the man and woman’s motivations were, both for having sex after the first meeting and for not having sex after the second. When it came to the first meeting (the “hookup,” as it were) the students ascribed pretty much the same motivations to the man and the woman — they wanted to have sex. In one way, this isn’t that surprising — you mean people have casual sex because they want to, um, have casual sex? In another way, though, it’s interesting that college students acknowledged that women as well as men desire sex and sometimes hook up as a way to get it, rather than as a bid for a relationship. Here are some students’ explanations of the woman’s behavior:

she was really aroused and wanted to get some
She probably just wanted to get ‘some’ (yes, girls think like that as well!)
I think the woman had sex with the man because she needed it. Maybe she came out of a bad relationship, and had so much sexual tension, that when combined with the effects of alcohol, she just slept with someone, anyone who would satiate her hunger

That last one, in addition to sounding like it came from a budding Harlequin writer, does illustrate one difference between students’ assessments of the man and woman’s motivations: they assumed that men always want casual sex, whereas women need some sort of extra impetus, like alcohol, to release their lust. Interestingly, anonymity sometimes functioned as this impetus — said one student, “There was probably a very strong physical attraction and she felt like just going for it, hell she may never see him again.”

Things looked different, however, when it came time to explain the date, and the mere kiss that ended it. Many students thought that, in both scenarios, the man and woman might be holding off on sex in order to get to know each other better. However, in scenario A, where the man asks the woman out, the most common explanation for the lack of sex was “redemptive chastity” — that is, the woman wanted to prove to the man that she wasn’t slutty. Explains one student, “The first time they met, she probably assumed she would never really see him again so she didn’t care what he thought of her. However, after he asks her out, she probably doesn’t want him to assume she is a slut or easy so she decides to merely end the date with a kiss.” In scenario B, where the woman asks the man out, two explanations were equally common: that both parties want to get to know each other, or that the man didn’t really want to see the woman again, and only went out with her out of pity. One student encapsulated the “pity date” scenario thus: “The girl hoped for some kind of relationship. On the second date the guy tried to start getting away from the girl in a gradual way.” The study authors add that “justifying their interpretations in explaining the man’s sexless behavior, students often brought attention to the fact that it was the woman who asked for the date, indicating that if the man were interested in her, he would have requested the date himself.”

So basically, college students know that both men and women like hooking up, and that women are fully capable of doing so without the expectation of a relationship. However, they still think women need to manage their behavior in order to avoid appearing “slutty,” especially if they’re going to have an ongoing relationship with someone. They don’t think the same thing about men. When it comes to dating, they still think it’s men’s job to do the asking — and that if a man doesn’t, he probably isn’t interested. The study authors sum up the situation thus: “Women are allowed to have fun at parties, but once it becomes a serious matter, traditional gender norms, which affirm men’s prerogatives, take precedence.” The authors also note that these norms have real consequences:

[A]lthough students indicated that the date generally signified positive advance toward a relationship, they also suggested that this relationship may start off with a woman monitoring and modifying her behavior in an effort to win a man’s approval. These power dynamics in turn have the potential to set the tone for the relationship as a whole.

Conservatives frequently claim that casual sex is bad for young women, but this study makes a persuasive case that what’s actually bad is the judgment of casual sex. Women may enjoy hooking up just as much as dudes — and college students understand this. But the stigma against women’s sexuality means having casual sex with someone you later date can cause power imbalances down the line. And since, as the study authors also note, student hookups often can lead to dating, this is a problem. What we need, then, is not a return to traditional dating culture but its near-opposite, an atmosphere where women and men are allowed to seek both sex and love on equal terms.

The New Dating Game: When Dates Follow Hookups [The Abstract]

Image via Karina Kononenko/

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