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How Hookup Culture is Making Women Miserable

NEW YORK (CNA) — Leah Fessler considers herself a feminist.

And the standard feminist narrative is that women can have, and indeed enjoy, casual sex without consequences — physical, emotional, or otherwise.

But when her experience with hookup culture (and that of her friends’) in college failed to live up to its empowering promises and left her emotionally empty, Fessler decided to look a little deeper.

In an article written for Quartz, Fessler explains her quest to examine what it was about the prominent hookup culture, and the ill-defined, non-committal “pseudo-relationships,” at her Middlebury college campus that were making her miserable.

“Far more frequent, however, were pseudo-relationships, the mutant children of meaningless sex and loving partnerships. Two students consistently hook up with one another — and typically, only each other — for weeks, months, even years,” Fessler wrote.

“Yet per unspoken social code, neither party is permitted emotional involvement, commitment, or vulnerability. To call them exclusive would be ‘clingy,’ or even ‘crazy.’”

These pseudo-relationships would typically follow the same cycle, she notes. She’d meet a guy she was interested in, they’d start texting, meet up in their dorms late at night to discuss their mutual interests and hobbies and families, and have sex. This would happen off and on over the course of a few months with the same guy, then the relationship of sorts would just fizzle and die. Wash, rinse repeat with the next. Fessler wrote that she experienced this with at least five men by her senior year.

She felt used and desperate for emotional intimacy. At the same time, she felt bad for being unable to reconcile the fact that she couldn’t achieve the carefree, empowering feeling that her feminists beliefs told her was possible.

Fessler decided to devote her senior thesis to this phenomenon that was taking its toll on herself and so many of her friends, who for all other intents and purposes were successful, involved, well-rounded students.

Fessler interviewed 75 male and female students and conducted more than 300 online surveys. She found that 100 percent of female interviewees and three-quarters of female survey respondents stated a clear preference for committed relationships. Only 8 percent of about 25 female respondents, who said they were in pseudo-relationships, reported being “happy” with their situation.

“The women I interviewed were eager to build connections, intimacy and trust with their sexual partners. Instead, almost all of them found themselves going along with hookups that induced overwhelming self-doubt, emotional instability and loneliness,” she wrote.

The male responses were just as complex, she adds. Most men interviewed and surveyed also preferred a committed relationship, but felt pressured to have casual sex with numerous beautiful women in order to discuss these “escapades” with their friends and boost their status in a culture where hookups are the norm.

Perhaps it’s time that casual sex ceases to be the progressive norm, and that women recognize the connection between their need for an emotionally fulfilling relationship and their sex lives, Fessler notes.

“The truth is that, for many women, there’s nothing liberating about emotionless, non-committal sex. The young women I spoke with were taking part in hookup culture because they thought that was what guys wanted, or because they hoped a casual encounter would be a stepping stone to commitment.”

“In doing this, we actually deny ourselves agency and bolster male dominance, all while convincing ourselves we’re acting like progressive feminists. But engaging in hookup culture while wholeheartedly craving love and stability was perhaps the least feminist action I, and hundreds of my peers, could take.”

Fessler’s thesis, “Can She Really ‘Play That Game, Too’?” recently became available for download and is available at her website: