In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the #metoo movement. Or, rather, the whole country and I have been thinking about #metoo for considerably longer than a few weeks. But one story in particular caught my attention as an example of how the complexities of casual sex can mean that women lose out. A young woman, “Grace,” shared her story of a date with Aziz Ansari in which she felt pressured by his persistent sexual advances. Despite his saying that he didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable, and her verbal and nonverbal cues that she wanted to disengage, he continued to initiate sex until she reciprocated.
What happened to Grace was terrible. We can agree that it’s terrible, I hope. It’s awful to have a nonconsensual sexual experience because your consent wasn’t freely given and fully embodied. Coaxing someone into doing something sexual they’re not excited about is wrong, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of the egregious offenses of serial predators like Harvey Weinsten or Larry Nassar.
Since Megan Garber’s article on Grace’s experience was published in mid-January, thinkpieces on the topic have provided important insight into the complicated nature of sexual consent and pleasure. Some I’ve really enjoyed are linked here:
These pieces highlight that, as a culture, we don’t have a clear set of rules and definitions for what constitutes assault. They also highlight that sexual encounters can be harmful without necessarily being illegal. Grace’s experience—feeling pressured into unwanted sex—feeling unheard when she objected—feeling unhappy afterward—may not have fit legal definitions of rape, but it surely wasn’t pleasant, either.
Equally unpleasant is the fact that her experience was far from unique. The deeply-engrained lack of communication within hookup culture often means that women lose out. And I can back up that statement with research.
Lack of communication is central to hookup culture. The ambiguity of hooking up is central to its definition. Because of this ambiguity, there are no rules for what behaviors you can expect to do with a new casual partner. That wouldn’t be a problem if people were skilled at communicating with their partners. But there are very significant problems with the ways people typically convey their sexual wants and needs.
In a review of studies on young adults’ sexual consent, Muehlenhard et al. (2016) found that consent was most often communicated by using nonverbal behaviors or by not resisting partners’ advances. Across studies, verbal consent was reported least frequently. That’s some shoddy consent, people. If you don’t hear your partner say, “Yes, I want this very much!” you’re not meeting the gold standard. If you don’t hear your partner say, “Yes,” you’re not meeting any standard at all.
But poor consent practices aren’t just the result of lazy communication. Power differentials between men and women when hooking up can make it difficult for women to speak up when they’re uncomfortable. These power differentials also make it easy for men to pretend not to hear women when they do speak up. For example, many college hookups happen at Greek parties. Traditions like fraternities hosting parties and providing women rides to parties give men a high level of control over what women can and can’t do, including leave if they’re uncomfortable. In return for men’s hosting, women are placed in a position of owing something, which may mean tolerating unwanted sexual contact (Armstrong et al., 2006).
Even in more egalitarian settings, women are socialized to feel that they are in a submissive position to their male partners. They may silence themselves in order to avoid upsetting their partners. When interviewing young women, Fahs and Munger (2015) found that lack of communication about the terms of sex was a key feature of women’s casual sexual relationships. Women felt that they had to let their partner determine the terms of the relationship in order to maintain it. So self-silencing, as problematic as it is, is a maintenance strategy women use to keep their partners from getting mad at them.
Who can guess the outcome of shoddy consent and self-silencing? I’ll give you a sticker if you can figure it out.
Women feel worse after having casual sex than men do. This result has emerged from research time and time again. Women report more negative reactions overall (Campbell, 2008; Lewis et al., 2012; Montes et al., 2016; Owen & Fincham, 2011), feel more regret (Fisher et al., 2012; Kennair et al., 2016), and feel more worry-vulnerability (Townsend & Wasserman, 2011) than men after a hookup.
A notable exception comes from an article by Napper et al. (2016), who found no gender differences in men’s and women’s reported negative experiences of hooking up. However, in my opinion, the overall evidence clearly points to women having worse experiences than men.
And women’s reasons for feeling bad after a hookup often have to do with poor communication and consent. In one study, researchers asked college students why their worst hookup was their worst hookup (Paul, 2002). Women were more likely than men to say they were used as an object for their partner’s physical pleasure. They were also much more likely than men to say that they were forced into sexual behavior against their will. What did men say, you might ask? They were more likely than women to report that their worst hookup was bad because they their partner was unattractive, promiscuous, or a tease.
I ranted about these findings to a friend, who astutely pointed out the often-cited (but possibly apocryphal?) statistic that women’s worst fear on a first date is that their date will murder them, whereas men’s worst fear is that their date will laugh at them. Gender differences in the consequences of hooking up seem to mirror this statement. For men, ego-driven consequences predominate. For women, violations of their body and their autonomy are more salient.
When we listen to Grace’s recounting, let’s consider that her experience was shaped by a hookup culture that sets minimal expectations for establishing consent and privileges men’s pleasure over women’s comfort. (And I haven’t even mentioned women’s entitlement to pleasure in hookups, which can be its own conversation.) Rather than questioning Grace’s decisions in her sexual encounter (I’ve heard too many folks asking why she didn’t leave Ansari’s apartment), let’s ask ourselves how systemic problems may have led her to make those decisions. Asking systemic questions gets us systemic answers to a problem that is much more expansive than one woman’s experience.
Note. For the sake of a happy ending, I’d like you all to know that negative outcomes are not inevitable in women’s casual sexual encounters. On average, women enjoy their hookups and recall them positively (Fielder & Carey, 2010; García et al., 2014; Owen & Fincham, 2011). The struggle is getting to 100% enjoyment, and that will take serious shifts in cultural messages to young people about what respect means in the context of hooking up.
Armstrong, E. A., Hamilton, L., & Sweeney, B. (2006). Sexual assault on campus: A multilevel, integrative approach to party rape. Social Problems, 53, 483-499. (PS Every time I read this paper, I get more out of it. I highly recommend it!)
Campbell, A. (2008). The morning after the night before. Human Nature, 19, 157-173.
Fahs, B., & Munger, A. (2015). Friends with benefits? Gendered performances in women's casual sexual relationships. Personal Relationships, 22, 188-203.
Fielder, R. L., & Carey, M. P. (2010). Prevalence and characteristics of sexual hookups among first-semester female college students. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 36, 346-359.
Fisher, M. L., Worth, K., Garcia, J. R., & Meredith, T. (2012). Feelings of regret following uncommitted sexual encounters in Canadian university students. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 14, 45-57.
García, H., Soriano, E., & Arriaza, G. (2014). Friends with benefits and psychological wellbeing. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 132, 241-247.
Kennair, L. E. O., Bendixen, M., & Buss, D. M. (2016). Sexual regret: Tests of competing explanations of sex differences. Evolutionary Psychology, 14, 1-9.
Lewis, M. A., Granato, H., Blayney, J. A., Lostutter, T. W., & Kilmer, J. R. (2012). Predictors of hooking up sexual behaviors and emotional reactions among US college students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 1219-1229.
Montes, K. S., Napper, L. E., Froidevaux, N. M., Kenney, S., & LaBrie, J. W. (2016). Negative affect as a moderator of the relationship between hookup motives and hookup consequences. Journal of American College Health, 64, 668-672.
Muehlenhard, C. L., Humphreys, T. P., Jozkowski, K. N., & Peterson, Z. D. (2016). The complexities of sexual consent among college students: A conceptual and empirical review. The Journal of Sex Research, 53, 457-487.
Napper, L. E., Montes, K. S., Kenney, S. R., & LaBrie, J. W. (2016). Assessing the personal negative impacts of hooking up experienced by college students: Gender differences and mental health. The Journal of Sex Research, 53, 766-775.
Owen, J., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). Young adults’ emotional reactions after hooking up encounters. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 321-330.
Paul, E. L., & Hayes, K. A. (2002). The casualties of casual'sex: A qualitative exploration of the phenomenology of college students' hookups. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 19, 639-661.
Townsend, J. M., Wasserman, T. H., & Rosenthal, A. (2015). Gender differences in emotional reactions and sexual coercion in casual sexual relations: An evolutionary perspective. Personality and Individual Differences, 85, 41-40.
I am a developmental researcher focusing on relationships and health in adolescence and young adulthood. My goal is to enable people to have healthy, fulfilling sexual relationships.