The Economics of Hookup Culture: A Millennial View

student debtMillennial Michelle Juergen, writing for PolicyMic, hits back at accusers who say her generation is destroying traditional family values with their sexcapades. Delaying commitment, aka hookup culture, is a necessity when young people can’t support themselves.

Instead of passing judgment on millennials, we should be looking at the many external factors responsible for this shift. 

According to a recent Pew Research report, last year, 36% of young adults in the United States aged 18 to 31 were living in their parents’ homes, the highest share in at least 40 years. That’s some 21.6 million millennials living with mom and dad, up three million from the beginning of the recession in 2007. Additionally, in 2012, only 63% of young adults had jobs, down from 70% in 2007. The effective unemployment rate for people aged 18 to 29 is 16.1%, according to Generation Opportunity’s June jobs report. And from 2006 to 2011, home ownership rates declined most among those under 35. 

Basically: we got no jobs, we got no money, and we got no place to live (not on our own, anyway).

Actually, we know that hookup culture is just that – culture, rather than behavior, which hasn’t changed much in 40 years. What has changed, though, is the age when people get married, and Juergen’s analysis partially explains that continuing delay. 

In the recent Gallup poll exploring Americans’ plans to marry, feeling financially insecure was the third most frequently cited reason for delaying marriage among those who want to marry, behind being too young/not ready and not having found the right person. [Read more...]


What Hookup Culture?

Lately a series of columns has questioned whether hookup culture is a hoax, based on the findings of a new study on how sexual behavior among students has changed little in recent decades. Regular readers of HUS won’t be surprised to learn that college students today aren’t really having more sex than they were a generation ago. What has changed somewhat is who they’re having it with.  [Read more...]


Kate Taylor Pimps Penn’s Hookup Culture

Kate Taylor’s article describing the hookup culture at Penn has attracted a lot of criticism, most notably from Penn students themselves, including some who participated in her research. They disagree with her characterization of women as fueling a no-strings sex norm, and reject the featured “mysterious A.” as typical of Penn women. They appear perplexed by her motives, which are rather transparent upon inspection. 

However, Taylor’s article is useful in that it does tap into a very real subculture on campuses that offers little support and sometimes actively discourages the formation of relationships in college. Her error is in failing to realize the full array of female attitudes, which offer a nuanced and diverse view of sex and relationships on campus. 

Taylor begins by highlighting the largest obstacle to long-term relationships in college, the peripatetic nature of the contemporary college education:

They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through all those transitions was hard for many to imagine….Moreover, by senior year, the looming prospect of graduation and job applications made many students leery of dating…These women said they saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn.

While Taylor exaggerates by focusing on the top 1% here, it’s true that many college students – both women and men – face the threat of a looming expiration date on any serious relationship. Couples are often from different parts of the country, and have limited say in where they may work or live once they graduate. In addition, they prefer to keep their eyes on the prize; they are getting an Ivy League education to maximize their future options and opportunities. Amanda Wolkin, a Penn student who responded to the article in Philadelphia Magazine, remarked:

$50,000+ a year would be a pretty hefty price for a dating service. Sorry, Susan Patton.

It’s no wonder that students feel ambivalent about commitment:

There’s this hypothetical, ‘I would like to be in a relationship, because it’s like comforting and stable and supportive,’ ” a senior, Pallavi, said of her friends’ attitudes. “But then, the conversations that I’ve had, it’s always like, ‘Well, then what do I do when we get to May, because we’re graduating, and so where do we go from there?’ That uncertainty is a huge sort of stop sign.

…Hypothetically, if I were to enter into a serious relationship with someone right now,” she said, “would I honestly say to them: ‘We’re going to spend two years in Philadelphia, and then with some kind of crazy luck I’m going to spend eight years somewhere else? And God knows what you would have been doing for the two years that we were still in Philadelphia — you either would have to up and leave with me, or we’d have to do a long-distance.’ That’s just too much to even ask anyone to commit to.

These concerns are real and shared by a large number of students. However, there are some students, including women, who are clearly not wired for commitment in any case, and here is where Taylor goes seriously off the rails. By generalizing from A., an alpha female who appears to meet the criteria for the Dark Triad cluster of personality traits, she mischaracterizes the culture. Consider the commentary of A., her “typical” female student, as she describes her casual sex arrangement:

“We don’t really like each other in person, sober,” she said, adding that “we literally can’t sit down and have coffee….But there are so many other things going on in my life that I find so important that I just, like, can’t make time, and I don’t want to make time…As A. explained her schedule, “If I’m sober, I’m working.”

“‘I’ve always heard this phrase, ‘Oh, marriage is great, or relationships are great — you get to go on this journey of change together,’ ” she said. “That sounds terrible.

“I don’t want to go through those changes with you. I want you to have changed and become enough of your own person so that when you meet me, we can have a stable life and be very happy.”

“I definitely wouldn’t say I’ve regretted any of my one-night stands. I’m a true feminist. I’m a strong woman. I know what I want.”

“Ten years from now, no one will remember — I will not remember — who I have slept with,” A. said. “But I will remember, like, my transcript, because it’s still there. I will remember what I did. I will remember my accomplishments and places my name is hung on campus.”

As I highlighted in my most recent post, only 5% of college graduates identify strongly as feminists – A. is anything but typical. That doesn’t mean she’s a problem, though. I see no need for hand wringing and fretting that women like A. are present on campus, or that they enjoy their sex drunk and without small talk. A. and her hookup buddy sound perfectly matched –  it’s true assortative mating. Neither would be a suitable relationship partner in any case.

Researchers have found that certain women are prone to seek casual sex from the time they arrive at college. Here is the key finding from a recent study of 500 female freshmen:

Our findings suggest hooking up during the first year of college is influenced by pre-college hookups, personality, behavioral intentions, the social and situational context, family background and substance use patterns – particularly marijuana use.

In my experience speaking with hundreds of college women, a typical sentiment mirrors the one offered by M. to Taylor:

“I could be here for four years and not date anyone,” she said she realized. “Sometimes you are out, and there’s a guy you really are attracted to, and you kind of want to go back home with him, but you kind of have that underlying, ‘I can’t, because I can’t just lose my V-card to some random guy.’ ”

“It’s kind of like a spiral,” she said. “The girls adapt a little bit, because they stop expecting that they’re going to get a boyfriend — because if that’s all you’re trying to do, you’re going to be miserable. But at the same time, they want to, like, have contact with guys.” So they hook up and “try not to get attached.”

In particular, the fear of not having a boyfriend or even a date for the whole four years is one I’ve heard many times. As M. notes, this is precisely how the experimentation with hooking up begins, particularly among freshmen.

Most women find the casual hookup experience unsatisfying – in a recent study of 14,000 college females, women in relationships were much more likely to say they enjoyed their most recent sexual experience “very much,” perhaps because they are far more likely to orgasm than a woman in a casual sexual experience.

How many women in college get to experience relationships? In a 2013 “love” survey of Penn students, about a third of seniors and 20% of freshmen described themselves as “taken.” 


Interestingly, Penn students starting out feel optimistic about entering relationships. They certainly don’t appear to be trying to avoid them:


Arielle Pardes, a Penn student who was interviewed by Taylor, responds in Cosmo:

Plenty of us do have boyfriends, or sex lives that we consider meaningful.  In fact, when Taylor interviewed me, I told her about how I had been seriously dating someone I met at Penn for the past two and a half years (and I still made the Dean’s List). Weirdly, Taylor doesn’t include any examples of girls with boyfriends in her piece, despite the fact that relationships definitely exist on campus.

Another recent college survey found strong evidence of relationships on campus. At Georgetown, 267 women and 250 men responded to a survey about sex and relationships there. 77% of men and 65% of women reported that they were sexually active, defined as having had sexual intercourse within the past year. 

 A full 64 percent of Georgetown students report that they are either “often” or “always” in a committed relationship with their sexual partners. Only 11 percent report engaging in exclusively random hookups, although this is a more common phenomenon among men than women. 

Near the end of her article, Taylor hedges her bets with this caveat:

For all the focus on hookups, campuses are not sexual free-for-alls, at Penn or elsewhere. At colleges nationally, by senior year, 4 in 10 students are either virgins or have had intercourse with only one person, according to the Online College Social Life Survey. Nearly 3 in 10 said that they had never had a hookup in college. Meanwhile, 20 percent of women and a quarter of men said they had hooked up with 10 or more people.

While Pluralistic Ignorance remains a problem, increasingly students are becoming aware that women like A. are outliers, the alpha darlings of the feministas. (Though the feminists have little use for the alpha douchebags who objectify A. and women like her, and who regard her as slutty even as they bang her on request.)

It may not be easy to find a relationship in college – both women and men fear sitting on the sidelines as the years go by. But the desire is there – plenty of women and men want something real, and meaningful, and all that good stuff. 

Let A. and women like her do what they gotta do. Because they probably are well suited to focus primarily on career achievement, their strategy makes sense for them. They probably are the future Sheryl Sandbergs and Melissa Mayers, and more power to them. But when it comes to relationships, they’re a sideshow. 

An editorial in Penn’s student newspaper sums up the student response:

We are not challenging every aspect of Taylor’s article, or declaring any of her anecdotes to be fabricated. Some of us may agree with, or fit, the fraction of responses she included in her article. But in the end, we cannot let her depiction of Penn slide, considering the choices she made in selecting the voices to feature in her story. We refuse to allow Taylor to misrepresent Penn students in this way because we each hold unique experiences we have — or haven’t — had with the “hookup culture.” We can play that game, too.

The truth will out, despite efforts to spin and distort it for political purposes.


The Surprising News about College Sluts

HUS: Busting the myths about casual sex one study at a time.

depression-manyYet another study has found that casual sex is linked to anxiety and depression. For both sexes.

A new study, Risky Business: Is There an Association between Casual Sex and Mental Health among Emerging Adults?asked 3,900 college students from 30 colleges across the U.S. whether they’d had sex during the last month with someone they’d known less than a week. 18.6% of males and 7.4% of females reported having done so.

The researchers also investigated the role of gender in determining mental distress linked to casual sex. Prior studies have found that women respond more negatively to casual sex than men, possibly because of double standards that allow men to have more sexual encounters with a greater number of partners than women. In this study, however, gender did not have an effect on outcomes.

It should be noted that while a small percentage of students hook up regularly, about 30% have had casual sexual intercourse in college and 48% have had a sexually intimate encounter with a stranger or brief acquaintance. Past work in this area has found that men and women experience casual sex differently, but that may be changing. [Read more...]


Tough Talk about Sexual Market Value

market-value-vs-price-home-value2In response to yesterday’s Keep Trying post, reader Mary H asks:

On the one hand, posts like this suggest that you should always keep reaching, always keep trying to get someone better. On the other hand, books like Lori Gottlieb’s “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” suggest that reaching too much is problematic. So how should a girl go about reconciling being discerning in who she chooses to be her boyfriend with being realistic? How should she navigate the two ends of the spectrum, one of which is being too picky and the other of which is being too desperate?

My intention in writing the post was not to suggest women should succumb to Hypergamy Insanity, but to communicate that rejection and failure are inevitable in mating. If we respond to it by shutting down, we get stuck and our dating lives grind to a halt. That’s a waste of time, but there’s also the enormous opportunity cost – a guy who would be great for you is out there looking!

However, Mary H does raise an important question. What if your failures are a result of your aiming too high, as was the case with Ms. Gottlieb? Yesterday, I suggested in a comment thread that if a woman is getting zero attention from men she likes, there are two possibilities:

1. She needs to up her Game.

2. She needs to lower her standards. 

In both cases, her goal should be to find a man of the same level of attractiveness. We frequently use the term SMV, or sexual market value, when discussing this issue, but the concept has limited value when discussing relationships because it just means “how hot you are.” A more robust concept is MMV, marital market value. This comprises your value to a potential mate based on all the traits you bring to a committed relationship, included your physical assets.

In this era of casual sex, or hookup culture, more focus is given to SMV, but even here the concept falls short. Actual SMV and Effective SMV may diverge. For example, a guy with an SMV of 9 will usually be willing to have sex with a girl whose SMV is 7 or higher. If he’s wearing beer goggles, who knows how low he can go! This girl essentially gets two free points for easy access to sex, bringing her effective SMV to 9, at least for that one night. Over time, this 7 begins to see herself as a genuine 9, despite the fact that no male of that value would ever consider dating her. We’ve all seen this in real life, and certainly on facebook. It’s a form of self-delusion. 

It works in the other direction as well. The female 9, unwilling to sell herself short with a ONS, wants the male 9 to be her boyfriend. Yet time and again, the male 9 chooses to hook up with the 7. Although the beautiful girl deserves her SMV rating of 9, in this market she pays a penalty for being choosy, reducing her SMV a couple of  points. She may elect to date a guy with an SMV of 7, who gets a bump for his interest in committing to her. This too is readily observed on any college campus. 

The most important thing you can do in dating is reach a valid assessment of your own SMV. Disregard all male attention you’ve received that indicates sexual interest. Include all male attention that constituted attraction plus a desire to spend non-sexual time with you. The average SMV of the males in the latter group is probably a good estimate of your own. (Keep in mind that if you’re in a sorority or spending a lot of time with douchey guys, you may have no guys in the latter group even if you are attractive – that’s a characteristic of that particular market niche in college. You can branch out or wait out the college years.)

Once you have a clear idea of where you reside on the spectrum, you have two choices, as mentioned above.

Up Your Girl Game

  1. Achieve and maintain physical fitness.
  2. Dress to flatter your body shape and use makeup to enhance your features.
  3. Aim for a vibe in your appearance that says “girlfriend” rather than hookup. 
  4. Cultivate a friendly demeanor and pleasant personality. 
  5. Recognize that guys will care about your sexual history, and behave accordingly.
  6. Indicate interest in a relationship to filter out cads and attract like-minded guys.

(Note: You may want to check out the Hooking Up Smart Girl Game Spring Challenge. Begin here.)

Once you have reached the point where you feel confident you look your best, get out there and see whether you get a different level or type of male appreciation. If you are still attracting men primarily for sex, you’re doing it wrong. 

If you are attracting men for relationships whom you do not find attractive, and you have done everything in your power to maximize your own MMV, then comes the unpleasant but necessary task of facing facts.

Lower Your Standards

I know, this does not sound like much fun, but you’re aiming too high. Somewhere, somehow, you got an inflated sense of your market value. This is not easy to fix, but it can be done. 

I’ve seen women effectively reset their attraction triggers and work harder to find the MMV in men, rather than focusing strictly on SMV. They were able to attract and form relationships with men who were a close match in terms of values, education, and physical attractiveness. Other women, like Ms. Gottlieb, were not able to make this adjustment, or made it too late, when they were forced to compete with younger, wiser women. These are the women who get to 40 and wonder why they never met “the one.” They provide their own answer – they used a funnel so narrow to filter guys that only one could make it through, and he didn’t work out. 

In the end, people do marry others with similar MMV. Don’t price yourself out of the market, or you’ll wind up remaindered. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but there it is. 

The silver lining is that if you work hard to increase your MMV, you may be able to punch above your SMV weight, which is what I managed to do regularly before I was married. For that reason, I’d recommend putting all your energy into Girl Game first, and compromise later if necessary.