Can Lysistrata Work For College Women?

November 8, 2012

So you’re happy to see me!


There are a lot of things about us women

That sadden me, considering how men

See us as rascals.



As indeed we are!


Emily Esfahani Smith has a Plan to Reboot Dating in The Atlantic, calling on  women to implement the Lysistrata strategy as a way of ending hookup culture. (Hat tip: Stuart Schneiderman) I first became aware of Smith via her excellent article HBO’s ‘Girls’ depicts wasteland of sexual promiscuity. (She’s doing incredibly well for someone who graduated from Dartmouth in ’09.) Though a feminist, Smith disagrees with Hannah Rosin’s recent assertions:

Rosin argues that the social progress of women depends on the hook-up culture. Women in their 20s and 30s are, for the first time, more successful than their male peers. These alpha females not only outnumber men on college campuses, they have also overtaken men as the majority of the work force. This would not have been possible without sexual liberation, which has let women delay marriage and child-rearing to pursue their educational and career ambitions without worrying about the emotional burdens of a relationship. Women are better off in part because of the hook-up culture, the argument goes.

Smith then goes on to offer evidence (all of which I have previously covered here) that most women are pretty miserable in hookup culture:

  • Part of the reason the culture is so widespread is, as Rosin correctly notes, because women are choosing to have casual sex. But in another respect, they don’t have a choice. Women make the hook-up culture possible, but men are the beneficiaries of it.
  • The balance of power in the hook-up culture lies with the men, an issue that has become more pronounced as women outnumber men on campuses, creating a surplus of girls and a scarcity of guys…Robert Epstein, a professor of psychology at Harvard and an expert in relationships, said in an interview with me that the more women there are on campus, the more prevalent the hook-up culture is: “You have a situation in which relationships are bound to fail and men keep switching off from one woman to the next.”
  • The feminist sociologist Lisa Wade, based at Occidental College…found that most of [her freshman students] were “overwhelmingly disappointed with the sex they were having in hook ups. This was true of both men and women, but was felt more intensely by women. College women today feel disempowered instead of empowered by sexual encounters. They didn’t feel like equals on the sexual playground, more like jungle gyms.”
  • According to a2010 study by Carolyn Bradshaw of James Madison University, only 2 percent of women strongly prefer the hook-up culture to a dating culture.
  • Miriam Grossman, author of the 2006 book Unprotected, reports that women long for emotional involvement with their partner twice as often as men following a hook up; 91 percent of women experience regret; 80 percent of women wish the hook-up hadn’t happened; and 34 percent of women hope the hook-up develops into a relationship.
  • NYU sociologist Paula England, whom Rosin cites, says that 66 percent of women and 58 percent of men want their hook up to develop into “something more.”
  • A 2010 psychology study out of Florida State University found that students who have casual sex experience more physical and mental health problems, defined as eating disorders, alcohol use, stress, depression, suicidal feelings, than those who are in committed long-term relationships.
Smith rejects Rosin’s assertion that “The hookup culture is too bound up with everything that’s fabulous about being a young woman in 2012—the freedom, the confidence, the knowledge that you can always depend on yourself.”

Sexual liberation may be indispensable to female progress, but the hook-up culture is not empowering for all women. This isn’t to say that early marriage or abstinence is the solution. But these are not the only alternatives to the hook-up culture, either. There is a middle way: meaningful sex in the context of a non-marital relationship.

In other words, the solution is a dating culture, which still allows women to delay marriage and pursue their careers, and also lets them have those intimate relationships with men that they don’t want to delay.

This puts Smith and me squarely on the same page, as this reflects my own views about what constitutes potentially achievable change. Smith spoke with a woman on staff at Dartmouth’s Women’s Center, who began their discussion by saying this:

The point of hooking up is for both people to get something out of it. If it’s to get off, then that’s great. . . . If it’s to work some issue out—like sexual assault—then that’s great. It’s basically to get pleasure and enjoyment out of it . . . the hook-up culture is good for experimentation, and what someone does for experimentation is up to them.

…I don’t think [love is] necessary. Yeah, you know—it’s nice. But if you’re talking about sex and the hook-up culture, it’s not needed. The point of the hook-up culture is not to get attached—no strings attached.

Aside from the deeply disturbing idea that hooking up is a good way to get past the trauma of sexual assualt, it turns out this woman doesn’t even believe in the politics she’s spewing, as she goes on to say that hooking up certainly was never right for her.

Smith retorts:

Hooking up, in fact, shares the defining feature of a sexual assault: using another person for your own sexual gratification, without any regard as to what that person wants or how he or she feels. The philosopher Immanuel Kant—who warns against using another person as a mere means to some end—was closer to the truth than many of today’s sexual health experts when he wrote that sex “taken by itself … is a degradation of human nature.”

…One friend tells me that the girls on campus would prefer a culture of dating to one of hooking up, but they would never admit it or ask for it. If girls demanded dating before hooking up, guys would be unmoved, she explained. “There are always going to be other girls for them to hook up with so we’ll just get left behind.”

These women are looking at the problem the wrong way, I think. They need to realize that, in spite of campus sex ratios and prevailing cultural trends, they hold the power when it comes to the hook up culture. They hold the power when it comes to sex.

This was the insight of Lysistrata, the shrewd heroine of Aristophanes’ marvelous play by the same name. Lysistrata was able to diagnose a problem in her society and to take actions and overcome obstacles to solve it. 

For those who have not read the ancient Greek play, it was written in 411 BCE, and is a comedy where one woman convinces all the other wives to withhold sex from their husbands as a way of pressuring them to achieve peace and end the Peloponnesian War. Hilarity ensues as men stumble around with obvious erections, and ultimately they agree to initiate peace talks. 

Lysistrata has been a feminist favorite, as it celebrates the power of women over men, who appear to do all their thinking with their dicks. However, it also portrays women as using their own genitals to get what they want. There is perhaps some truth in both of these caricatures, as evidenced by the play’s popularity for 2,400 years. 

I first mentioned Lysistrata as a possible model for change years ago here at HUS, but readily acknowledged that such a plan could never work. The strategy amounts to the creation of a cartel, where a small group of suppliers agrees to fix prices in order to share the wealth rather than drive one another out of business via competition. Cartels are notoriously unstable, because at any time one member can defect, drop the price, and scoop up all the demand for a larger short-term gain. The incentive to cheat is great.

To deal with hookup culture, the Lysistrata strategy would be effective only if all female participants (hardly a small group of suppliers) agreed to stop having casual sex, demanding commitment of some form in exchange for sex. We do not need to look very far to find women staunchly defending their right and desire to hook up, whether to pursue physical pleasure freely without judgment or to defend the political stance of feminists. In fact, what we have now is a free market where a small group of women offers sex for free (see: cow, milk) and a small group of men has access to that supply.

While some of those women are clearly distressed by their inability to obtain girlfriend status from their hookups, they have bet on hooking up as a better road to commitment than sitting out, and they are unlikely to forfeit the male attention they currently receive in hopes of making things better for everyone. Raising the price of sex would invite greatly increased competition from all the women not hooking up much, weakening the bargaining power of promiscuous women, limited though it is. 

However, I do think there is value in the Lysistrata concept with some adaptation. If all of the women currently not benefiting from hookup culture in any way (obviously a large majority) were to declare their unwillingness to participate and play by those rules, it would serve two purposes:

1. It would explode the myth that basically everybody is hooking up regularly and feels comfortable doing it, which is prevalent on college campuses. 

2. It would identify the women who are interested in a more traditional dating model where emotional intimacy precedes physical intimacy. 

In other words, this move would clearly identify the dissatisfied 80+% of females. Their unhappy male counterparts would have an opportunity to bring back the date. Of course, some of the women only want the players to take them on dates, but that isn’t going to happen. They’re probably better off continuing to hook up and snag whatever crumbs of affection and attention they can from men who have no desire or incentive to offer anything in return for sex. 

Lysistrata isn’t quite right, we need something more along the lines of Take Back the Date Night. But I do think Smith is onto something here – if most women don’t dig it, there’s real potential for a shift. 

I’ll be giving this more thought, perhaps reaching out to campus groups, associations of university women, etc. All suggestions are welcome!