Hook up culture is one of the prevailing themes of relationships in the lives of young people today. Critics will argue that it’s ruining relationships for good, dating is dead, and so is chivalry. Men have no respect for women, women have no respect for themselves, and your twenties is doomed to be a string of failed hook-ups while establishing your career and asserting your independence. But is hook up culture really that bad? Or unique, for that matter?
I believe that the more important issue to address not a question of pursuing numerous partners, but how or why that is occurring. Is hook up culture ruining dating and relationships as we know it? Perhaps a little history lesson is in order first to see how we arrived at our current situation.
Before There was Tinder
The Sexual Revolution that began in the 1960s was a radical shift in the structure and function of relationships shared in the Western world. No longer was it frowned upon to have pre-marital sex, experiment with a variety of partners, or worry about conceiving a child each time you had sex thanks to a few key innovations like the birth control pill. It was during this time that various social castes were discarded, and a much more casual attitude towards sex was first experienced. We are currently experiencing a new sexual revolution in the form of hook up culture.
Before the 1960s revolution, hundreds of years of Puritan influence repressed North Americans’ sexuality, treating all acts of the sort as taboo and impure. It was during this time that sex was treated with such high discretion that a husband was told to abstain from having sex with his wife unless it was necessary to conceive a child. Masturbation was viewed as a sinful and damaging practice – in fact, some of the top selling wares of the 1800’s were devices used to prevent humans from touching themselves (this is where the chastity belt first originated). It was also thought to cause blindness and insanity, which was later determined to only occur if your aim was poor.
As a result of this great cultural oppression, productivity in North America was incredibly high, and innovation flourished along with the economy. In fact, the modern 9-5 work day and the school year calendar originated from the schedules of farmers of this time period. If you wanted to do business, the hours of 9am to 5 pm were traditionally the most beneficial in for farmers in terms of productivity. The harvest ended in the fall, and that was the time when children could then be set free from a summer full of manual labour to pursue their studies. Summer vacation never used to exist; it was more like mandatory summer employment because school wasn’t in session.
All the while, North Americans were sexually repressed by Puritan influence in order to maintain this state of dull, repetitive work.
As Oscar Wilde once stated: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
By taking away sex from the masses, leaders in North America in the 1700s-1800s also took away the power of commoners. A steadfast devotion to God and his teachings kept citizens under control, as work was to be done as a duty to God, and sex and other “frivolous” acts were deemed sinful and unnecessary. In addition to the repression of commons, there was also repression of the cultural immigration that occurred when West African slaves arrived stateside.
If it weren’t for the influence of African-American culture, we would not have Jazz, Blues, Rock N Roll, Rap, Hip-Hop, and a whole host of other forms of music, dance, and art. Jazz was initially treated with great fear, as was dancing to it, because of the perceived evil nature of sex imposed by the now-bygone Puritan rule. All subsequent forms of music created by African Americans were treated with the same hostility before being adopted into mainstream white culture.
Rock was called the devil’s music, Rap and Hip Hop were written off as the music that only petty thugs and criminals listened to, and all forms of dance and art associated with these forms of music were initially typecast as evil due to their prevalent forms of sexuality. The sexual themes were due to the cultural difference that African slaves brought with them to the United States.
West Africans were not governed by a sex-fearing religious body; therefore sex was not viewed as some evil, god-forsaking act, and various parts of their culture (including music) reflected that. Even the experimental, loose style of Jazz could be thought of as more overtly sexual than the more traditional, structured classical music that was popular with white folks for centuries.
The Influence is Still Present
Today, two centuries of Puritan cultural influence is still present in our society. Sex is still viewed as a taboo subject, although far less evil than it was back in the 16th and 17th centuries. Our media is filtered through a lens of sexual appropriation, while forms of violence, both real and fictional, run rampant, despite the fact that increased exposure to both sex and violence has been shown to have negative consequences for human behaviour.
Which brings us to modern day hook up culture. This is a very polarizing issue: those who support “traditional” relationship constructs and morals can’t stand it, and those who have a less traditional view buy into it. The majority of media coverage about the hook-up culture is largely negative, with opinions on it ranging from “ruining dating forever”, to “creating a culture of people who are afraid of commitment”, or even “promoting promiscuity for both men and women.”
All of these accusations speaking out against hook up culture are built upon a platform of “traditional” relationship metrics that have only existed for a few generations. What we think of dating today wasn’t what our ancestors thought of it in the 19th century. Before urbanization, humans didn’t really go out on “dates”. Most of humanity was agrarian, and the few that did live in the city were almost pre-determined to marry from a select pool of suitable mates from an equal social standing. Until the 20th century, most human relationships were essentially a pre-determined, classist dance that had been ongoing for thousands of years.
Farmers, and peasants before them, would have massive families in the hopes of breeding their workforce on site. Offspring mortality was much higher compared to today’s standards. For the children that survived and reached adulthood, the selection criteria for a partner was not so much physical or psychological like it predominantly is today; it was more of a geographical and economical based one. Due to this incompatibility, the incidence of domestic and sexual violence was also much higher.
Because of the repression of women’s rights and the overall sexual repression of humanity in 18th and 19th century North America, a very depressed state of being was in place for those in relationships. Rather than matching with a partner based on physical and psychological criteria like we do today in present day North America, a partner was viewed as more of a commodity; a means to an end, . Only in the upper class was the notion of “love” ever made present. Works such as “Romeo and Juliet” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” began to catch popularity with young couples and inspire them. It was at this time that women were pursued for emotional purposes, although sex was still oddly viewed as an abomination.
When the Roaring 20’s began, so too did the age of the automobile and urbanization. More young men began moving into the city to pursue lucrative work. The economy was booming, virtually every ambitious young man had a car, and jazz was in full swing. This was the beginning of modern “dating”. Taking a young gal out to dinner and then out dancing at a jazz club became a commonly practiced act, albeit largely opposed by the older generations. For the first time in history, a women’s family was not involved in her courtship like some kind of contractual obligation. Women started dressing more freely, cutting their hair short, and had a lot more fun than anyone could remember.
The Roaring 20s could be thought of as the first modern era of “hook-up culture”, as this decade presented a radical shift from the traditional relationship metrics of the past. The older generations thought everything that young people did during this time was immoral and wrong, and the same thing is occurring today with our modern “hook-up culture”. The Roaring 20s no doubt had its fair share of youthful critics who wanted to adhere to more “traditional” courtship, just as our modern day hook-up culture does.
It is said that history often repeats itself, and this is what is currently happening with hook-up culture: a radical shift in lifestyle (the existence of more career and education focused women than ever before) has contributed to a shift in relationship dynamics and made a bunch of people unhappy. In the Roaring 20s, it was a shift to the city, an abundance of money, and the geographical freedom created by the automobile that caused that culture’s relationship practices to be flipped on their head.
What is happening today is not unique; it is simply the next dot on the evolutionary timeline of human relationships. By constantly backcasting and basing our relationship morals on what previous generations did, we are holding ourselves back from the natural evolution that is taking place as a result of our rapidly changing world. If we really want to get particular and base our relationship modes on what our ancestors did to be “proper”, why don’t we backtrack all the way back to pre-agricultural society where human tribes were essentially one big violent orgy? What sets humans apart from other species on this planet is our incredible ability to adapt to situations and figure out how to best play the cards that we are dealt.
To lament about the hook-up culture is to reverse the progress for women that has been made in today’s world. If we don’t want a string of casual relationships to dominate our twenties, than we might as well stop telling women to go to school and pursue a career outside being a housewife. It was this radical shift to a two-income household that drove the evolution of hook-up culture in North America. No longer were families solely dependent on the man of house providing for everyone while the woman stayed home, did the chores, and looked after the kids.
Today, more women than men are graduating from university and entering the workforce as the predominantly more educated gender. If a woman has lofty career goals, she may not have time to dedicate to a healthy, long-term relationship during her twenties. And that’s fine; neither do a lot of men who have the same aspirations. Eventually most people will settle down, and that age is being delayed more and more as people struggle to establish themselves their career at a current job or complete a lengthy term of graduate studies or professional school.
Hook up culture is really a post-secondary student manufactured problem that only students or recently graduated students are complaining about. The fact is, post-secondary students are not having sex more often than those in the past. Millennials just love to constantly preach about how the world is so messed up because we think we’re the first generation to suffer underemployment and massive shifts in relationship culture, which, as I’ve just described, is not at all true.
Now that we’ve explored the historical context of hook up culture and sex in our present society, part two will investigate what motivates us to participate in hook up culture, and why there are negative connotations associated with it. As you will see, there are both positives and negatives to the current situation, but the take home point from this first part is that the current situation is not unique. As happens so often with Millennials, our perception that we’re unique and special is not remotely close to true. Stay tuned for part two.