Comparing Consensual Non-Monogamy and Hookup Culture

So far in this blog, I’ve talked about consensual non-monogamy and presented it as an alternative—with both potential benefits and challenges—to monogamy. This week, I want to take a slightly different approach as I take a closer, critical look at another form of non-monogamy: Hookup Culture. As we examine Hookup Culture with its promise of sex without commitment, I want to try to build on part of what I wrote about in last week’s post which explored some of the ways that consensual non-monogamy can perpetuate harmful social constructs. In this post, we’ll explore how just removing the expectation of sexual monogamy doesn’t automatically create more satisfying or balanced lives or relationships (sexual or otherwise). As you read through this post, I want to invite you to consider how social settings that push sex without commitment might even magnify some of the most emotionally, psychologically, socially, and relationally toxic aspects within our society.

Defining “Hookup Culture”

To define Hookup Culture, let’s start by defining a hookup. When I refer to a hookup, I’m referring to a “brief uncommitted sexual encounter between individuals who are not romantic partners or dating each other.”

I don’t have a nice, concise, widely-accepted definition of what exactly Hookup Culture is, so I’ll sort of have to define it by its features; see the handy chart I created below. But I also want to be clear from the outset: when I refer to “Hookup Culture” here, I’m not referring to a culture that is simply permissive—or even celebratory—of the erotic/sexual/intrapersonal/interpersonal/psychological/emotional potential of brief, uncommitted sexual encounters. Hookups are (or, rather, can be) great… when that’s what the people involved really want. What I am referring to and critiquing will be a set of rules, assumptions, expectations, power hierarchies, and social scripts (all of which can be both spoken/explicit, or unspoken/implicit) that create coercive social contexts and interpersonal interactions where individuals are 1) pressured to do things they don’t want to do, and 2) discouraged or restricted from doing or asking for things they do want.

For a fantastic overview of how Hookup Culture operates on American college campuses, check out this episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain, where Shankar Vedantam interviews Lisa Wade, author of “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.” Many of the assumptions or “rules” of Hookup Culture I put together in the table below, or talk about in other places in this post, are drawn from that interview. 

As you read through those assumptions and “rules” about how different values are expressed differently within Hookup Culture and Consensual Non-Monogamy, there may have been several themes that stand out to you. One of the themes I want to highlight explicitly within Hookup Culture is the way that individuals are expected to deny, reject, or turn off certain parts of themselves in order to participate. They can be (hetero)sexual beings, but they can’t be emotional beings. They can’t be sensitive or affectionate, vulnerable or playful. 

I also want to expand on something that comes up briefly in the Lisa Wade interview, which is the ways that Hookup Culture mirrors/reinforces/is Rape Culture—a culture that “facilitates and excuses behaviors that translate into sexual assault” as Lisa Wade puts it. Take a look at the list of traits of Hookup Culture above: lack of communication about limits in sexual interactions, intoxication and substance use, sexual interactions based on power and status, disregard for partner’s emotional well-being, amplification of patriarchal gender roles within sexual interactions, normalization of “using” sexual partners, objectification… While it would be inaccurate to claim that every hookup that takes place within Hookup Culture is sexual assault, it’s important to point out how these norms that are built into Hookup Culture make it far more likely that people will experience/perpetrate sexual assault. While consensual non-monogamy doesn’t guarantee that a person won’t experience sexual assault or unwanted sexual attention/contact, the norms within consensual non-monogamy related to communication, autonomy, awareness of power balance/imbalance make it more likely that individuals will be able to have the sexual interactions that they want to have, and not have sexual interactions they don’t want to have. 

Hookup Culture and Monogamy 

While Hookup Culture and monogamy might seem like they’re vastly different—and in many ways, they are—I would argue that they’re more connected than they might seem. Hookup Culture as described above is most obvious in the US on college campuses. The campus community consists of the same pool of people, so an individual is often living, working, studying, playing, socializing, partying, (and having sex) within the same interconnected networks with much weaker ties to the external world. This allows the norms around Hookup Culture to be more strongly reinforced across areas of a person’s life, and fewer opportunities to form relationships that aren’t heavily influenced by Hookup Culture. But eventually, for most people, that shifts and their range of interactions expands again; after college, there’s more separation between work, family, friends, dating partners. And with that shift, there’s also a shift in how individuals approach dating, and what they’re looking for in potential partners.

In the interview on Hidden Brain, Lisa Wade shares how in her study, it was only about 15% of students on campus who really loved Hookup Culture, while about 30% opted out of Hookup Culture altogether. That leaves roughly half of the students on campus who feel ambivalent about Hookup Culture—there are parts of it that they like, but also parts of it that leave them wanting something different. Wade argues that the lack of alternatives often leads to ambivalent individuals participating in Hookup Culture, which I agree with. However, I might reframe that slightly and say that ambivalent individuals are more likely to participate in Hookup Culture because there actually is an obvious—even automatic—opt-out. Students will literally graduate out of Hookup Culture… at least this super-intense version. 

Hookup Culture can be perpetuated without actually being sustainable; because there’s constantly a new crop of students entering campus who want to celebrate the greater freedom college offers (both for their personal autonomy and for their sexual prospects) and who are also eager to gain social status quickly, the sustainability of Hookup Culture model doesn’t depend on people actually fully enjoying or benefiting from it to participate. Participants in Hookup Culture can simply tell themselves that this won’t last forever and once they leave campus they can find a relationship that is committed, emotionally intimate and fulfilling, as well as the best sex of their lives—all wrapped into one, monogamous package. Many of the individuals who participate in Hookup Culture aren’t giving up on wanting both emotionality and sexuality… they’re often just deferring that desire. And deferring that desire to engage all off the parts of themselves rather than just some parts allows people to keep stepping back into Hookup Culture, even if there are some times that they come away from it feeling like they’ve been treated more like a hyper-realistic sex doll than a full human.

Hookup Culture touts itself as the alternative to the boredom of monogamy or abstinence. But conversely, because of the excesses of Hookup Culture and narrow brand of “sexual liberation” it offers, I suspect that paradoxically it may actually be doing more to reinforce the norm of monogamy than disrupt it. Because if non-monogamy = Hookup Culture, many people who have experienced the emotional poverty of Hookup Culture understandably think “Maybe monogamy isn’t so bad.” Hookup Culture promises sex without commitment, and it delivers on that promise. But it also delivers sex without intimacy. Sex without kindness. And often, sex without uncoerced consent.

Consensual Non-Monogamy as an Alternative to Hookup Culture

Although Hookup Culture and Consensual Non-Monogamy both acknowledge that individuals’ erotic potential doesn’t need to be confined to a single, life-long, emotionally stable and sexually-charged relationship, people who operate from a consent-based, relationships-should-reflect-the-values-of-the-people-involved framework for non-monogamous relationships would likely see very few things within Hookup Culture that they would want to emulate beyond that shared rejection of life-long monogamy and exclusivity. 

In next week’s post, I’ll (probably) come back to this topic and explore how I think Consensual Non-Monogamy offers an alternative to both Hookup Culture and prescriptive monogamy (i.e. “monogamy is the only option” rather than “monogamy is one valid option”). And I’ll explore how—just like I argued Hookup Culture and monogamy have paradoxically created a symbiotic cycle where they’re apparently at odds with each other but actually they might really both be feeding into each other—Consensual Non-Monogamy and monogamy might actually be able to form a symbiotic relationship to one another… but do it in a way that reinforces each individual’s full humanity rather than forcing individuals to give up or turn off parts of themselves the way that Hookup Culture does with emotional intimacy. 

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