Hook-up culture: liberation or exploitation?
JILL STARK AND LAURA BANKS
Romance is, like, so 1996. Flowers and chocolates are lame. Instant messaging and "hooking up" are the new courting.
And sex is just a swipe of a mobile phone screen away.
The online era has reportedly killed emotional intimacy. And Tinder - the dating app in which users shuffle through photos of hotties like a deck of playing cards - is the latest villain charged with its demise.
Dubbed "sex satnav", the app allows people to check out who's up for a date in their area. Swiping a photo to the right indicates they like what they see. A swipe to the left is a thumbs-down. Only when a pair both like each other's pictures can they exchange messages. Then it's on. A "DTF?" (Down to f---?) proposition might swiftly be followed by a hook-up.
It has sent parents and social commentators into a frenzy. They worry it's emblematic of an increasingly disposable culture that is devaluing sexual relationships and causing a generation to emotionally tune out.
Ben, a 22-year-old Tinder user from Melbourne might not assuage their fears. "It's an easy way to find a f---. Sometimes I'll have four or five dates lined up in the one week and when I say dates, I really mean f---s because, well, that's what it's all about. You match, arrange a time to catch up and have sex. There's less obligation to follow up with another date or call. You both know what you're there for."
Alex, 23, tells a similar story: "It's basically a hot-or-not game. The hot get liked and the others get the flick. I use it to pick up. It's easier to click and type than it is to talk in a loud bar. It's the way society is going."
But for Mary, 23, it's a source of frustration. "I expected much more from the app than just sex ... Guys don't even have to buy you a drink or take you out for dinner. They just arrange meetings and get sex and f--- off. I don't want any part of that." Yet, as some mourn the demise of meaningful human connection, others argue the hysteria is unfounded. "Hook-up culture", they say, is just the modern equivalent of the decades-old one-night-stand pick-up in the pub.
And while technology may be providing new ways for young people to meet, there is little evidence yet that this generation of digital natives is any more promiscuous than their predecessors. Even if they are, is it necessarily a problem? Or do Gen Xers and baby boomers need to accept that sexual relationships in 2013 are forged on more liberal terms than in their day?
"Having multiple partners is only bad if we have these very rigid, Victorian-era constructions of what constitutes normal and proper," says Lauren Rosewarne, a lecturer and researcher on sexuality and gender politics at the University of Melbourne.
"The average age of virginity loss in Australia is 17, which hasn't sharply decreased over any period of time, but the average age of first marriage is now 30-ish. That's a long lag time, so a lot of people in their early 20s won't be looking for a serious partner. Why can't they use sex recreationally?"
Tinder is not the first technology to facilitate casual sex. The gay community were early adopters with Grindr launching in 2009, followed by Blendr - the straight version. There are now countless dating sites and apps such as Skout, Cougar, Zoosk, Plenty of Fish, OkCupid and chat rooms including Chatroulette, which users say are more geared towards transient sexual interactions than romantic relationships.
But unlike some dating sites, which require users to list a detailed profile of their hobbies and interests, Tinder offers little more than a first name and a picture. "We screenshot hotties and compare. Yeah, it's a game to see who can get the hottest bird. And yeah, I have f---ed a few of them," says John, 24. "... but it's not like I'm going to find the woman I will marry pulling a duck face on Tinder. It's all a bit of a feel-good act, you know, a few swipes here and a scroll there and I feel good about myself because someone thinks I'm hot."
Many of the young people Fairfax Media interviewed described dating apps as "kinda like a game", which they used as a confidence booster. Indeed, when a match is made on Tinder, users are asked the question: "Start chatting? Or keep playing?"
But it's only a game when everyone's playing by the same rules. One of the chief concerns for those alarmed by the dawn of this instant gratification age is that the balance of sexual power is tipped in favour of men.
They claim the superficiality of apps such as Tinder, or photo-sharing site Instagram - which has become a magnet for young women seeking validation by posting provocative, semi-clad "selfies" for "likes" - is sexualising girls from an early age and teaching them their self-worth is predicated on the way they look.
Melinda Tankard Reist, a social commentator and co-founder of Collective Shout For a World Free of Sexploitation, who has interviewed thousands of Australian teenage girls about their sexual experiences, believes "pornified" culture is partly fuelled by raunchy music videos, advertising and fashion. She also believes it is being exacerbated by the online hook-up space, which can accelerate, or often bypass, the traditional dating process, and encourage quick progression to sex. Young women, she argues, are being taught to be "sexual service stations" for men.
However, Dr Rosewarne claims this is an archaic view of female sexuality based on the false premise that only men are looking for no-strings sex.
"The idea that women want to be romanced is quite an old-fashioned notion and it's also that assumption that sex is something women give men as opposed to an equal participation and women having their own sexual agenda. As long as they're taking precautions, why can't sex be fun?
This assumption that women are exploited and men are taking advantage of them is a very outdated view."
Ms Tankard Reist rejects the characterisation of her concerns as moral panic. "The girls that I'm talking to aren't describing free, liberated experiences; they're describing pressure and coercion. Girls tell me with tears in their eyes that they're made fun of if they haven't had sex by the time they're 15 ... I'm starting to think that this is perhaps one of the most disempowered generations for a long time. We've supposedly had a women's movement of liberation and girl power, but in this domain they feel like their desires and wishes come second to their sexual partner's."
Indeed, the one thing missing from hook-up culture for women seems to be the orgasm. A New York University study of 24,000 college students found that only 40 per cent of women achieved orgasm during their last casual encounter compared with 80 per cent of men. In long-term relationships, three-quarters of the women reported experiencing orgasm.
"All the research around orgasm talks about emotional connection and women feeling safe and secure, which is probably harder to achieve if you've only known the guy for seven minutes," Dr Rosewarne says. "There's also research that shows young women often have an expectation of doing certain things - like giving men blow jobs when men don't feel the same expectation to perform oral sex on women and that's really heightened amongst young people, particularly in casual encounters."
Concern about Gen Y's sexual habits reached fever pitch last year with the release of a book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.
Along with the alarming assertion that "oral sex is the new kissing", author Donna Freitas argued that while publicly, young people revelled in the hedonic liberation of their inconsequential liaisons, privately many craved more. She cited a study of 2500 students that found 41 per cent had expressed sadness or despair over the emptiness of their hook-ups.
"The sheer amount of repression and suppression required for living in the context of hook-up culture teaches young adults not to feel at all," she wrote.
But does this generalised view of an entire generation underestimate the technological savvy and emotional maturity of young people? Most of the 18- to 25-year-olds Fairfax Media interviewed, who were using hook-up apps such as Tinder and Blendr, knew what to expect online. If they wanted something more meaningful than casual sex, they sought relationships through more traditional avenues.
Stacey, 18, says she would never hook up with someone she met on an app or social media. "I'd rather meet people through friends, hang out that way and get to know them. I don't think that will ever go away, human nature makes people want to spend time with people in person - how can you connect with someone properly that you've only seen Photoshopped pictures of?"
Kate, 22, uses dating apps to meet guys, but says, "It's not like you could ever find true love. Anyone who thinks that is stupid. I'm all for the tradition and romance. I want to find a guy, lock eyes on him and fall madly in love. I don't want the first image of him to be a 'fully sick' photograph with his top off showing me his 'mad abs' that he's been taking 'roids to get."
Likewise, both men and women understood that what they saw in porn wasn't real. While many women said they did feel pressure to have sex early in the dating cycle, particularly if they met online - and to provide the "pornstar experience" such as anal sex or "facials" - that didn't mean they were obliged to comply. And while the digital age has made porn more ubiquitous and allowed sexual images to be freely shared through messaging apps such as Snapchat, Kik, Viber or WhatsApp, there is not yet research to show whether this is having a long-term negative impact. In fact, evidence is emerging that some forms of online interaction are actually helping young people build deeper relationships.
In his PhD on 18 to 24-year-old's intimate use of social media, Matt Hart, from the University of Western Sydney, found that for marginalised groups - such as those who were overweight, or young gay women - using the social networking and blogging site Tumblr allowed them to form strong connections. Some met in real life and hooked up sexually, many didn't.
"Contrary to that notion that online intimacy is weakening our ties to each other and it's all narcissistic and superficial, I found that young people are experiencing really enduring, deep forms of intimacy that they can't find offline. This is their space and they feel that adults are prescribing what intimacy is supposed to be."
Melbourne high school student Olympia Nelson, 16, who has written for The Age on girls' obsession with sexualised selfies, said the panic over the advent of sexting and hook-up culture was not only overstated but does young people a disservice by discounting the role that upbringing, friendship circles and personal choice make in the way they form relationships.
"This generation is much more open about sex than our parents' generation, but we also have a shame culture where we're taught that we'll be tarnished for ever, we'll leave a dirty digital footprint if we send sexy pictures. It's just so exaggerated. Is it that sexual practice is on the rise or that people are just reporting it more?"
For 20 years, Associate Professor Anne Mitchell from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University, has conducted a survey of teenagers about their sexual habits. In that time, the number of 16-year-olds having intercourse has stayed steady at about 30 per cent; as, too, has the proportion of 18-year-olds having sex (about 50 per cent.)
While the last survey was conducted in 2007 (the next one is due in 2014), it remains to be seen what impact the emergence of hook-up culture has had on this trend. But contrary to Ms Tankard Reist's research, Professor Mitchell says the consistent theme in their surveys is young people, male and female, are having enjoyable, consensual sexual relationships.
"We ask them about their last sexual encounter and was it pleasurable, how did they feel, and of course you get kids who say they felt used or ashamed, but the majority have always said that they felt good, they felt loved, they felt pleased. So we need to have confidence in young people that they are pretty responsible and pretty clear about what they want."
And as for Tinder - happily, not every match-up starts and ends with a pile of clothes on the bedroom floor. "I would not have thought that I would find love on a hook-up app, but that's what happened," says Laura, 25. "I went on it for a laugh and some self-gratification and ended up with a relationship. Who would have thought?"
- The Age