There’s been lots of talk about hook-up culture lately. Women have apparently been embracing it, and it’s become the dominant way of dealing with relationships throughout the college years and even long into one’s twenties. And it makes logical sense. It allows for minimal time commitment, minimal emotional attachment (meaning less chance of getting heartbroken), and lots of physical pleasure. The fact that it’s supposedly a big deal that women are enacting agency over their hook-ups and seeking them out is only because it’s long been assumed that one-night-stands and emotionless hook-ups were solely a man’s game.
The pervasive idea has been that only men are capable of dividing their emotions and their bodies. For men, it’s seen as emasculating and effeminate to seek out an emotional connection within the confines of a relationship in lieu of something more detached, convenient, and predicated on the physical.
But this isn’t quite right. Both from personal experience and from talking to friends, men almost always have a deep desire to connect emotionally, yet to admit it, to bring our own emotions to the table, would not only compromise our perceived masculinity in the eyes of our friends but also in the eyes of the woman we’re pursuing. It’s an impossibly sharp double-edged sword.
Let me explain. When looking for a relationship with a woman, men can either:
a) Act emotionally detached and uncaring, which makes us seem more masculine and generally helps to win the girl (I know a few women who prefer the “nice guy” but this isn’t the dominant preference). However, we’ll likely end up coming across as cold and as “just another guy” in the end, thereby killing the relationship or whatever it is that we had. That’s not to mention, it’s hard to actually enjoy the relationship or hook-up without much emotional attachment.
b) If we really try to care, if we lay our emotional cards on the table, then we’re often perceived as weak, unmanly and pathetic, voiding our chances of establishing a relationship. I can’t blame women either. No girl wants a dainty man.
So where’s the middle ground? We could act cold sometimes and emotional the rest of the time. Or we could pretend not to care — play it cool — and hope that our passion doesn’t bubble up at the wrong time. Some relationships do work, that’s obvious enough, but they only work when emotions are equally calibrated between both parties involved. If one person is far more interested in the other, it’s like looking forward to a day of fishing only to find that a dozen have already hopped into your barrel. The end goal is achieved, but the pursuit is ruined and interest is quickly lost.
In order to avoid the problem of one person being significantly more interested and emotionally invested than the other, the basic rule is that the man remains relatively stoic until the woman comes forward with her emotions, at which point the man is free to even the playing field by admitting his own feelings. But what if he decides to reverse this role and admit his own feelings first? Nearly all of the time, he will appear “soft” and the girl will start to lose interest in pursuing him any further.
Now I’m sure there will be lots of people ready to contest this claim that hook-ups aren’t actually all they’re cracked up to be. Yet, if we sat down and really thought about it, I think we’d all be able to agree that these passing experiences are not, in the long run, actually all that pleasurable. That’s because they don’t ever do for us what we think they will. The idea driving hook-ups for men is two-fold. Firstly, it’s to prove our masculinity and self-worth, and, secondly, it’s to stave away loneliness and the existential dread that we don’t much matter — that our significance as a single human on a planet of eight billion in an ever-expanding universe means we’re as infinitesimal as a grain of sand on an infinitely vast beach.
The dark truth about hook-ups though is that they don’t solve this loneliness. And, behind all the flirting and ego stroking, this loneliness is what we’re really trying to counteract when we seek out hook-ups.
Of course, during the actual act of the hook-up we feel good. Physical pleasure is awesome. No one’s arguing that. But when all is said and done, when the bed sheets have been messed up, hair has been tousled, and the room has become sufficiently humid, there’s not actually that much left. You’re still left feeling alone, and the woman who you should be with is either somewhere else or still yet to be found. So, having failed to solve our loneliness, we try to convert our hook-up into social capital.
Men, myself included, enjoy getting to drop a hint or two that things went very well with that girl from the bar the night before. But the reason we say things like this is less about actual happiness — of having had a phenomenal time — and more about the social cachet it buys. It’s a way to prove our masculinity and it’s just as biological as the sexual drive that led us to that woman in the first place. Essentially, it’s a way to say, I’m a more qualified mate than you. It sounds ridiculous when phrased like that, but when you get down to it, that’s what’s at the bottom of this type of kissing and telling.
Now, you’re probably saying, Oh, Cody, you Puritanical son of a gun, what’s wrong with a little fun? And you’re right, it is fun to flirt and hook up and find out what you like before any sort of settling down. Why not use college and the majority of your twenties for jumping through brief relationships and sexual encounters? It’s no use taking these things so seriously or thinking that these types of decisions have a lasting effect, right? After all, hook-ups usually fade in a few weeks, maybe even after just one night.
The problem with this though is that in order to have a healthy, long-term relationship in the future, you need to become comfortable with yourself now. Crafting your identity around being able to pass through meaningless, transient encounters without much thought will start to shape who you are, what you look for, and where you derive both pleasure and happiness. Trivial intimacy means our identity and perception of self is influenced by people who don’t have much stake in our well-being. So, instead, we should be choosier with our relationships, perhaps open to a hook-up here and there, but always intentional and always understanding of the potential consequences at hand. No matter how much we think we can separate emotional and physical involvement, in the end, these things are inherently linked. Aimless hook-ups, “manly” as they may be, will always be a losing game.