• August 27, 2015

The Emotional Costs of Hooking Up

The Emotional Costs of Hooking Up 1

Juan Manuel Castro Prieto, Agence VU

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Juan Manuel Castro Prieto, Agence VU

Helen Gurley Brown meant to shock when in 1962 she wrote her classic advice book, the best-selling Sex and the Single Girl, advocating sexual fun (and financial independence) for unmarried women. Nearly half a century later, the revolution she helped usher in seems complete: Young women now engage in premarital sex at almost the same rate as young men. What's more, back in 1943, 40 percent of young men approved of premarital sex, while only 12 percent of young women did—but by 1999, according to the psychologists Jean Twenge and Brooke Wells, the approval rate was 79 percent among young men and 73 percent among young women.

Along with sex, Brown cheered on wining, dining, and romance. But romance has no place in the mating culture in college today, where the "hookup"—a commitment-free sexual encounter with a stranger or acquaintance—reigns. In a recent cover story in The Weekly Standard, Charlotte Allen described what she calls the New Paleolithic Age—a world in which "Cro-Magnons once again drag women by the hair into their caves—and the women love every minute of it." She believes that women who engage in casual sex hurt their chances for desirable marriages. But until they reach about 30, she writes, they "party on merrily."

Seeing young women dress up to show off their assets and traipse from bars to guys' rooms to hook up, you might reasonably conclude that they like casual sex. Actually, most don't, at least not for very long.

For the past 12 years, I have taught a course on sex differences to college juniors and seniors. When we talk about relationships and sex itself, most of the men, sometimes sheepishly, indicate that they enjoy hookups—but the vast majority of the women are unhappy with them. Time and again, women see their girlfriends' post-hookup traumas, even if they themselves manage to avoid such outcomes. If the men call again, it's often just for another hookup. But as soon as the women push for a real relationship, the men break it off.

Women don't want sex for long without an emotional connection, a sense of caring, if not real commitment, from their partners. As one student wrote in a paper for my class, "We are told not to be sexual prudes, but to enjoy casual sex, we have to be emotional prudes."

Not every woman "gives it up" to men who offer nothing more than a proposition, but those who don't accede often spend Saturday nights alone. The anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan and others have found that where there are more men than women, women usually set the ground rules; where there are more women than men, men do. At most American colleges today, more than 50 percent of the undergraduates are women, and they feel pressured to compete sexually for men. The result is a lot of angry women. As one told my class: "I live with 16 other girls in a big house, and whether we give men what they want or we don't, we all agree that men suck."

A lot of the men seem to believe what one told my wife a few years ago: She was teaching Shakespearean romantic comedy to an all-male college class and asked what sort of women the men imagined they would fall in love with. One young man said he was not interested in love at that point because he hadn't slept with enough women yet.

What is remarkable is that even women who write books about their sexual adventures and want to defend their sexual freedom end up telling the same story. In The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism (1994), Katie Roiphe speaks of feeling "almost sick with the accumulated anonymity of it, the haphazardness, the months and months of toweled men." In Lip Service (1997), Kate Fillion recounts how she retroactively decided she was in love with every man she had had sex with, and how the power she got from sex "was the power to cause myself emotional pain." Cindy Chupack, an executive producer and writer for the HBO series Sex and the City, gives us the details of her sexual escapades in The Between Boyfriends Book (2003) but confesses that she wants to be more than "a notch in somebody's bedpost"; she is looking for a husband.

None of this would surprise John Townsend, an evolutionary anthropologist whose extensive research has led him to believe that many women go through an experimental stage when they try casual sex, but that they almost always end up rejecting it. For women, intercourse produces feelings of "vulnerability" and of being used when they cannot get the desired emotional investment from their partners. In Townsend's studies, that occurs even among the most sexually liberated women. Despite their freethinking attitudes, their emotions make it impossible for them to enjoy casual sex.

Like other evolutionists, Townsend hypothesizes that men are more eager for sex than women because eons ago, men with powerful sexual urges passed on their genes in greater numbers than did men with moderate or low inclinations for sex. Men also would want sex with lots of mates because more mates would mean more offspring. But women who took advantage of any sexual opportunity would not produce children who thrived as well as choosier women would. Women who mated with unusually strong or healthy men, or with men willing to commit ample resources to their children's needs, would increase their children's likelihood of survival. Thus, through the ages, women with such tastes would be more apt to reproduce and rear their offspring successfully.

While some of the tastes and preferences that enhanced the survival of our ancestors in the past make less sense now, according to evolutionary psychology, they remain part of our genetically inherited psychological makeup and affect our decision-making even when we are unaware of them.

Other social scientists report the same sex differences that Townsend does. Edward S. Herold and Dawn-Marie Mewhinney found that women who hook up get less enjoyment and feel more guilt than men do. Denise Hallfors and colleagues found that female teenagers are much more likely than male teenagers to become depressed after sexual encounters with multiple partners. Catherine Grello, a clinical psychologist, and colleagues found that college men who sleep around the most are the least likely to report symptoms of depression, while female college students who engage in casual sex are the most likely to report depression.

In their book forthcoming early next year from Oxford University Press, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker report that having more sexual partners is associated with "poorer emotional states in women, but not in men." The more partners women have in the course of their lives, the more likely they are to be depressed, to cry almost every day, and to report relatively low satisfaction with their lives.

Paul Chara and Lynn Kuennen's research seems to support the female souring effect that Townsend found. Chara and Kuennen asked young women and men in high school and college if they would be willing to engage in sex after a wonderful first date. On average, college seniors are certainly more sexually experienced than ninth graders. Yet 30 percent of the ninth-grade girls said they would be game for sex after that great first date, while only 5 percent of college-senior women said they would be. The trend for young men was the opposite. About 30 percent of the ninth-grade boys also said they would have sex after a great first date, but 60 percent of the college-senior men said they would.

My female students tell me that the emotional pain caused by casual sex goes largely unreported by women, because they are often ashamed that they care about men who treat them like strangers the next morning. They don't want the men involved or the rest of the campus to know about their tears.

Most single women who engage in casual sex only do so "merrily" during an initial experimental phase. To get the whole picture, journalists who interview young women during that phase need to revisit them a few years later. Casual sex comes with more psychological costs for women than for men (and for that matter, more likelihood of sexually transmitted disease). Feelings don't change with the times in quite the same way that behaviors and attitudes do. If the evolutionists are right, those feelings are rooted in women's evolutionary history and will not disappear anytime soon.

Steven E. Rhoads, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, specializes in the issues of gender, culture, and public policy. His most recent book is Taking Sex Differences Seriously (Encounter Books, 2004). Laura Webber and Diana Van Vleet graduated from UVa in May.


1. getwell - June 21, 2010 at 10:50 am

Insightful information that I will pass onto my frustrated son, who is 24, a current engineering grad student, an awesome geek, and a virgin by choice (really!). As a late-bloomer onto the dating scene, he really wants a committed relationship with a healthy girl who doesn't hate men, doesn't have STDs, and doesn't have serious emotional baggage from too many failed attempts at shallow relationships. He's quite discouraged because all he sees are these "hooked up" types, who couldn't spot a truly nice geniune guy if their lives depended on it!

Attention Ladies: he's the real deal...give this good guy a chance...you won't regret it:)

2. paulaeglover - June 21, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I would suggest your son find a church and attend, and perhaps look for the more quiet and less flashy girls.

I thought the feminists amoung the readers would be all over this one. I wonder if a researcher would look at the incidence of abortion among the young women, there would also be a link with the depression - sort of a cause/effect. I do believe that women have to harden their hearts to have casual sex - it becomes an attitude of "I'll use you before you use me." But isn't that what the sexual revolution is all about? The ability to make your own choices and live with the consequences? But you have to wonder if a person has to be drunk in order to have sex - like at some frat party or bar scene - if it is a real choice, or one stemming from emotional pain.

3. graykane - June 21, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Good information. But the article isn't very critical. In the end, this article reads more like propaganda than honest inquiry. But I thank the author for bringing up this important topic.

So how do we differentiate "evolutionary psychology" -- from side effects like "emotional sickness" that come from people's unconscious adherences to patriarchal ideology? Where the genome project hasn't yet ventured, how do we differentiate what is "natural" from the stubborn byproducts of prolonged cultural inequalities?

4. rbeachy - June 21, 2010 at 01:00 pm

The lessons from evolutionary biology are ambiguous, at best. If the most aggressive, virile men had the most sex and the greatest number of offspring, wouldn't promiscuity be selected for in men? And, if I understood correctly, wouldn't these be the men, likewise, that women would be most inclined to choose as mates? If this is correct, then Victorian mores are actually the perfect evolutionary result: double standards for men and women, and a culture of profound hypocrisy. I suspect this is not the outcome desired (or maybe it is?) by the social conservative who penned this tripe, or the "research" that informs it.

5. butteredtoastcat - June 21, 2010 at 02:34 pm

"My female students tell me that the emotional pain caused by casual sex goes largely unreported by women, because they are often ashamed that they care about men WHO TREAT THEM LIKE STRANGERS the next morning."

Does anyone see anything pathological in a male who can have sex with someone and then treat her like a stranger? A stranger?

It seems to me the problem with hook-ups not about the number of partners or about the enjoyment of sex.

It's about the pathological ability of the males involved in hook-ups to shut off basic human empathy completely.

A guy who might have an empathic reaction to a buddy in pain can completely turn off an empathic reaction to a girl he has sex with.

Sociopaths lack empathy, which is how they can hurt others indiscriminately without any sense of wrongdoing. The behavior of males in hooking up seems exactly sociopathic.

6. judicial1715 - June 21, 2010 at 03:47 pm

The more things change the more things stay the same. Sex is best within the bonds of matrimony.

7. kaybar47 - June 21, 2010 at 04:58 pm

"If the most aggressive, virile men had the most sex and the greatest number of offspring, wouldn't promiscuity be selected for in men? And, if I understood correctly, wouldn't these be the men, likewise, that women would be most inclined to choose as mates?"

Hence, the paradox of the sexes. Women are drawn to powerful men and powerful men are the most apt to seek multiple sexual partners. The societal convention that a man must stay faithful to one woman is a relatively new phenomenon and our reptile brains are still adjusting to it. It is no great surprise that so many politicians are caught philandering; that is just another aspect of the drive that lead them to the political arena. Atavistic, yes; but, no less real.

8. 22228715 - June 21, 2010 at 05:36 pm

Hmm, sounds to me like the discussion is leaning toward casting feminism as the culprit, whereas good feminism would never suggest that progress is women emulating the worst characteristics of men. The goal is too low if we're just trying to be equal. Nobody is better off if each of the sexes is equally inept at relationships. (This is true in alcohol use as well... college women are now approaching abuse levels similar to men. More equal, but not a victory.)

As for whether sexual freedom is the culprit... perhaps there is good empirical evidence that promiscuity does not make for happier women over time, but the reverse is no guarantee. Divorce therapy groups are full of women who believed that young adult abstinence or monogamy would insulate them, but it doesn't always work that way.

Sounds like the core of the question is why young adults seem to have weak relationship skills. Sexual choices might be a symptom of that, rather than the problem itself.

9. dmaratto - June 21, 2010 at 07:31 pm

Evolutionary anthro. doesn't account for the individualism that reigns in most people's lives (or, conversely, the "group think" mentality that can be equally as powerful). While I agree that many parts of our behavior are still influenced, to a greater degree than we may think, by instincts or ancient innate factors, this makes it seem like there is no social pressure going on here, and no psychological basis for people's actions. IMHO social/cultural factors play a huge role, and the college environment especially can lead to interesting patterns of behavior. More than a few people hook up because they think it's what everyone else is doing, or it's what they need to do to feel good. Then again, some people just enjoy sex.

And then this:

"Catherine Grello, a clinical psychologist, and colleagues found that college men who sleep around the most are the least likely to report symptoms of depression, while female college students who engage in casual sex are the most likely to report depression."

That one is easy, most young men don't like to talk about their feelings (a generalization, to be sure, but one with basis in fact). Men are less likely to report symptoms of depression, period, so it makes sense that the study would reflect that, too.

10. rsmulcahy - June 22, 2010 at 05:06 pm

I think Butteredtoastcat needs to calm down, put down the romance novels and learn to check the definitions of words. To call men's sexual behavior pathological is the height of ideological ridiculousness, you might as well say that humans natural craving for sweets is pathological. Also, I would encourage the greasy, carb-encrusted feline to not take everything at face value, just because it is written down doesn't mean it is true, at least not in all cases and all places. Just because some random researcher/teacher says that "my female students tell me...x, y and z" does not mean you should take that non-empirical, anecdotal information as gospel truth and apply it universally. It is also ignorant to say that all men can turn off empathy after having sex with a woman. You can't just decide certain ideas are true because you want them to be true. Finally, to return to word choice, the behavior of men in hook-ups is not sociopathic unless the male involved has received a DSM-IV diagnosis of "sociopath" and the incidence of sociopaths in male populations is certainly under 1%. This line of reasoning is absurd but is in the same vein as the "men are pigs" attack. What an insult to pigs! Let's get it straight, human males are human males and male pigs are male pigs but there are common sexual selection strategies that are common to all male mammals. To attack men because they act like men act is a waste of time, why not attack the sun because it rises in the east and not in the west, that which is, is. If you want men to be different then I suggest a program to take all males at birth and genetically reprogram their testosterone production.

11. petersonjimmyjoe - June 22, 2010 at 06:10 pm

Buttertoastcat made the comment that men have the ability to completely shut off any empathy for past sexual partners. Of course it is sociopathic! You seem suprised, or put off. One of the other things we men have "evolved" to do for millions of years is to murder eachother. If not by violence, then by guile and cunning. And I think there is certainly a "hard wired" component of it that just comes from blunt evolutionary pressures. I hope these emotional blind spots will eventually wither away, something we have seen in every species. It's kind of amazing that the choices we make with our special brain can affect so much in our environment, including ourselves and our future. I can understand why women like assholes who treat them like dirt if you put it in an evolutionary context. It doesn't bother me. Every day I'm happy I'm a male though. What a crappy choice one has to make along with all the other physical discomforts and inconveniences. I strongly believe fundamental changes are happening way faster than the author suggests, however. For example, I care about my spouse. I listen to my spouse. I make sure she has a new roll of TP after using the last page. Something I cant say for one child of custodial conflict and legal warefare. He's 17. No. I'm not writing him off. I'm giving him about 8 to 10 more years to either take his mother's path or his biological father's path for good. His half brothers and I will care for him but he suffers much from rejection and depression, despite his physical attributes. Do you realize that in a SINGLE generation, our intellect (music, law, story telling, science) has successfully placed women in the drivers' seat with regard to child support for the first time in human history? Child support IS THE SOUL of the evolutionary pressure the author cites for the development of female success. About now, you're wondering what I look like so I'll tell you. Women say I look great. I have spindly "ET"-like arms though. Womanhood. Lots of power. Lots of pain. It shouldn't be suprising either that we are literally at war with old world cultures that keep women firmly under the boot of men. -Jimmyjoe

12. iris411 - June 23, 2010 at 06:56 am

I find the cited research of evol. psychology very unprofessional. It seems like the research in the previous century. Passing on one's genes really is not that equal to passing around one's sperms. Even after a baby is born (which takes 9 months from the moment of conception), one still need to spend another 15 years to raise a baby so that s/he will be able to pass on the genes. Hence, for men who enjoys screwing around ONLY they do not have an edge to pass on their genes than their more committed conterparts. On the other hand, for women who enjoy screwing around, they may have an edge because of the unclear fatherhood which could potentially help them protech their young by claiming fatherhood to whoever is in power and whom they've slept with.
The most important point is that evolutionary psychology is not a science, it is proven to be very culture and value-laiden. It's been used to "prove" the inferirority of the Africans, the Irish and the Chinese, etc. It's been used to "prove" the inferiror intelligence of the females. Hence I find it quite unprofessional to use it again here to "prove" women's sexual behavior and their psychological consequences. It's an area warrant more research, but it has to be studied on its own rights, not to prove or disprove some theory in evol. psych.

13. campuslife1 - June 23, 2010 at 10:15 am

Wow. After reading the article and all of your comments, I am a bit intimidated. I had to pull out my dictionary a couple of times to follow along. Nonetheless, I did want to pose one question that the researchers did not address, or if they did, not throughly enough.

What about gay or lesbian hook-up encounters? I know that during their "experimental" phase, college women are not only hooking up with men, but women as well. Do some lesbian women treat their casual sex partners like "strangers" in the morning as well? Are there gay or questioning men suffering from the hook-up culture?

Just curious.

14. navydad - June 23, 2010 at 11:10 am

This discussion calls to mind The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri Tepper.

15. 22121597 - June 23, 2010 at 01:24 pm

I would also like to see the correlation between casual sex and the use of alcohol--especially among college-aged students. How many hook-ups are the result of alcohol? How is the post-coital effect and the post-alcohol effect related? How many of these hook ups, in other words, the result of sober decision making?

16. jaysanderson - June 23, 2010 at 02:36 pm

This is what I most love about academia--we create a problem that wasn't, find a solution that isn't, and then discover the error a short 50 years later, publishing and reporting the discovery as a monumental breakthrough for humanity.

17. cunningham2 - June 23, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Just as the discipline of biology is casting doubt on and moving beyond the usefulness of myths derived from teh theory of 'natural selection' the social sciences have siezed upon it as the explanation for everything.

Having got that off my chest, studies have shown a significant rise in narcissism, an approach to self and others that includes indiffference to other people and their needs. Yes, indeed, the observation about sociopaths is heading in the right direction.

I would also draw attention to the proven influence of pornography on ordinary people's sexual activities. Once again, research has shown that the hook up experience is likely to be a physically and emothonally extremely unpleasant one for the young women concnerned, as the boys ape what they've seen in porn movies and inflict painful and degrading practices on their female partners.

18. sgray17 - June 24, 2010 at 04:16 pm

Right on, campuslife1! I am not sure that I understand how evolutionary psychologists/anthropologists can explain the sexual motivations of lesbians and gay men. I would really like to know if this research took sexual orientation into account, or just made a huge heterosexist assumption when interviewing subjects.

"I live with 16 other girls in a big house, and whether we give men what they want or we don't, we all agree that men suck."

If this is the case, perhaps lesbianism is the solution!

19. veganroadrunner - July 06, 2010 at 07:57 pm

Amen, campuslife1. Whenever I see anyone claiming that men or women are innately one characteristic or another, I can't help wondering how they could overlook all the LGBT people who throw a spanner into their simplist works.

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