The Chronicle Review

The Emotional Costs of Hooking Up

Juan Manuel Castro Prieto, Agence VU

June 20, 2010

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.