Hook-Ups: Before We Lie Down, We Have to Know Where We Stand

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Some time ago, I attended a party during which I found myself staring intently into the eyes of a man I knew. He is both physically and intellectually sexy, and he was staring at me like he wanted to devour me and pick his teeth with one of my ribs.

Nothing happened between us, and a few days later during a conversation about social media, he asked why we didn't hook up that night.

“I don't hook up,” I responded.

I wasn't trying to be holier-than-thou –- anyone who has been reading me for any amount of time knows I am the last woman to wish for a conventional relationship. But a hook-up –- at least in this scenario –- appealed to me even less. Why?

GIRLS GONE MILD?

Recently I read a Salon article by Jessica Grose about the apparent backlash against early feminist ideas about sexual freedom and our uncomfortable fascination with reversing the trend by doing what feminists before us were rebelling against to begin with: getting married (to whomever!).

Grose gives a fast and furious bibliography of history lesson in the piece:

In the '60s, Cosmopolitan's Helen Gurley Brown told us in Sex and the Single Girl that "sex is great, and that one should get as much of it as possible," as The New Yorker put it. In the '70s, the sexual revolution reached its peak with Erica Jong's "zipless fuck." But by the end of the '70s, Gail Collins argues in When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, women were obsessed with the casual-sex cautionary tale Looking for Mr. Goodbar, "which painted a picture of the new morality that was so dismal it's a wonder the entire generation didn't head for the convent." Then came "spinster panic," involving narratives that focused around the "beautiful, lonely career woman."

The current raft of regret seems to be a response to the Girls Gone Wild archetype of the late '90s and early aughts. Ariel Levy described the new era's version of sex positive in Female Chauvinist Pigs, "a tawdry, tarty, cartoonlike version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular." We were supposed to dance on tables like Paris Hilton and wear ass-baring chaps and hump the floor like 22-year-old Christina Aguilera did in her "Dirrrty" video, or at least find that sort of thing appealing, otherwise we were marmish prudes. We were supposed to go to strip clubs and wear Playboy necklaces around our necks — -as Sex and the City star Carrie Bradshaw did.

But after a while, we did not really want to do any of those things anymore, as Tina Fey explained in an interview with Vogue earlier this year. We have been handed "a sort of Spice Girls' version of feminism. We're supposed to be wearing half-shirts and jumping around. And, you know, maybe that's not panning out." […] Women are not quite ready to admit that we are ready to be domesticated again. But the Girls Gone Wild model doesn't appeal much either.

I agree with Grose that much of the current appetite for marriage and happily-ever-afters (as portrayed by Sex and the City and myriad television shows) is a response to our dissatisfaction with the random hook-up. I also agree that there's shame involved in our ruminations about what we did last night –- but I also think some analysis would reveal that it isn't necessarily that we're ashamed of what we did so much as ashamed of how dissatisfied we feel with this thing that promised us so much.

That, essentially, is the problem with the hook-up: We have forgotten what they're about.

Hookups –- particularly in their emanation as the “zipless fuck” –- empowered women to examine their desires and take action to fulfill them in a sort of vacuum of no-strings, no-last-names, nothing-but-the-moment. At the same time, they were a powerful political and social statement.

Hook-ups were never meant to infuse life with the kind of charge that is born of connection.

Whether you believe in marriage or monogamy or not, connection is essential to human beings. We are open-loops, requiring the presence of other individuals for our well-being –- not just any individuals, either, individuals who are fixtures.

Clans, tribes, families, groups of friends –- we need bonds to regulate ourselves emotionally, psychologically and, according to some studies, even physically.

The crisis experienced by many of us is a direct result of misusing the hook-up: to satisfy the need for connection, to build a different kind of relationship on it out of thin air without any foundation, or to catalyze ourselves out of a standstill that requires more engineering than the push it can bestow.

I'm not saying we've moved beyond the hook-up by any means. The hook-up is alive and well. In some communities, the hook-up is still very much a political statement asserting that we do own our bodies, sexualities and choices.

What I am saying is that we have to remember that there is a rhyme and reason to all of this, and that on the spectrum between a hook-up and a serious, committed relationship, there are many configurations that we can shape to satisfy our needs.

Sharing Phone Number with Love Interest

CONDUCTORS

In the beginning of this article, I recounted that I told a man I didn't hook up. That's partially true. I do hook up. But this information does not pertain to my interaction with a constant like him.

As a general rule, I won't sleep with anyone with whom I haven't established an intense connection. I may not want a conventional relationship with him, but I do require a relationship. The terms of these relationships vary from one person to another, depending on both my and his needs at the time of the agreement (and there is always some agreement, which I lovingly term our “ToS” or “terms of service”), but they all have something in common: They're between (or, face it, among) people who know, care, and respect one another and, perhaps most importantly, who are clear about what's going on.

Before we can lie down, we have to know where we stand, right?

It's not that I'm emboldened by the fact I don't want to own anyone I sleep with. I'll come out and confess that before I even kissed my ex-husband for the first time, I had a conversation with him about what sleeping with me would mean, and I was very clear that if he did, he was turning himself over to me completely. He agreed to the terms. We eventually got married. It didn't work out, but let it never be said we didn't know where our relationship was going.

Ambiguity is the enemy of connection. If we are going to form those bonds that fulfill us, we need to be aware of what we expect in the future, be precise in communicating this and intolerant of ambiguity in regard to it. The biggest mistake people make is dancing around to see “where things go,” hoping that hooking up is going to result in anything. It might, but goodness, do I feel for your nerves in that game of love roulette.

Anxiety is not butterflies in the stomach. It's just anxiety. Trust me, you can still feel light-headed, excited and lose sleep over someone you really like when you know where you both stand. And guess what? It's actually better. Not that I would know, but think of a really pure drug as opposed to a low-quality one. Just like that.

That bond you forge is secure, and while you do experience the separation anxiety commonly associated with bonding when you're apart, the knowledge of where you stand and the trust and respect between you keep you from subjecting yourself to an excruciating and pointless soul-starvation.

You have no such safeguards with a hook-up. Will he call you like he said? Who knows? All you can hope is that you mean it when you say that you don't care whether he does call or not.

JOLTS

Hook-ups are not constant. They're a destabilizing agent. But that has a purpose, too. I use hook-ups to throw myself off-balance. Sometimes I get comfortable, things in life begin losing momentum, and I need something to propel me with some force in a new direction.

A hook-up is a powerful jolt, and I revere it as such. Of course, the thing about catalysts is that they can't be abused without the risk they will lose their power to move you. I did the “meet, lock eyes, have sexy conversation, hook-up, move on” thing in high school. I suspect that my lack of enthusiasm for this situation has something to do with the fact that -- as a result of experiencing it with such frequency -- that configuration of engagement has lost its power to jolt me. Hook-ups for me now involve situations and acts so out of the norm as to be somewhat alarming to anyone who isn't me or in possession of a similar catalog of experience.

That's fine by me –- that kind of brazen exploration of our sexual needs is what hook-ups were originally all about. Of course, back then, we called them “zipless fucks.” I like the modern terminology better, though: as with jolts, overusing the word “fuck” strips it of its power. I would much rather confer a juvenile term on the activity and reserve the magic for when I really want to use it.

That's what it comes down to –- in our culture today, women enjoy an ability to express ourselves sexually that our mothers and grandmothers did not. We enjoy the self-awareness to state what we want out of things. We enjoy the choice to say that an individual, no matter how attractive, is not suitable for what we have in mind.

We have the liberty to configure relations however we like. The women before us showed us the many ways. We have been given the instruments. Let's quit banging things into a dissatisfying din and compose a fulfilling symphony. Or two. Or four.

AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405--what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.

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