Are “Friends With Benefits” Really Friends?

Hanna Rosin, senior editor at The Atlantic and author of The End of Men, has written a piece about hook-up culture on and off college campuses for the September issue of her magazine. Given that I’ve done some research on hook-up culture, here are my two cents: Rosin isn’t wrong to argue that the culture offers women sexual opportunities and independence, but she mischaracterizes the objections to hook-up culture and draws too rosy a conclusion.

Those who wring their hands and “lament” hook-up culture, Rosin contends, do so because they think women are giving it up too easily, a practice that will inevitably leave them heartbroken. She writes:

[Critics of hook up culture pine] for an earlier time, when fathers protected ‘innocent’ girls from ‘punks’ and predators, and when girls understood it was their role to also protect themselves.

If this is the problem, the answer is less sex and more (sexless?) relationships. But, Rosin rightly argues, this wrongly stereotypes women as fragile flowers whose self-esteem lies between their legs. It also romanticizes relationships. Drawing on the fantastic research of sociologists Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth A. Armstrong, she explains that young women often find serious relationships with men to be distracting; staying single (and hooking up for fun) is one way to protect their own educational and career paths.

All this is true and so, Rosin concludes, hook-up culture is “an engine of female progress—one being harnessed and driven by women themselves.”

Well, not exactly. Yes, women get to choose to have sex with men casually and many do. And some women truly enjoy hook-up culture, while others who like it less still learn a lot about themselves and feel grateful for the experiences. I make this argument with my colleague, Caroline Heldman, in Hooking Up and Opting Out: Negotiating Sex in the First Year of College [PDF].

But what young women don’t control is the context in which they have sex. The problem with hook-up culture is not casual sex, nor is it the fact that some women are choosing it; it’s the sexism that encourages men to treat women like pawns and requires women to be just as cunning and manipulative if they want to be in the game; it’s the relentless pressure to be hot that makes some women feel like shit all the time and the rest feel like shit some of the time; it’s the heterosexism that marginalizes and excludes true experimentation with same-sex desire; and it’s the intolerance towards people who would rather be in relationships or practice abstinence (considered boring, pathetic or weird by many advocates of hook-up culture, including, perhaps, Rosin).

Fundamentally, what’s wrong with hook-up culture is the antagonistic, competitive and malevolent attitude towards one’s sexual partners. College students largely aren’t experimenting with sexuality nicely. Hook ups aren’t, on the whole, mutually satisfying, strongly consensual, experimental affairs during which both partners express concern for the others’ pleasure. They’re repetitive, awkward and confusing sexual encounters in which men have orgasms more than twice as often as women:

The problem with hook-up culture, then, is not that people are friends with benefits. It’s that they’re not. As one of my students concluded about one of her hook-up partners: “You could have labeled it friends with benefits … without the friendship, maybe?”

Hook-up culture is an “engine of female progress” only if we take for granted that our destination is a caricature of male sexuality, one in which sex is a game with a winner and a loser.  But do we really want sex to be competitive? Is “keep[ing] pace with the boys,” as Rosin puts it, really what liberation looks like?  I think we can do better.

Crossposted from Sociological Images.

Photo from Flickr user dMap Travel Guide under Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. Hook-up culture exists beyond college. To make a blanket generalization, college kids are still figuring their sh*t out. They’re young/stupid/learning as they go. Hook-up culture post-college can be vastly more considerate and mutually beneficial than you describe, and it extends into your 20s and even (gasp!) 30s. If it WEREN’T “mutually satisfying, strongly consensual, experimental affairs during which both partners express concern for the others’ pleasure” at that point, I don’t think 20- and 30-somethings would do it.

  2. This is exactly what was missing from Rosin’s piece. Thank you!

  3. Thank you! Rosin’s summation of hook-up culture and her viewpoint of the gender dynamics it involves just seemed too simplistic. Not to mention, I was greatly bothered by the scenario she painted in her introduction; I understand she was using it as a talking point and she acknowledges it’s an extreme example but all I could think was, “Really? Are we supposed to think of this as ideal?”

  4. There have been a good number of books, theories, and analysis posited over the past five years about the “hook up culture.” Some I agree with and some not at all. But, as a researcher, filmmaker, and educator, I have a huge point of contention by the general lack of acknowledging the “pink elephant” in the room. The reality is that most hook-ups are done under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Sober hook-ups do exist, of course, but they are not the norm. And you don’t need me to tell you that, just ask any college student.

    With that being said, I find it very disconcerting that “hook-up sex” is often catergorized as “casual sex” as if everyone is just making clear-headed, empowered,consensual,casual decisions to engage in sex. It is my understanding that alcohol and other drugs impede brain & body functions in a myriad of destructive ways. I would argue that making decisions “under the influence” completely negates one’s agency and free will.

    Agree or disagree, but from my hundreds of interviews with college students I have come to know that “hook-up sex” implies “drunken sex.” And perhaps that is one of the main determining factors in why…”Hook ups aren’t, on the whole, mutually satisfying, strongly consensual, experimental affairs during which both partners express concern for the others’ pleasure. They’re repetitive, awkward and confusing sexual encounters in which men have orgasms more than twice as often as women”

  5. This is all obnoxious. I’m in the age bracket described in this article. I have sober, mutually satisfying, casual sex. I think the difference between my experiences and those described in both the article and the comments is that I made the descision when I first became sexually active to have a sex life I want. I didn’t hop into bed right away. I had partners I could learn with. While I understand the arguments for and against hook-up culture, I don’t think it’s the core issue. I think sex education is the issue. Most, if any, education consists of heterosexual, procreating sex. No one teaches you how to actually enjoy and take charge of your sexual experiences which therefore produces “…awkward and confusing sexual encounters.”

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