sex, dating, & relationships

Agency, Objectivity, and a Vision of Sexual Justice: Part Two, on Hookups

How do we define risky or inappropriate behavior? I think that sometimes we cast these categories too broadly. To explore this question, I will return to the issue of hooking up that I previously addressed through my comments on the work of Shannon Boodram and Nancy Bauer.

In responding to the chapter in Boodram’s book about “Hookups that Fell Down,” I expressed my feeling that many of the experiences described in this chapter include evidence that suggests they were sexual assaults, not simply bad hookups. Although I could defend this statement further using the examples in the book, I’ve actually chosen not to explicate these stories on my blog at this point because it is not my desire to place labels on someone else’s experience.

More specifically, I’d like to refer to the disagreement as an example of what I see as the need to be more specific about the boundary of the categories that we’re using to discuss sexuality. The title of the chapter blurs the line between hookups and assaults, including many assaults under the category of a bad hookup. I think this is dangerous because it fails to recognize the role of human agency in our sexuality. Having a sexual experience that “falls down,” or that one later regrets, necessitates having made a choice initially to engage in sexual activity. On the other hand, when a person is pushed, pressured, tricked, or otherwise made to engage in un-consensual sexual activity, that is sexual assault.

In Bauer’s work, I find the opposite tension. She critiqued all hookups as objectifying and violent—no hookup, it seems, could then be entered out of one’s own agency. I fear that clumping all hookups together as inherently unhealthy and inevitably unhappy experiences makes it so much harder to differentiate between hookups and sexual assaults. Furthermore, if we state ahead of time that all hookups are objectifying, then we are laying the groundwork for victim-blaming when someone does in fact experience sexual violence during the course of pursuing a hookup.

Unhealthy, unhappy and nonconsensual after all too often come hand-in-hand. Furthermore, we justify blaming the victim by lowering expectations below the line of respectable, consensual treatment.

Assault, objectification and manipulation come in all shapes and sizes. What we label every hookups as negative, and when we dismiss nonconsensual hookups as normative, we blur our vision and sacrifice our ability to identify violence, on the one hand, and strive for consensual pleasure, on the other.

Maybe no two people on earth have ever successfully had a healthy, positive, safe hookup together that both of them still, to this day, remember with a joyful smile. Maybe such a hookup has never happened. I think it has happened and does happen, but even if it has not, we need to believe it to be possible. We need to believe in this high standard because without this high standard, we blind ourselves. If we set this high standard, we broaden the spectrum on which we can understand hookups and we increase the number of ways in which we can describe hookups, acknowledging them to have either been amazing, pleasing, fun, sweet, mediocre, a bummer, a regret, inappropriate, not consensual, traumatizing, violent . . .

I want a way to talk about different hookup experiences not just in terms of the stereotypes we’ve used so far, but in terms of a vast range of real experiences and a fabulous image of safe, consensual joy. I’m frustrated by what feels to me like a lack of differentiation and a turning away from the challenge of enthusiastic consent.

Published by Mimi Arbeit

applied developmental scientist, antifascist community organizer, sexuality educator

7 thoughts on “Agency, Objectivity, and a Vision of Sexual Justice: Part Two, on Hookups”

  1. EmFish says:

    "Maybe no two people on earth have ever successfully had a healthy, positive, safe hookup together that both of them still, to this day, remember with a joyful smile. Maybe such a hookup has never happened."

    Do you yourself not think there are mutually consenting/affirming/positive/enjoyable hook-ups? Or was that a "Even if you are someone who doesn't believe it has ever happened, you have to think that it could"?

  2. havacow737 says:

    I'd like to believe that many of my 'hookups' were successful, healthy, positive, and safe experiences for both myself and my partner(s). It can be done.

    However, that being said, this became more true as I got older. As a teenager, the pressure was high, the agency was low, and that does not make for a healthy sexual experience.

  3. Wholly Foolish says:

    Glad to see you back on the blogosphere! While I may never get to have another "hook-up" again in my life, I do believe in your vision for promoting the concept and practice of "enthusiastic consent."

    I have more thoughts on why this concept/practice is definitely a challenge, but they are not fully-formed yet. Thanks for raising the subject again!

  4. Mimi says:

    @ EmFish–
    I did mean "even if you are someone who doesn't believe…"
    Personally, I do think that there are people engaging in healthy/ affirming/ positive hookups. However, in this post I wasn't trying to comment on what happened in the past, rather, I was trying to make the point that this is something we need to believe is possible whether or not we see evidence of it happening. But I'm very glad you asked me to clarify because confirming evidence of such hookups certainly helps my case.

  5. demi says:

    The whole concept of hookups is really fascinating to me simply because it's so foreign to the way I function. I identify as demisexual, which means I experience sexual attraction only to people with whom I have already established a strong emotional connection; the rest of the time, I am basically asexual. So the idea of having a casual sexual encounter with someone you don't love is something I just can't wrap my brain around (even though I understand, intellectually, that plenty of people do it).

    At the same time, I am also a fierce proponent of "whatever floats your boat" when it comes to sexuality. If it makes you happy and everyone involved is a consenting adult, then go for it! And my gut instinct is that it is possible to have a mutually affirming, positive hookup experience. But for me, that belief is entirely abstract: more of an "I'm sure it could work for someone" where the "someone" is a variable about which all I know is that it's definitely not me.

    It's just a strange sort of disconnect between intellect and emotion, in that intellectually I can be all for something that makes no sense to me emotionally.

  6. Mimi says:

    @havacow– I think that age and stage definitely have a lot to do with the development of agency. Much of the commentary on the blogosphere speaks specifically about college women. Did you feel like college was a place in which you could develop your sense of agency, and/or did you feel a further development of agency after college?

    Another key question is, how can we help teenagers start off their sexual explorations with a sense of agency and a right to pleasure and choice?

  7. havacow737 says:

    I definitely feel like college was a place where I discovered myself and my sexual power. Part of what helped me realize this were actually my failed romantic relationships (non-hookups). They each taught me valuable lessons about myself and how to not settle. Being able to figure out what I wanted (out of a sexual relationship) empowered me to go out and get it.

    I think its an unending process and I'm constantly developing the ability to 'do me' instead of doing what others want of me.

    As to your question about teenagers, I think a lot of it comes from empowering them to make their own decisions; not telling them what to do. We have to enable them to make knowledgeable decisions and help them do explore safely.

    We also need to expect that part of the discovery process for teenagers is making mistakes and having 'bad hookups', and realize that this is how they will learn and grow. It's just important that we teach them to be able to recognize when a hook-up or relationship is 'bad'.

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