You Can Oppose Hookup Culture Without Having “Internalized Misogyny”

I think hookup culture is toxic and bad for women, a surprisingly controversial opinion in modern discourse.

By Meghan Dillon5 min read
You Can Oppose Hookup Culture Without Having “Internalized Misogyny” shutterstock

I’ve written about the hookup culture-related peer pressure that I experienced when I was in college, and I’m not the only one who's felt the pressure. Writing about it was therapeutic because I received several messages from young women who went through the same thing, and it was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone. The normalization of hookup culture hurts everyone. From the women (and men) who participate to those who don't, there are no winners here.

Since writing about my experience, I’ve written several more pieces about the negative effects hookup culture has on young women. Every few, kind messages have been matched with a message accusing me of having internalized misogyny for pointing out the negative effects of hookup culture, suggesting that I’m shaming women who choose to participate. However, there’s a difference between pointing out what the psychological research says about hookup culture and shaming women who participate in it.

What Is Internalized Misogyny?

Before I go into what numerous studies and health professionals say about hookup culture, I think it’s important to define what internalized misogyny is. It’s defined as, “when women subconsciously project sexist ideas onto other women and even onto themselves.” Behaviors associated with internalized misogyny include taking pride in your own feminine qualities and slut-shaming, but we’ll get more into that later.

Research Shows Hookup Culture Is Bad for Our Health 

I was surprised when I first learned about the research that showed hookup culture is bad for our mental health – it didn’t line up with the narrative that hookup culture was empowering for women (think of popular phrases like "have sex like a man"). But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of the women I knew who participated in hookup culture were miserable. Are there women who feel empowered by participating in hookup culture? Possibly, but the research behind the hormones that release after sex suggests they’re in the minority.

The research behind it is surprisingly simple, and it all has to do with the hormone oxytocin. Known as the “love hormone,” oxytocin creates and maintains attachments and bonds, giving them the loving, pleasing feeling. It’s produced during childbirth and breastfeeding, falling in love, and of course, during sex. Furthermore, women release more oxytocin than men after sex. Sexologist Tonya M. Bass says, “Oxytocin is known as the feel-good hormone that promotes feelings of love, bonding, and well-being.” 

She continues, “It can be very common to feel an attachment to someone after sex since the brain releases oxytocin during arousal, stimulation of the genitals and nipples, during intercourse or orgasm. The release of this hormone after being physically intimate may cause a feeling of attachment and closeness.”

Casual sex can lead to psychological problems like anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression.

While women release high levels of oxytocin after sex, men release high levels of vasopressin. Like oxytocin, vasopressin promotes feelings of attachment and closeness, but it takes longer for the bond to develop. This is why women are more likely to develop strong feelings after engaging in sexual intercourse than men, often leading to heartbreak and disappointment.

Studies have also linked casual sex to psychological problems like anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression. Susan Krauss Whitborne, Ph.D., writes, “Researchers examining the mental health associations of hookup sex also report that participants who were not depressed before showed more depressive symptoms and loneliness after engaging in casual sex.”

This isn’t the only problem linked to hookup culture, as having sex early in a relationship can be linked to later dissatisfaction in the relationship. These studies actively go against the feminist narrative that hooking up is empowering, and some take offense at this before looking into the reasons why hookup culture harms women.

Feminism Doesn’t Actually Care about You and Hookup Culture Proves It

Publications like Elite Daily celebrate hookup culture in articles like "5 Ways The Hook-Up Culture Is Empowering This Generation Of Women." One section says, “Emotions suck. Through all the hookups, one-night stands and so forth, we learned to become callous to emotions and getting emotionally attached to men who didn't feel the same way. As a result, we protect ourselves and our emotions and only open up to the men who truly love us back and want to be with us.”

Though I agree that emotions like heartbreak suck, it’s important to note that having feelings and wanting a relationship doesn’t make you weak, just normal. Demonizing emotions through phrases like "don't catch feelings" is proof that hookup culture is toxic, anti-woman, and unrealistic about human behavior and needs. With hormones like oxytocin flowing through our bodies, “catching feelings” is almost inevitable. That’s why the oxytocin is there – to bond the man and the woman together through the act of sex. It’s like hormonal cement. Telling young women to hook up with no consequences does nothing but ignore their inherent biological nature and trick them into the inevitable heartbreak that comes along with casual sex, all while dismissing their legitimate emotional experiences. (That sounds an awful lot like gaslighting to me.)

Donna Freitas, a former college professor and author of The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, believes that hookup culture is not only toxic but that the pressure to conform keeps college students from speaking out against hookup culture, even when they don’t like it. 

Having feelings and wanting a relationship doesn’t make you weak, just normal.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Freitas said, “People ask, ‘If students disagree with hookup culture, why don't they get together and talk about it?’ But there's a huge fear of dissent, to the point where it's hard to get my students to disagree with each other, even about a novel in class. There's a sense of pressure to agree on everything. My job was to get them comfortable saying something that may completely disagree with everyone else in class because that is what they truly believe. It's one of the most important things you need to learn at college. The idea that we need to collectively agree is part of what perpetuates hookup culture. Students may privately disagree but would never say it in public because they think everyone else thinks it's great. The stakes are high. The average student wants to fit in.”

Kate Hakala of Jezebel disagrees with Freitas, suggesting that Freitas is “panic-mongering.” Hakala writes, “The idea that women are still serving men through hookups, that they aren't actually interested in casual sex, is a tall tale Freitas would like to perpetuate. She reveals in much of her writing that, behind closed doors, women don't actually want to participate in the culture and would rather date. But that ignores basic facts.”

Hakala goes on to cite research that shows women enjoy hookup culture but ignores the research Freitas conducted and the numerous studies (some mentioned above) that prove many women are unhappy with hookup culture. Though Hakala doesn’t use the words “internalized misogyny,” she accuses Freitas of being “moralistic.” Whatever derogatory term you prefer, I think Hakala is on the defensive because Freitas is reporting on the ugly truth, one that contradicts the feminist narrative.

When “You Do You” Hurts You 

The studies behind the negative consequences of hookup culture are upsetting for a few reasons. Firstly, they’re proof that we were lied to: what young women were told would empower them is actually making them miserable. Secondly, they prove that hookup culture does indeed have its flaws (even if it’s taboo to acknowledge them), and those flaws hurt men, women, and their ability to be in healthy relationships. But on the flip side, these studies confirm that any suffering you, or anyone you know who was impacted by hookup culture, experienced wasn’t a fluke, wasn’t abnormal, and wasn’t just you.

When I write about this, I often receive comments on social media that I have internalized misogyny and am slut-shaming other women for calling out the negative effects of hookup culture. However, there’s a difference between shaming women and simply telling the truth. I am not calling out the dark side of hookup culture to be mean. I’m simply highlighting the scientific evidence and the experience of women that are counter to the predominant cultural narrative. 

Wouldn’t you rather hear the tough truth than continue to believe in a lie that’s hurting you?

There’s a huge difference between a friend who says "you do you" and someone who isn’t afraid to hold their friends accountable by calling out their toxic habits. Some of my close friends have gone out of their way to point out my unhealthy dating habits. Though I was annoyed with them at first and got defensive, I now realize that they were being the best kind of friends who truly wanted what’s good for me. The same goes for women who defy the popular feminist narrative by pointing out the painful and unhealthy effects of hookup culture. We’re not doing it to shame women, but to tell them all the facts. It’s uncomfortable to hear at first, but wouldn’t you rather hear the tough truth than continue to believe in a lie, especially one that’s hurting you?

Closing Thoughts

Studies show that many young women hate hookup culture but often feel pressured into participating. When you consider the research behind hormones like oxytocin and the rising rates of psychological problems among participants of hookup culture, the feminist narrative that hookup culture is empowering to young women is turned upside down and emptied of any substance it claimed to have. 

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