Sexual dissatisfaction in the age of hookup culture

Dating apps, detachment, too much porn and bad relationships (especially for women) ruin heterosexual expectations

Karelia Vázquez

Anthropologist Helen Fisher calls millennials “the new Victorians” because of how little sex they have. For over a decade, the world’s most-cited scientist on the biology and chemistry of love has interviewed tens of thousands of singles (5,000 per year) for the Singles in America project, the largest global study of unmarried people. Year after year, Fisher has seen sex fall out of younger people’s top five priorities; a partner’s physical attractiveness has also disappeared from that category.

Rates of sexual activity have fallen to their lowest level in 30 years. According to 2020 figures from the Pew Research Center, young adults’ disinterest in sex is largely to blame for that decrease. The US think tank also notes that nearly half of US adults - mostly women - say that dating has become “much more difficult” in the past 10 years, and half of single adults have decided to stop looking for a relationship or simply given up dating. US academics have been discussing the decline in sexual activity since 2018 and say that the trend most impacts heterosexual relationships.

Even before 2018, the data pointed in this direction. For instance, in 2016 a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior journal showed that Americans had sex 61 times a year in 1990, by 2010 the frequency had decreased to 52 times per year. But this phenomenon is not unique to the United States. In 2019, researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine analyzed data from 34,000 people and found that Britons were having less sex than at any point in the previous 20 years. According to these numbers, it doesn’t matter whether one is 18, 28 or 48 years old; the statistics show that, across the board, people are having less sex than people of the same age in the 1990s. Similar declines have been observed in Australia, Spain and Turkey.

Paradoxically, having sex has never been easier. Thanks to apps like Tinder, one can, at least theoretically, access an infinite number of quick, local and convenient sexual contacts. Pornography is more common than ever. In Spain, for example, men begin consuming it at 14 and women start at 16, according to the 2019 study “New Pornography and Changes in Interpersonal Relationships” conducted by the University of the Balearic Islands. But even with all of these opportunities at our fingertips, the experts consulted for this article said that we are more bored and have more mechanical sex, as opposed to good lovers, than ever before.

The culture of casual sex

How did we get here? A little over a decade ago, experts began to see the first signs of boredom on university campuses. There, the practice of casual sex – that is, an almost instantaneous encounter with few to no strings attached – was already common. Hookups had become the norm, not the exception. In hookup culture, everything goes smoothly; taking things lightly is the ultimate goal. A hookup is considered successful if no one leaves the encounter with expectations and if both parties execute with grace and ease the rituals of detachment: not asking if there will be a next time, unabashedly running away from the encounter, and leaving as a show of autonomy and power.

Scholar and writer Donna Freitas interviewed thousands of students at several US universities for her book The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually, Unfulfilled and Confused about Intimacy. Freitas uses three criteria to define hookups: 1) they involve some form of sexual intimacy; 2) they are brief (they tend to last between mere minutes to up to a few hours); and 3), the goal is to have purely physical contact – the most significant element, according to Freitas. To meet this last condition, both parties attempt to cut off any communication that might trigger an emotional bond. In the book, Freitas describes hundreds of sexual encounters between drunk students. She believes the worst consequence of these practices is boredom. “It leads to meaningless sex that no one remembers, desireless sex that doesn’t matter to anyone. [It’s about having] sex because everyone does it…” she writes.

French-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz explores a similar theme in her book El fin del amor (The End of Love). She observes that “casual sex…is akin to a service transaction,” and warns that the culture of hooking up has a more dangerous side: it eliminates all the rituals that previously functioned to help interpret relationships. “Casual sex is a social script in reverse: a script for non-relationship,” she writes. The connections that develop through such an uncertain framework can leave all parties bewildered.

Of course, one-night stands were not invented in 2008, but technology has led to an exponential increase in volume and cemented the belief that there’s always another – new, if not better – option available by swiping right (the gesture of sliding photos of possible matches on a cellphone while browsing on apps like Tinder). Anthropologist Helen Fisher said that this “binge” prevents us from concentrating; it is at the root of the tedium we’re experiencing. “The human brain,” she explained, “is not built to deal with more than about five to nine options. After that, the brain just spaces out.”

A couple at a Tinder advertising booth in Bangkok, Thailand, on February 14, 2022.
A couple at a Tinder advertising booth in Bangkok, Thailand, on February 14, 2022.Atiwat Silpamethanont (Atiwat Silpamethanont / Zuma Pre)

The “gamification” of relationships

Dating apps like Tinder have gamified personal interactions. Swiping left and right is a form of modern entertainment. In fact, the apps are often used by people who don’t want to meet anyone. It would all be more fun if people were still looking for a life partner, but younger generations find it “weird” to flirt outside of digital environments. They have internalized the idea that flirting is pre-arranged online, and that the mere existence of apps makes it inappropriate to approach someone you like in the real world. One of the experts interviewed for this article told the story of two kids who met at school and liked each other, but they couldn’t say anything to each other until they met on an app. Only then did they feel comfortable enough to make a date at the bar where they had been meeting every day for the past six months.

Hookup culture, pornography and disinterest in sex overlap in frequent but crude and mechanical sexual practices. Eva Illouz pointed out that casual sex “obliterates the possibility of reciprocity, attachment, and bonding,” and it strips sexual partners of their uniqueness, so they can be quickly discarded and replaced. The chances of repeating the encounter are so remote that people don’t care very much about the other person. It is a one-sided encounter.

One of the findings from academic Lisa Wade’s study American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus is that men are the main beneficiaries of casual sex. “The hookup is designed for [the benefit of] the male orgasm,” Wade noted. Sexologist Adriana Royo, author of Falos y falacias (Falsehoods and fallacies), said that “the whole context of neoliberal relationships – defined by volume and a lack of commitment – favors men; it gratifies them more.” However, in her field “almost 100% of patients” complain of “feeling unloved.” “Regardless of what they say, they are seeking something else: they want [both] sex and to spoon afterward. It’s very difficult to separate the physical from the emotional,” she added. Helen Fisher agreed: “Casual sex is not casual: It can trigger these brain systems for romantic love and feelings of attachment.”

Sexologist Ana Sierra pointed out that hookup culture also lays bare the gap in orgasms between heterosexual men and women: “After several quick sexual encounters, many [women] believe that they are anorgasmic. We have different bodies and different timing; it’s not true that we take longer to reach orgasm, but the traditional methods (read: penetration) don’t work for most women.” She added: “Women have a lesser role in [hookup] culture; it’s normal for them to feel more frustrated than men, who, incidentally, also lose out, because they are emasculated by these macho arrangements. [Men] also fall in love, but sometimes their upbringing does not allow them to show their vulnerability.”

Nobody wants to appear weak, and people try to hide their vulnerability. “Casual sex has been a marker of feminist politics,” Illouz says in her book, “precisely because it signals autonomy, pleasure, power and detachment.” But some women find this to be a burden as well. Royo noted that she “see[s] them” in her practice”: they’re “afraid to build a relationship and seem vulnerable. It’s an oppressive freedom, being [forced] to be empowered all the time.”

In previous eras, sex was learned. Teenagers taught each other and grew personally and sexually together in the process. But with casual encounters, there is usually little time for teaching, and it is easy to end up having bad sex. In addition, some have misguided ideas about sex after watching many hours of porn. “I see guys in my practice [who are] frustrated because they don’t have the spectacular erections they see in porn. It’s the first sexual reference, which doesn’t help because it’s not realistic,” said a psychotherapist from Madrid who prefers to remain anonymous. Javier Sogue, a 22-year-old medical student, did not deny this point but added that women “also imitate porn actresses.”

Modeling sexual performance after what one sees on screen can lead to spectatoring, that is, paying excessive attention to how one looks and sounds during sexual intercourse. That behavior has been associated with sexual dysfunction since the 1950s. Adriana Royo noted that people “watch too much porn. They expect to have very loud orgasms and through penetration alone, and that is not going to happen; there is a lack of sexual education.”

Towards heteropessimism

Such confusion affects heterosexual individuals in particular. Academics call it heteropessimism. The term was first coined in 2019 by Asa Seresin, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. It refers to heterosexual frustration in the face of repeated failures and bad experiences. Seresin defines heteropessimism as a phenomenon of “feelings and emotions,” which are sharpened by a combination of the feminist critique of patriarchy, the queer critique of heterosexuality, and the economic factors that make it difficult to own property, marry or have children. These elements make the model of the nuclear family less appealing. In the popular vernacular, heteropessimists are those who believe that their lives would be better if they had a different sexual orientation. The same year Seresin coined the phrase, it was added to Urban Dictionary as a “negative or shameful attitude toward one’s heterosexuality.”

Complaining about the misfortune of being heterosexual is not new. In her book Reinventar el amor (Reinventing love), essayist and journalist Mona Chollet quotes a 1980 article by Emmanuèle de Lesseps in the magazine Questions Féministes: “A few days ago I was talking to a feminist, and I asked her if she defined herself as heterosexual. Unfortunately, yes, she answered.” But according to experts, 21st-century heteropessimists are unique in that they do not pursue solutions to the problem.

Seresin believes that this is a phenomenon of “feelings and emotions” intensified by the feminist critique of patriarchy, the queer critique of heterosexuality and the economic factors that make access to property, marriage and having children less attractive than the nuclear family model.

Another academic from the University of California, Jane Ward, recently coined the term pseudoheterosexuals to define straight men who use women to impress other men or those who only seek “narcissistic gratification.” In her book The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (2020), the professor of Sexuality and Gender Studies calls for “deep heterosexuality,” that is, freeing it from patriarchal structures to realize its full potential. How? By learning how women’s bodies and sexuality work; enjoying more diverse women, not just those who fit normative standards; and taking a real interest in the lives, career achievements and aspirations of their partners.

Helen Fisher’s research asks what those who are still looking for someone want now. According to her surveys, they seek financial security and emotional maturity. Only 11% of singles said they were interested in something other than a long-term relationship. “Stability is the new sex,” the anthropologist noted.

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