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Hook-Ups or Hooked Up? The Evolution of Lesbian Sex

by Stephanie Schroeder
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Friday May 6, 2011
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Recent studies that show casual sex is the norm among college-age women have sounded an alarm among conservatives and have generated much analysis among progressives. Women like casual sex as much as men, According to a study conducted by University of Michigan psychology professor Terri D. Conley published recently in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology."

But according to the results of a 2008 survey, large numbers of women still had regrets about one-night stands. This study claims that 80 percent of men had positive feelings about casual sex, while only 54 percent of women did. Where women felt used, underappreciated, or worried about their reputations, men felt more confident than ever after their casual encounters.

Journalists like Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke takes issue with studies that deride these casual hook-ups as a sure path to unhappiness, pregnancy, and STDs. In a 2007 article O’Rourke picked apart Laura Sessions Stepp’s book "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both." Of the book, which is based on Stepp’s own version of these ubiquitous campus studies, O’Rourke writes, "Stepp claim[s] that ’sex on campuses for young women today is a series of joyless encounters engaged in without either short-term pleasure or long-term reward.’

This pointless hedonism, in Stepp’s view, turns young women into "jaded depressives unable to trust or love anyone, secretly wishing Mr. Right would show up on their doorstep with flowers and a fraternity pin." O’Rourke said that "If there is a problem, it isn’t that young women are separating love and sex. It’s that they are blurring sex and work," turning hook-ups with hot guys into a status-seeking achievement.

When it comes to casual sex among women, everyone seems to have an opinion, a statistic, and evidence, be it anecdotal or scientific. And no one is sure how "lesbians" and "lesbian sex" are qualified and quantified in any of these research missions. There are the girls who are "gay until graduation," those who are bisexual or hetero-flexible, a lot of talk about gender fluidity, and much experimentation among young women having sex with other women. Are these the "lesbians" being studied? All of this uncertainty leads to problems in quantifying ultimate happiness.

But as lesbian sex (and acceptance of homosexuality in general) becomes more normalized, the popular perception of young lesbians as voracious consumers of casual sex is countered by the reality that most younger lesbians are opting for more traditional relationships. Like the routes their straight counterparts followed for years, lesbians today are expressing a desire to follow the path of long-term monogamous relationships: marriage, a traditional home, and children.

"I really don’t have any friends who aren’t in a relationship or looking to be in one," declared a 20-something marketing consultant who lives in Brooklyn. "No one I know just dates, and when they do, it’s always to find someone."

Natasia, 27, is an entertainment features writer for a lesbian news and entertainment website. She’s married and has been with her partner since she was 21. "Before we met, marriage wasn’t something I had ever imagined myself doing," said Natasia. "I guess it took the right person coming along to put marriage on my radar." Getting married also made Natasia’s sexual orientation more palatable to her family, she said. "My family members who stopped talking to me after they found out I was gay pulled it together for my wedding. It changed the conversation to love instead of sex."

The legitimacy of a long-term relationship, and even more so marriage, makes lesbians more acceptable. "It refocuses people’s attention from ’she has sex with girls’ to ’she’s in love with a girl’," explained Natasia, who lives in Manhattan. "It’s just a much less intimidating space to approach people from."

"A wife would be wonderful, eventually," said Ari, 26, a self-described techno-geek who works both a day job and invests quite a bit of time on her own projects. "I’m kind of tired of feeling like I go through life alone." Although Ari works a lot and has little time to seek out that "perfect partner," she believes one exists.

"I feel like a relationship could happen if I made time for one, but right now I feel more confident just hooking up," said Ari. She admits that she her OK Cupid profile reveals that she is searching for a "fuck-buddy" for casual sex, and is not ready to do the "scene-y things, going to parties and putting myself out there," that it takes to meet potential long-term partners.

Although hooking up in the lesbian community is more an option than ever for lesbians under 30 these days, it seems that long-term, monogamous relationships are the ultimate goal of most sexual transactions, as the Brooklyn marketing consultant observed.

"Even before the marriage equality movement, I always ideally wanted to get married to someone and eventually raise a family together," said Esther, a 29-year-old freelance writer and graphic designer living in Queens. But she admitted that hardly any other lesbians her age were in monogamous relationships, or even wanted to be.

Dykes are hooking up like they always have, but marriage - an institution that second wave feminists and lesbian-feminists argued was an inherently oppressive, antiquated, sexist, and racist relic - is being embraced wholeheartedly by younger lesbians.

Sarah, a 24-year-old lesbian who recently moved in with her girlfriend of 18 months, said that although she enjoyed playing the field when she in college, she found settling down far superior. "I settled down with one partner because I found being with her more emotionally fulfilling than playing the field," said Sarah. "In my observation, the casual sex and hooking up happens a lot in college and in the early 20’s, with people coupling up more and more as they get older."

Does credit for this swing toward traditional marriage belong to the marriage-equality movement? According to some lesbians, the mainstreaming of lesbian relationships is just an inevitable result of widespread gay acceptance.

"I don’t think the marriage equality movement has influenced us as much as we have influenced it," said Sarah. "All of the queer women I know who are my age have always wanted to have long-term relationships. And we don’t feel that different from anybody else, so we don’t see any reason to treat our relationships differently than those of straight people."

But rather than tread down traditional ground, today’s gays and lesbians are re-inventing the institution of marriage. "More of my friends identify as queer than lesbian, and they’re really into queering relationship structures," said Ari. "The one self-identified married couple under 30 I know is a transman and a genderqueer boi, and they just split up."

And studies show that heterosexuals, who have a divorce rate of over 50 percent, are also struggling to find new ways to form intimate relationships and to define their families. Meanwhile, the elevation of marriage as the holy grail of relationships by the marriage equality movement has mainstreamed lesbianism and is erasing what is left of lesbian sub-culture. The spirit of lesbian rebellion - that rich space on the margins where so much could be imagined, and played out - is shrinking daily. Today’s 20-something generation of lesbians profess that they want to be, "just like everyone else." And they are succeeding.

This article is part of our "Sex." series. Want to read more? Here's the full list»

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