The (white) face of hookup culture

A SYTYCB entry

Hanna Rosin from the Atlantic recently asserted that the elusive “college hookup culture” contained elements of female sexual liberation and empowerment. As a recent college graduate, I agree with most of her general sentiment – I firmly believe that the hookup culture is more nuanced than the ubiquitous, pearl-clutching  “Oh no! Premarital sex! How degrading!” narrative.

But what Rosin and many of her contemporaries have a tendency to ignore is that this brand of sexual empowerment strongly favors white women over women of color. For example, in her opening paragraphs, Rosin recounts the following without batting an eye:

In another corner of the room, a beautiful Asian woman in her second year at school was entertaining the six guys around her with her best imitation of an Asian prostitute—­“Oooo, you so big. Me love you long time”—winning the Tucker Max showdown before any of the guys had even tried to make a move on her. (She eventually chose the shortest guy in the group to go home with, because, she later told me, he seemed like he’d be the best in bed.)

Is this what sexual empowerment is supposed look like for women of color?

Bizarre parenthesized epilogue aside, Rosin uses the above as an example of a woman in charge of her sexual choices, dominating and “winning”. But instead, I felt humiliated hearing Rosin singing the praises of this supposedly sexually liberated woman who put down her race just to get a laugh (and apparently, a lay) by relying on one of the most tired gendered, racial stereotypes in the world. The rest of the article continues on as if this is completely acceptable.

The reality is, the notion of empowerment in the hook up culture strongly favors white femininity. Photos accompanying articles about hookups, Rosin’s included, mainly feature white women. The article speaks of the positive force of sexual liberation while ignoring that participation in this space often goes hand-in-hand with a denial (or even hatred) of racial identity.

Analyses generally ignore the perverse and pervasive racism, and struggles of women of color are largely swept under the rug. Furthermore, Rosin continues to extoll the virtues of Girls and Sex and the City as “iconic single-girl” shows of female sexual empowerment because white girls = all girls! Right? Bueller?

And like my reaction to the success of Girls and Sex and the City before it, I’m happy for those who find themselves liberated by the hookup culture – really! The power to make your own sexual choices without regret can be gloriously cathartic. But without addressing the prevailing emphasis on whiteness within the hookup culture and for those writing about it and analyzing it, those of us who are still trying to find our slice of the sexual liberation pie without being fetishized will continue to be silenced and stripped of our femininity.

Saying that this white-centric profile of the hookup culture “is an engine of female progress—one being harnessed and driven by women themselves” sends an incredibly dangerous message that a victory for white women is a victory for all women (because feminism will get to us women of color later, right?). More often than not, progress for white women comes at the expense of women of color.

When will we be included in the conversation?

Instead of resting on the success of (white) women’s sexual liberation via hookup culture, let’s move the conversation forward and see how we can ensure that the same options are available to every woman.

Join the Conversation

  • honeybee

    I find your post fascinating however I don’t see anywhere in here where you actually explain why it favours white femininity other then that a few shows or articles contain mostly white women. But those are just media discussions of the culture – they aren’t the culture itself.

    Can you expand on how or why the hookup is different for women of colour? What are the cultural reasons, etc. for this?

    As an aside I”m always perturbed when people criticize people for telling their own stories just b/c those stories don’t encompass everyone. Rosin, Laura Durham, etc. are white so of course they will speak to their own experiences. They should be allowed to tell THEIR stories and in fact I’m not sure I want them to try and co-op other races by telling stories about them that they personally can’t relate to or haven’t lived themselves. The answer to me is a wider variety of shows, media, etc. produced by different races so that each can tell their own authentic stories.

    • Angel H.

      I’m not the author but here my 2 cents:

      But those are just media discussions of the culture – they aren’t the culture itself.

      When the discussion of the culture is focused predominately around one type of person, it becomes a problem.

      Can you expand on how or why the hookup is different for women of colour? What are the cultural reasons, etc. for this?

      I would suggest looking up the terms “Jezebel”, “Mammy”, “Fiery Latina”, “Sexy Geisha”, and “Delicate Lotus” for starters.

      • Faith

        Sure! Thanks so much for your input – Angel beat me to the punch a bit, but here are a few points that I hope address your questions:

        1) Generally, sexuality is usually presented and talked about in a white racial frame. As Angel said, its a problem when the discussion about hookups almost always ignores WOC and the pervasive racism that prevents WOC from accessing it. Low bar here, but if they only wanted to focus it on white women, she should at least acknowledge the scope instead of arguing that women as a whole are benefitting from hookups, when it’s rather disproportionate (white women != all women).

        2) Existing stereotypes that Angel listed are some of the only ways the sexuality of WOC are presented: hypo or hypersexual. Like the example in the article, the woman uses a pretty bad racial slur as part of her game (yuck, but sadly, very common). WOC’s deal with unwanted racial fetishism, exoticism, and rather heavy othering – when expressing sexuality (like hookups), racism is a threat. I wish Rosin had given at least a sentence to these limitations of this “engine of female progress.”

        3) Just anecdotally, I can’t even count the number of times my race has been used as a weapon in hookup-type scenarios. Hot for an Asian? Me love you long time? Sucky sucky five-dollah? Some other “hilarious” play on Asian prostitutes? One time, I was even asked if I cheered in high school because the Asians at his school were cheerleaders. Pickups are always kinda bad, but this is bad and racist. I guess for me personally, the hookup culture has made me come face to face with sexualized racism.

        4) Re: Girls, etc: I definitely agree that we need a diversity of voices and faces, but it’s kind of hurtful when writers say they can’t speak to our (WOC) experiences – as if our stories are so fundamentally different. I appreciate that they don’t want to write what they don’t know (lest they be tokenist), but I think that’s a false choice. I don’t think the choice is to write offensive, tokenist characters or to exclude them entirely. WOC’s talk about sex and relationships too, so not every story has to be about the racial ~experience~ that I’ve described above (though I think it’d be good writing material, but that might just be me). While race is an often ignored part of the hookup culture story, it’s not the whole story.

        As to Girls and TV shows specifically, with a team of writers, it wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest that their scripts be looked over or co-written by a WOC to make sure WOC characters are not offensive/tokenist. I guess I’m a bit touchy about Girls because one of the writers, Lesley Arfin, has had a history of being rude and dismissive about racial critiques of the show (esp with her tweet about how the movie Precious didn’t have representation of her? Yikes.).

        Sorry for the essay haha, but I hope this made sense!

        • honeybee

          I agree the discussion around it is problematic but I’m trying to understand the culture itself – not the discussion. That’s what interests me and what the title of your post implies it’s about.

          Your point #3 is valid on this topic – that’s the kind of thing I was looking for, though it still doesn’t really address the impact of the hookup culture on WOC and whether such a culture benefits them or not but rather the racist tropes that some jerks out there will use.

          • Faith

            Okay sure, sorry for misunderstanding – I kinda cast a wide net and hoped something stuck. Maybe this is more of what you’re looking for?

            1) I think that the racist tropes that are used are a pretty big part of the story: it has a negative impact on WOC because it makes the potential sexual liberation of hookups inaccessible and unsafe at times. Conceptually, I think the hookup culture as a whole has the potential to be a positive outlet for sexual expression for WOC, if the racist undertones were dealt with. The hookup experience definitely isn’t unilaterally bad, but when you add racist jerks to the already huge pool of sexist jerks, it becomes a tough pool to wade in for WOC.
            2) Re: hookup politics and the hypersexualization of WOC: a lot of WOC’s are only seen as hookup material and nothing more. Many times, men are willing to interact with WOC on a sexual hookup level, but not a relationship level (in addition, there’s a lot of racist jabber about who is worthy to introduce to the parents). This problem affects white women as well, but I think it’s particularly exacerbated for WOC – so in this case, the hookup culture may be harmful in that some men use WOC for sex, and only sex. Obviously if a woman wants just that it’s all good – but on a macroscopic scale, there are bad and pervasive attitudes out there about the role of WOC in society that make the hookup world iffy.

            What do you think?

          • Faith

            Also, I realize I have a tendency to talk too abstractly about topics, so if you want more personal stuff, I can supply that too.

          • Angel H.

            Re: hookup politics and the hypersexualization of WOC: a lot of WOC’s are only seen as hookup material and nothing more. Many times, men are willing to interact with WOC on a sexual hookup level, but not a relationship level (in addition, there’s a lot of racist jabber about who is worthy to introduce to the parents).

            Ah, the ol’ “You Can Fuck ‘Em But Don’t Bring ‘Em Home” line. Classic.

  • athenia

    Since the criticism of slutwalk from WOC, I always have a hard time wrapping my head around the issue, but I think your article does a great job of continuing that conversation. More please!!

    • Faith

      I complete agree! I definitely have a hard time wrapping my head around it, too.

      I have so many conflicting thoughts with Slutwalks because I support the ideas it stands for, but am still uncomfortable with some of the collateral damage – like walking around with little clothes for a major feminist awareness campaign might be all good in a vacuum, but since WOCs are already predominantly portrayed as one-dimensional, hypersexual stereotypes, I hesitate.

      I do wonder what all of us can do to get the message out there in an equally powerful way without (unintentionally) feeding into racist tropes :/