This is the fourth post in a six-part series studying the effects of America’s “hookup” culture on women, men, and their relationships with one another. Read the previous post here


Even though hook up culture is not what most women want, many men have lost the ability to empathize, and they do not see that they are hurting these women. After studying hookup culture on college campuses, Kelly explained, “We heard only of a few instances in which women…decided the relationship status.”[1] Of the women surveyed in a 2001 IAV survey, almost two-thirds thought they would meet their future husband in college.[2] Many women would prefer to get married over participating in hookup culture, but feel forced to participate, and feel ignored by the men with whom they are participating, because modern men do not empathize with their partners.

Empathy involves actually experiencing the situation with the other person or referencing an actual experience one has had and connecting it to what the other person is experiencing. Men often struggle with this, in part, because they are wired in such a way as to more easily separate the emotional experience from the physical.[3] According to Townshend, author of Premarital Sex in America, “having more sexual partners is associated with ‘poorer emotional states in women, but not in men.'”[4] “It’s a contest to see who cares less, and guys win a lot at caring less,” Amanda, a twenty something living in New York, explained.[5] 

In a culture that has lost the ability to empathize, the fact that women are being used, the idea that this is not what women want, and the emotional turmoil women experience as a result are largely ignored.

Men often do not stop to think how a woman might feel if she is selected based off of her profile pictures only, further confirming that her worth is in her physical appearance, and not in her values or in how she thinks. One female Tinder user explained, “They start out with ‘Send me nudes’…Or they say something like ‘I’m looking for something quick within the next 10 or 20 minutes””are you available?'”[6] The men wrapped up in hookup culture and dating apps forget that there is a very real person behind the bikini picture or the perfectly toned body, for they have not been properly trained to empathize with the lives and experiences of others.

One twenty-something told the story of a particularly callous Tinder date: “I had sex with a guy and he ignored me as I got dressed,” she said. “I saw he was back on Tinder.”[7] It seems as though female pain is not acknowledged: “When it comes to sex we are encouraged to do what we want, provided we protect ourselves from STDs and pregnancy. Yet we are not taught how to protect ourselves emotionally.”[8]

Nominalism””the denial of underlying value and the acceptance of mere appearances[9]””may also explain some aspects of hookup culture. Perhaps participants believe that there is nothing more than the physical act, though when they first tried sex they thought there might be. As Wallace Stevens wrote, “If sex were all, then every trembling hand / Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.”[10]

There is more to sex than the physical act; to deny that is both to miss out on sex as it was created to be and to disrespect those aspects of sex which are not immediately evident. Donna Freitas, a scholar of religion, wrote about “The growing divide between college students’ sexuality and the rest of their lives is an effort to separate their sexuality ‘from their larger value commitments–religious, spiritual, or otherwise.'”[11]Participants in hookup culture ignore the emotional, mental, and even spiritual aspects of sex, but those elements are still there and impacting their lives, however much they might be repressed and ignored.

People who have lost the ability to empathize have done so in part because they do not believe that there is anything beneath the physical bodies they are seeing””they have adopted a kind of nominalism. “What is so fearfully arrogant and destructive,” Berry wrote, “is the implication that what is represented, or representable, is all there is.”[12] It is arrogant because it is focused on oneself, and how one relates to the world around him. It is destructive because the physical representation of something is worth less than the thing itself.

Someone who believes that a thing or person’s value is only surface level will treat that thing or person with less respect, regard, and dignity than it deserves. A man with a nominalist outlook on life will value a woman only as far as her external appearance and actions and will grant her less dignity and respect than she deserves. Dan, an investment banker in Manhattan, is one example. He explained to Vanity Fair journalist Nancy Jo Sales, “It’s like ordering Seamless….But you’re ordering a person,” beaming.[13] And, like food, he orders that person based on what she looks like, not based on what she is like. He is concerned with external appearances, not her true nature.

Dating apps are a good example of nominalism mixed with sex which hinders the development of true intimacy. On dating apps, men and women make surface-level distinctions based on the profile pictures of other men and women. On the dating app Tinder, there is an opportunity to chat with your choice before sleeping with her, to learn the story behind the profile, but many men bypass this opportunity and cut straight to the chase. One Tinder profile of a 21-year-old woman, featuring a profile picture taken when she was sixteen, had the simple bio, “I can waterski slalom, if you’re into that ;)” Half of her matches asked boring questions; the other half offered naked pictures, described what they would do to her sexually if given the opportunity, or suggested casual sex””in the very first message.

They did not want to hear about why she was on the site, what her story was, or what she was looking for. To them, there was nothing beyond the handful of pictures and the short summary.

The original concern with online dating was that it was not possible to get to know another person in a genuine, authentic way over the internet. Yet online dating has taken off in a culture which cares more about the physical connection than the emotional one, and can handle feelings of isolation, even isolation from sexual partners. The distant, detached platform of social media apps provides the perfect foundation for distant, detached hook ups. If anything, the apps could stand to be more detached; many individuals skip the chat option, and offer sex, or sexual favors, from the very first message. 


Check back next week for the next installment in this special blog series.

[1] Kelly, 39. 

[2] Ibid., 37. 

[3] This may be in part because men watch more porn than women.

[4] Steven Rhoads, “Hookup Culture: The High Costs of a Low ‘Price’ for Sex” Society (December 2012), 516.

[5] Sales. 

[6] Sales. 

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Rhoads, 516. 

[9] Weaver, 67. 

[10] Berry, 135. 

[11] Kelly, 30. 

[12] Berry, 164. 

[13] Sales.