Dear Millennial Men who Love Women,
I must confess. I spend a lot of time teaching about, writing about, talking about, and generally trying to figure out your sex life. Seems like a weird gig for a 40-something suburban wife and mother, right? I know quite a bit about what makes you tick because you are students in my Marriage 101 course, clients on my therapy couch, the audience for my upcoming book, and participants in my workshops about modern love.
That’s why I’m writing you this letter. I think it’s time for you to stop hooking up and take your sex life to the next level. Hold up! Before you get defensive, you should know that when I talk about hooking up, I work really hard to hold onto a nonjudgmental stance. My concerns about hookup culture are not moral or ethical in nature. Safe and consensual sex outside of marriage does not ruffle a single one of my feathers. My concerns are emotional and relational. I worry about the toll that hookup culture takes on all of you— in the short run and in the long run. Hookups sell everybody short — sexually, emotionally, and relationally.
I was hired by the United States Military Academy at West Point to give a keynote address and a workshop about hookup culture to the cadets, faculty, administrators, and assorted guests as part of their annual Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention (SHARP) conference. After teaching all morning, one of the cadets (we will call him Bennett) approached me. He confessed that he had felt hesitant coming into my presentations but was pleasantly surprised by my take on the topic. We started talking about how hooking up is like relationship Cheetos — kinda good but not particularly satisfying or beneficial to your health. As he opened up to me about the pressure he feels to play his culturally-prescribed “guy role” (he ought to be ready, willing, and able to score with a girl any time the opportunity arises), we honed in on how the narrative of hookup culture hurts men as much as it hurts women.
Bennett said a light-bulb went off for him when a female friend from high school called him recently. She had a first date with a guy she met using a dating app. At the end of the date, the guy gave her a hug and said good night. His behavior left her feeling confused. So confused that she called Bennett to lament: “The date went so well. I really thought he liked me, but at the end of the night, he didn’t even try to kiss me. Do you think he’s gay?” Bennett urged his friend to relax: “Maybe, just maybe, he’s a decent guy who respects women and wants more than a hookup.” Bennett told me that conversations like that one with his friend leave him feeling damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
That’s usually where cultural scripts about gender leave everyone, right? Thin gender scripts about appropriate dating behavior for men and for women strip individuals of richness, nuance, and agency. All of that external noise telling us how we “should” act or feel or think drowns out our own internal (and far more authentic) voice. When it comes to dating and sex, we hear a lot about how cultural scripts about gender hurt women — women are sluts if they hook up and prudes if they don’t hook up. But cultural scripts about gender hurt guys too — men are f**kboys if they want to hook up and [insert emasculating term of choice here… cucks, betas, wusses, wimps] if they don’t want to hook up. In my experience, blindly following the masculinity playbook sells your internal complexity way short.
I have taught (and done therapy with) hundreds of guys over the years, and I have been deeply moved by their ability to “show up” for tender, vulnerable, and nuanced dialog about love. In today’s climate, conversations about romantic relationships are more important than ever. The current collective default setting is to approach dating as a transaction — one in which emotional vulnerability and relational accountability are to be avoided at all costs. Take the following as evidence:
· It is normative to mindlessly swipe on a seemingly limitless reel of photos of women in the hopes of finding sex (or love or both).
· It is also normative to ghost. A lot of people admit to ghosting even though they hate being ghosted. For some, ghosting is fair game even after they’ve had sex with that person.
· Everyone with a smartphone has 24–7 access to an endless supply of high-speed internet porn. If you need to understand what a game changer this is (and how brand new it is), just ask a guy over the age of 40 to tell you how he obtained suitable material in his youth! Education about how to be a conscious and respectful consumer of porn is woefully lacking, which has led me to include this in my teaching.
· Studies indicate that rates of empathy in young adults have dropped by a whopping 40% in the past 20 years.
· Our nation just elected to the presidency a man with a long history of really awful behavior toward women.
In a climate like this, it’s all too easy to treat each other less like sentient human beings who value loving and being loved and more like commodities. It’s a brave new world out there, and the stories you tell me make my head spin. There are landmines everywhere and complexities that no generation has dealt with before. I feel for you! Here’s what I know to be true. You need and deserve time and space to figure out what you think, feel, and believe about love so that you can make choices that honor you and the women you date. It is harder than ever — but more important than ever — to be self-aware when it comes to sex and love.
Here’s my challenge to you, Women-Loving Millennial Men. Do better than relationship Cheetos! Raise the bar on yourself and on the men around you. Ambiguous relationships (friends with benefits, f*** buddies, whatever) keep you from experiencing the good stuff. The good stuff happens when you, slowly and over time, create real intimacy with a woman. You let her in. She lets you in. Trust builds through the reciprocal sharing of stories and dreams and through the creation of inside jokes and ridiculous rituals. That kind of lovin’ is truly some sacred stuff!
And, I promise you this: the sex you will have with a woman you really love (and who really loves you) will blow the doors off hookup sex! I even have science to back me up. Research shows that women are far more orgasmic in relationship sex than hookup sex. Her pleasure is good for you too because it gives you affirming feedback about who you are as a lover. That’s what I call a win-win!
Real love isn’t easy. It’s risky and it’s messy. You may hurt her. She may hurt you. But falling in love with someone grows you up like nothing else can, teaching you how to be vulnerable, connected, courageous, and resilient. More than ever before, our world is in serious need of men who can live like this and love like this!
I believe in you!