Discourse continues to swirl about the rampant hook up culture on college campuses. Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men ignited the conversation, but the art of engaging sexually without commitment has nabbed inches in the New York Times, Slate and a myriad of other publications.
The politics of hooking up are complex, so this is an important conversation to engage in media. However, pundits and cultural critics have failed to interrogate the intersections of collegiate hook up culture, especially when it comes to the correlation between race and sexuality. Controlling images of women of color left imprints that continue to manifest in our sexual relationships.
Sex is supposed to be freeing. Some feminists have been advocating for liberation within the bedroom since the second wave. Of course the exploratory culture of college allows students immersed in women and gender studies to put sex-positive theories into praxis.
Women of color didn’t inherit that privilege. Slate reports that quantitative studies have found that hooking up is associated with "white, wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive" students. These personifications of Samantha Jones can bed strangers without considering the potential attachment of sexual deviance to their behavior.
Women of color don’t hook up as much as our white counterparts because hypersexual images, like the jezebel, continue to haunt us.
When women of color were captured and transported to North America, our bodies were objectified in innumerable ways. We were raped and sexually terrorized by slaveholders, overseers, and other men in positions of powers. Rape was used as a tool of oppression and justified through the jezebel image.
Jezebel, as defined by Dr. Carolyn M. West, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington Tacoma, was a stereotype that "branded Black women as sexually promiscuous and immoral." Rapists used this image to depict black women as sexual deviants who couldn't be raped because they were ravenous for sex. Laws reinforced that image, with few rapists being sanctioned or jailed.
In response, as Slate points out, we adapted a politics of respectability —
We're automatically viewed through the prism of the jezebel when we're explicit with our sexuality. The image of women of color as sexual deviants has followed us from plantations to the Superbowl.
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter was scrutinized for daring to bare her thighs and gyrate her hips during her performance, while Madonna was praised for her liberating Superbowl performance. Dr. Sarah Jackson, a race and media scholar at Northeastern University, sums it up well when she told Bitch that Knowles-Carter has limited ways to "express her sexuality, because of her gender and her race."
It's empowering to imagine women in control of their sexuality, as reporter Kate Taylor details in an article for the New York Times. Women should dictate how and when to use their bodies. Women-centered hookups seem to subvert patriarchal understandings of sexuality.
Taylor interviewed more than 60 women at the University of Pennsylvania, and found many agreed with Rosin's argument that "hooking up is a functional strategy for today's hard-charging and ambitious young women, allowing them to have enjoyable sex lives while focusing most of their energy on academic and professional goals."
Most of the women she interviewed claimed that relationships were a burden in college. Balancing academics, extracurricular activities, and networking conferences kept their schedules full, so these women could only manage hook ups between classes and frat parties. Feminists praise these women for dictating their desires and commitments through the lens of their own pleasure, but no matter how much these women attempt to reclaim sluttiness, it is still policed.
Hooking up strictly benefits white, cis-gendered feminists who see casual sex as a brazen shove to patriarchy. As black feminist Erica Brazelton points out, "This ideology, too, is ineffective. It mostly benefits cis, straight white women whose privilege allows the adaption of 'sluttiness' (unlike LBTQ women or women of color) without the stigma of sexual deviance. It automatically conflates sex with power which fails to acknowledge that sex in and of itself is not inherently progressive for women."
Women of color are attempting to reclaim our pleasure. Joan Morgan, a renowned hip-hop feminist and scholar, is interrogating the demonizing of black women's bodies through the shunning of our sexual pleasure. Her politics of pleasure course at Stanford University, and subsequent work as a doctoral student at New York University, attempts to find the language to articulate how important a fully-realized sexuality is to citizenship and humanity.
But in order to do this work and discuss the hook up culture in relation to women like me —
There's healing through discussing the raping of our foremothers as a tool of oppression.
There's pushing past the respectable resistance who shame women like Karrine Steffans for having brazen sexual personas.
There's reconciling sexual desires with feminist commitments.
It's simple for women without these intersections of oppression to fall in beds with unfamiliar partners because their reputations and futures aren't determined by who they've slept with. Women of color aren't that fortunate.
Hook up culture is racialized and full of classist assumptions of womanhood. The viewing of my vagina through the lens of the jezebel kept me from participating in hook up culture and has a similar impact on some other black American women.
Yes, discussing hook up culture is important, since it's a clue in the complex mystery of intimacy and sexual communication among millennials. But it will have no relevance to me until the conversation becomes intersectional.