By Claudia Lee

There is a difference between being sex positive and using other people (and your own body) to achieve emotional validation in an unhealthy way. The two coincide more often than we realize.

Yet, “hookup culture” does not leave room to consider such an idea. The sexual liberation movement has done us many favors, yet it seems in retaliation to the idea that sex is a moral act reserved only for the sanctity of marriage, we rebel by having unfulfilling, emotionally draining casual sex – and we tally the number of times we do this as though it’s a badge of honor. Your hookup count is like an attractiveness rating, or at least one of “coolness.”

“Hooking up” is an ambiguous term that encompasses the spectrum of steamy make out sessions to actual sexual intercourse. We hear it all the time from our peers around us after a weekend of partying. It doesn’t phase us; it’s the norm. The words “hooking up” start to lose its meaning—the connotations stripped away dry as much as the word “cool.” They’re both casual words with almost no meaning.

One can argue hooking up is solely for the purpose of instant gratification —solely for the purpose of pleasure. There is nothing wrong with this. Yet, at the same time, hookup culture has left little-to-no space for conversation about what real intimacy means.

The problem is not that we aren’t lenient enough when it comes to being sexual, it’s that we’ve begun to cheapen a profound experience when we disregard the emotional intensity involved in true intimacy.

Few people actually have the self-awareness to ask themselves why they are hooking up with someone, and fewer are doing it “just because they can.” There are desires for validation present, and you can see this in the deterioration of our dating culture, and in every friend you’ve had whose sought self-acceptance in the arms of someone else.

What we see very often is that people are using sexuality in excess to bottle up insecurities or correct distorted images of themselves or their self-worth. A passive attitude when it comes to sex says: “I don’t care about this very much, and if it doesn’t matter, it can’t hurt me.” A grandiose attitude from having numerous partners tries to project an image of ourselves we want the world to see – and we want to believe.

We do it to impress, to deceive, to convince ourselves this is what we are and this is why we are worthy of love. We distract ourselves from the big questions — will I ever find someone meant for me? what is the purpose of my life? — and engage in something as superficial as fake-love, fake-love being hookups.

Deep down we all just want to be loved. To fill this hungry void, we have fun with other people. We can’t stare down the existential crisis in the eye, so we run. We run far away from it, but it will always catch up to us.

We see this in our increasing avoidance to commit to something meaningful. It’s a common complaint in modern dating. We don’t want commitment but we want to feel love, so we compensate with hook ups (to feel it for a night) or friends with benefits (to feel it for a certain stretch of time). Friends with benefits is dangerous because, no matter what, one party will always care more than the other. To engage in something as intimate as sex will inevitably evoke emotions. Sex is always a risk because you are vulnerable in the most literal sense. You’re naked and completely, utterly exposed in front of another human being. Yes, it’s supposed to sound this intense. But it may not seem like it now because we’ve desensitized sex. Our threshold for excitement and meaningfulness decreases. When this happens, we eventually find that even sex isn’t as stimulating anymore. It’s not stimulating because you do it too often to the point where it’s not meaningful, or because you can’t connect to the other person; the rules are written to suppress all feeling.

Is hookup culture worth compensating self-respect for a night of thrill? It’s possible to still have self-respect and sleep around — but if the other party doesn’t see you in such a light then that gets said to all of you — to your heart and your brain, let alone what gets done.

The question it begs is so obvious, it’s incredible how few people recognize it: are we confusing true sexual liberation with sex in excess that is used to emotionally validate us? Is this why we don’t commit, and can’t connect, and complain that dating has cheapened?

What if sexual liberation has become the way we not only act on our deepest insecurities, but disconnect from our true desires so deeply that we’re nearly incapable of truly committing to anybody in a real way. Are we really liberated at all?

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