the hookup scene: good or bad?
Let’s start with a thought experiment. Assume we want to sell widgets but we haven’t developed any mechanism for coordinating buyers and sellers. Then, you read a proposal for setting up a widget exchange. It will have the following properties:
- Low information – the buyers and sellers don’t really have a lot of accurate information about widgets. Many customers are first time buyers. Some are minors.
- 1 shot interaction – the buyers and sellers will only interact with each other briefly and many will never see each other again.
- Low visibility – widgets will be bought and sold in secret locations and their will be no record of the transaction.
- Coercion is allowed/No complaints – There will be very little punishment for people who break the terms of widget trading. Many who steal widgets go unpunished. Widget sellers are consistently bigger and stronger than widget buyers.
- Inebriation – Widget exchange frequently occurs when traders are drunk.
What would be your ex ante evaluation of the propsoed widget exchange? You would be justified in saying that the widget exchange would be inefficient. You might also be justified in saying that the widget exchange facilitates criminality. It is hard to find many reasons to support the proposed widget exchange.
Claim: Modern hookup culture is very close in practice to the dysfunctional widget exchange. In private spaces, young and often sexually inexperienced people meet, drink, and engage in short term relationships. If you think the widget exchange proposed above is bad, then it follows that hookup culture is bad as well.
Social conservatives are often critics of hookup culture because they often pick up on the inefficiencies of that institution. However, they often make a mistake – the rejection of hookup culture does not entail a return to more traditional approaches to the organization of sexuality. We can ask about the institutional design of more traditional sex and apply the same criteria. For example, in a regime of no-premarital sex and unbreakable martial contracts, we would expect suboptimal performance because you have low information customers who commit to a single unbreakable transaction.
One might counter that the a no-premarital sex/no divorce regime might be preferable to hookup culture. If the only option is the hookup scene, then that might be a strong argument. However, there is a lot of unexplored space between hookup culture and more traditional sexual institutions. The hookup scene is only one extreme point on a continuum. It is not hard to imagine other sexual institutions that try to address the problems of hook up culture as I’ve outline them. For example, it might be possible that liberalizing alcohol on campuses might decrease the demand for hookup scenes.
The bottom line in hookup culture is that it is a very bizarre institution with a lot of very bad built-in features. But that doesn’t mean one should revert to an older institution that had its own problems. In an age where people have sex for both procreation and enjoyment, and where birth-control is cheap and common, we should be able to think about the unexplored territory between highly regulated sexual interaction and the false freedom of the hookup scene.