College Marriage or Hook-Up Culture?
A book on the gray area between dating and marriage leaves out men and LGBT people.
A young couple embraces and flouts hook-up culture. (Flickr/tibchris)
In 2007, writers began worrying about “hook-up culture,” the notion that college-age young people have casual sexual encounters without dating each other or forming relationships. This was the subject of an academic book called Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus by Kathleen Bogle and a more popular one by Washington Post style section writer Laura Sessions Stepp, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose At Both. The overarching theme behind both was that hooking up is bad and young people shouldn’t do it (although Bogle acknowledges in her book that once many people leave college and take full-time jobs, they begin regular old dating once again).
All this hand-wringing seems unjustified, given that a recent University of Minnesota study refuted the idea that young men and women were at risk of some kind of harmful psychological damage for engaging in casual sex.
Miriam Datskovsky noticed something different from Bogle and Stepp. In her Sexplorations column at the Columbia Spectator, Datskovsky documented what she called “college marriages”—young people in serious, monogamous relationships. By simply writing about what she saw around her New York City campus—young people after intensely serious relationships, not just casual sex—Datskovsky was proposing the antithesis to the so-called “hook-up culture,” which some were deriding as a plague for college-age youth.
It is this intense monogamy that is the subject of Hannah Seligson’s book, A Little Bit Married: How to Know When It’s Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door. Seligson seeks to explore the gray area between dating and marriage. Based on her own experience in a relationship in which she and her boyfriend all but lived together—a relationship that ended in a heartbreaking discovery of different goals in life—the book is prescriptive for an era in which “you now get your marriage training wheels with your first mini-marriage.”
Seligson’s book is just one of three hotly debated books about marriage released in recent months. With Atlantic writer Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough raging through the blogosphere and Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage released earlier this year, the case for marriage seems to be making a comeback.
Seligson’s book is, as Courtney Martin described it on Feministing, a “research-packed, story-rich, sociological-self-help hybrid.” She both supplies research about marriage and the Millennial generation’s attitudes toward it, and gives advice on how to know when to walk away. But it’s hard to imagine that Seligson meant for this book—peppered with quizzes titled “Are You Ready to Play House?” and “Eight Signs You Are Dating a Child-Man”—to be read by anyone other than women who are frustrated with their A Little Bit Married dating situations. There is even a chapter section on “becoming a wife,” with no parallel “becoming a husband” set of advice.
To be fair, Seligson notes that research on this subject indicates that women are usually more “ready” to marry than men of their age. She cites a 2005 Greenburg poll of members of “Gen Y” that noted 55 percent of women wanted to get married in the next five years, while just 42 percent of men said the same. But that still leaves a lot of women that don’t see marrying in the next five years as a priority. Furthermore, much of the imperative around getting married has to do with one’s demographic and social group.
Seligson also gives a disclosure that the others who are writing books on marriage haven’t emphasized as much. At the beginning of the book, she notes, “The research and reporting I did for this book focuses on a small slice of the social pie. The interviewees were mostly upwardly mobile, college-educated twenty- and thirty-somethings living in urban areas.” She notes that in more rural areas, the trend bends toward marrying (and often divorcing) early. Seligson may address this gap, but all of the books are marketed to a very specific subset of women: straight, upwardly mobile, often white, want-to-have-marriage-and-kids women in their mid- to late- twenties and early thirties. As Jessica Grosse pointed out in her Slate critique of Gottlieb’s book, the trend painted by these books doesn’t reflect the real world.
“To sociologists who study marriage,” Grosse wrote, “what’s troubling lately is the chasm that has opened up between the most- and least-educated women. About 80 percent of female college grads ages 30-44 have been married at some point, compared with 71 percent of women who did not graduate from high school, according to the latest Pew research. The marriages of college grads are also increasingly stable. From the 1970s to the ’90s, rates of divorce fell by almost half among college-educated women, but they remained high among women with less than a four-year degree. If there’s a crisis in marriage, it’s because the least educated and poorest women are no longer getting married.”
Seligson relies on a great deal of research done by other marriage academics, including that of renowned marriage historian Stephanie Coontz. But she also relies on the work of more questionable sources, including the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, whose stated mission is to “identify strategies to increase marital quality and stability,” and Sessions Stepp, who basically warns, “Don’t give the milk away for free.” Seligson’s book seems to take it for granted that a long-term relationship that doesn’t ultimately result in marriage is a “waste of time.”
What’s more, these books about marriage—Seligson’s included—do little to reflect one of the other major contentions about marriage these days: Where gay, lesbian, and queer couples fit into the picture. Because the numbers are so small and scattered, it’s hard to see real trends in same-sex marriage stability, but number-crunching whiz kid Nate Silver noticed something interesting (although not statistically significant) about the rates of divorce in this country: “Over the past decade or so, divorce has gradually become more uncommon in the United States. Since 2003, however, the decline in divorce rates has been largely confined to states [that] have not passed a state constitutional ban on gay marriage.” This means that while all these books are busy promoting marriage to young women, there are a number of LGBT people who are also pondering long-term relationship status.
If we are to fear hook ups and monogamous relationships, I fear that women will destroy themselves worrying and forget to enjoy themselves and their love lives. Although a crisis about getting married might be published in books, there’s little reason for the women these books are targeting to panic. With the options for young women seemingly either the decried "hook-up culture" or settling in for "college marriage," I have to pause and ask: These are our options?
Kay Steiger is the editor of Campus Progress.
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