I Used to Give Out Sex Like Gold Star Stickers (And I'm Glad I Did)

In the universe of the so-called hookup culture, sex is an either/or game, with no room for nuance in the middle. It's lovemaking OR it's hooking up. You're boyfriend and girlfriend, or you're just using each other's bodies.

Jan 15, 2013 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

The phrase "the hookup culture" must do boffo clickthrough on the New York Times' website. Why else would the country's most respected newspaper debase itself, again and again and again, with regurgitated hand-wringing and "Girls"-sourced trend pieces on one of the laziest, least accurate stereotypes ever perpetuated about young women? (And yes, I know it has a lot of competition.)

This Friday’s style section treats us yet again. "The End of Courtship?", by Alex Williams, quotes Hanna Rosin so extensively that it reads like the second verse of "Boys on the Side," Rosin’s recent Atlantic column. Women are hooking up because changing power dynamic! The End of Men! And so on.

I am a member of the cohort they’re talking about -- 27, upper middle class, East Coast, secular, etc. -- and I have to say that these pieces resemble my friends' and my sexual histories about as well as that random elderly woman's "restoration" of Ecce Homo resembled Jesus Christ.

This is not the case because I Lolo Jones'd my way through my twenties. (Props to her for staying committed to what she believes in; it just wasn't my personal choice.) During the two years between the end of my last college relationship and the beginning of my marital one, my bedroom revue featured a number of guest stars. 

Rosin said in the Atlantic that these experiences make me more “empowered.” Am I the only one who can't stand to read the words "empowered" and "sex" in the same piece? Women aren't hair dryers. Our power levels can't be turned up or down by the touch of a penis. 

Meanwhile, Bill Bennett and other cultural critics believe that casual sex debases women, robbing us of the chance to feel true, deep intimacy. I’m happily married, so no.

Irritating as Bennett and Rosin’s generalizations are, they're nowhere near as objectionable as the premise on which they’re built. In the universe of the so-called hookup culture, sex is an either/or game, with no room for nuance in the middle. It's lovemaking OR it's hooking up. You're boyfriend and girlfriend, or you're just using each other's bodies. 

On behalf of every woman who has had what my friend Lucy* and I like to call Gold Star Sticker Sex, I declare bullshit.

Several years ago, on a long walk through the English countryside, Lucy and I were struggling to define our sexual standards. We weren’t wait-until-marriage types, or even wait-until-exclusivity. Yet neither of us would say we did much in the way of soulless jolly-grinding.

We were somewhere in between: we had sex with friends we liked and trusted, almost as a prize for being awesome. It was our seal of approval: “You’re an attractive and accomplished person, and I admire you. Congratulations! Gold star for you.”

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Gold Star Sticker Sex is the opposite of no-strings-attached. It’s shared in the same way you might have shared a deep, dark secret in high school...or one of those BE FRI/ST ENDS necklaces in 2nd grade. It’s not a romantic commitment, but nevertheless, it comes from a loving place -- a desire to enhance intimacy.

Many, although not all, of my girlfriends have had Gold Star Sticker Sex, or they wish they had. Twenty-six-year-old Charlotte is one example. She’s engaged now, but she feels the tug of wanting to share more intimacy with her best guy friend, Dave.

“I want to give myself to him, because the only way I know how to be more intimate with someone than I am with [Dave] is to make love to him,” Charlotte told me in an email.

She continued, “I know that ‘give myself to him’ is a very old-fashioned way of putting it, but it’s the most appropriate. It is a reward, of sorts. It’s a thank-you, certainly. And in some strange way, it’s also a blessing -- a benediction to sanctify our relationship.”

Meanwhile, 27-year-old Molly told me about a conversation she’d recently had with an English friend of hers. “She said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t sleep with Isaac because I am sexually attracted to him, but because I adore him as a friend and I want to be closer.’”

Molly wasn’t convinced. “When she asked if I knew what she meant,” she told me, “I said I did not. Sex changes things.”  

Sex does change things. One of the many reasons it’s so exciting is because it’s risky -- you never know quite what it’s going to do. Like a shared adventure, it might endure as a source of naughty nostalgia.  But it could also devolve into a friendship-ruining cycle of miscommunication and unrequited love.

Both of those things have happened to me. Two of my best friends on Earth are also past sexual partners. We chat regularly, hang out often, and share the occasional giggle about that one time when we, you know, consummated the thing. My husband likes these people, and they like him. There are no lingering emotions except fondness.

On the other hand, there’s James: an English musician, once a beloved friend of mine, who now no longer speaks to me. Gold Star Sticker Sex was the beginning of the end for us. It was great at first, but then broke down like a laundry machine with all the towels bunched together on one side. He wanted a relationship, and I didn’t; then I wanted a relationship, and he didn’t; then I started dating Matt, and he was hurt and furious.

Lucy, co-creator of the Gold Star Sticker Sex concept, had similarly mixed experiences. Here’s how she put it: “I slept with this guy… in what I thought was a lovely mutual meeting of minds and bumping of uglies. He then avoided me for a week (massively long time in university land, you will remember) because he was ‘afraid that I might want a relationship.’ I was FURIOUS that he'd misinterpreted my motives to that extent, and assumed such a position of power, and basically was a cocky little sh*t.”

“Apart from that particular experience, though, I firmly stand by the gold star rationale,” she says. “It's made me some awesome friends. There's an oceanographer in Massachusetts who sends photos of polar bears when he goes on ships to the Arctic, a dude at the Treasury who buys me those coloured Sobranie cocktail cigarettes, and a chef in Saffron Walden who gives me free toasted sandwiches whenever I stop by -- what more does a girl need to be happy?”

Gold Star Sticker Sex is tricky to pull off. My point, however, is not to give advice here: It’s to emphasize that every day, women in their twenties have meaningful, intimate, sober, relationship-enhancing sex that is also (gasp!) casual. It’s almost as if we have brains.

Now that I’m married, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for my gold-star encounters. This is not because of that old cliché about sowing wild oats. It’s because I know how to distinguish among intellectual fascination, sexual attraction and enduring romantic love; because I realize that all relationships, not just Relationships, require openness and honesty; and because I’ve brought happiness and pleasure into my own life and my friends’.

These things have all happened because I’ve fucked other people…which is why those who condemn all casual sex as part of some tragic “hookup culture” can go fuck themselves.

*Names have been changed.