Lauren Gatta

Question: Do men and women perceive hookup culture differently?

A few weeks ago, over a dinner back home in Colorado, I had an unlikely conversation with an unlikely group — a male friend named Chris, my best friend Clara from high school and my mom. Mom hears a lot from me about hookup culture, my fundamental confusion and uncertainty about what the hell is going on half the time, so that night she posed a question to my college frat friend: What’s going on in guys’ heads? He was candid and engaging, for which I am genuinely grateful. What follows are some takeaways.

From his perspective, hookup culture is a “numbers game.” Guys want to have as much sex as possible and are more interested in the “kudos from the boys” than the girls’ feelings. Being honest with a girl incurs the risk of her losing interest in sex once she realizes that’s all a guy is after, so being intentionally misleading towards her — “You’re different!” “You’re special!” “You’re fun!” — is a means to an end. Plus, there’s an added assumption that every girl who goes to Woads or a frat party is also there looking for sex; she couldn’t possibly believe something deeper would come from a one-night stand, right?

Clara and I were aghast. We shook our heads. One-night stands can be fun, but hookups are usually physically disappointing and, often, emotionally brutal. We insisted to Chris that a genuine desire for something more authentic underlies our engagement in hookup culture. To us, this seemed obvious, but he was floored.

He said that realization wouldn’t change how he behaved. Knowing that a girl might want something more — and that she might be hurt when the appearance of emotional intimacy was used only as a tool for sex — wouldn’t supersede the numbers game. That was gutting to hear.

“Just be nice afterwards to the girls you hook up with,” I said, desperate.

“But that doesn’t work,” he responded.

“Being nice isn’t about working! It’s about being a good person.”

“That just isn’t how guys think.”

Clara and I were distraught. She looked like someone had shot her dog. I started crying into my Sour Cream Apple Pie. I was terrified that he was right, that my optimism in men was naive and damaging, that I’d been breaking my own heart in half by refusing to see the truth in what he was saying. My mom always told me, “Men play at love to get sex, and women play at sex to get love,” but I never believed her until then, when I so clearly saw the gap in how my friend and I approached the same culture.

At the time of this conversation, I had a very fun and confusing crush on a boy I’d met on an evening out. How did I reconcile what Chris said with what I felt? Shut down any semblance of real feelings to avoid inevitable disappointment? Apathy is an inadequate solution that betrays and disables the self, so was the only option to hold onto my naive optimism — an optimism that has survived a sea of shitty, disappearing hookups — and embrace the oncoming hurt?

Of course, Chris was right. This crush ended just like I expected it would, with an inelegant shift into oblivion and awkward nods in Blue State. For him, another point in the numbers game. For me, another moment amassed in the casual, recreational heartbreak of college. It wasn’t surprising.

But it still hurt. Optimism about romance in inherently unromantic places, like dark rooms covered in beer and dance floors lit up by strobe lights, feels violent. “We’re a trainwreck waiting to happen,” Lorde sings. She talks about “all the glamour and the trauma and the fucking melodrama.” She asks if we can hear the “violence” of her heart beating in “The Louvre.” Taylor Swift references her own death half a dozen times in “Reputation”; she’s “dying” in the getaway car of her relationship. In “The Hamptons,” Transviolet sings, “I’m not one to get violent, but I’m imagining my brains on his carpet.” There’s an implicit violence in the lyrics of our modern women that elucidates the way these meaningless intimacies wound.

Chris insisted that the realization that girls incur some hurt from people who go dark on them wouldn’t change his behavior, but it should. Then again, knowing Chris’s perspective didn’t change mine. So, who’s right? Or are we doomed forever to have an asymmetry of information between guys and girls, racking up body counts and heartbreaks until we grow up and graduate college? How do we demand empathy from people who are unwilling to give it, in a culture that not only doesn’t ask for it, but often prohibits it?

When writing this column, I texted the three other people involved in the conversation: Did you have any major takeaways? My mom sent back thirteen bulleted text messages with specific quotes from each of us. Clara wrote back, “Omg so many!” then sent five other quotes from that night.

And Chris? “Nothing off the top of my head,” he said.

“Based on his perspective, there is little hope for an honest conversation because the goals of college men and women are completely different,” my mom said. Maybe she’s right. But so was Chris’s perspective, and I still walked upright into another disappointment. I’m ever the optimist, and my faith in humanity remains remarkably unscathed despite the melodramas and letdowns. I’ve decided I’m on a mission to empathize and ask other people to do the same. There’s work to be done. We’ll start up again in the New Year.

Men who read this and have a different perspective to share, please email me! I’d love to incorporate your thoughts.

Ayla .