How Our Stereotypes About Masculinity Are Confusing a Generation of Young Men


In Crazy, Stupid, Love, Ryan Gosling's character picks up dozens of gorgeous women at a local bar and teaches Steve Carrell's character to do the same. By the end of the movie, however, they both have learned the error of their player ways and found love on their own terms. The message may seem pretty clear: Casual sex is ultimately unfulfilling and love should be the real goal. Yet young men probably spend most of the movie admiring Gosling's prowess at convincing attractive women to have sex with him, leaving them with a mixed message that highlights a major contradiction for men, who are seeking to define their masculinity in a hookup culture too often presented in binary extremes.

When we think about the kinds of mainstream messaging surrounding what it means to be "a man's man" out in the dating pool, marketing strategies like Axe or Old Spice ads are likely to come to mind. The ethos of these body wash brands is fairly blunt: "Buy this product and random women will want to have sex with you." While those types of ads might be troubling for proponents of a more progressive form of masculinity, they are not confusing for young men. What's more confusing is seeing men like Gosling's character, or Mad Men's Don Draper, cast as the domineering, conquest-driven douchebag, while simultaneously being a sex symbol. It sort of feels like we are wagging our finger at them while ogling their bulge.

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The situation is not necessarily helped by the media, which, every few months, will come out with a flurry of articles making conflicting claims about hookup culture and casual sex. Hookup culture is ruining relationships, except it's also liberating young people. It is bad for women, except it's actually empowering. Hookup culture is a toxic epidemic! Actually, never mind, it doesn't exist at all.

These conflicting messages can leave men confused about their role in a casual hookup, and send them either reaching for an extreme option or concerned that certain actions will signal their interest in the wrong extreme.

"I have hooked up with men who were terrified to have any kind of conversation other than 'When are you free?'" McKenzie, 22, from Georgia, told Mic. The guys, she says, are worried that if they engage, it will be interpreted as interest in something more serious than they desire. "So the only way to remedy that [in their minds] is to give as little humanity as possible." That is, they choose one extreme in order to avoid the other, when there is plenty of accessible middle ground.

Elizabeth Boskey, of Ask the Sexpert, says that in her more than 20 years of experience as a health educator, "a big problem can be hookups where one person is trying for a relationship and the other just wants to have sex," she told Mic. "That's why managing expectations is so important… and that requires a conversation." 

Stereotypically, the problem Boskey mentions is assumed to occur along gender lines, with the guy looking for sex and the lady looking for love. While many women also engage in casual sex, the perception remains that this is a male-oriented desire. This breakdown is no doubt fueled by a cultural forgiveness of men who seek sex for the purpose of conquest. And again, the message is conflicting — we may wag our finger at the idea, while simultaneously applauding as James Bond slips into bed with another exotic beauty, never to interact with her again. 

Several young women, both straight and queer, spoke with Mic about what they perceive as a guy's role in a casual hookup. Many agreed with Boskey and with Alyson, 26, from New Hampshire: "I think the key to keeping it casual is to be open about everything and to make sure that everyone has the same expectations."

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Lindsey, 27, from Boston, added, "Long-term [or] exclusivity is not an expectation if I've already slept with you," but "a quick convo about whether exclusivity will at some point be expected."

As a generalization, part of heterosexual hookup culture involves the guy hooking up for as long as he can, with no strings, before finally being confronted by his partner — the dreaded "Where is this going?" conversation. The implication is that clear communication is somehow feminine, and that closing your eyes, plugging your ears and running forward is the masculine approach to an undefined hookup.

This is not to say that the onus is only on the guy. Evan Marc Katz, a professional dating coach for women, told Mic that believes that in dating, "everyone is responsible for their own heart." Instead of hoping that all men come clean about their sexual intentions from the outsest, women have to prepare themselves for the possibility that they'll never hear from him again. If they can't handle the consequences of NSA sex, they should probably avoid having it. 

Diana, 26, from Virginia, agrees that the responsibility goes both ways: "Both parties need to be honest with themselves and open about what they actually want versus criticizing a guy for using a girl for sex and leading her on."

Whatever the true extent and form of hookup culture, we can be certain that young people do have casual sex, and it is important for men to understand that masculinity in this context need not be confined to extreme options.

In the case of Crazy, Stupid, Love, Gosling's character jumps from one extreme to the other, but in fact there is plenty of space in the middle to be upstanding, ethical and masculine. Men can define exactly where they want to be in that space, but only if they're prepared to clearly communicate their own desires and expectations.