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Hot Girl Summer for the highly sensitive

Iseult De Mallet Burgess reflects on navigating hook-up culture as a highly-sensitive person.

After my first year at Oxford culminated in a crushing breakup, I flew home to New Zealand and decided that it was time for a Hot Girl Summer. In a culture that equates hooking up with sexual liberation, it seemed natural that I, stained by all the vicissitudes of the end of an important relationship and wanting to explore my sexuality, would embark on a period of pseudo-relationships and casual dating.

We are, after all, constantly exposed to media and pop culture which extol the virtues of casual sex and permissive sexuality. Uncommitted sexual encounters have become culturally normative. A 2012 study by The Kinsey Institute found that up to 80 percent of college students have reported having engaged in hook-up culture. As sexual scripts have changed over the past decades, people – particularly college students – have increasingly had more hook-ups than dates.

It’s understandable that I viewed a Hot Girl Summer in New Zealand as the answer to my post-breakup misery. The only problem, which I overlooked with heedless optimism: I am a highly sensitive person with a preference for intimacy and commitment.

A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a term for those thought to have a high measure of sensory processing sensitivity: a deeper central nervous system response to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. The brains of people with sensory processing sensitivity work a little differently than others’ – HSPs tend to be very deeply affected by negative experiences, easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, anxiety prone, and very emotional.

Predictably, these traits – while not necessarily weaknesses – do not stack up well against our cultural obsession with hook-up culture, nor did they lend themselves to my envisioned Hot Girl Summer. Being asked out by strangers terrified me. Dates would drain and exhaust me. I overthought everything. Hooking up with random people was, for me, anything but empowering. My so-called Hot Girl Summer aggravated the worst parts of my sensitivity and turned me in to an anxiety-ridden mess.

I craved the blithe safety and deep sense of being known and seen that I felt with my ex, who was my best friend. I coveted the trust. The intimacy. The way that they protected my sensitivity. I missed the sense of meaning that accompanies building a relationship with somebody.

It became clear to me that exploring my sexuality needed to happen in that kind of context. One of trust, emotional connection and Austen-like slow-burn romance. Admittedly, this was difficult for me to reconcile with my internalised societal messaging around dating and the cultural pressure to participate in hook-up culture.

Aside from my sensitivity, there was also the compounding factor of merely being a woman. For all the benefits of hook-up culture, there is also an overwhelming body of evidence that documents significant gender differences in affective reactions to hooking up, skewed in favour of men. Women are more likely to report a negative reaction following a hook-up than men; a 2014 study by Baylor University suggested that the gender difference in regret over hook-ups is linked to negative emotional health outcomes. There is also a disproportionate danger of sexual violence.

This is not to say that women shouldn’t participate in hook-up culture, nor that those who do don’t value romantic intimacy – rather, that it’s okay not to want to engage in a culture centred around casual relationships. You don’t need to date to be whole.

Ultimately, my Hot Girl Summer didn’t go as planned, but it prompted a lot of soul-searching and self-growth, and for that I am thankful.

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