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College Hookups: A Culture or a Cult?

Sex on college campuses is old news, but the way that modern students favor hookups and one-night stands over long-term relationships is a new phenomenon. In recent years hookup culture has become undeniably prevalent – the most recent data estimates that between 60 and 80 percent of North American college students have had some type of hook-up experience. And yet, the vast majority of students are unsatisfied with it.


It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the problem with hookup culture is. Idealistically, hookups should be great. Finally, we have a system of making it not only easy to hump and dump, but the societal norm. So what’s wrong with that?


Alot, but the issue does not lie in the amount of sex we are having: the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey has shown that Millennials actually have fewer sexual partners than Gen-Xers. It’s not necessarily that students don’t enjoy hook-ups either – author Hanna Rosin theorizes that college women like having casual sex because it gives them the means to delay previously constraining life events such as marriage and children while still giving them control over their own sexual satisfaction.


The complication with hookup culture is not the physical act of hooking up. No, the problem is the culture itself, and how millions of students across the country are finding themselves entrenched in an environment where they feel both obliged to conform to its standards and ostracized if they don’t.


Kelsie List,* a sophomore at Brown University, is a typical college student. She takes four classes, is involved in club lacrosse and Model UN, and likes to frequent parties on the weekend. At those parties, much of her goal is to find someone suitable to go home with.


“Hookup culture is essential to the college experience,” Kelsie told me. “But there are a lot of unspoken rules of how to do it.”


She isn’t wrong. Hookup culture has created a quiet but omnipresent expression of enticement – one that involves the exact right outfit, level of flirtation, and nonchalant attitude. In colleges all over America, students are becoming indoctrinated into these rituals blindly while keeping their feelings of discomfort and loneliness to themselves, for fear of alienation or rejection.


“I honestly hate hookup culture,” Kelsie eventually confessed to me. “I really just do it because all of the guys here don’t seem to want anything more than a one-night stand.”  


This is a common belief that many women hold, but that notion is largely false. In fact, according to sociologist Lisa Wade, while 67 percent of women wish they had a long term relationship in college, 71 percent of men crave the same thing, shattering the illusion that men are the sex-starved, unemotional creatures they are so often depicted as in modern media. But just because men secretly want a relationship in no way means that they are ready to admit such a thing.


Consider Cole, another student I spoke to. When I first asked him what he thought of college hookups, he praised the environment it created, eloquently calling it “freaking amazing” and “rad” in the same breath. But as soon as I pressed him further, he immediately retracted.


“It pretty much sucks,” Cole admitted candidly. “Feelings do develop sometimes, but you still have to pretend like you don’t feel anything at all.”


Cole hit on an important topic. The game of Who Cares the Least is an important one to hookup culture, and alcohol is the fuel to its fire. Intoxication – or even just the claim of it – is inherently a Monopoly get-out-of-jail-free card. It awards students an escape route to friends’ criticisms, a bypass to confronting their own emotions of rejection or heartache, and most of all, a shield from ever admitting any true romantic feelings towards their partner. After all, if you pretend you don’t care, eventually you really won’t, right?


Wrong. Even though the vast majority of students want to believe it is true, that rose-tinted frame of mind is no more realistic as it is foolish. Humans are emotional creatures, and by making it taboo to show affection we have seemingly doomed ourselves.


However, it doesn’t have to be this way. When two people are open about their sexual desires and the emotions (or the lack of thereof) that ensue, uncommitted sex can be productive and satisfying. But until students begin to understand the misconceptions that surround and encourage hookup culture, the seductive language of late-night Snapchats and dishonest dispositions will rule freely.  

*Names may have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.


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