The Unspoken Problem With College Hookup Culture

Unsplash/Nathan Walker
In our quest for sexual liberation, have we sacrificed healthy relationship dynamics?

Considering the premium that has long been placed on restrictive sexual propriety, American college hookup culture — defined by string-free liaisons and one-night stands—seems in many ways worth celebrating. Goodbye antiquated notions about marriage and monogamy and how to be a “good girl”; hello sexual empowerment.

In my twenties, I found myself embracing this attitude of care-free sexual connection. I always had a few people on my speed dial list (remember speed dial?), and I engaged in frivolous trysts devoid of deeper meaning.

It never occurred to me that the rules of hookup culture might have been holding me back from finding meaningful partnerships — but lately, I’ve started to wonder if they did. Were my sexual experiences in college really empowering? And what if college hookup culture is more dangerous, in its own ways, than we’ve let on?

In her new book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Lisa Wade explores the fraught dynamics that drive today’s college sexual relationships. Reading it felt like reading an explanation of my own romantic history.

Of course, we didn’t arrive at a destructive hookup culture out of nowhere. Wade explains that it largely came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution moving “courtship into the streets, where men were in charge,” as well as the consequence-free power of the Greek system on campuses.

We didn’t arrive at a destructive hookup culture out of nowhere.

Students (adults too, but Wade focuses on college campuses) feel compelled to engage not just in sex for sex sake, but to relate to their partners in an enormously unhealthy way. She reports that students say they are “depressed, anxious, and overwhelmed” in part because of the additional pressure and emotional toll of forcing themselves to treat partners poorly to prove that their sexual activity is string-free.

“One in three students say that their intimate relationships have been ‘traumatic’ or ‘very difficult to handle,’ and 10 percent say that they’ve been sexually coerced or assaulted in the past year,” Wade writes.

Of course it’s easier to take advantage of someone who is already feeling the pressure to comply, and both partners are affected by the messages of hookup culture which say they shouldn’t care about one another; quite the contrary, in fact, they are expected to incorporate behaviors that are rather mean, and which leave both feeling insecure and unsatisfied.

“[T]here is a persistent malaise: a deep, indefinable disappointment,” Wade explains. “Students find that their sexual experiences are distressing or boring. They worry that they’re feeling too much or too little. They are frustrated and feel regret, but they’re not sure why. They consider the possibility that they’re inadequate, unsexy, and unlovable.”

During the years when young people are developing their identities and learning so many things through trial and error, it’s especially distressing that what are often their first sexual encounters set them up for a life of incorrect expectations and dissatisfaction. While some aspects of hookup culture indeed developed through a desire for female-identified students to express empowerment, and of course some rebelling against conservative upbringings, the combination of heavy drinking and the power of the Greek system as the heart of campus social life have created a toxic attitude toward expectations around sex. In this environment, hookups have become a form of social capital — a way to gain respect from peers.

Hookups have become a form of social capital — a way to gain respect from peers.

“Using indicators like hotness, blondness, fraternity membership, and athletic prowess, students form a working consensus about who is hook-up worthy, and that guides their decisions,” writes Wade. “In hookup culture…beauty is in the eye of the beholders, plural. A body’s value is determined by collective agreement. It’s crowdsourced. So is ugliness.”

And lest you think that hookup culture at least advocates for some gender parity — with those of all genders encouraged to sleep around with equal freedom — the truth is, restrictive gender stereotypes endure.

The biggest reason I was so relieved to discover polyamory is that I find sex to be a powerful experience, a connection that doesn’t have to mean a house and a picket fence. But that typically elicits emotions and appreciations for partners that I’ve had to keep to myself as part of hookup culture. I had never been able to find a middle ground between “I loooovvvvveeeee you and we’re gonna be together 4EVAH” and a shrug and a handshake while looking for my clothes. Partners either couldn’t handle interactions that don’t fit the norms, or didn’t believe I wanted what I said I did.

“Since the Victorian idea that women are motivated by love persists even alongside the more modern idea that they want to have sex for fun, women’s efforts to stay cool are less credible than men’s,” explains Wade. “So, no matter how good women are at pretending to be uninterested — indeed, no matter how uninterested they actually are — many men simply assume that the women they hook up with want a monogamous relationship.”

The benevolent sexism of men presuming women are overcome with FEELS from a single sexual encounter leads them to be “proactive” in turning down imagined advances toward a real relationship label.

Wade zeroed in on why dudes freak out and why women are so hard on themselves when they feel a thing — basically, students think that emotionless sex is the desired norm.

“Hookup culture…tells students that their frontal lobes are in charge, that they can be logical about sex and control their feelings if they choose to. Not just the pleasures and pangs of love…, but all the feelings that sex can spark: insecurity, transcendence, sadness, and misery; loathing and awe. Hooking up, they claim, can and should be emotionless.”

But can sex — even casual sex — actually be devoid of meaning? And more importantly, should it be?

Wade invokes the feelings of hearing your morning alarm, having your first sips of coffee, and other moments categorized as mundane; if we can feel something smelling a flower or indulging in comfort food, why would a sexual encounter be immune to emotion? I have realized over time that I wasn’t defective for wanting even casual sexual encounters to have meaning — even if that meaning was “just” fun, release, and temporary connection.

“Clingy, desperate, and needy are extremely effective insults, invoking all the things that students don’t want to be: weak, insecure, unable to control one’s emotions, and powerless to separate sex from feelings. For men, it’s the antithesis of masculinity. For women, it’s a failure to be liberated, modern, strong, and independent…Students aim, then, for aloofness.”

And this aloofness, Wade says, can engender a vicious cycle. “The idea is not just to not care, it’s to care less. Lack of interest is a moving target and the direction is down,” writes Wade. “So, after a hookup, students monitor each other’s level of friendliness and try to come in below the other person. Each time one person takes a step back emotionally, the other takes two. They can end up backed into their respective corners, avoiding eye contact, and pretending the other doesn’t exist.” Wade cites an NYU alum who calls it “the blase Olympics.”

The problem is that this blase attitude can make it difficult to ultimately establish emotional intimacy. “The skills needed for managing hookup culture…are in direct contradiction to the skills needed to propose, build, and sustain committed relationships,” writes Wade.

I have been working to unlearn (or at least redirect) those skills myself, but until I realized how they’d developed, I found the unlearning of them to be quite a challenge. And I’m not alone; a lot of people find dating and sex and the unhelpful-at-best rules swirling around them to be a hindrance to creating fulfilling romantic lives.

“It may be that dating culture [aka ‘boy asks out a girl → boy and girl go on date → boy and girl go steady’] isn’t as strong as it was almost a decade ago,” writes Wade. “At the colleges where I’ve lectured, seniors sometimes pull me aside anxiously and ask how they are supposed to behave once they graduate. For quite some time, I thought they were exaggerating their confusion, but I’ve come to think that they mean it seriously. Some seem to find dating as mysterious as they would a VHS tape or a rotary phone.”

So what can be done? If making it easier to meet people were the solution, the mass of dating websites would have handled culture change for us. Instead, we should be focusing on how we foster genuine, supportive, mutually satisfying relationships, and how we encourage young people to do so as well.

The act of hooking up doesn’t have to go by the wayside to achieve this. As Wade explains, “Casual sex, though, doesn’t have to be cold. If partners are invested in mutual consent and pleasure and are gracious and friendly afterward, one could say that they have been nice to each other” — rather than indifferent at best because that’s what hookup culture has asked them to be.

It’s on all of us to intentionally create a healthy culture around sexuality and relationships. We didn’t arrive at this point out of the blue. Incremental changes brought us the American hookup culture, but Wade sees hope through the examination of what it means and what we want instead.

“Seeing what’s happening on campus as a culture — recognizing that it’s not the hookup itself, but hookup culture that is the problem — is the first step in changing it,” she writes. “Love has diversified. Sex can, too. Diversifying the way we love, marry, and raise children wasn’t easy, and protecting greater freedom requires constant vigilance. But people fought to make it so and they succeeded in creating a reality unimaginable even a generation ago. Perhaps now it’s time to fight on behalf of sex.”

Let the fight begin.