We think of college as a place where kids, perhaps free from their parents’ watchful eyes for the first time, can experiment sexually. Yet, my little adventure almost two decades ago seems innocent compared with hookup culture — a lifestyle of unemotional, unattached sex — so prevalent on campuses today.
Is hooking up a form of sexual experimentation? You’d think so. After all, hookups are all about throwing off the bonds of relationships and dating for carefree sex. But such hypersexuality can be just as oppressive as a mandate for abstinence. Hookup sex is fast, uncaring, unthinking, perfunctory. It has a lot less to do with excitement or attraction than with checking a box on a list of tasks, like homework or laundry. Yet, it has become the defining aspect of social life on many campuses — so common, so obligatory, that it leaves little room for experimentation that bends the rules.
I’ve spent the past eight years investigating hookup culture and talking with students, faculty members and college administrators about it. I thought I would find that the vast majority of students revel in it, but instead I encountered a large percentage who feel confined by it or ambivalent about it (the “whateverists,” as I call them). Nervous to be alone in challenging hookup culture, most students go along with it, even if they privately long for alternatives. They think that if they try to be less casual about sex, it’ll ruin their social lives. Conformity abounds.
At one Catholic school, for instance, an all-girls, first-year hall was dubbed the Virgin Vault at the beginning of the year by the senior guys at the college. By the middle of the year, they called it the Slut Hut and later, the Lesbian Lair, implying that by the end of the year most of the hall’s residents had hooked up with women as well as men. While we can dismiss such nicknames as college humor, naming — though it can empower us to claim an identity or experience that previously seemed out of our grasp — can also pin us with stereotypes, experiences and identities we don’t want.
When students are expected to hook up with lots of people, doing so becomes dutiful, not daring. Older ideas of sexual exploration — be it same-sex encounters or one-night stands — have become a basic expectation.
Of the 1,230 students who answered an optional survey question in a study I conducted asking what their peers thought about sex in 2006, 45 percent of participants at Catholic schools and 36 percent at nonreligious private and public schools said their peers were too casual about sex, and they said privately that they wished this weren’t the case. An additional 35 percent at Catholic and 42 percent at nonreligious schools reported that their peers were simply “casual,” without opining one way or the other.