Hookup culture is, as many high-schoolers are well aware, really confusing for people of all ages, genders, sexualities, races, and ethnicities. You name it, and they’re confused by hookup culture. Many adults are concerned for our futures: I’ve heard “Whatever happened to good old romance,” and “There’s no real connection happening, what if they never figure out how to date,” and the timeless classic, “Millennials are killing dating.” Young adults, on the other hand, claim it’s freeing… but do they really think so?
- 91% of college women say that they feel that hookup culture “defines their campus.” (1)
- A study that involved 300 students at a public university found that, although “94 percent of participating students were familiar with the phrase hooking up, there wasn’t any sense of solidarity regarding what hooking up actually entailed.” (2)
- In a study of roughly 1,500 undergraduate students conducted by the American Psychological Association, many experienced negative aftereffects when they participated in a hookup: “27.1 percent felt embarrassed, 24.7 percent reported emotional difficulties, 20.8 percent experienced loss of respect and 10 percent reported problems with a steady partner.” (3)
So, if hookup culture is that hard to navigate on college campuses, what will high-schoolers have to say about it?
A BIT ABOUT ME
I’m a senior at Concord Academy, a private college preparatory school with around 400 students in Concord, Massachusetts. I am 18 years old, white, heterosexual, and a cisgender woman. Since Concord Academy is such a small school, gossip gets spread fast — and by “fast,” I mean that if two people hook up at a dance on Friday, by Saturday afternoon most of their grade will know about it. Because of this grapevine, I hear a lot about hookups and hookup culture, and it’s pretty much a mixed bag. Some people hate it, others enjoy it, some don’t participate at all, and I was curious to find out why.
I sent out a survey to the student body, asking about how their identities influence both their perspective on and their participation in the hookup culture at our school, and these were some choice responses:
How do you define a “hookup”?
“I think that to me, hooking up is when you get together with someone to test out what a relationship could be like by getting with them physically. Could be as small as kissing or as big as having sex. There’s not really a clear cut definition of what it entails.”
How do you feel about the hookup culture at Concord Academy?
“I feel like it can be toxic when it puts pressure on people, especially women, to conform to the Eurocentric beauty standards. It personally stresses me out to think about myself as being seen and assessed for my ‘worthiness’ to be hooked up with. It enforces harmful beauty (especially body) standards to be thin/hourglass, which has countless negative effects on self-image of myself and others. There’s a lot of slut-shaming that stems from the hookup culture as well, and that’s awful.”
“I used to really hate the hookup culture because it plays such a large part in the racial/body preference that’s prevalent at CA (aka thin white girls), and I know from personal experience and from my friends’ experiences how damaging this can be, especially in the stage that everyone is at during high school of trying to feel positive about themselves and their bodies. My feelings about if have gotten a little bit less strong for the sole reason that I ended up dating someone that I probably would never have even gotten to know if we hadn’t started as just a hookup.”
Does your gender identity impact your feelings about or your participation in the hookup culture?
“I’m nonbinary, and my particular nonbinariness has resulted in a lot of straight girls “experimenting” by flirting with me (I’m soft butch enough that I don’t seem like a “real” lesbian) and straight men not recognizing me as a dating/hookup option because I’m too masculine. I mean, some of that is race too, because there’s this thing where people for some reason think black femmes look like men.”
“People have really judged me for hooking up with boys by saying “I could do better” but they just mean physically. I’m getting shamed for hooking up with someone because I could have hooked up with someone more “attractive” which is totally obnoxious.”
Does your sexuality impact your feelings about or your participation in the hookup culture?
“I’m a semi-out bi girl, and I see a lot of sexualization of queer women at CA where they’re seen as ‘special’ or ‘cool/trendy’ (which is horribly problematic).”
“I feel like there’s a lot of privilege in being straight.”
Do your racial and ethnic identities impact your feelings about or your participation in the hookup culture?
“I think hookup culture at CA puts pressure on women to subscribe to Eurocentric beauty standards (i.e. hourglass figure). I haven’t seen race affect hookup culture too much, but I do know there’s fetishization of some women of color (especially black and Latina women) which is dehumanizing and gross.”
“As a white male day student, I think I have far more opportunities to hook up with people both at CA and away from CA while boarders don’t have that last option and people who don’t conform to Eurocentric beauty standards are less well off.”
“As a black femme, I literally would be attracted to people and be like, “I wonder if they’re into black girls” as though that was something normal, as though it would be acceptable to not “be into black girls.” For a long time, I equated my sex/romantic life with my self esteem, and my blackness made this even more confusing and devastating.”
“Being Arab doesn’t mean anything in these circumstances. I’m still half white, so I have that look that makes people say “is he white? or is he more then that?” and from that I have white privilege in most circumstances. And from my experience, women are more or less indifferent either way.”
I was also able to speak with several students and gather their thoughts on Concord Academy’s hookup culture. Take a listen:
COMPARE & CONTRAST
So, how do these students’ thoughts compare to the experiences of others from around the world?
- “In the Netherlands, 93% of sexually active 15-year-olds reported using condoms or birth control pills at last sexual inter- course, with 17% reporting using both methods (Godeau et al., 2008). Not surprisingly, Dutch adolescents enjoy comparative freedom from anxiety about the physical hazards of sex, as they experience exceptionally low rates of teenage childbearing and STIs. For example, the odds of being infected with gonorrhea for Dutch adolescents are 75 times lower than for U.S. adolescents (Panchaud, Singh, Feivelson, & Darroch, 2000), and less than 1% of adolescent Dutch women give birth (United Nations, 2011).” (4)
- However, a study of American college women found that “only 69% of females reported condom use during [their] most recent hookup.” Studies of US college students have also found “gender differences in emotional reactions to hooking up, illustrating that there is great variability in attitudes following a hookup. For women, 26.4% reported a positive reaction, 48.7% reported a negative reaction, and 24.9% reported an ambivalent reaction. For men, 50.4% reported a positive reaction, 26.0% reported a negative reaction, and 23.6% reported an ambivalent reaction.” (5)
- “American culture, rather uniquely among developed nations, fails to support teenagers’ sexual development, to their detriment. Given adequate education, access to reproductive health care services, and open communication with adults, teenagers are capable of successfully navigating the transition to becoming sexually mature adults without encountering unduly negative health outcomes.” (4)
I also spoke with two of the counselors at my school, Jeff Desjarlais and Elise Hoblitzelle, who also teach Sex Ed to 10th graders at Concord Academy, to hear their thoughts on hookup culture.
“I tend to be more anthropological… like, how did we [even] get to the point where we have a dating app?” says Jeff. “And part of it is — and we talk about this in class — that the average age of first period is 12.5, and the average age of marriage is 28, so… now what? If the culture is not requiring you to be married before you have a kid, what do you do for those 16 years? Dating was often courting–” meaning, entering into a relationship with the intention of marriage, “– and that whole ritualistic thing was a social norm, trying to keep purity, and bloodlines, and all that stuff, and when all of that is gone, what do you replace it with? A non-commital sexual relationship, because people are still sexual; I would argue even more sexual. So you’re having all of those feelings, and what do you do with them? Because there’s no cultural filter anymore, about what you should and shouldn’t do.”
“When a student said in class today that there wasn’t a lot of pressure to participate in the hookup culture, I questioned that, I was like, really?” Elise laughs. “I think that there definitely are some students who think they’re supposed to want it, and are participating because that’s what people are doing, and [they] don’t even really fully recognize, maybe this isn’t what I want, maybe I’m just doing it because this is what my peers are doing and I’m supposed to like it.”
There are a lot of problems with hookup culture in America — racial biases, misogyny, and homo-, bi-, and trans-phobia, to name a few. Some people enjoy participating in hookup culture, but for others, it can be uncomfortable or mentally draining to have little to no emotional connection. If we improve sex education, as well as improve education surrounding mental health, how to make healthy choices, consent, and how to have healthy relationships (with themselves and with other people), the hookup culture would likely be less stressful — and less confusing — for everyone.
What do you think we can do to improve thought processes and education surrounding hookup culture? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!
(1) “Study on College Hook-Ups.” ABC News, ABC News Network, http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=126813&page=1&arubalp=9bb445e7-1004-4417-a38e-6f5b161142
(2) “The Teen Hookup Culture: What Parents Should Know.” TODAY.com, 6 Feb. 2018, http://community.today.com/parentingteam/post/the-teen-hookup-culture-what-parents-should-know
(3) Garcia, Justin R., et al. Review of General Psychology : Journal of Division 1, of the American Psychological Association, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 June 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3613286/
(4) Harden, K. Paige. “A Sex-Positive Framework for Research on Adolescent Sexuality.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 9, no. 5, 2014, pp. 455–469., doi:10.1177/1745691614535934, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/2a90/c231040cba3b75b6cac4ae6f67fbb728abd3.pdf
(5) Lewis, Melissa A., et al. Archives of Sexual Behavior, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4397976/
ARTICLES I READ BUT DIDN’T CITE
(1) Vetter, Anne. “It’s Not You, It’s— Hookup Culture and Sexual Subjectivity.” Colby College, 2017, https://digitalcommons.colby.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1866&context=honorstheses
(2) D’Amato, Suzanne. “Modern Romance.” Teen Vogue, TeenVogue.com, 17 June 2015, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/teens-talk-about-sex-and-hooking-up
(3) @ryansager, Ryan Sager. “9 Reasons ‘Hookup Culture’ Hurts Boys Too.” Time, Time, 22 Nov. 2013, ideas.time.com/2013/11/22/9-reasons-hookup-culture-hurts-boys-too/