Posted in: Campus

Hookup Culture

By | November 19, 2017


The term “hookup culture” has been used and overused in the news. It is discussed everywhere from blogs to The New York Times. Some champion the sexually liberating nature of hooking up, while others demonize the “meaningless” relationships prevalent on college campuses. In interviews, professors and students at Harvard discussed their views on hookup culture and its effect on campus culture.

Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College, discusses hookup culture as something that is institutionalized, embedded into the structure of the American college in her new book American Hookup. She sees hookup culture, separate from hooking up itself, as having emerged somewhere in the middle of the 1990s, when the children of second-wave feminists parents who believed in women’s empowerment through the pursuit of stereotypically masculine activities went to college. She says that hooking up itself is not new to colleges or humans, but hookup culture is.

Student Perspectives

In interviews with Harvard College students, the presence of a routine was evident. Students discussed that in preparation for weekend parties, there is discussion and expectation about hooking up. Hence, hooking up acts as both a staple of the college experience and a metric through which experiences can be measured. One student, who wishes to remain anonymous and will be referred to as John, distinguished between the short-term range of experiences that constitute hooking up and hookup culture as a “process where people go on the hunt to have a one-time hookup and then ignore the person [with whom they’ve hooked up]” in an interview with the HPR. Some students are defining hookup culture as something almost predatory in nature, and as something cold, where the person with whom you have hooked up becomes disposable. People become recyclable, unimportant. These short-term interactions also exist as short-term in memory. “Hooking up is seen as a way to exploit peers” and that it is “consistent with capitalist, neo-liberal, market-based, consumer-oriented, individualist patriarchy,” according to Professor Wade in an interview with the HPR. On the other hand, some students describe that hooking up can be a small self-esteem boost that makes them feel more desirable (or less undesirable).

Jack*, someone who does not partake in social media or dating apps, sees himself as “tangentially a member of hookup culture,” which he defined as “a very prevalent form of peer engagement.” Jack said that at times he can feel removed from the college experience because he is not so deeply invested in hooking up and does not use dating apps, but he says that these doubts are easily dissipated through logical assessments of self, and realizing that these assessments were just him jumping to conclusions. Hookup culture seems to be creating a new form of college division, where the culture of college is hookup culture, and those who do not participate in hookup culture can feel excluded from college itself because hookup culture has become what is seen as an integral part of hookup culture.

There is much discussion of phone apps and hookup culture. However, none of the academics interviewed for this piece tied dating apps to the rise of hookup culture. Professor Wade even claimed that hookup culture both precedes social media and that it is not a requirement for hookup culture since it is so institutionalized. However, apps do act as a facilitator of these interactions. According to Kacey Carter, a Ph.D. candidate in Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages, technology has played a role in normalizing hookup culture. Carter stated that Harvard acts as a “microcosm of things that exist outside of it as well … so this place is not exempt or exceptional or somehow a bubble.”

Hookup Culture from the Outside

Pam,* a student who does not hookup, stated that she has “no particular desire to start engaging in something [she] hasn’t done before.” Moreover, she  didn’t feel that she was missing out on an integral part of the college experience. She said that how prominent hookup culture is at college for an individual depends who you spend your time with. Perhaps hookup culture’s exclusionary nature is not negatively affecting or even concerning, at least some, students. Although hooking up has been equated with the ambiguous “college experience,” this essentialism is not necessarily the rule for some Harvard students. For Pam, hookup culture is just another way that students can choose to experience college, and they are not better or worse off for doing so.

Thirty-seven percent of students had a casual sexual encounter in 2011, demonstrating that students are not hooking up at the rates that their peers assume they are. A 2015 study stated that, “Contrary to prior assertions about hookup culture replacing dates and theorized gendered patterns, students are as likely to have participated in a date since starting college as they are to have participated in a hookup.”

Jack expressed that he thought most of his peers had hooked up at some point, although he said that he did not think most of his peers were hooking up every weekend. So, Professor Wade’s idea that hookup culture perpetuates the idea that there is an over-inflation in the minds of students of how much their peers are hooking up is both upheld, but also qualified. Professors are not the only ones who are critically thinking about hookup culture, but so are the students who are embedded within the culture. 

Hookup culture has become a significant part of the college experience. It can create new bonds and build healthy self-image while simultaneously allowing for the  marginalization and perpetuation of harmful treatment of those around us. Students interviewed for this piece  found that they rarely characterized those who hooked up as promiscuous, and viewed hooking up in a sex-positive light. Professor Wade hopes and believes that hookup culture can move past exploitative manifestations. Moreover, it is important to note that the label of “hookup culture” fails to note that there is nuance in these interactions and although trends are present, they do not define every relationship. Both the scholarship on hookup culture and hookup culture itself are still developing and changing, but it does seem that the concept will not leave our discussions of campus life any time soon.

Image Source: Flickr/Lance Nix

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