Partying is "built into the rhythm and architecture of higher education." Photo by Incase, Flickr CC

What’s So Cultural about Hookup Culture?

Arman was 7,000 miles from his family, one of the roughly million international students who were enrolled in U.S. colleges last year. Dropped into the raucous first week of freshman year, he discovered a way of life that seemed intensely foreign, frightening, and enticing. “It’s been a major shock,” he wrote.

The behavior of some of his fellow students unnerved him. He watched them drink to excess, tell explicit sexual stories, flirt on the quad and grind on the dance floor. He received assertive sexual signals from women. It was, Arman wrote, “beyond anything I have experienced back home.”

By his second semester, Arman’s religious beliefs had been shaken. He was deeply torn as to whether to participate in this new social scene. “Stuck,” he wrote, “between a sexually conservative background and a relatively sexually open world.” Should he “embrace, accept, and join in?” Or, he wondered, using the past tense like a Freudian slip, “remember who I was and deprive myself of the things I actually and truly want deep down inside?”

He struggled. “Always having to internally fight the desire to do sexual things with girls is not easy,” he wrote. One night, he succumbed to temptation. He went to a party, drank, and kissed a girl on the dance floor. When the alcohol wore off, he was appalled at his behavior. “How much shame I have brought onto myself,” he recalled with anguish.

A few months later, he would lose his virginity to a girl he barely knew. His feelings about it were deeply ambivalent. “I felt more free and unbounded,” he confessed, “but at the same time, guilt beyond imagination.”

For my book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, I followed 101 college students through a semester of their first year. They submitted weekly journal entries, writing about sex and dating on campus however they wished. In total, the students wrote over 1,500 single-spaced pages and a million words. I dovetailed their stories with 21 follow-up interviews, quantitative data from the Online College Social Life Survey, academic literature, hundreds of essays written by students for college newspapers, and 24 visits to campuses around the country.

Arman was an outlier. Very few students are strongly motivated to abstain from sex altogether, but it’s typical for students to report mixed feelings about the opportunity to have casual sex. Thirty-six of the 101 students I studied reported being simultaneously attracted to and repelled by hookup culture upon arrival at college, compared to thirty-four who opted out entirely, twenty-three who opted in with enthusiasm, and eight who sustained monogamous relationships.

For students like Arman, who are unsure of whether they want to participate, hookup culture has a way of tipping the scales. Its logic makes both abstaining from sex and a preference for sex in committed relationships difficult to justify, and its integration into the workings of higher education makes hooking up hard to avoid.

the logic of hookup culture

Hooking up is immanently defensible in hookup culture. Students believe, or believe that their peers believe, that virginity is passé and monogamy prudish; that college is a time to go wild and have fun; that separating sex from emotions is sexually liberating; and that they’re too young and career-focused for commitment. All of these ideas are widely circulated on campus—and all make reasonable sense—validating the choice to engage in casual sex while invalidating both monogamous relationships and the choice to have no sex at all.

For the students in my study who were enthusiastic about casual sex, this worked out well, but students who found casual sex unappealing often had difficulty explaining why, both to themselves or others. Many simply concluded that they were overly sensitive or insufficiently brave. “I honestly admire them,” wrote one Latina student about her friends who enjoyed casual sex, “because I just cannot do that.” A White middle-class student implored herself to not be so “uptight.” “Sometimes I wish I could just loosen up,” she wrote. A sexually sophisticated pansexual student wondered aloud if she was a “prude.” “I’m so embarrassed by that,” she confessed. “I feel as if by not voluntarily taking part in it, I am weird and abnormal.”

If culture is a “toolkit” offering culturally competent actors a set of ideas and practices with which to explain their choices, to use Ann Swider’s metaphor from her article “Culture in Action,” then hookup culture offers students many tools useful for embracing casual sex, but few for articulating why they may prefer other kinds of sexual engagement, or none at all. Faced with these options, many students who are ambivalent decide to give it a try.

the new culture of college

In the colonial era, colleges were downright stodgy. Student activities were rigidly controlled, curricula were dry, and harsh punishments were meted out for misbehavior. The fraternity boys of the early 1800s can be credited with introducing the idea that college should be fun. Their lifestyle was then glamorized by the media of the 1920s and democratized by the alcohol industry in the 1980s after Animal House. Today, the reputation of higher education as a place for an outlandish good time is second only to its reputation as a place of learning.

Not just any good time, though. A particular kind of party dominates the social scene: drunken, wild, and visually titillating, throbbing with sexual potential. Such parties are built into the rhythm and architecture of higher education. They occur at designated times, such that they don’t interfere with (most) classes, and are usually held at large, off-campus houses (often but not always fraternities) or on nearby streets populated by bars and clubs. This gives the institutions plausible deniability, but keeps the partying close enough to be part of colleges’ appeal.

Almost all of the students in American Hookup were living in residence halls. On weekend nights, dorms buzzed with pre-partying, primping, and planning. Students who stayed in were keenly aware of what they weren’t doing. Eventually residence halls would empty out, leaving eerie quiet; revelers returned drunker, louder. Students were sometimes kicked out of their own rooms to facilitate a roommate’s hookup. A few had exhibitionistic roommates who didn’t bother to kick them out at all.

The morning after, there would be a ritual retelling of the night before. And the morning after that, anticipation for the next weekend of partying began. Being immersed in hookup culture meant being surrounded by anticipation, innuendo, and braggadocio. As one of the African-American men in my study wrote: “Hookup culture is all over the place.”

For students who went to parties, hookups felt, as several put it, “inevitable.” Sooner or later, a student had one too many drinks, met someone especially cute, or felt like doing something a little wild. For young people still learning how to manage sexual desire, college parties combining sex with sensory overload and mind-altering substances can be overwhelming. Accordingly, anyone who regularly participates in the routine partying built into the rhythm of higher education will likely find themselves opting in to hooking up.

Sex on college campuses is something people do, but it’s also a cultural phenomenon: a conversation of a particular kind and a set of routines built into the institution of higher education. When students arrive on campus, they don’t just encounter the opportunity to hook up, they are also immersed in a culture that endorses and facilitates hookups. Ceding to or resisting that culture then becomes part of their everyday lives.

“Even if you aren’t hooking up,” said an African-American woman about her first year on campus, “there is no escaping hookup culture.” Residential colleges are what sociologist Erving Goffman called “total institutions,” planned entities that collect large numbers of like individuals, cut them off from the wider society, and provide for all their needs. And because hookup culture is totally institutionalized, when students move into a dorm room on a college campus, they become a part of it—whether they like it or not.

Students wish they had more options. Some pine for the going-steady lifestyle of the 1950s. Many mourn the utopia that the sexual revolution promised but never fully delivered. Quite a few would like things to be a lot more queer and gender fluid. Some want a hookup culture that is kinder—warm as well as hot. And there are still a handful who would prefer stodgy to sexy. Satisfying these diverse desires will require a shift to a more complex and rich cultural life on campus, not just a different one.