The University of Pennsylvania, scene of much 'hooking up'. (Photo: Alamy)
From Monday's Daily Telegraph:
We are nervously awaiting the 18-year-old’s A-level results. Not as nervously, however, as if he had chosen, as many of his friends have done, to try for an American university. The latest news from elite campuses across the Atlantic struck fear in our hearts: everyone is “hooking up” over there, and that’s bad.
Hook-up culture is about sexual encounters that are rushed, unemotional and brief. It sounds depressingly familiar – “wham, bam, thank you ma’am”, we called it when I was an undergraduate – but what makes hook-up culture different is its raison d’être: students today are too busy for relationships. And, unlike the no-strings sex of yesteryear, women as well as men are choosing a hook-up over proper dating.
The bleak new thinking was exposed in a New York Times investigation last week. A journalist interviewed 60 girls at the top-drawer University of Pennsylvania – and their revelations shocked middle-class moms and dads across the country. Their children feel immense pressure to get A grades and fill their CVs with extra-curricular activities, such as running the university magazine, starring in the debating society, spending the summer volunteering as an intern on Capitol Hill. There is a shortage of good jobs out there, so competition is huge on campus. No one’s got time for romance.
Instead, they text (probably after a drink or two) hook-up buddies with whom they can engage in a decompression session of sexual activity. I won’t say “sexual pleasure” as the couple spends very little time on anything but the most perfunctory of chats: think commuters on the Tube rather than Romeo and Juliet. They invest so little in one another, one interviewee confessed she always went to her hook-up’s rooms, so she wouldn’t have to bother changing the sheets.
What a difference a recession makes. In my salad days, during the boom years of the 1980s, we could afford to be far more casual about job-seeking. University, I was taught, was not a means to an end but an end in itself: a place where I could finally learn everything I wanted to know about Bismarck, the Risorgimento and the Dreyfus Affair. Grants, scholarships and no-fee tuition meant that undergraduates, even from modest backgrounds, felt that for three years, money really was immaterial. I remember being shocked that friends were going to London for job interviews in the run-up to finals: surely the BBC and the Rothschild bank could wait?
The time of plenty meant that splurging felt acceptable – emotionally as well as with government grants. University was about romance as well as books; among the more precious undergraduates, in fact, the latter served to fuel the former. We bought scented candles, agonised over which LP to set the mood (Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing was reckoned to be the most aphrodisiac song in my first year), and even considered sprinkling rose petals on pillows… we may have been naive, and naff, but at least we thought coupling meant exchanging ideas, memories and compliments, not merely bodily fluids.
Studies show that the average number of hook-ups in the US last year worked out to two per student. That’s cheered up a lot of my male friends, on both sides of the Atlantic: apart from their children having heartless sex, the biggest fear fathers have is that their children are having much more sex than they did.
My worry, though, is for the young men and women who graduate from hooking up only to discover that they lack the necessary skills for a proper relationship. Hook-ups teach that love is a distraction; for most of us, though, it’s the main event. Even in a recession, kids.