Moments before it happened, Cassidy, Jimena and Declan were sitting in the girls’ shared dorm room, casually chatting about what the cafeteria might be offering for dinner that night. They were just two weeks into their first year of college and looking forward to heading down to the meal hall – when suddenly Declan leaned over, grabbed the waist of Cassidy’s jeans, and pulled her crotch toward his face, proclaiming: “Dinner’s right here!”
Sitting on her lofted bunk bed, Jimena froze. Across the small room, Cassidy squealed with laughter, fell back onto her bed and helped Declan strip off her clothes. “What is happening!?” Jimena cried as Declan pushed his cargo shorts down and jumped under the covers with her roommate. “Sex is happening!” Cassidy said. It was four o’clock in the afternoon.
Cassidy and Declan proceeded to have sex, and Jimena turned to face her computer. When I asked her why she didn’t flee the room, she explained: “I was in shock.” Staying was strangely easier than leaving, she said, because the latter would have required her to turn her body toward the couple, climb out of her bunk, gather her stuff, and find the door, all with her eyes open. So, she waited it out, focusing on a television show played on her laptop in front of her, and catching reflected glimpses of Declan’s bobbing buttocks on her screen. That was the first time Cassidy had sex in front of her. By the third, she’d learned to read the signs and get out before it was too late.
'What is happening!?' Jimena cried. 'Sex is happening!' Cassidy said.
Cassidy and Jimena give us an idea of just how diverse college students’ attitudes toward sex can be. Jimena, a conservative, deeply religious child, was raised by her Nicaraguan immigrant parents to value modesty. Her parents told her, and she strongly believed, that “sex is a serious matter” and that bodies should be “respected, exalted, prized”. Though she didn’t intend to save her virginity for her wedding night, she couldn’t imagine anyone having sex in the absence of love.
Cassidy, an extroverted blond, grew up in a stuffy, mostly white, suburban neighborhood. She was eager to grasp the new freedoms that college offered and didn’t hesitate. On the day that she moved into their dorm, she narrated her Tinder chats aloud to Jimena as she looked to find a fellow student to hook up with. Later that evening she had sex with a match in his room, then went home and told Jimena everything. Jimena was “astounded” but, as would soon become clear, Cassidy was just warming up.
The cloisters at New College Oxford. Photograph: Alamy
Students like Cassidy have been hypervisible in news coverage of hookup culture, giving the impression that most college students are sexually adventurous. For years we’ve debated whether this is good or bad, only to discover, much to our surprise, that students aren’t having as much sex as we thought. In fact, they report the same number of sexual partners as their parents did at their age and are even more likely than previous generations to be what one set of scholars grimly refers to as “sexually inactive”.
One conclusion is to think that campus hookup culture is a myth, a tantalizing, panic-inducing, ultimately untrue story. But to think this is to fundamentally misunderstand what hookup culture really is. It can’t be measured in sexual activity – whether high or low – because it’s not a behavior, it’s an ethos, an atmosphere, a milieu. A hookup culture is an environment that idealizes and promotes casual sexual encounters over other kinds, regardless of what students actually want or are doing. And it isn’t a myth at all.
I followed 101 students as part of the research for my book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. I invited students at two liberal arts schools to submit journals each week for a full semester, in which they wrote as much or as little as they liked about sex and romance on campus. The documents they submitted – varyingly rants, whispered gossip, critical analyses, protracted tales or simple streams of consciousness – came to over 1,500 single-spaced pages and exceeded a million words. To protect students’ confidentiality, I don’t use their real names or reveal the colleges they attend.
My read of these journals revealed four main categories of students. Cassidy and Declan were “enthusiasts”, students who enjoyed casual sex unequivocally. This 14% genuinely enjoyed hooking up and research suggests that they thrive. Jimena was as “abstainer”, one of the 34% who voluntary opted out in their first year. Another 8% abstained because they were in monogamous relationships. The remaining 45% were “dabblers”, students who were ambivalent about casual sex but succumbed to temptation, peer pressure or a sense of inevitability. Other more systematic quantitative research produces similar percentages.
These numbers show that students can opt out of hooking up, and many do. But my research makes clear that they can’t opt out of hookup culture. Whatever choice they make, it’s made meaningful in relationship to the culture. To participate gleefully, for example, is to be its standard bearer, even while being a numerical minority. To voluntarily abstain or commit to a monogamous relationship is to accept marginalization, to be seen as socially irrelevant and possibly sexually repressed. And to dabble is a way for students to bargain with hookup culture, accepting its terms in the hopes that it will deliver something they want.
Burke, for example, was a dabbler. He was strongly relationship-oriented, but his peers seemed to shun traditional dating. “It’s harder to ask someone out than it is to ask someone to go back to your room after fifteen minutes of chatting,” he observed wryly. He resisted hooking up, but “close quarters” made it “extremely easy” to occasionally fall into bed with people, especially when drunk. He always hoped his hookups would turn into something more – which is how most relationships form in hookup culture – but they never did.
‘To think that campus hookup culture is a myth … is to fundamentally misunderstand what hookup culture really is.’ Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
Wren dabbled, too. She identified as pansexual and had been hoping for a “queer haven” in college, but instead found it to be “quietly oppressive”. Her peers weren’t overtly homophobic and in classrooms they eagerly theorized queer sex, but at parties they “reverted back into gendered codes” and “masculine bullshit”. So she hooked up a little, but not as much as she would have liked.
My abstainers simply decided not to hook up at all. Some of these, like Jimena, were opposed to casual sex no matter the context, but most just weren’t interested in “hot”, “meaningless” sexual encounters. Sex in hookup culture isn’t just casual, it’s aggressively slapdash, excluding not just love, but also fondness and sometimes even basic courtesy.
Hookup culture prevails, even though it serves only a minority of students, because cultures don’t reflect what is, but a specific group’s vision of what should be. The students who are most likely to qualify as enthusiasts are also more likelythan other kinds of students to be affluent, able-bodied, white, conventionally attractive, heterosexual and male. These students know – whether consciously or not – that they can afford to take risks, protected by everything from social status to their parents’ pocketbooks.
Students who don’t carry these privileges, especially when they are disadvantaged in many different ways at once, are often pushed or pulled out of hooking up. One of my African American students, Jaslene, stated bluntly that hooking up isn’t “for black people”, referring specifically to a white standard of beauty for women that disadvantaged women like her in the erotic marketplace. She felt pushed out. Others pulled away. “Some of us with serious financial aid and grants,” said one of my students with an athletic scholarship, “tend to avoid high-risk situations”.
Hookup culture, then, isn’t what the majority of students want, it’s the privileging of the sexual lifestyle most strongly endorsed by those with the most power on campus, the same people we see privileged in every other part of American life. These students, as one Latina observed, “exude dominance”. On the quad, they’re boisterous and engage in loud greetings. They sunbathe and play catch on the green at the first sign of spring. At games, they paint their faces and sing fight songs. They use the campus as their playground. Their bodies – most often slim, athletic and well-dressed – convey an assured calm; they move among their peers with confidence and authority. Online, social media is saturated with their chatter and late night snapshots.
On big party nights, they fill residence halls with activity. Students who don’t party, who have no interest in hooking up, can’t help but know they’re there. “You can hear every conversation occurring in the hallway even with your door closed,” one of my abstainers reported. For hours she would listen to the “click-clacking of high heels” and exchanged reassurances of “Shut up! You look hot!” Eventually there would be a reprieve, but revelers always return drunker and louder.
The morning after, college cafeterias ring with a ritual retelling of the night before. Students who have nothing to contribute to these conversations are excluded just by virtue of having nothing to say. They perhaps eat at other tables, but the raised voices that come with excitement carry. At the gym, in classes, and at the library, flirtations lay the groundwork for the coming weekend. Hookup culture reaches into every corner of campus.
The conspicuousness of hookup culture’s most enthusiastic proponents makes it seem as if everyone is hooking up all the time. In one study students guessed that their peers were doing it 50 times a year, 25 times what the numbers actually show. In another, young men figured that 80% of college guys were having sex any given weekend. They would have been closer to the truth if they were guessing the percentage of men who’d ever had sex.
College students aren’t living up to their reputation and hookup culture is part of why. It offers only one kind of sexual experiment, a sexually hot, emotionally cold encounter that suits only a minority of students well. Those who dabble in it often find that their experiences are as mixed as their feelings. One-in-three students say that their sexual encounters have been “traumatic” or “very difficult to handle”. Almost two dozen studies have documented feelings of sexual regret,frustration, disappointment, distress and inadequacy. Many students decide, if hookups are their only option, they’d rather not have sex at all.
We’ve discovered that hookup culture isn’t the cause for concern that some once felt it was, but neither is it the utopia that others hoped. If the goal is to enable young people to learn about and share their sexualities in ways that help them grow to be healthy adults (if they want to explore at all), we’re not there yet. But the more we understand about hookup culture, the closer we’ll be able to get.