“Let’s talk about sex, baby”: Hook up culture and the beginning of open conversations about sex on campus

The night always begins innocently enough. A young, college-age girl with beautiful blonde hair and an innocent smile enters a crowded party with her group of similarly attractive young friends. Smoke clouds the air and loud music throbs from nearby speakers. Sweating, drunken bodies press together, moving to the beat of the music. For a moment, she looks afraid.

Then, a smiling boy in a fraternity jersey appears at her side, presses a beer into her hand and asks her to dance. The rest of the night is a blur of drink and laughter and a parade of faces and names she’ll never remember in the morning, and at the end of the night her friends shoo her back to his dorm on campus, giggling and whispering to each other as the two stumble away.

In his room, they fall into his too-small, twin size bed. Hands venture, bodies awkwardly move in tandem, he fumbles for a condom. It is over just as quickly as it began, and the bliss of drunken sleep subsumes the post-coital awkwardness. She will probably sneak out of his room in the early hours of the morning, and they will never speak of this night again…until the next party.

Whether this story has unfolded next to you in the fraternity house or appeared on the movie screen in the latest chick flick, it is not a new or surprising progression of events. Hook up culture on American college campuses is a phenomenon that has received much attention in recent years. Responses range from the unequivocal support of pop culture feminists, who herald hooking up as a way to finally liberate women from patriarchal and moralistic boxes that inhibit their sexuality, to the religious fundamentalists who link hooking up with sexually transmitted diseases, binge drinking, depression, and damnation.

In an article for the Los Angeles Times published in 2013, Bob Laird expresses the common belief among numerous journalists and concerned citizens that hook up culture is a particularly sinister condition of today’s youth. He quotes columnist Emma Tietel, who writes with unintentional hyperbole in Maclean’s that, “if you have empty, meaningless sex throughout college, you’ll become an emotional cripple, contract gonorrhea and, most likely, vomit.”

 On the other side, author Jessica Valenti writes in her book, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (2010), that the problem is not casual sex, but the “moral panic” that has arisen as a result of it. She focuses on America’s obsession with virginity in young women, outlining the still-prevalent relationship between female worth and archaic notions of purity. She outlines the ways that the ‘either/or’ trap of Madonna/whore imagery creates an impossible standard for women, and causes the emotionally-damaging guilt many women experience after a sexual encounter.

Whether positive or negative, it is clear that society as a whole is still very invested in the question of what young people are doing with their bodies, particularly when it comes to controlling them.

In response to all the chatter, psychologists and sociologists have begun to investigate the phenomenon of adolescent hook ups more systematically, and surprisingly, their findings have worked to dispel many of the myths that are circulating about notions of hooking up today. In fact, not only have sociologists proven that young people today are having no more sex than the generation before them, research has also proven that, though some hook ups can have emotionally detrimental effects for both men and women, experiences vary from both very positive to very negative results.

Though 90 percent of college students said in a 2010 study conducted Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Laura Hamilton, and Paula England that their college or university took part in hook up culture, surveys proved that no more than 20 percent of students hook up very often. The study also found that one-third of students abstain from hooking up altogether, and the remainders are occasional participators.

In 2009, the National Survey of Family Growth found that the percent of women who have had premarital sex by age 20 (65-76 percent) is roughly the same for all groups born after 1948. In the same year, the results of the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by The Center for Disease Control reported that rates of sexual intercourse among 9th-12th graders decreased from 1991-2007, as did numbers of partners. Reports of condom use increased.

According to these numbers, hooking up is not as rampant as both supporters and critics are asserting. Young people are having just as much sex as their parents, and are using more protection when they do. It is also important to note that sociologists like Paula England have proven through studies like this one, “Hooking Up and Forming Romantic Relationships on Today’s ­College Campuses” (2008), that casual sex hasn’t replaced committed relationships. Students often participate in both at different times during college, and by their senior year, 69 percent of heterosexual students that participated in her survey had been in college relationships of at least six months.

This information therefore begs the question: if casual sex is not emotionally crippling the youth of America, if it is not unnecessarily perpetuating depression or unhealthy dating habits, and if it is not even a new phenomenon…what then is the problem with hooking up on college campuses?

Returning to Jessica Valenti’s notion of The Purity Myth, and her assertion that today’s culture has forged many problematic links between sexuality and self-worth, the problem with hooking up is not the act of sex (or any form of that behavior) itself. The problem is the ways that society has mythologized sex, transforming it from a fun and often intimate exchange between two people to a primary means of proving one’s value to others.

For most, the problems with hooking up do not become apparent until the sex act is done, when friends suddenly transition from applauding a sense of adventure to making ‘slut’ jokes, and whispering to everyone what happened. Memories of middle school sex education classes or church services that preached abstinence as the only appropriate way to approach sex before marriage will suddenly return to mind. The analogy of the chocolate bar, of giving a piece of one’s self away that can never be gotten back, may haunt young women for days.

Problems arise when the guys grabs drinks later on that Saturday afternoon, and the obligatory rendition of the night’s events transforms his partner from a person to a conquest used to affirm his masculinity. The trap of hyper-sexualized language and demeaning stereotypes gains him further credibility, and at the suggestion of his friends he waits for days to call or text, not wanting to appear needy or un-manly.

The problem with hooking up  is the gendered double standard that associates female sexuality with guilt and shame, and male sexuality with affirmation and power. A woman may feel insecure after sex because of heightened levels of oxytocin that promote feelings of attachment, or she may experience feelings of worthlessness because, after the sex act occurs, words like ‘slut’ or ‘ho’ become parts of her identity. Message boards on campus label her as ‘easy’ or as a ‘tease’, or worst of all, a ‘prude’.

Jessica Valenti asks the question in The Purity Myth, “What’s the difference between venerating women for being fuckable and putting them on a purity pedestal?” In both cases, society is basing a woman’s worth on her ability to impress men, or conform to a certain sexual standard; her worth is invariably tied to what is happening between her legs. It is for this reason that hook up culture is so detrimental, not because of what it is, but the way we talk about it.

Many university communities are realizing this social tendency to be the true villain of hook up culture, and a movement known as “Sex Week” is circulating as a means of finally telling students the “truth” about sex.

The idea was first conceived at Yale University in 2002, and has since been imitated at many different universities across the country, including Harvard, Washington University, Kentucky University, and Northeastern. Douglas Quenqua writes for The New York Times in 2012 that these programs have arisen in response to a rising concern among students that the sex education offered to young people through schools and churches is not adequate preparation for the reality of the experience.

He writes that, at these events, students seem less interested in debating the various political agendas surrounding sex, such as contraception accessibility or reproductive rights issues. Rather, they are more interested in considering how these issues relate to their own lives. In the spring of 2012, Harvard’s Sex Week schedule included a lecture called, “Hooking Up on Campus”, in which Dr. Lisa Wade used survey data and first-person stories to reveal the reality of hook up culture, arguing that it is a mythical world constructed of media-based stereotypes (such as the sexually liberated woman who can have sex with anyone without consequences, as seen in the hit HBO series, ‘Girls’). More recent years have included conversations on masculinity and sex, redefining virginity, and even workshops about sexual health.

As Sex Week has spread to more campuses, it has maintained an effective balance between discussions of sexual health and sexual pleasure. Unlike typical student run, university sanctioned orientation programs that have been standard on college campuses since the discovery of H.I.V./AIDS, Sex Week organizers seeks to go beyond instruction on safe sex, rape prevention, and sexually transmitted diseases. They intend to break the problematic silence that surrounds conversations about sex in the current cultural moment, ideally seeking to create a judgment-free zone where people can bring their questions, and learn how to have more comfortable and fulfilled sex lives on campus.

Harvard student Danny Bicknell of the class of 2013 writes on the Harvard Sex Week web site that, “I’m supporting Sex Week because I support open, honest communication that empowers individuals to feel confident and respected amongst their peers. Sex Week will initiate greater sustained conversation and awareness of gender and sexuality issues that are relevant to all college students.”

He is one of many who openly voice their support of this growing phenomenon on college campuses, and despite faculty and parental pushback, students who take part in these events believe that they are merely working to address the reality of today’s college student. Many students do have sex for the first time in college, and it is important to foster a community where this experience is not paired with shame, secure in the knowledge that this experience is one of many crucial moments in the maturation process.

Movements like Sex Weeks are only one of the many ways that student communities are fostering openness and comfort with issues of the body and sexuality on college campuses today. Other universities opt for programs such as Love Your Body Week, which target similar issues. Regardless of the name, it seems that more and more students and faculty alike are aware of the necessity of decoupling sex and silence within American culture, and are instead attempting to transform the bedroom into a place of equality and mutual respect.

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One Comment

  1. Posted May 25, 2014 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    I was not that way as I grew up going to a Fundamentalist Christian church and had self esteem issues. However, if people can avoid unplanned pregnancy, STDs/STIs, and treat partners respectfully, I do not see a problem with people hooking up. I wish I had more fun in high school and before I was married.

    My son and daughter received the HPV vaccine after they turned 11. I want my daughter to avoid cervical cancer, and I want my son to avoid spreading it (or contracting penile cancer). Just this year, my wife needed surgery to prevent cancer from HPV. That was scary as hell. Also scary was the thought I could develop cancer. According to my reading, even taking preventative measures in the future will not reduce our risk of cancer, because we are already partners. I either gave her the virus, or I already got it from her during the past 19 years.

    Almost all cervical cancer is linked to HPV. HPV is the most common STD/STI in the US. The CDC reports “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.” Only certain strains of HPV cause cancer. Still, people need to know they are at risk, and evaluate if having fun is worth that risk. I’ll risk cancer or being treated with “amputation of the penis” for my wife today. Not for some anonymous hook up at a party 30 years ago.

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