Hooked on hook-ups
From experts to students, everyone wants to know why college kids canít stop hooking up
Even though the University was an all-male institution at its opening in 1825, young Cavaliers interacted with local and visiting women often at weekend social functions. Although fraternity parties were chaperoned and women were allowed only on the first floor, this was the way to make intimate connections. Now, as societal dating expectations evolve and the very definition of "dating" fluctuates, the notion of a dominating "hook-up culture" threatens to undermine traditional courting.
Fan Mai, a graduate student in the department of sociology, explained that a hook-up culture involves physical contact as the primary means of interaction.
"'Introduction to Sociology' compares hook up culture to dating," Mai said. "Sex used to be very institutionalized - we had sex only in the confines of marriage - but now it's acceptable in dating. We're moving away to a totally individual approach: you make your own decisions because it's your body."
As a teaching assistant for "Sociology of the Family" in 2008, Mai assigned her students a project in which they initiated a survey of University students to gauge hook-up behavior and opinions.
"We were looking at intimate relationships and questioned whether the hook-up culture damages the caring culture," Mai said. "We asked: 'Is there a detachment of intimate feeling from physical intimacy? Is there less caring or does hooking up mean freedom, expression, and is it just a college thing?' There's a big question mark."
The question mark leads to a greater debate within academia.
"There are people saying hooking up is empowerment of women, and it used to be that only bad girls could express themselves; now, it's more socially acceptable for anyone to be able to please themselves," Mai said. "The other side says, 'Wait a minute: there's a gender double-standard. Both sexes can hook up, but if girls do it too much it can damage reputations. For girls it's a walk of shame, but for guys it's a walk of pride."
Mai said college is the environment associated with hook-up culture because this behavior depends on surroundings.
"There's a peer pressure out there, and generally people feel that their peers and friends are doing more hooking up than they do," she said. "So, people think, 'I should be more open to this. I'm out of place. Maybe I'm not using all of my college time?' Everyone thinks college is the perfect time and place for sexual experiment."
After college, however, Mai said those who embrace the hook-up culture still will move on to more committed relationships.
First-year College student Kristie Jones said she observes this type of hook-up culture at the University, where a skewed female-to-male ratio means "a lot of great catches are really willing to just hook up with boys and not expect a date out of it." As a result, boys do not have to ask girls on dates because they get what they want regardless, she said.
First-year College student Jon Torre offered a similar assessment and said he feels no pressure to ask girls out.
"Asking girls out on physical dates is more rare here than I thought, and it's because a lot of people seem centered only on hooking up," Torre said. "There's even a thought here that you can have an emotional connection and sexual connection, but never actually have to be in a relationship because there's an area between just hook up buddies and dating - friends with benefits."
Fourth-year College student Devin Underhill said he thinks of the hook-up culture as a loud minority.
"You can find a hook-up culture here if you want, and it's very easy to do so, and I think people emphasize the existence of a hook-up culture because we don't have a strong singles culture or relationship culture," Underhill said. "It's the absence of others that kind of put this emphasis on hooking up, but I think all three groups do exist."
For Torre and Jones, both first years, this hook-up culture extends throughout the University but thrives in dorms and on fraternity dance floors.
"It's definitely more convenient that there are 100 girls living in the same building as 100 guys, and it definitely leads to more sexual activity than probably would occur otherwise," Torre said.\nJones's personal version of a hook-up is "the dance floor makeout."
"I can definitely see this being more prevalent in Greek life or just Greek parties in general where you aren't necessarily Greek," she said.
Ultimately, however, the results of the Mai's study, which heavily rely on first-year female respondents, cite the discrepancy between conceptions and reality as the perpetuating force of the hook up culture.
According to the survey, 58 percent of students believe peers had three to six hook-ups last semester, but only 22.5 percent actually demonstrated this behavior. Mai believes these findings reveal the peer pressure that leads students to hook up as an attempt to equal their peers.
The survey also shows that students not only overplay the hook up culture, but also prefer relationships to it. Indeed, about 83 percent of participants prefer serious relationships to random hook-ups.
Jones corroborates this finding, admitting she is disappointed by the University's dating practices.
"Coming into college I heard all the rumors about 'sexiling,' so I did expect that, but I also thought there would be way more relationships going on," she said. "Now I just see that first and second years are really just hooking up."
The hook-up culture stunts the actual point of relationships and merely gives an outlet for people where they think there are no consequences, Jones said.
"I was talking to my friend about this the other day, and we realized we're just not made like that," she said. "You have so many emotions and when you're just hooking up with somebody, especially for girls, that's not really all you're doing because you do make such an emotional connection."
Mai contends that this gendered nature of hooking up has dangerous implications.
"Young women can be really manipulated by the belief [that sex is empowerment and way to express themselves], but hook-up culture is actually better for men and mostly not good for women," Mai said. "Not so many relationships come out of hooking up, even though people think it's an efficient, low-cost way to meet new people."
Torre hopes that for this reason, his peers recognize the benefits of serious relationships.
"It's not necessarily always good to be afraid of legitimate commitment, and once we leave this place it's going to be considerably more difficult to find your match, so people should at some point begin to take relationships more seriously," he said.
Underhill is in a relationship and believes students do think more critically about relationships as upperclassmen.
"When I came here I had really high expectations, since both my parents met the first night of college; I thought I was going to find the person I was going to be with for the rest of my life," Underhill said. "When I realized that wasn't necessarily going to play out, I decided I'm going to have as much fun as I can until I figure out what I really want."
Throughout his first year, Underhill still was questioning his sexuality; so, he hooked up with both men and women until he decided he was not getting much out of that behavior. By his second year, Underhill was openly gay.
"The summer before my third year was when I got comfortable with myself, and that's when I met my current boyfriend," Underhill said.
While Underhill distanced himself from the hook-up culture after committing to his boyfriend, he observes that the end of third year is a time for decision making: either go the relationship route or realize there is only "a little bit of time left here, and then go more toward crazy hook ups that don't mean that much," he said. "The majority of people I know go the relationship route toward the end."
Overall, Underhill thinks hooking up is only really a problem when people settle for a hook up even though they really want a relationship.
To combat the issue of hook up culture destroying healthy relationships, fourth-year College student Maria Pluta founded a contracted independent organization called Off the Hook.
"Off the Hook's main purpose is to educate and to foster a community on Grounds, and its main target is to consider the hook-up culture in more ways than just physical safe sex," Pluta said. "I get a lot of news about how to make sure we are physically safe in our relationships, but there's not as much attention to emotional safety."
The main concern Pluta sees is the inherent instability of hook-up-based relationships.
"The average conversation of girls, whether it's in a Christian girl's house, or a sorority house, or on a Friday night on the Corner or in a library, generally is that relationships formed through the hook-up culture are not sustainable and are not practiced in a way that is emotionally supportive," she said. "Part and parcel with this more critical eye toward the hook-up culture is the consideration of a more stable dating culture, especially one deliberately focused toward marriage."
Pluta attests that the point of Off the Hook is not to promote marrying as soon as possible; rather, the group wants to ensure a community ethos exists that will support, rather than stifle, familial aspirations. Currently, the CIO wants to form a better idea of its chief purpose and decide whether it will be geared toward member education or community outreach.
"The biggest take-away for this group as an educational group is that especially because the hook-up culture is so close to the heart, its message can't just be one you pass along from the class room or lecture standpoint," Pluta said. "We'd never put up flyers saying, "Hook-up culture is bad!' because that's not going to affect anyone's heart or engage them in an important way. The group is trying to prepare people to be in one-on-one conversations where they can engage critically."
Off the Hook collaborates with the Love and Fidelity Network, a group seeking to identify college groups with similar missions, and the two groups co-hosted a conference this semester. Pluta wrote an article featured on the site in which she details her qualms against the hook-up culture.
Writing about Off the Hook, she said, "We have a vision for the future in which all persons' actions are oriented toward a sustainable and flourishing good life."
Whether an active participant in the hook up culture or a proponent of emotionally driven relationships, what's clear is that students and academics alike are discussing hook-up culture frequently and in a variety of settings.
As Underhill put it, "I've been in Sustained Dialogue all four years and the hook up culture has come up at least once every year. Every year I learn a different side to it and see how many different communities have different takes on it"