Not Everybody’s Doing It: Busting the Myths That Fuel Hookup Culture

April 12, 2013

FreitasSex on campus has been reduced to a solitary and selfish act—basically, onanism “with another person present.”

 Donna Freitas, The End of Sex

Donna Freitas’s new book The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy reflects eight years of research about casual sex in college. In that time she’s learned that students exaggerate how much sex they have, and stay silent about their real feelings re hookup culture. In her view, students are struggling, and that means we have a responsibility to provide them with resources to answer their unmet need. The good news is that the task is simple: speak the truth. From a 2008 interview:

All we need to do is tell students that most of them don’t like hook-up culture. 

…The perception is that everybody hooks up all the time and loves it, but in reality people are hooking up far less than they think others are. A lot of students had one hook-up experience, but that certainly is not rampant. People lie about how much sex they’re having and inflate what’s going on because the social pressure to hook up is really enormous.

There are a few students who really do love hook-up culture. They are the kings and queens of the school—the purveyors of hook-up culture—especially on small campuses, but they are very few and far between.

Since then, Freitas has surveyed thousands more students and spoken personally with hundreds.  In Time to stop hooking up. (You know you want to), her recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Freitas shares what a grind it all is for students:

Is hooking up a form of sexual experimentation? You’d think so. After all, hookups are all about throwing off the bonds of relationships and dating for carefree sex. But such hypersexuality can be just as oppressive as a mandate for abstinence. Hookup sex is fast, uncaring, unthinking, perfunctory. It has a lot less to do with excitement or attraction than with checking a box on a list of tasks, like homework or laundry. Yet, it has become the defining aspect of social life on many campuses — so common, so obligatory, that it leaves little room for experimentation that bends the rules.

…Nervous to be alone in challenging hookup culture, most students go along with it, even if they privately long for alternatives. They think that if they try to be less casual about sex, it’ll ruin their social lives. Conformity abounds.

Freitas’ data is interesting:

Of students who reported hooking up, 41 percent used words such as “regretful,” “empty,” “miserable,” “disgusted,” “ashamed,” “duped” and even “abused” to describe the experience. An additional 23 percent expressed ambivalence, and the remaining 36 percent said they were more or less “fine” with hookups — “fine” being the most common description.

When nearly two-thirds of participants are willing to say they don’t think their own decision was “fine,” we glimpse the absolute disconnect between cultural expectations and real experience. Meanwhile, the students don’t even know what romance is, but in their minds it is something not connected to sex:

Out of 99 students who wrote at length about romance, 64 understood romance as primarily talking: talking for hours upon hours, in a beautiful setting. Any talk of sexual intimacy, even kissing, was virtually absent from their descriptions.

…Students, in theory, will acknowledge that a hookup can be good. But I think they also experience the hookup as something they need to prove, that they can be sexually intimate with someone and then walk away not caring about that person or what they did. It’s a very callous attitude toward sexual experiences. But it seems like many students go into the hookup aware of this social contract, but then come out of it unable to uphold it and realizing that they do have feelings about what happened. They end up feeling ashamed that they can’t be callous.

As other researchers have found, Freitas learned that male and female attitudes differed little:

My biggest surprise when I started this project was the answers I heard from young men. I assumed I would hear stories of revelry from the men and a lot of complaints from the women. But a lot of the young men I talked to complained just as much as the women. They wished that they could be in a relationship and that they didn’t have to prove all of this stuff to their friends. They wanted to fall in love, and that was what I heard from the young women. What was different was that women felt like they were allowed to complain about it, and complaining felt verboten to men.

For me, the most interesting finding to come out of Freitas’ work is that students don’t want to get rid of hookups, they just want to be able to pursue alternatives without seeming lame and uncool.

Let me be clear: Every student I talked to was happy to have the option of hooking up. The problem is a culture of hooking up, where it’s the only option they see for being sexually intimate. They’re not against hooking up in theory, they just want other options.

Many hookups are just makeout sessions – that’s important to keep in mind when reading how students feel about them. They’re not necessarily opposed to hooking up with a cute stranger, they just want to alter the script and delay P in V sex until an emotional connection has been established. That’s what “hooking up smart” means – working from within the culture to experience what feels right for you, and getting the support young people need to say “no thanks” to whatever doesn’t feel OK.

Freitas, a theologian and a Catholic “despite everything,” does not feel that urging abstinence on college students is meaningful or effective. She believes this only really makes sense at the few evangelical colleges:

It is meaningful to have conversations about waiting until marriage on evangelical campuses, because you have early marriage. The culture is a culture of marriage, and so marriage is a meaningful category and goal for students at evangelical colleges. I do feel that a loosening of the strong tie between a very extreme interpretation of purity and marriage would be helpful. I saw a strong desire for that amongst evangelical college students.

Everywhere else, however, no one is talking about marriage.  In that setting, tying abstinence to marriage is simply not useful. Very few students can sign on to that. The vast majority cannot even wrap their minds around the thought of being abstinent until marriage. And they associate “abstinence” so much with “waiting until marriage” that the notion of being abstinent for a shorter period of time, of abstaining for a semester to consider what they want for their sex lives, does not even occur to them.  

Refreshingly, Freitas also addresses the ethical questions around casual sex. Reviewing Freitas’ book for the WSJ, Emily Estahani Smith writes:

In other words, many college students, who in philosophy class would surely recognize the ethical imperative not to use other people as means to an end, do so every night in their dorms. This selfishness is why, as Ms. Freitas argues, the hookup culture is intimately related to sexual assault. In both, one person uses another to satisfy a sexual or social desire without any regard for what that other person wants, needs or feels. Once alcohol is added to the mix, and there is plenty of it in the hookup culture, consent becomes a murky issue.

Finally, I’d like to add one very good reason people should stop prioritizing physical intimacy over emotional intimacy: Bad sex. Freitas sums up the reports she’s heard from students:

Bad sex, boring sex, drunken sex you don’t remember, sex you couldn’t care less about, sex where desire is absent, sex that you have just because everyone else is too or that just happens.

A recent Durex survey of 2,000 adults 25 and older yielded the following findings:

  • 87 percent of women said the hottest sex they ever had was with someone they knew and trusted, not a stranger.
  • 95 percent of men said sex is more fulfilling with an emotional connection.
  • 95 percent of women and 96 percent of men agreed that satisfying their partner comes before satisfying themselves.

So much for the notion that men prefer casual sex! Having sex like a man turns out to be quite similar to having sex like a woman. Men and women are clearly on the same page, and we do a disservice to both sexes when we don’t question cultural assumptions about casual sex.

Sure, men want the milk, whether it’s free or from their own cow, but they clearly think it tastes better from a private supply. It shouldn’t be so hard to avoid the self-serving manwhores if they’re only 5% of the population, right? 

Please, get out there and put hookup culture out of its misery!