89% of College Students Hate Hookup Culture

October 7, 2011

Academic inquiry about the effects of the hookup script on the SMP is still in its relative infancy. To date, most research has focused on college students, although there is some evidence that as students accustomed to hookup culture graduate, they are taking these norms with them. The last vestiges of dating can be found online, and even there the younger users of online dating sites are often anxious to shift to a “hanging out, meeting up out” model rather than continue dating in the traditional way.

Lisa Wade is a sociology professor and the co-founder of the popular blog Sociological Images, which covers a wide range of topics. She recently gave a talk at Franklin and Marshall College about a study she conducted on hooking up. That study was small, just 33 female and 11 male freshmen. However, Wade feels that the data was very, very rich. I don’t think we can extrapolate too much, but she provides one more data point in the puzzle. She sums it up for MTV:


Looking over the transcript of her talk, I noted some very interesting findings.

1. The sexual script has changed.

The Old Order, Dating:

  • kissing
  • groping
  • naked groping
  • intercourse
  • oral sex

The New Order, Hooking Up:

  • kissing
  • groping
  • oral sex
  • naked groping
  • intercourse

Here’s what actually happens in hookups:

  • Kissing and non-genital touching: 32%
  • Manual stimulation of genitals: 15%
  • Oral sex: 12%
  • Intercourse: 40%

2. Hooking up is not epidemic because most students don’t do it.

  • The average number of hookups for a graduating senior is 7.
  • 25% of college students will never hook up.
  • 30% will hook up three times or less in four years.
  • 30% will hook up 4-9 times.
  • 15% will hook up 10 times or more during college.
  • 91% of college students report that their campus is characterized by a hookup culture.

In other words, 85% students hook up rarely if at all. Only 10% or so have four hookups per year.

Undoubtedly, some of those hook up every weekend, but they are a very small number.

3. Students are extremely dissatisfied with the sex they do have.

Most of my students – who remember were all frosh — were overwhelmingly disappointed with the sex they were having in hook ups.  This was true of both men and women, but was felt more intensely by women.

Students wanted at least one of these things from sex:

  1. Empowerment
  2. Pleasure
  3. Meaningful experience

Very few claimed to have gotten any of these things from hooking up.

Feminism’s empowerment scam:

Many of the women in our sample, specifically, felt that they had inherited a right to express their sexuality from the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s. They saw college as an opportunity to enact their liberation. So they embraced sex …and the right to say “yes” to sex. And it was going to be glorious.

But many of our female respondents felt disempowered instead of empowered by sexual encounters. They didn’t feel like equals on the sexual playground, more like jungle gyms.

Wade goes on to attribute this at least in part to men pressuring women for sex.

Many of our female students recalled consenting to sexual activity they did not desire because they felt it was their only option, even in the absence of physical coercion, threats, or incapacitation.

Options such as saying “no,” asking him to masturbate, leaving the situation, or abandoning the friendship or relationship did not seem to occur to them. It was almost as if they felt that it was the natural order of things… like water flowed downhill, women must release men’s sexual tension.

No doubt this reflects the perception by women that relationships are rare in college, and that men are calling all the shots, something other researchers have also focused on. Clearly, the number of men actually able to pull this off is even smaller than 20%, so I’m surprised it was such a strong theme among the women.

Pleasure was elusive:

Even when sex was both consensual and truly wanted, students often reported highly unsatisfying sexual encounters. This, too, was more true for women than for men.

  • Many of the women explained that they felt like “masturbation toys.”
  • Women were dissatisfied with the sexual skills of their partners, but they also often deprioritized their own pleasure.
  • One woman, who had hooked up with 13 men in her first year, confessed that she had not been given a single orgasm.

“I was just a warm body being used to make a guy have an orgasm.”
“I feel like a “sex toy” with “three holes and two hands.”
“My sexuality was filled with anxiety and my need to please the guy instead of worrying about my own pleasure.”
“… even if I was in charge I did not make sure I was being pleased.”
“…the guy kind of expects to get off, while the girl doesn’t expect anything…”

Not surprisingly, Wade reports that men receive more oral sex than they did 20 years ago, while women receive less.

 Combine that with the fact that intercourse alone is unlikely to reliably result in orgasm for women, and we see fewer orgasms for women.

Both men and women prefer meaningful sex:

One of my male students, Joel, confessed that meaningless sex turned out to leave him feeling empty. So Joel hooked up a few times in his first semester, but he didn’t hookup at all in his 2nd.

Joel might have been looking for love, as some of my students were, but much of the time, when students said that they wanted sex to be meaningful, they didn’t mean that they only wanted to have sex in the context of love.

But they did want something; and they used terms like “intimacy” or “connection.” And they also wanted it to be in a context of “trust” and “care.”

One arrangement students had high hopes for was Friends with Benefits. They thought that they could escape the hassle and energy drain of committed relationships while still enjoying physical intimacy with someone they cared about.

In other words, they wanted to be “in like” so that they could explore their sexuality in the context of benevolence.

It turns out, though, that the sex ruined the friendships.

Hookup culture prescribes a sort of carelessness about sex that precludes benevolence. One of the rules of hooking up, after all, is that you are supposed to do it carelessly.

Sex is supposed to be careless in two ways:

  1. You’re not supposed to choose your partner carefully, or think carefully about whether to have sex.
  2. You’re not supposed to care for your partner.

Alcohol plays such a critical role in hookup culture because in addition to lowering inhibitions, it announces that you have entered a careless state.

 Getting drunk is one way to show others, including your hookup partner, that you’re being careless. If you’re drunk, well you didn’t really mean it.

One student, who confesses that she’s never had sex sober, explains that sober sex is scary because “The rule of [hooking up] is that you can never show your true feelings and insecurities to the partner.”

It was the inadvertent or perhaps inevitable display of emotion that made FWB so problematic. Usually students were no longer friends after they stopped having sex.

So it turned out that the sex on campus was very antagonistic, mean even… and that most students would have been happy if their hookup partners would just be nice.

Interestingly, Wade found that men were just as interested as women in having relationships. All were dissatisfied with the hookup script, although the men were less negative due to their higher rates of orgasm.

4. There is no perceived alternative to hookup culture.

Overall, most students are unhappy with their sexual lives, and feel that hookup culture impedes both sex and relationships.

  • 11% of the students enthusiastically enjoy hookup culture.
  • 50% were having hook ups, but were doing it rather ambivalently or reluctantly, some with extremely negative experiences.
  • 38% opted out of hooking up altogether.
  • Less than 1% maintained a committed relationship.

Despite this consistently negative feedback, Wade, who is sympathetic to feminist concerns, sees a lot of positives in hookup culture, and says that:

Despite all the problems with casual sex on campus, abandoning the hook up as a college sex stable is not the way to go.

Her rationale:

1. Many students learn a lot from hooking up, even if they didn’t like it.

2. For many students, hooking up helped them clarify their values, embrace their own sexuality, and learn how to enforce their boundaries.

3. Hooking up is also good for students who are really focused on their studies or on balancing work and school; it is a way to get sexual experience that doesn’t include the intense time and emotion investments required by relationships. It is a way to gain sexual experience in a less distracting way.

4. Hooking up turns out to be, in many ways, emotionally safer. Hamilton and Armstrong found that, when hook ups go bad, people can get hurt; but when relationships go bad, they tend to go bad in a much bigger way. Bad hookups were isolated events, but bad relationships sometimes wreaked havoc with students’ lives.

Wade believes that the problem is not hooking up, but the lack of alternatives to hookup sex.

One of the things that was so striking about the students I studied was that even those who rejected hooking up for themselves – the ones who opted out – would bend over backwards to insist that hooking up was a good thing and that they wished they felt differently.

Many who didn’t like the idea of hooking up for themselves, then, saw their own approach to their sexuality as an unfortunate dysfunction instead of a valid choice.

When a campus is characterized by a hook up culture, hooking up is the main and even the only way that students feel like they can engage sexually; other kinds of sex seem impossible or undesirable or even embarrassing.

What’s extremely troubling here is Wade’s failure to acknowledge the menace of hookup culture – something only 11% of students like. Instead she suggests that students would be happier if:

  • LGBT groups were a source of support, even though not a single participant was non-heterosexual.
  • The Office for Religious and Spiritual Life was more active on campus.
  • Hookup culture didn’t disallow and discourage abstinence, which is not tolerated.
  • Feminist groups on campus could address assault, coercion and the lack of sexual  pleasure.

This is mostly nonsense of course, politically correct platitudes that are the equivalent of handing someone an inflatable tube as a tsunami approaches. Still, I give Wade credit for her final admission:

It’s hook up or shut up.  The lesson we get from pop culture and from many of our friends is that saying “yes” – to sex, with anyone, for any reason — is equivalent to being sexually open and free. This definition of sexual liberation – the one in which you simply say “yes” – doesn’t leave room for you to say “no.” Saying “no” is conflated with being sexually repressed.

…Ultimately disrupting the dominance of hookup culture is up to you.

At least Wade understands there’s no going back. We have to find a way forward. And I think she’s right about one thing: only at the individual level can the shift occur.

Don’t have sex you don’t really want to have. Don’t think you’ll be the lucky 1% who gets the guy for keeps after a random hookup.

Save yourself for a partner who wants the same kind of meaningful sex that you do, and you’ll save yourself all this misery and heartache.