The Loneliness of Hookup Culture

March 9, 2017

hooking upHere’s an email that I just received from longtime reader Sarah. She describes her loneliness and frustration with hookup culture on her college campus. It’s a story I’ve heard many times over the years.

Hi Susan,
I’ve been reading your blog since I was 16 and most of what I’ve learned about relationships has been from you, so thank you so much. I’m 19, and I’ve had one relationship before that lasted a year. I’ve been single for 2 years now.

I have always followed your advice. I want a committed and serious relationship, and marriage is the goal of dating for me. I’ve only had sex or done anything physical at all with my ex boyfriend because I want to save these things for when I’m in love. But although I don’t want to be in the hookup scene I feel desperately lonely and I was wondering if you had advice on this.

I’m at university and no boys have asked me out this year. I’m often told I’m attractive and I put a lot of effort into my appearance, so I feel very disheartened. I tell myself it will be worth it to save sex for when I’m in a relationship and in love again, but it’s been 2 years now and I’m frustrated because I miss feeling desired and the intimacy of sex very much. Do you have any advice on dealing with loneliness when you reject the hookup scene? I feel very lost and quite sad.

Thank you so much, not just for any advice, but for your guidance over the years. You’re doing a great thing helping young women.

Hi Samantha,

Thanks for writing and offering such kind words. The least I can do is offer encouragement when my advice brings about such frustration!

Your situation really hits home for me, as it describes what my own daughter – and many of her friends – went through during their college years. She describes that time as having been “on the beach,” romantically speaking. It’s clear in hindsight that she could have done some things differently, so I’ll share some of those insights in hopes that you can improve your romantic life while at university. (By the way, I gather you are in the UK. Things are probably very similar, but keep in mind both my experience and the research is primarily about hookup culture in the US.)

First, you are not alone. Far from it.

We know from research that 71% of guys and 67% of girls in college would like to get into a relationship now and avoid the hookup scene altogether. So a lack of dating and relationships suggests that many people are either not hooking up, or are doing so in hopes of making a real connection. Sociologist Lisa Wade’s new book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus backs this up. (The culture of sex on campus is not really new – I’ve been writing about it for over 8 years and was well aware of hookup culture for a couple of years before I started blogging.)

Wade found that many young college students feel discouraged about dating on campus:

  • 50% of college freshmen express concern that they are not emotionally healthy.
  • 10% feel depressed.
  • One-third of students say that their intimate experiences have been traumatic or very difficult to handle.
  • 10% say they’ve been sexually assaulted or coerced in the last year.
  • One-third of students opted out of hooking up completely. These “abstainers” would rather not have sex at all than obey the rules of hookup culture. Most opted out because casual sex didn’t appeal to them

Dr. Wade:

“Hookup culture has coopted the process of relationship formation. When [Professor] Kalish asked her students how they might form relationships without hooking up first, many were at a loss.

One young woman said, “If you don’t want to hook up before getting into a relationship, good luck finding a relationship. Sad, but very true.”

A guy said, “They’re probably fucked. This is college, get real.”

Many of those in relationships describe having begun with sex and worked backwards to emotional intimacy. It happens enough that it’s become known on campus as “backward dating.” The culture of casual sex is so ingrained and powerful that it sidelines many students and makes them miserable in the process.

Second, it matters who you hang out with. A lot.

Wade describes the scene where hookups are the norm as Drunkworld. There is no question that alcohol-fueled parties lead to most of the casual sex – and most of the sexual assault, too. Athletic teams, fraternities, clubs, etc. are bad news if you’re looking for a relationship. Yet they often sponsor a lot of the social life on campus. That leaves you with the choice of going to these events and feeling like a total misfit (a mistake my daughter made) or finding alternative ways of socializing.

In addition to the presence of copious amounts of alcohol, there are other reasons that guys in these organizations are usually not relationship material. One is that at your age they are at their peak sex drive, but they are also a couple of years behind girls in maturity. Another is that they’re under a lot of peer pressure from fellow guys not to get roped into a relationship when casual sex should be theirs for the asking (or taking). This produces a toxic culture that is a no-win for anyone seeking a real, committed relationship.

It’s also very important to cultivate female friendships with girls who share your beliefs. This is another lesson my daughter learned – her life improved drastically once she found close friends who were on the same page. They supported one another and that alleviated some of the loneliness, even when one or all of them were bummed about the hookup scene.

Third, there are several things you can try to bring about change.

Find your people.

You need to be proactive and initiate new social connections. If there’s one thing all universities offer, it’s lots of opportunities to join groups. Instead of Drunkworld, try Dramaworld, Environmentworld or Musicworld. Whatever appeals to you is sure to exist on campus.
Show interest in guys you like.

Remember what I said about guys lagging in maturity? A lot of them feel clueless about approaching girls. Start conversations, form a study group, sit next to someone new during class. Or just flirt. If you’re willing to signal interest, you’ll get more guys stepping up.

Be authentic.

Feel proud of your self-respect, self-discipline and your ability to delay gratification! You have not forfeited your dignity by checking your phone incessantly after a one-night stand! Don’t let anyone make you feel lame or uncool. When you speak up for yourself, remember that lots of other kids feel the same way you do.

Samantha, I wish I could give you a magic bullet. The truth is, you may feel frustrated throughout your time at uni. Or you may find someone next week. Everything changes, and hookup culture is no exception – but it’s not going to go away in the next couple of years. The best thing you can do for yourself is take steps t0 bring you closer to what you want – and help you avoid getting into situations you don’t want!

Wishing you all the best! Please feel free to join in the conversation below. Readers, what other suggestions can you offer Samantha? Have you been there, done that? What helped? What sucked?

Hope this helps,