Kate Taylor’s recent article “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too” in The New York Times is fascinating. When it began, I thought it would be the typical perpetuation of the hook-up narrative as it features the story of overachieving woman A.
At 11 on a weeknight earlier this year, her work finished, a slim, pretty junior at the University of Pennsylvania did what she often does when she has a little free time. She texted her regular hookup — the guy she is sleeping with but not dating. What was he up to? He texted back: Come over. So she did. They watched a little TV, had sex and went to sleep. “We don’t really like each other in person, sober,” she said, adding that “we literally can’t sit down and have coffee.
But, as I read the article, Taylor went on to describe the more complex and disturbing picture of hook-up culture. She dismantled the popular narrative of hook-up culture and presented a more truthful story about it. Of the many interesting points Taylor makes, I find four particularly important as they clearly indicate the falsehoods embedded in the typical understanding of hooking-up.
1. Most people are not hooking-up. This point was made by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker in Premarital Sex in America. People, including those in college, overestimate the number of people and times people are having sex. Toward the end of the New York Times article, Taylor notes,
At colleges nationally, by senior year, 4 in 10 students are either virgins or have had intercourse with only one person, according to the Online College Social Life Survey. Nearly 3 in 10 said that they had never had a hookup in college. Meanwhile, 20 percent of women and a quarter of men said they had hooked up with 10 or more people.
In other words, 80% are not aggressive in hooking up. 30% do not participate at all. It is no wonder Donna Freitas called it a culture of pretend.
2. Minorities tend not to participate in hook-up culture. The typical narrative of hook up culture implies everyone is doing it. Not only is this not true statistically, it is not true racially. Taylor makes this point in her story of Mercedes, a Latina from California, who opted out of hooking-up, finding it immature and risking her education. Kathleen Bogle also noted in her Hooking Up that minorities tend not to participate in hook-up culture. Again the typical narrative is a not the story.
3. Hook-up culture is often violent. The opening story that captures the stereotypes about hook-up culture makes it seem as though people have sex without consequences, neither positive ones, like a relationship, nor negative ones, like rape or assault. Yet, the more accurate story of hook-up culture is that it is fraught with abuse. The story Taylor tells of women going along with men’s commands just to get out of a situation indicates this. Taylor’s point is reflected in the stats from the Center for Disease Control indicating that around twenty percent of dating relationships have non-sexual violence and twenty percent of women in college experience completed or attempted rape.
4. Alcohol enables Hooking-up. Taylor notes this in her article writing,
Women said universally that hookups could not exist without alcohol, because they were for the most part too uncomfortable to pair off with men they did not know well without being drunk.
Hook-up culture results from people inoculating themselves through alcohol against clear decision making, enabling them, at least momentarily, to disregard their broader interests. It is not the happiness of mutually consenting adults that is at play in hook-up culture, but people numbing themselves to do what they don’t seem to want to do. Thus, the statistics should not surprise us that lots of people do not participate and lots of people participate once or rarely.
Thus, the story of hook-up culture is a lot more disturbing. The story that hooking-up is frequent, desirable, pleasant, and without consequences masks its true ugliness. Hooking-up on college campuses is actually about a few, mostly white, people. They pretend it is fun yet numb themselves to any enjoyment through alcohol. It often results in coercion if not rape. The truthful story is that it is not so much about sex but about a culture that fosters behavior that is damaging to people. Surely, this culture can change. The first step, I think, is getter the truer story of hook-up culture heard.