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.
Jason– Thanks for commenting on this story. I find most interesting the fact that “most don’t participate” – this is the same story that residence life staff are constantly trying to tell students about the binge drinking culture: that in fact most people most of the time don’t binge drink. Yet there persists this stereotype – “everybody drinks” or “everyone is hooking up.” I wonder if we can identify two further problems here. One is what Bill Mattison calls “nonjudgmentalism” – people are so fearful of being judgmental that even extreme behavior cannot be called out as a problem… or only in the most indirect ways. In a certain sense, I’m asking a question about honor and shame – this kind of truly excessive, habitual behavior should be seen as shameful, and yet it is accepted as normal, and even (in some cases) honored. Imagine if our campuses tolerated that in terms of, e.g., racism! The other issue is the gender issue: women now outcompete men in the classroom and most areas, and one theory (Barbara Dafoe Whitehead has an article on this) is that the drinking-and-hooking-up culture is the place where men lead the way/have their way. This is a tricky claim, in light of people like Hanna Rosin and Lena Dunham, who are keen to say that women can want this just as much as men. But I still think there’s a key gender story to tell about this odd celebration-yet-nonparticipation.
Thanks very much for this recap and your insightful response to Kate Taylor’s piece in the NYT.
When I read it, I thought of my days in the student life sector at http://www.niagara.edu. Then as now, Niagara had a strict visitation policy, although considerably more relaxed from ten years prior when I was a student and outside a few days during the academic year (e.g., Family Weekend) could both sexes enjoy each other’s company in the same dorm room. At our sector’s weekly meetings, there would the regular review of visitation violations followed by ongoing concern for sustaining a “hook-up” culture. Each of the members of the sector was encouraged to talk to students more seriously about “the dangers of ‘hooking-up.'”
My engagement w/ students on this issue tended to be less confrontational or police work like some of my colleagues. I often began my conversations w/ students disclosing the statistics associated with visitation violations, particularly those that got caught “doing the ‘walk of shame'” the “morning after, only to be caught by an ambitious residence assistant or campus safety officer. What I found out from my canvasing students surprised me and confirms Taylor’s work.
Students introduced me to the term “nesting.” Their intent, despite the maelstrom of energy overly concerned administrators had with college students’ genital expression of sexuality, was about being physically and emotionally present to one another. Indeed, they were “sleeping with each other” but not as originally suspected. “Is this wrong?” they would ask me which often served as a great entry point for talking about these sleepovers as temptations to go “further.” The majority of students then would speak about having too much respect for their bodies and subsequently their health to take a risk and “hook-up,” at least w/o knowing a person’s “status” and history of partners. Some merely would speak about the desire for connecting.
My time at http://www.niagara.edu ended fifteen years ago. Taylor’s work as well as your own scholarly research, Jason, provides refreshing insights into the hook-up culture and dismantles some of the overly zealous judgmental remarks about college students. It helps to start where you start – with the people, the data, the evidence. I am reminded here of how our own research and scholarship needs to account for those of whom we speak or else we risk devaluing and bringing dishonor to our “subjects.” IN their recent edited volume Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/1441155457, Aana Marie Vigen and Christian Scharen have been so helpful for me in reminding me of the invaluable import empirical data can serve in supporting claims, even in theology!
Again, Jason, thanks. – Patrick
I also found this article to be very helpful. I agree with your take-away points, but I was also struck by the language used by participants in hook-up culture, especially women. I would like students to read this account because it exposes the hard, cold, logic (i.e., I have no time to love anyone) of the strongest advocates of hook-ups. Is this really what most students want to be on the other side of? I don’t think so.