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Talking with College Kids about Hooking Up

How to talk to your kids about the college sexual culture

Do you imagine your college son or daughter hooking up with a potential life partner like you did in college?  Well, “hooking up” these days has a brand new meaning. The kids call it “hit it and quit it.”  Mostly, it’s the old casual encounter without any expectation of meaning or future from either guy or gal. It’s replaced dating as the most common form of sexual encounter on campus across the nation. There’s a lot to talk about with our college kids.

Talking to your semi-adult-still–financially-dependent college student about sex may seem a tad late. Sex may not have been a topic that you talked much about at home since the 5th grade PTA film. You might fear that talking about it gives tacit permission when you don’t think they are ready yet.  Sex may be something that you implicitly fought about when it came to enforcing rules, curfews and expectations during their emerging independence. Maybe they are sexually active now. Perhaps you imagine they are having better sex than you and your spouse are. You may be happy, worried, disappointed or secretly envious of your teen’s sexual choices. At any rate they still need your input at this critical juncture.

In order to make a difference with your son or daughter, you have to accept that it is no longer possible to control them.  You are lucky and have done your job well if you have influence at this stage.  College-aged students might seek your guidance more readily if you talk from the first person position.  Say, “This is what I think… This is what I believe.”   Don't say, “This is what I expect of you” or “This is what is right and wrong.” College is a time of exploration of new ideas, often relativism, and exposure to a broad spectrum of values, people, and cultures, perhaps very different from your home. As some wise friends of mine sent their son away to college this year, they explicitly offered him a new relationship.  They suggested that at any time, for any reason, should he wish to discuss any problem, they would listen without judgment and try to help him think through the pros and cons.  To protect them from peer pressure, arm your child to be a critic even if that means they are also critical thinkers about your long-held values.

The hook-up culture evolved to scratch the sexual itch, so to speak, as marriage has been delayed for purposes of career development.  Young men and women see a trajectory ahead that includes perhaps a decade of further school and work to achieve a modicum of financial security before partnership and children seem to be a possibility. A hook-up looks like this: young man or woman sees attractive person; with relatively, maybe even deliberately, little time spent getting to know them, either one makes a suggestion for a sexual encounter; they go to bed; the relationship ends directly.  Variations on this theme: they decide to be f*ck-buddies because the sex was good-enough and it saves them the trouble of finding someone new.  “Booty-calls” are made to a buddy whenever the sexual itch strikes.  Hook-ups are about sensation.  They could also include same-sex experiences which may or may not indicate gender identity shifts.  Ménage a trois or multiple partners might also fit the structure of a hook-up. Rules of the encounter:  no one cares so no one get hurts.

The freedom to experiment sexually without fear of reputation reprisal is seemingly offered to females in this generation as it was with males in previous generation.  Now young women, too, can enjoy meaningless sex as their male counterparts have in the past. With feminist advances where women gained the choice to work, a struggle ensued about whether a woman retained the choice to stay home and raise children. Now, with apparent female sexual freedom to enjoy sex, the struggle is whether it’s okay to want meaning with her sex? Is it okay to want a boyfriend?  Hanna Rosin wrote, unconvincingly, in an article Boys on the Side, that the hook-up culture is “an engine of female progress—one being harnessed and driven by women themselves. “  A representative young woman she interviewed didn’t want sex to lead to marriage but what she did want was “a date to a frozen-yogurt place." From a different viewpoint, in an article Love, Actually, Caitlin Flanagan writes “Today’s girls… just spent the better part of a decade being hectored—via the post-porn, Internet-driven world—toward a self-concept centering on the expectation that the very most they could or should expect from a boy is a hookup. We didn’t particularly stand in the way of that culture; we left the girls alone with it.”  While some girls may enjoy a season of free sex, many girls are upset by the lack of relationship following a hook-up.  They can suffer tremendous feelings or rejection and insecurity if their true expectations did not match the unencumbered expectations of their partner.  I speak for many young men who also experience incredible hurt after the demise of a sexual relationship.

In part, perhaps our biology informs the different experience of a hook-up.  For men, there is tremendous ease with which his body reaches a climax.  For women, tremendous patience from a lover, knowledgeable about her body in particular, is often necessary for a good experience.  Also, while men can delay their child-bearing years, women still have a more limited window in which to find a partner and try to get pregnant during their fertile years.

College-aged kids have two tasks in front of them – find a purpose in life and find a partner for life.  “Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development has provided an important framework for understanding the role of the adolescent within the life cycle. During adolescence, the individual is confronted with the need to resolve the crisis of Identity vs. Identity Diffusion and Intimacy vs. Isolation,” begin Meacham and Santilli in the Child Development article Interstage Relationships  in Erikson's Theory: Identity and Intimacy (free article but requires logging in.)  While I agree that perhaps a highlight of the hookup culture could be that girls have come to own subjective sexual desire, the difficulty for both genders is that it doesn’t forward the resolution of the intimacy crisis. College students seem to believe that these crises can be sequenced.  Perhaps this is more possible for males but we don’t really have data on whether the possibility has changed the internal driver for developmental tasks. The hook-up culture values attractiveness as the highest reason to form alliances. While attraction is important in marriage, as a single preeminent value, it doesn’t guarantee sexual compatibility and is not broad enough for a life partnership.

The discussion of sexuality doesn’t have to happen before the dorm-room move-in.  It will take at least four years to talk with our kids about all these things.  We need a long view of their development and not have a panicked “warning” talk which could spoil our chances of relating in the future.  To begin, we need to talk with our kids about their feelings about the hook-up culture before we share our own.  We could suggest that good sex might take some time to develop in a relationship and that first experiences might be awkward and are not necessarily determinate of future passion.  We might ask them what their friends are saying about sex as a bridge into their own feelings.  Do they care about connection before, during, and after a sexual experience?   We can reassure our sons that they do not need to be sexual Casanovas to prove their manhood. We can reassure our daughters that she has important qualities other than her attractiveness that will be essential for her future.  We need to remind both genders that “no” still means no, at any point, even in a hook-up. Some kids feel left out and inadequate because they are not being chosen for hook-ups and imagine others are having loads more sex than they will ever have.  We can causally drop statistics that we learn; see Hooking Up on campus: Is everybody doing it?  If you are certain that marriage is the appropriate place for sexual expression, is your marriage enviable for your children in terms of friendship and passion? Check if you are pressuring your kids to succeed to the exclusion of their other primary developmental task – to find connection. For both genders we might affirm that it is okay, even beautiful, to want connection, respect and meaning in their relationships. 

Link for more help from Laurie Watson with SexTherapy in Raleigh, Cary, Greensboro and Chapel Hill, NC. Laurie’s book Wanting Sex Again is available on Amazon!



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