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Suzanne Zalewski
Suzanne Zalewski

Getting Messed Up to Hook Up: The Role of Alcohol in College Students' 'Casual' Sexual Encounters

Getting Messed Up to Hook Up

You don't need to watch an episode of Jersey Shore to see that sex and alcohol go together like credit cards and bad debt for the young adults of today's generation. Just visit a college campus. Emerging adulthood, the developmental period spanning ages 18-24, is the time associated with the greatest increase in heavy drinking behavior and the highest number of sexual partners-especially during the early years. Obviously, a host of negative consequences are associated with both heavy drinking and high levels of non-monogamous sex. As educators and public health workers scratch their heads trying to come up with solutions to these two problems, it becomes clear that we need to first look for the cause: Is there something about being young that makes people indiscriminate in their selections of beverages and bedroom activities? Or might there be a more complicated psychological explanation behind the co-occurrence of drinking and sex?

If you ask a college student if they have any hot dates lined up for the weekend, be prepared for an awkward silence and a shake of the head-a response not limited to the Star Trek Convention crowd, but common among athletes and sorority girls as well. Sociologists and psychologists have declared the death of a dating culture, and the emergence of a campus hook-up culture. Hooking up can have many different meanings, but the core idea is that it involves sexual behaviors between two people who are not in an exclusive, committed relationship. The two individuals may be complete strangers, or they may be acquaintances who regularly have sexual encounters but are not "officially boyfriend and girlfriend", and there is no expectation that they will necessarily ever become so. It's not even assumed that they will communicate once the hook up is over.

It would seem as though they've stumbled upon the sex-enthusiast's El Dorado-- stress free, mutually satisfying trysts, that are socially sanctioned and readily available! However, research from focus groups, and my own (albeit, unscientific) retrospective analyses of my friends' behaviors throughout college, suggest that hooking up is actually a confusing and stressful process when alcohol is not in the picture. College students waffle between strategically using alcohol in order to attain social goals, and depending on alcohol to feel comfortable enough to engage in "casual" sex. There are several reasons why young people rely on alcohol in order to hook up.

1. Alcohol makes it easier to communicate sexual interest.

The simple act of striking up a conversation with a person you are attracted to is notoriously nerve-wracking, (what if we run out of things to talk about, or I say something stupid?). Since many college students hold the belief that alcohol decreases inhibitions, they stop worrying about judgment in such conversations after having a few drinks. When making the shift from talking to touching in the context of a prospective hook up, it's no surprise the loss of inhibitions becomes even more critical. On a traditional date or with a boyfriend or girlfriend, some form of physical intimacy is at least within the realm of expectations. However, this is not the case among casual conversation partners, and can result in negative outcomes ranging from embarrassment to a slap in the face. Without alcohol, nonverbal cues (e.g., body language, touching), can be nerve-wracking to initiate or respond to. Alcohol, coeds' favorite disinhibitor, allows them to directly communicate sexual desire. Interestingly, it's not necessary to ingest alcohol to get the benefits: these researchers found that some college students have learned that simply holding a drink is a viable way to indicate sexual availability.

2. Alcohol might lead to a hook up that might lead to the development of a meaningful relationship.

A big part of the reason why hooking up is stressful involves the fact that often, deeper goals are involved than simply attaining sexual pleasure. While the definition of hooking up implies that there are no expectations for future encounters between both parties, that does not mean they're not present in the heart of one of the hook up partners...usually, the female. Dr. Kathleen Bogle conducted in-depth interviews with college students about the campus hook up culture, and found that despite acknowledging that most guys who are trying to hook up are not interested in getting attached, many women see hook ups as a foot-in-the-door to romantic relationships. This is especially likely to be the case in situations where the boy and girl already have a connection prior to the hook up, such as in friends with benefits situations, or hook ups among exes.

Therefore, there's a lot at stake with each hook up encounter. It isn't surprising that girls might require liquid courage to send a text message to a past hookup partner asking him to meet up after the party, or to initiate a "what are we" talk prior to getting into bed for the 4th or 5th time with the near-stranger from the frat across the street. I can remember the distinctive cocktail of anxiety and excitement that would render a girl friend plastered to the floor (and plastered) as the rest of us put on our coats to head out to the party, insisting, "I'm not drunk enough yet! I NEED to finish this drink and do a shot!". We'd all tacitly understand that this was because the guy that she'd been hooking up with would be at the party, or that she was planning on sending him an invitation text once she got "drunk enough".

3. Alcohol can be used as a built-in excuse.

After a hook up actually occurs, there are often social consequences which might be positive or negative. A guy might be called "The Man" and slapped high five, or he might be mocked and derided for hooking up with an unattractive or "easy" girl. Meanwhile, young women find themselves constantly walking the line between remaining a part of the main stream campus hook up culture and acquiring the "slut" label. Both males and females in focus groups and interviews reported using drunkenness as an excuse for sexual behavior that violates social norms.

So as scientists and educators, how can we use this information towards the goal of reducing excessive drinking? One idea that has been raised is developing programs that teach students how to communicate with people they are attracted to without relying on alcohol-induced disinhibition. Simple acts like approaching a girl after class or sitting next to a stranger at the dining hall have become incomprehensible challenges to today's coeds, so learning how to meet and get to know potential partners might reduce the need to drink

Another interesting route: if further research supports the idea that most college girls are actually hoping for committed relationships when they hook up, programs aimed at increasing self-awareness might be promising. If girls could reflect upon how many times heavily-liquored hookups led to desired goals, versus the percentage of the time they led to regret, embarrassment, or other negative feelings, they might become motivated to try new behaviors that would be more likely to lead to successful romantic relationships.

Bogle, Kathleen A. (2008). Hooking up: sex, dating, and relationships on campus. New York : New York University Press.

About the Author
Suzanne Zalewski

Suzanne Zalewski is currently working on her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Arizona State University.

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