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The Reality of Hook Up Culture

We are not just sex-crazed teenagers.

Psy-College-y Today is a blog by college students looking at all aspects of college life through the lens of psychology.

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For freshmen first arriving at college, the hookup scene is often an unexplored wonderland of boxed wine, cheap lingerie, and sweaty frat parties. Every Friday night, girls don their gold glitter eye shadow, overpriced Urban Outfitters crop tops, and high-waisted shorts; guys spritz on some Axe, buy a 30-pack, and adjust their snapbacks. After a few too many rounds of cheap vodka shots and Natty Lights, everyone piles into a dank frat house with dirty floors and not enough light, finds another mildly attractive but equally drunk person, and makes out with them a bit. Usually that’s it. Sometimes they go home together. It’s really not a big deal.

Adults seem to think we’re all sex-crazed emotionless teenagers who have traded relationships for one-night stands, long conversations for heart emojis, romantic dinners for Tinder dates. Hundreds of people (most of whom happen to be over 30) have analyzed, criticized, and studied this new subculture. Donna Freitas, a professor of religion at Boston University, wrote a book about it: The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy. Well. That’s a bit dramatic.

As part of an anthropology class last fall, I interviewed 23 freshmen about hookup culture—their experiences, whether they liked it, why they did it. I found that it’s actually not so black and white. Many college students still have relationships, fall in love, and experience heartbreak. Some also just happen to make out with random people at clubs, use Tinder as a way to meet people, and have lots of casual sex. Others don’t participate at all.

The majority of both genders say they feel pretty good about the hookup scene, and many enthusiastically endorse it. “Hooking up relieves stress, and it gives you some thrill to escape the hours of studying,” said one girl, while another said, “Now, you can just have lovers to fulfill your needs!” When I asked a guy why he participated, he told me, “I just don’t want to put the time and effort into a serious relationship. And I don’t necessarily want to be limited to one girl.”

First-year students want to explore their options and settle into college. Is it so wrong to try to meet as many people as possible while avoiding a serious relationship in the process? Our generation has been labeled as commitment-phobes, but many of us embrace the independence and versatility that comes with a no-strings-attached lifestyle. “You can go out for one night, have fun, then just forget about it,” said one girl.

That’s not to say that sexual promiscuity is the panacea to all relationship woes. In fact, research indicates that it can foster negative emotions in the long run. A study of 200 undergraduates found that 78% of women and 72% of men who'd had uncommitted sex reported experiencing regret after an encounter, while another study found that men and women who had engaged in casual sex had lower self-esteem scores than those who had not.

One friend at college always felt awful the next day, perfectly playing into the role of the heartbroken female—moping around her dorm room, binge-eating chocolate, and watching cheesy Nicholas Sparks movies to compensate for the lack of emotional connection. Another would freak out for hours about the mysterious texts she received from a guy who consistently treated her with disrespect. He would often have her come over, sleep with her, and then ask her to leave. Later, he might send a sweet text or two. It took her months before she stopped answering.

So hookup culture has its drawbacks. Some students love it and others hate it. But by the end of freshman year, most 19-year-olds have made enough mistakes to realize what’s working for them and what’s not. Emma Teital, a National Magazine Award-winning columnist, sums it up nicely:

Casual sex may grate on the soul, but university is not group therapy. Its sole purpose, I think, beyond higher learning, should be to solidify the world’s indifference to you.

If you do that keg stand, you will vomit. If you drink that coagulated milk, you will vomit. If you have empty, meaningless sex throughout college, you’ll become an emotional cripple, contract gonorrhea and, most likely, vomit. These are lessons learned through experience, not indoctrination.

Joaquin Musta Torres/Creative Commons
Source: Joaquin Musta Torres/Creative Commons

To the adults worried about their children becoming cold-blooded sexual deviants as soon as they get to college: That’s just not going to happen (for most). Freshmen throw themselves into their first year, experience some cheap thrills, and then gradually figure out what they actually need. The friend who watched rom-coms all day realized she wanted a real relationship, not a chain of one-night stands. The other friend began to look for the respect she deserved. Teenagers do learn, if a bit slowly. In that way, I don’t think we’re so different from any other generation that has attended college.

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