When I was an undergraduate at Georgetown University in the early 1990s, my roommate and I dressed up like prostitutes for Halloween. We bought fishnets, wore our tightest, sexiest clothes and sauntered out like we were the hottest girls alive.
I remember that night fondly, even though my feminist sensibilities cringe a little now. For me, that costume was a form of sexual experimentation. I chose to dress sexier than I ever had and to stretch the boundaries of what I considered acceptable. And back then, I didn’t know anyone else who had done it.
We think of college as a place where kids, perhaps free from their parents’ watchful eyes for the first time, can experiment sexually. Yet, my little adventure almost two decades ago seems innocent compared with hookup culture — a lifestyle of unemotional, unattached sex — so prevalent on campuses today.
Is hooking up a form of sexual experimentation? You’d think so. After all, hookups are all about throwing off the bonds of relationships and dating for carefree sex. But such hypersexuality can be just as oppressive as a mandate for abstinence. Hookup sex is fast, uncaring, unthinking, perfunctory. It has a lot less to do with excitement or attraction than with checking a box on a list of tasks, like homework or laundry. Yet, it has become the defining aspect of social life on many campuses — so common, so obligatory, that it leaves little room for experimentation that bends the rules.
I’ve spent the past eight years investigating hookup culture and talking with students, faculty members and college administrators about it. I thought I would find that the vast majority of students revel in it, but instead I encountered a large percentage who feel confined by it or ambivalent about it (the “whateverists,” as I call them). Nervous to be alone in challenging hookup culture, most students go along with it, even if they privately long for alternatives. They think that if they try to be less casual about sex, it’ll ruin their social lives. Conformity abounds.
At one Catholic school, for instance, an all-girls, first-year hall was dubbed the Virgin Vault at the beginning of the year by the senior guys at the college. By the middle of the year, they called it the Slut Hut, and later, the Lesbian Lair, implying that by the end of the year most of the hall’s residents had hooked up with women as well as men. While we can dismiss such nicknames as college humor, naming — though it can empower us to claim an identity or experience that previously seemed out of our grasp — can also pin us with stereotypes, experiences and identities we don’t want.
When students are expected to hook up with lots of people, doing so becomes dutiful, not daring. Older ideas of sexual exploration — be it same-sex encounters or one-night stands — have become a basic expectation.
Of the 1,230 students who answered an optional survey question in a study I conducted asking what their peers thought about sex in 2006, 45 percent of participants at Catholic schools and 36 percent at nonreligious private and public schools said their peers were too casual about sex, and they said privately that they wished this weren’t the case. An additional 35 percent at Catholic and 42 percent at nonreligious private and public schools reported that peers were simply “casual,” without opining one way or the other.
Of students who reported hooking up, 41 percent used words such as “regretful,” “empty,” “miserable,” “disgusted,” “ashamed,” “duped” and even “abused” to describe the experience. An additional 23 percent expressed ambivalence, and the remaining 36 percent said they were more or less “fine” with hookups — “fine” being the most common description.
Aside from the few students who said hooking up made them happy, the vast majority used less-than-glowing adjectives such as “whatever” and “mostly okay,” or were indifferent about it. What’s more, during one-on-one interviews, many said that even if they don’t like hooking up, they pretend they do because it’s such a big part of campus social life. They want to fit in.
In other words, being casual about sex (even if only by gossiping about who’s sleeping with whom) has become the norm. Traditions such as dates and get-to-know-you conversations before physical intimacy are deemed unnecessary or even forbidden. The guiding commandment of hookup culture: Thou shalt not become attached to your partner.
In theory, this detachment could allow both parties to walk away unscathed, but in reality it seems to leave students emotionally dulled or depressed about sexual intimacy and romance. Out of 99 students who wrote at length about romance, 64 understood romance as primarily talking: talking for hours upon hours, yet doing so in a beautiful setting. Any talk of sexual intimacy, even kissing, was virtually absent from their descriptions.
While long-term relationships are still found on campus, students typically admit that they formed after a one-time hookup morphed into a serial hookup, which eventually led to a commitment — even though most wish they had started with at least one sex-free date. When I interviewed students at seven universities, almost all of them said they wished that they could go on an old-fashioned date or that someone would ask them out. I was often tempted to say something like: “I know you think nobody dates here, but they want to. When you leave this interview room, there will be someone else outside waiting to see me. If you think they’re cute, ask them out.”
Of course, I couldn’t say that; it would distort the study. But the interviews showed that students were looking for permission to date and felt that the culture didn’t allow it.
The pro-hookup notion that dating is a sexist castoff of the 1950s dismisses the fairly innocent wish for an alternative means of getting to know someone before getting physical. When one attitude about sex dominates, be it restrictive or permissive, it becomes difficult to defy it.
Are we tolerant and inclusive enough for sexual experimentation to include having less sex — or even none? For instance, several gay, lesbian and bisexual students who participated in my study said their most romantic experiences had been more chaste. Something as innocent as holding hands, for a young gay man, was an exciting foray into sexual empowerment — it meant he was displaying his sexuality to his peers without fear.
And what about abstinence? When young people are expected to be regularly sexually active, true experimentation can lie in refusing sex altogether. Even when about 80 percent of students at Catholic, private-secular and public schools say everyone is casual about sex, taking a step back from being sexually active for even a weekend — or as long as a semester, as one of my students did — can be extraordinarily empowering. Such a break can give a person time and space to reflect on what they really want out of sex, and how and when they want to have it.
In today’s college culture, it seems that taking a break from carefree sex, or even embracing dating, are a lot like having premarital sex in the 1960s. To dress up in a sexy Halloween costume — well, that’s just passe. Not only is everyone doing it, they’re bored by it, too.
Today, sexual experimentation might be getting to know someone before having sex, holding out for dates, and courtship focused on romance rather than sex. From where I sit, meeting a student confident enough to say she’s not hooking up and is proud about that is as experimental as it gets.
Donna Freitas is the author of “The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.”