Hook-Up Culture in College
Although I consider myself a feminist, only recently have I began to notice the anti-feminist ways that my friends and I discuss our love lives, or lack thereof, in a college setting.
Hook-Ups and College: Like Peanut Butter and Jelly
Hook-ups are a huge part of college.
Whether you’re directly involved or not, you’re bound to be a part of some discussion about them. My experience is that it dominates most of our conversations.
What’s puzzling is that many of my friends also consider themselves to be feminists. Because of this, I feel like I almost have an obligation to point out some of the of the deeply-rooted, destructive ways college students—even empowered, resilient, independent girls—discuss hook-ups.
The old cliche of the cat-fight of two women battling over a man seems to have survived even some of the most “woke” women I know.
One of the most frustrating, and disturbing, things in my circle of friends is that boys become suddenly innocent when there is a conflict between two girls over the same boy.
I’ve seen it time and time again—
one girl hooks up with a boy a few times; they seem to like each other.
A few weeks later, an acquaintance, or even friend of the girl, hooks up with that same guy. Immediately, gossip circulates about the rising animosity between these two girls.
Girl A hates Girl B—how could she do that?
The boy, you may ask? He’s hardly mentioned at all—and if he is, it’s certainly not in a negative light. If anything, he’s quietly praised for hooking up with two attractive girls in such a short span of time.
Why—just why—are we still pinning girls against each other?
Why does no one think to blame the guy for deciding to lead one girl on, and then easily betraying her?
Defining the “Hook Up” as a Feminist
I should probably mention that “hook-up” can be a loaded word, with a multitude of connotations.
For some, it means you kissed. For others, maybe you went home with him, or maybe you even spent the night and had sex. To “Hook up” means so many different things to so many different people..
Boys and girls particularly tend to diverge on their definitions of “hooking up.”
In my experience, however, here is usually how it goes:
the girl always wants more from the hook-up.
The girl gets attached, the guy remains cool, aloof, casual, chill.
After this encounter, a recurring picture that gets painted of the girl is never flattering.
Many other girls—at least, among my friend group —sigh with contempt, with pity at that girl.
Didn’t she know to not get attached? Didn’t she know—guys never actually want anything more than the physical hook-up? The girl always makes the terrible mistake of catching feelings—and she’s criticized for it. The girls that are able to hook-up with anyone for any period of time, and not feel anything—those are the success stories. And if you’re lucky, maybe if you act uninterested enough, the guy just might consider dating you.
The worst part, I think, is how we talk about these situations, without even noticing what we’ve said. The topic revolves around how the girl must package herself in order to be most attractive to the guy.
Simultaneously, I’ve heard from a few guys that they like when girls are assertive. Yet, I’ve never seen this in action. The more uninterested, unemotional you are, the better, the hotter.
The Ironic Underbelly of the Booty Call
We can’t help but laugh about “man-whores” who are famous for “booty-calling.” We have to laugh because it’s such a commonality, and we can’t think of anything else to do but mock their transparent intentions.
It almost always goes like this:
Guy texts girl at 3AM- “You up?”
The girl won’t necessarily be judged if she responds (Hey! It’s a victory for the guy, so the guy’s definitely not judging her either win/win!).
If a girl initiates that same text, though, the entire narrative is rewritten. The girl is automatically seen as ballsy – and not in a good way. Because by society’s standards, it’s uncomfortably out of character for a girl to openly booty-call someone and to be transparent about her desire to hook up with a guy.
This is nothing new, though. Girls have been forever conditioned to suppress their sexuality. It’s only acceptable to express your sexuality when it’s on the guy’s terms. If the guy wants it, you can reciprocate. But don’t even think about initiating if you don’t want to be called a slut.
When we are socialized to suppress our sexuality, it’s doubtful we can actually enjoy our sexual experiences. NY Times Bestseller Peggy Orenstein speaks in a TED talk about the 3 years she spent talking to girls ages 15-20 about their attitudes towards and experiences with sex. Unsurprisingly, she uncovered the extent to which girls feel entitled to engage in sexual behavior, but not to enjoy it.
The Dangerous Language Associated With the Cat and Mouse Game of Hook-Ups
What about when the guy expresses feelings, and the girl isn’t interested? She’s perpetually labeled a Bitch.
This guy’s friends—even some of his girl friends—suddenly become overly concerned with the guys’ feelings.
How rare and sweet and affectionate for a guy to suddenly show emotions, to tell a girl that he really likes her. (When a girl does it…well, please back off a bit. You don’t want to scare him off).
In fact, how could the girl not appreciate this act of authenticity, and respond with mutual affection, considering how unlikely it is to happen?
The Rules Apply to Everyone
This isn’t just a trend specific to my friends. Leah Fessler’s article in the Quartz perfectly encapsulates the ongoing cycle of attachment and shame that girls experience with regard to hookups. She writes about her experience at Middlebury, and how she desperately tried to engage in the widespread pattern of casual sex that seemed to align with her identity as a college student.
She reflects, “With time, inevitably, came attachment. And with attachment came shame, anxiety, and emptiness. My girlfriends and I were top students, scientists, artists, and leaders. We could advocate for anything—except for our own bodies. We won accolades from our professors, but the men we were sleeping with wouldn’t even eat breakfast with us the next morning.”
It was this experience that led her to write her senior thesis investigating whether the women at Middlebury who participate in this social “game” of hookups are actually enjoying it.
As she and her friends had experienced, she spoke to women who “were taking part in hookup culture because they thought that was what guys wanted.” And, on the other hand, while most of the males she interviewed also preferred “committed relationships,” they felt “strong social pressure to have casual sex.”
Boys and girls are playing the same game, shaping and shifting themselves relentlessly, forcefully, into their college-student molds, dictated by an ambiguously defined cluster of social laws. No one is particularly happy, it seems. Because of the rules, “[n]either party is permitted emotional involvement, commitment, or vulnerability. To call them exclusive would be “clingy,” or even “crazy.””
Why Aren’t We Speaking Out More?
I could really go on and on listing these examples and I have hundreds of them. I see them and hear them every day, and I guarantee that other girls have, too.
What’s confusing is that, more and more women are standing up in politics to demand a voice, to fight against sexual harassment, but the double standard they apply to their own personal lives is pervasive.
For some reason, young collegiate girls, at least the ones I have come to know, don’t question this hook-up culture, because unless it’s an act of violence, it doesn’t seem like a big deal.
We don’t seem to realize that submitting to a culture of emotionless, male-dominated sex, whether physically violent or not, is not only emotionally detrimental but is a clear stepping stone to sexual assault.
As Peggy Orenstein eloquently notes, girls can’t be expected to articulate their needs and desires both in sexual and emotional interactions when they haven’t been given the tools to do so. When sexual education classes teach boys about erections and ejaculations, and girls about period and unwanted pregnancy.
Watch the rest of her TED talk here:
We need a future where we define sexual discourse around both female and male pleasure. Where boys and girls don’t have pre-written scripts in a college hookup environment, where diverging from this script will result in social exclusion, or profound shame.