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The Endorsement of College Hookup Culture

Sarah Kostoryz

Sarah Kostoryz (class of 2017) grew up in Kansas City, Missouri but finally feels at home at Davidson College. She is currently undecided about her major but juggling between theatre, education, and social justice. Sarah is the new co-captain of the Davidson Dance Team and an active participant in Dance Ensemble. She spent her summer in Kansas City as an art camp counselor for 6-8 year olds at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. Next year, Sarah looks forward to creating a Socrates café on campus; the project is currently named “Davidson Family Dinners” (soon to be changed hopefully). Her essay was written for Dr. Martinez’s Communication 280: Intercultural Communication.

I will never forget my first awkward encounter with a previous hookup–that was the day I became “a piece of ass” instead of a person. Sure, it was just a simple passing (nothing was said), but this simple split-second glance and hesitant bro nod communicated it all: I was not worth being acknowledged, spoken to, or smiled at. Two weekends past, at a dance party, he couldn’t stop asking me questions about my academic goals and my personal life, but now he can barely look me in the eye. I wondered what I had done wrong.

The first time this happens, one is tempted to treat this as an encounter with immaturity, but as it continues to happen, with other persons of different ages, personalities, and interests, one being to realize that this behavior is part and parcel of a particular cultural script associated with campus life.  Though, like me, a first-year student may be tempted to treat this rude encounter as simple acculturation, whether or not you learn the rules, or modify behavior, or stop hooking up altogether, college relationships will be effected–for good or bad–by our hookup culture.

Research shows that both men and women have experienced the negative effects of hooking up. For the past thirty years, scholars from a variety of disciplines (Religion, Sociology, Gender Studies, and Medicine among them) have studied the impact of “hooking up” and the heteronormative (and sexist) expectations it places on college students. Overall, these studies focus more on the sexist implications placed on women, and I can say that I initially believed that the hookup culture hurt women more than grinding11 The Endorsement of College Hookup Culturemen. Statistically, more women than men report having negative unwanted hookups and are more openly dissatisfied with hooking up.1 In the last decade, many scholars have shifted their focus to men, explaining how the stereotype of the emotionally illiterate hypersexual male is more detrimental to men than body objectification is for women.2 Men are suffering from sexist implications just like women, but have little space to acknowledge them.3 Both sexes blame the other for placing certain double standards upon them in the hookup culture. However, both men and women endorse it.4 Though men and women experience the hookup culture differently, both sustain it.

Hookup Culture: Under the Guise of Sexual Liberation Lies Heterosexist Foundations

The heterosexist nature of the hookup culture can be seen through the ambiguous use of the term hookup, the unstated hookup script, and the culturally symbolic spaces attached to it. The term hookup is used in conversation as a cop-out to avoid delving into the actual sexual details of an intimate experience. Nearly every student knows that the term is indeterminate and relative to each encounter. Yet, they continue to use it as a way to describe sexual experiences when it does not have one concrete definition. In most scholarly essays on hookups, interviewees acknowledge that the term’s meaning depends on who is using it, in what context, relative to the definition of sex. One study refers to a definition of hookup that shows how capacious the definition can be:

Hooking up can consist entirely of one kiss or it can involve fondling, oral sex, anal sex, intercourse, or any combination of those things. It can happen only once with a partner, several times during one week, or over many months. Partners may know each other very well, only slightly, or not at all, even after they have hooked up regularly. A hookup often happens in a bedroom, although other places will do: dance floors, bars, bathrooms, auditoriums, or any deserted room. . . .Feelings are discouraged, and both partners share an understanding that either of them can walk away at any time.5

Such ambiguity makes the phenomenon complicated to talk about, even among similar social groups. The term participates in what is called the “personal-contextual dialectic.”6 While people will define the term differently, scholars suggest that the consistent use of the term confirms a certain social standard.

Danielle Currier, for instance, explains that men and women strategically depend on the vagueness of the term to uphold traditional heteronormative gender roles, with women deploying the term in order to avoid being stigmatized as sexually promiscuous. Both men and women used the term slut to refer to women who engaged in “too much” sexual activity.7 Though these women were aware of the cultural assumption that there is an “appropriate femininity,” no one knew how many hookups it took to cross that line.8 The quantity “too much” is also relative. especially since women must navigate the poles of promiscuity and prudishness: “[T]o navigate this catch-22, women engaged in two patterns of strategic ambiguity: not talking or being vague about the details of their hookups.”9 Since the exact meaning of a hookup is so variable, women  in Currier’s study typically used the phrase, “Oh, we just hooked up” in order to downplay their sexual activity. Women, then, tend to “save face” as a way to preserve their sexual social standing among peers, supporting the cultural double standard that women should be available to men, but not sexually self-defined. As the popular rap artist, Usher, puts this: “We want a lady in the street, but a freak in the bed.” This double standard creates an extra anxiety for women to be both sexually-liberated and “good girls.” In reality, a one-time hookup buddy is likely going to introduce a woman to his parents, but she must project a wholesome image. 

 Since the exact meaning of a hookup is so variable, women  in Currier’s study typically used the phrase, “Oh, we just hooked up” in order to downplay their sexual activity. Women, then, tend to “save face” as a way to preserve their sexual social standing among peers, supporting the cultural double standard that women should be available to men, but not sexually self-defined.

For men, Currier found that the term hookup was strategically used to emphasize heterosexual sexual activity and prove masculinity to other men. In her interviews, Currier found that most men “recognized the cultural assumption that college men are, or should be, sexually active.”10 To adhere to this cultural norm, many men use the ambiguity of the term  to express to their friends that they had intercourse when perhaps they only kissed girls. Currier reports that no men in the study were worried if women (incorrectly) assumed they were gay, nor did men feel the need to impress women by hooking up with multiple partners.11 Nonetheless, hooking up with multiple women was a way for a man to make a name for himself among his male peers. Though many male interviewees expressed they did not like the social pressure of the hookup, they reported pressuring women as a way to maintain the “appropriate behavior” of men. 

Currier’s study shows that the sexual double standard is rooted in the use of the term. Women are still supposed to maintain a sense of purity, and de-emphasize their sexual interests, while man are supposed to be “conquerors” and display their sexual desires. Despite the purportedly sexually progressive nature of hooking up, the use of term seems to maintain traditional heterosexist gender roles. Both men and women are confined to traditional gender roles under its application.  

The Dance Floor: An Overlooked Sexual Arena

Many scholars acknowledge that the hookup culture is a subculture within the party and drinking cultures on campuses. The fraternities, sororities, and campus houses that host these parties are symbolic places that support specific modes of interaction with specific verbal and nonverbal communicative styles.12 Most of these spaces tacitly support hookups. While scholars focus on fraternities and how collective groups of men tend to objectify women, the dance floor is a primary sexual arena where women have an active role in promoting hookups. In an ethnographic study entitled “Grinding on the Dance Floor: Gendered Script and Sexualized Dancing at College Parties,” Shelly Romen shows how grinding enforces a gendered script. She explains that while many consider grinding as a mere dance move, she argues that “grinding on the college dance floor is a kind of sexual act that carries significant, socially constructed meaning,” a relevant non-verbal behavior that signals sexual availability to men.13 While Romen believes this script puts women at a disadvantage, I argue that women use this script purposefully, putting their bodies on display to gain power.

First step: Women enter the dance floor with their friends and immediately start dancing around one another. In earlier eras, women were invited by a man to enter the dance floor. Today, women assume “ownership of the space.”14 Such ownership makes the dance floor a power place for women, who engage in group dancing, which usually involves seductive hip movements, what Romen calls “mock-grinding dyads,” and open body language that welcomes initiation from men.15 My friends and I have done this many times. When someone wishes attention from a man, she stands on a table, “drops it low,” and suggestively moves her hips until a male arrives.  grinding11 The Endorsement of College Hookup Culture

According to Romen, unlike women, most men are not looking dance, but rather to find a woman to dance with. Men circle the dance floor, scouting which woman to approach. This scouting perpetuates the idea that women are responsible for making themselves available and attractive, and men are supposed to initiate sexual interaction. A double standard regarding sexuality pertains. If a woman approaches a man and starts to grind with him, she may risk being labeled a “slut.”16 Women cannot directly express their sexuality without coming across like they are trying too hard. Instead, they must suggest sexuality at a distance, taking the traditional submissive role in heterosexual relationships. Heterosexism is thus encouraged on dance floors. Men are not encouraged to dance with other men or they will be labeled homosexual. But women can dance with one another without being considered so. This echoes the male heterosexist ideal of viewing same-sex intimacy between women. 

Second step: The male initiation occurs. Romen writes, “[W]omen deliberately control [the man’s] space and attention. Loaded gestures include drawing closer to or further from the initiator and avoiding or reciprocating eye contact and smiles.”17 Though the women have a measure of power in the situation, the woman’s power relies on the male’s approach. As we can see, the sexes rely on each other for mutual objectification. Of course, the women will technically always be more at a disadvantage because traditional gender roles were catalyzed by hegemonic masculinity which privileges males.

Third step: Depending on how the man approaches her, the woman has the choice to reject or dance with him. Acceptance almost completely relies on whether the man is attractive or not, and this is typically determined by the female’s friends.18 My best friend goes to a Midwestern university, and her friendship group rates guys on a five-finger scale of attraction. If a man approaches a woman from behind and begins grinding with her, it is her friend’s responsibility to signal her whether it is worth staying (five fingers), or bailing (one finger). Many women do this simply through facial expressions and eye contact. Rejections are almost completely non-verbal, utilizing avoidance as the primary tactic. Romen lists a number of ways women do this. Sometimes, women simply navigate closer to their friends and start dancing with them.19 If already grinding, some women send a “Save Me” signal to their friends and then (seemingly spontaneously) dash off to a different part of the room (often the bathroom), while others wait until the song is finished and excuse themselves, and still others stop moving their hips and hope the man gets the idea and leaves. I can attest that I have used each of these tactics. In such moments, I felt awkward verbally rejecting a man because I did not want to hurt his feelings, but some nights I spent the remainder of the evening avoiding him because he kept approaching me to dance.

By avoiding men on the dance floor, women parallel the way in which men avoid women after a weekend hookup. Women also rate a man’s grinding value purely on attractiveness and how an alliance will increase their social status among their friends. A gendered script causes both sexes to evaluate one another on a superficial basis and perform based on gender expectations. Males know to be an instigator and women know to be pursued. Women mistakenly believe that sexually-inflected dancing promotes an image of female liberation. But Romen argues that it does just the opposite, perpetuating sexism and female submission. Instead of resisting this role, women band together in groups to fulfill it collectively, usually convincing themselves of a “no harm; no foul” attitude.  After all, it is just dancing. Since dance parties are typically how men and women first interaction on any given weekend, it is a vital hook-up space that immerses men and women in a heterosexist mindset. 

How We Select a Potential Hookup Partner

When choosing to date someone, a person usually takes a number of factors into account. However, hook-up partner selection relies on very shallow and unequal ways of defining men and women. In Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, Kathleen Bogle compiles a collection of interviews with college students in an attempt to better understand the hookup scene by inquiring into how students evaluate desirability in a partner. Although physical attraction predominates for both sexes, it is the sole factor in men’s system of value. Concentrating on women’s looks, men objectify women. One of Bogle’s interviewees said, “Well, talking among my friends, we decided that girls travel in three’s: there’s the hot one, there’s the fat one, and there’s the one that’s just there. It’s always true, without fail.”20 Notice how the females’ body image becomes the striking adjective, while their human quality is reduced to the word “one.”

For males, studies show that men are assessed on more than simply physicality. Bogle finds that “men’s status is. . .derived from many different sources (e.g., fraternity membership, athletic status, academic major, and intellectual ability)” (Ibid., 33.)) Clearly, women are disadvantages in the hookup culture’s value system. Their appearance must meet high standards because they are selected on no other criteria. One wonders why, given such disparity, women accede to such a system of value. 

Both to Blame: How Both Sexes Endorse the Hookup Culture

Three decades of scholarship has determined that the college hookup culture is sexist at root, yet students who resist sexual double standards in the classroom or in the workplace, for instance, remain complacent in critiquing the hookup culture. It seems that students believe that it is simply an unavoidable aspect of college life. Scholars find this troubling because if college is supposed to prepare students for adult life, should it not also be teaching student how to form abiding relationships? Furthermore, if the hookup culture disadvantages women more than men, why are females not revolting?

In a recent study, Jennifer Aubrey and Siobhan Smith found “that men and women do not differ in their support of the hookup culture, even though it might be more emotionally beneficial to men than women.”21 On campuses “there are agreed-on rules and assumptions about hooking up among college students [and] if we take the view of culture as a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices, then hooking up is not only a behavior, it is a culture” (Ibid.)) They created a survey and contrived an endorsement of the hookup culture index (EHCI) to numerically pinpoint which social assumptions undergird the hookup culture. They identified five indicators, which revolve around the beliefs that:

  • Hooking up is a way to avoid emotional commitment
  • Hooking up is fun
  • Hooking up will enhance one’s status in one’s peer group
  • Hooking up allows one to assert power and control over one’s sexuali8ty
  • Hooking up is a reflection of one’s sexual freedom22

Even students that do not participate in the hookup culture accept that it embodies these (italicized) values. From my conversations with friends, I have witnessed how these value terms manifest themselves as positive justifications for hooking up. Many of my friends go to dance parties with the intention to let loose, dance on tables, and have fun. The next morning, they usually have a hookup story to share. Sometimes a woman wants to hookup with a man because he is a basketball player, or he is known as “Hot Thomas” and admired by her friends. But the lack of commitment is a comforting rather than a troubling factor. After people abandon a relationship, they say they cannot handle emotional commitment, but do not want to sacrifice physical intimacy. Hooking up serves as a way to relieve emotional stress without feeling responsible for a partner’s feelings. In the hookup culture, a lack of commitment morphs into a lack of emotional involvement, which is why scholars believe that hooking up has limits, even dangers.

Do It and Dash: The Price of No Commitments

Scholars argue that the most defining characteristic of the hookup culture is the ability to “unhook” at any time. The problem with no commitment is that it usually requires individuals to separate their sexual activity from their emotions.23 Certain religious scholars, like Donna Freitas, say this creates a destructive sense of sexuality. Normative heterosexuality involves both physical and emotional connection. Yet, the  college hookup culture teaches students that emotions are not necessary for a relationship. Emotional commitment is often associated with females. Feminists, for instance, often argue that thinking of ourselves as “autonomous selves” capable of detaching ourselves from relationality is a masculinist ideal24 However, I have heard both men and women say that as much as they try to separate their emotions from their sexual experiences, they cannot. They feel at a disadvantage within a culture that supports one-night stands and associates emotional involvement with long-term commitment. Wanting an emotional connection to a person you are sexually engaged with is not just a feminine wish. The first hookup I had at Davidson, I told the man that I did not want any emotional attachment. We hooked up twice and then he told me that he could not continue without developing feelings for me. I look back at this experience and feel guilty for believing that simply because he was a man it would be easy and desirable to hookup with me without fond feelings. 

Concentrated Focus on Women: Ignoring the Effects of the Hookup Culture on Men

In “What Boys Want,” Rosalind Wiseman reminds us that “an entire generation of parents has spent years panicking about the effects of hookup culture on girls–making it all too easy to ignore the lives of boys. But it is boys who often lack the skills to adapt. And it’s boys who are falling behind.”25 So often our society labels males, especially college men, as just wanting sex, not interested in commitment, and unwilling to talk about their emotions. In part, the goal of feminism is to promote the equality of the sexes, yet many feminist-inspired arguments about hooking up conclude that women are most harmed. Wiseman claims that both men and women must negotiate the hookup culture, yet men are left to process it on their own, “lacking many of the communication skills girls have in spades.”26 The lack of male emotional support networks is creating a national problem. Men are statistically falling behind : their enrollment in college is decreasing, their overall GPA’s are declining, and though women report contemplating suicide more frequently than men, men are more likely to commit suicide.27

What is interesting about Weisman’s report is that she focuses on high school boys. Though this population isn’t the same as my own, it may help to explain why the  inability to have emotionally-committed relationships may make the hookup culture appealing to college men. By the time that men get to college, they have often given up on emotionally-involved relationships. Perhaps many have decided that it is easier to simply perform the role of the hypersexualized, emotionally-illiterate male. Maybe, after a series of rejections in high schools, they just want to test how many women they can hook up with. As women, we do not give males the sympathy they may deserve for their confusion. We do not understand that objectification may have been catalyzed by a history of rejection, that a male conception of sex revolves not getting a woman pregnant more than an act of love.  Both college men and women deserve to deliberate together about their concepts of sex, romance, relationship expectations, as well as the strengths and limits of the hookup culture.

The hookup culture comes with a heterosexist script that both men and women endorse. Both engage in impression management in which they use the work “hookup” in a strategic fashion to uphold gendered ideals. The hookup culture revolves around culturally symbolic spaces, like the dance floor, founded on heterosexist interactions. Activating the hookup script involves learning any number of non-verbal cues and mastering its body language. Perhaps most troublingly, even if one neither endorses nor engages in the hookup culture, it permeates college sociality. C. Kelly writes that “men and women who remove themselves from the hookup culture run into difficulties should they attempt to have social lives on campus because other classmates presume that any interest–from dancing to talking–is a signal for a hookup.”28 When I decided to stop hooking up, I could not go to parties for three weeks. I found that when I went to a party, I nearly automatically began sorting out people I could potentially hookup with. Last week, when I decided to return, I had to be cautious of everything: how I was dancing, how close I was standing to people, attempting to distinguish between a guy either talking to me or attempting to hit on me. Is he walking me home because he is nice, or does he expect something from me? The hookup culture relies on an ideal of freedom, but all I can say is that I don’t feel free.

 

Bibliography

Aubrey, J. and S.E. Smith. “Development and Validation of the Endorsement of the Hookup Culture Index.” Journal of Sex Research. 50, no. 5 (2013): 435-48.

Bogle, K.A. Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

Currier, D. “Strategic Ambiguity: Protecting Emphasized Femininity and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Hookup Culture.” Gender & Society. 27, no. 5 (2013): 704-27.

Kelly, C. “Sexism in Practice: Feminist Ethics in Evaluating the Hookup Culture.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 28, no. 2 (2012): 27-48.

Martin, J.N. and T. K. Nakayama. Intercultural Communication in Contexts. 6th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.

Romen, S. “Grinding on the Dance Floor: Gendered Scripts and Sexualized Dancing at College Parties.” Gender & Society. 24, no. 3 (2010): 355-77.

Wiseman, R. “What Boys Want.” Time 182, no. 23 (2013): 40.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. C. Kelly, “Sexism in Practice: Feminist Ethics Evaluating the Hookup Culture,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 28, no. 2 (2012): 28. []
  2. R. Weisman, “What Boys Want,” Time 182(2013): 40. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. J. Aubrey and S.E. Smith, “Development and Validation of the Endorsement of the Hookup Culture Index,” Journal of Sex Research 50, no. 5 (2013): 437. []
  5. Aubrey and Smith, 436. []
  6. J. N. Martin and T. K. Nakayama, Intercultural Communication in Contexts, 6th Edition, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012): 77. []
  7. D. Currier, “Strategic Ambiguity: Protecting Emphasized Femininity and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Hookup Culture,” Gender & Society 27, no. 5 (2013): 718. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Ibid., 719. []
  11. Ibid., 721. []
  12. Martin and Nakayama, 135. []
  13. Shelley Romen, “Grinding on the Dance Floor: Gendered Scripts and Sexualized Dancing at College Parties” Gender & Society 24, no. 3 (2010), 356. []
  14. Ibid., 364. []
  15. Ibid. []
  16. Ibid. []
  17. Ibid., 367. []
  18. Ibid. []
  19. Ibid. []
  20. K. A. Bogle, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus (New York: New York University Press, 2008): 32. []
  21. Jennifer Aubrey and Siobhan Smith, “Development and Validation of the Endorsement of the Hookup Culture Index,” Journal of Sex Research 50, no. 5 (2013): 441. []
  22. Ibid., 437. []
  23. Kelly, 29. []
  24. Ibid. []
  25. Rosalind Wiseman, “What Boys Want” Time 182, no. 23 (2013): 24. []
  26. Ibid. []
  27. Ibid. []
  28. C. Kelly, “Sexism in Practice: Feminist Ethics in Evaluating the Hookup Culture,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 28, no. 2 (2012): 35. []
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