When I was a high school freshman, I spent many afternoons at my best friend’s house to bake cookies, sew and have “girl talk” with her mom and older sister, who was set to go off to college soon. I still remember hearing the urgency in her mother’s voice when she insisted that her oldest daughter buy more storage, coat hooks and, oddly enough, birth control, before stepping onto campus.
“You’re not going to college without birth control,” my friend’s mom said. She spoke empathetically, as if she knew, probably from her own college years, that her daughter’s uncertain future would include casual sex.
Hookups, a sexual act with an intentionally vague definition, increased in frequency in the 1920s with advancements in technology, as automobiles and movie theaters gave young couples a reason to escape their vigilant parents. With the sexual revolution of the 1960s, young adults became even more promiscuous, a shift only amplified by popular culture, as the examples of casual sex in movies and television served as a form of sexual education for some young adults.
Today, college campuses nationwide have adopted a “hookup culture,” which embraces sexual behavior outside traditional committed relationships. However, studies have consistently shown that both young people and their concerned parents overestimate how often teens are having casual sex.
In a 2015 article published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Ryne Sherman of Florida Atlantic University wrote that, among adults, the “[n]umber of sexual partners increased steadily between the G.I.s and 1960s-born Gen X’ers [with Boomers in the middle] and then dipped among Millennials to return to Boomer levels.” That means that young people, on average, are having sex with fewer people than Gen-Xers did when they were the same age, and about the same amount of sex as the boomers did when they were in their younger years.
Hookups are thought to be ubiquitous on college campuses, but this may be a product of pluralistic ignorance, which in social psychology, refers to a situation where a majority of group members reject a norm in private, but go along with it after incorrectly assuming their peers accept it.
This widespread assumption may lead to dangerous consequences, as several studies have documented the negative feelings experienced by both men and women after casual sex. In a large internet-based study by the American Psychological Association involving 1,468 undergraduate students, a variety of negative consequences were reported after casual sex: 27.1 percent felt embarrassed, 24.7 percent reported emotional difficulties, 20.8 percent experienced loss of respect, and 10 percent reported difficulties with a steady partner.
The idea of sexual script theory attempts to understand human sexual activity as social and learned interactions. Many researchers have pointed to the popular media as the origin of gender-normative sexual scripts, as the most popular and promoted cultural sexual scripts are heterosexual in nature and focused on male roles. Women are portrayed as passive sexual objects, whereas men are active sexual agents. The push to “hang out,” rather than go on dates, allows young people to hook up over a period of time and define the relationship only after a woman initiates a “talk.”
Lisa Wade, a sociologist at Occidental College, wrote about the nuances of the new culture of sex on campus in her book, “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.” Through interviews with college students, the book details the complex set of social rules within hookup culture. Along these rules is the assumption men have that all women are interested in having a relationship with them after a hookup, which Wade states causes men to be even more standoffish after a hookup than they otherwise would be. This, in turn, puts women in a position to prove she is not, because social rules push those involved to care less than the other person.
This puts young people at a conundrum, as society does not yet have an acceptable script to indicate what women want in a sexual relationship. Even worse than being a prude or a slut is being desperate, as it defies the rules of meaningless sex. Casual sex was the taboo of the past and emotional intimacy has taken its place as something to be ashamed about.
These sexual scripts are confusing, and only beneficial to a limited group; less students truly enjoy hookup culture than we think, while others are ambivalent about casual sex.
Perhaps the best solution to the hookup culture conundrum is to accept that hookup culture is as real as you want it to be. Enjoy sex when you want to and, as always, define your life not by other people’s standards or in terms of people, communities and networks you already have.