College hook-up culture is just a training ground for society’s broader problems.
College kids are having sex, it’s true. But not as many as you might think, and not nearly as often as is rumoured. Ongoing research by sociologist Paula England, who has collected over 10,000 surveys from college students, shows that 25 per cent of students will never hook up during their college years, and that the average graduating senior has hooked up only about seven times. And “hooking up” can mean a lot of things. According to England, a third of hook-ups are just kissing and groping with clothes on; less than half include intercourse.
The sexual contact during hook-ups is supposed to be casual – that much is true, too. My own research shows that students think that other students want only sex without commitment, when, in fact, England’s research reveals that 70 per cent of women and 73 per cent of men would like to form relationships. Of course, they don’t necessarily tell others that; it makes them feel vulnerable in a culture in which it is assumed that everyone else only wants to have casual sex. Relationships do form. In fact, England’s research suggests that most seniors have been in at least one committed relationship while in college. But the typical relationship emerges out of a series of hook-ups. Two people hook up once, they hook up again, and again, and eventually they have “the talk” in which they agree that they’re dating.
So, should we be wringing our hands about hook-up culture? Yes, but not for the reasons that you’re thinking. Most college kids aren’t going wild. For many, hook-up culture – whether they participate in it or not – is an opportunity for them to learn how to negotiate sexual contact with others, figure out their boundaries, and clarify their values. This is a good thing.
There are bad things about hook-up culture, too, but they are the same bad things that we see in relationships, marriage, the workplace, advertising, our churches, and throughout society. Hook-up culture is relentlessly heterosexist; it makes no room for thinking about, and exploring, same-sex attraction. It is patriarchal, making it an unsafe and emotionally difficult environment for women, more so than for men. And it places an importance on getting sex and being “hot,” which are sources of significant angst and feelings of worthlessness. These things, though – heterocentrism, gender inequality, and an out-of-proportion pressure to be sexually admired and desired – exist in our wider culture, too.
My own studies, as well as those of many others, show that, in addition to reporting that hook-up culture taught them a lot about themselves, students also report that it exposed them to a lot of bad things. A lot of men and women say they wish that there wasn’t such an imperative for sex to be casual; they would like to feel more comfortable telling someone that they really like them. But, in general, straight men benefit from hook-up culture more than other groups on campus: England’s research shows that straight men are more than twice as likely as women to have an orgasm during a hook-up, that they are much less likely to be sexually assaulted, and that having sex is much less likely to threaten their reputation (like it often does for women) or expose them to stigma and violence (like it might for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals).
In sum, the problem on college campuses isn’t too much sex; it’s a sexual culture that is infused with our greater social ills. For the students, it’s a functional training ground for the kind of problems that they will face throughout their lives, for better or worse. As for the rest of us, we should look at college campuses as a microcosm of the wider culture; what’s happening to them tells us a lot about us.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.