For many, hookup culture is one of the most powerful forces on college campuses today, one that commodifies bodies in the name of pleasure and convenience. For others, it is a no-strings-attached norm that allows for sexual liberation and exploration in an age of instant gratification. For others still, it’s neither something new nor something to get worked up about.
Yet for many, hookup culture—loosely defined as a collective attitude that sees casual physical intimacy with either one or many partners, rather than monogamy, as the norm—remains a mysterious phenomenon that perpetuates itself in emotionally tangible ways, leaving the potential for one to be chewed up and spit out by what is now mostly socially acceptable at residential colleges and universities across the United States. Hooking up might be socially acceptable, but every student interviewed chose to remain anonymous, some attributing this decision to the potential social repercussions.
Although kissing for some is the threshold for some people to say that they have “hooked up,” for others, hooking up is clearly defined with sex as an end goal.
“I define ‘hook up’ as sex,” wrote Hugo*, a male heterosexual athlete, in a message to The Argus.
Stephen Bank, former University Professor of Psychology and a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice, noted that many former and current students with whom he talks are reluctant to define the status of their relationships.
“I’m hearing that relationships are not relationships,” he said. “I’m hearing that commitment, lastingness, [and the] meaning of the relationship are very much up in the air, and I think that’s been a change since I arrived at Wesleyan 40 years ago.”
Trudy*, a 21-year-old who identifies as female and heterosexual, remarked that hooking up seems to be more about instant gratification than work.
“It takes out the entire idea of a relationship, which is the idea of intimacy and having a connection that you sustain and maintain,” she said. “[Relationships] shouldn’t be a matter of quick and easy pleasure.”
As a fairly small school, hookups on Wesleyan’s campus can be overlapping and incestuous among friend groups. Furthermore, as a small school with an even smaller LGBT* population, some members of the queer community feel the effects of this to a greater extent.
A gay upperclassman, Plax*, put it simply.
“Wesleyan is a strange environment for relationships,” he said. “Being queer at Wesleyan is really strange.”
When asked what the hookup culture in the queer community at the University is like from his perspective, he noted its size.
“It’s so small,” he said. “Everybody knows who you are hooking up with or have hooked up with, and it’s extremely likely that people who you’re interested in have hooked up with or will hook up with your friends. There’s a mutual understanding that it sucks and that it’s weird, but what else are you going to do?”
In both the hetero- and homosexual realms, the possibility for emotional connection looks bleak. Belinda*, a first-year student who identifies as female and as heterosexual, explained the role of alcohol in physical intimacy.
“There’s a lot of drunken interaction that often leads to different stuff, like people will say ‘Want to come home with me?’” she said. “You’ll usually feel out a person throughout the night.”
When asked about the metaphor of feeling someone out, she clarified.
“You would continuously find them on the dance floor and end up grinding with them and like flirting throughout the night,” she said. “You kind of know them through a class or from a pregame.”
The lack of emotional and personal connection does not faze some students, at least at first. Hugo emailed The Argus to share his experience with and prominence within Wesleyan’s hookup culture last year.
“Last year, I felt as if I was fairly predominant in the hook up culture and it didn’t seem to phase [sic.] me,” he said. “I had just gotten out of a relationship and was really ready to just have wild meaningless sex, not really fully sure I was going to be able to achieve such a task however. But I went to parties and fraternities and found that it was fairly easy to hook up with a girl. After a few weeks of just trying to see how many different girls I could hook up with I decided that I started to grow bored with just one or two girls per weekend. Now everyone is free to call me an asshole if this is quoted, but I started to see if I could get more than just one hook up per night. And I define hook up as sex….”
After a semester of womanizing, Hugo had a slight change of heart.
“That being said, in the spring I found that I was growing increasingly even more bored with the hook up culture and actually pondered the idea of a relationship again,” he said.
According to Bank, the age range of college students is key to understanding how students who hook up make decisions.
“Everything is opaque at this age, and there is a great deal of evidence that the judgment of people in their late teens and early 20s is not as clear and as well thought out as it will be when they will be in their mid-20s,” he said.
Bank went on to explain that University students are still undergoing neurological maturation.
“Half the students at Wesleyan are still teenagers,” he said. “Many of them, just a few years ago, were riding in a yellow school bus that was marked, ‘Carrying School Children.’ Their brains are not completely matured…. So expecting a level of maturity from people who are not neurologically matured may be asking a great deal.”
Apps such as Tinder and Grindr have ushered in a new age of hookup culture: Sex has gone digital.
“[OkCupid] became more of a matter of what kind of formula could you put online rather than sharing who you were,” said Alistair*. “So if I put X photo rather than Y photo, then I know that I will get way more swipes, so to speak. Or if I say something that’s way more sexually driven than who I am, then it’s creating a fake identity for someone.”
Belinda’s take on the digitalization of hookup culture was even more frank.
“Apps like Tinder and Grindr really freak me out,” she said. “I think that the fact that hookup culture is game-ized that the way it is and that people are now pieces is unhealthy because it makes using people and using bodies easier…. It’s scary stuff.”
Some find themselves in monogamous relationships that develop—and even flourish—at the University. Rhonda*, a junior who is in a serious relationship, did not consciously choose to trade solely hooking up for monogamy; still, she’s happy with how things are going.
“I don’t know if I consciously chose being in a relationship above participating in hookup culture,” she said. “And, like, I get that being in one is not the norm here, but to me I never really thought about it. It’s a great thing that happened to me and I’m grateful for it. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.”
*Names have been changed.