There are few things I hear about from both my mother and the media. Maybe only one thing: hookup culture. The horror. It’s the “epidemic” that has plagued this generation of college students. There is the notion that hookup culture is demeaning to young women. There are the angry phone calls some of us receive from our Jewish mothers yelling about someone’s cousin’s sister’s daughter who contracted a horrifying STD from “sleeping around.” And there are scary pregnancy statistics blaring on the Internet. From all these alarms, you’d think casual hookups would be on a downward trend. But research says otherwise. Up to 80 percent of college students report having casual sex, or sex outside of committed relationships.
Many times at Wesleyan, it is not the actual hookup, nor even feelings of guilt and shame after the hookup that are the real sources of anxiety. It’s what happens before the hookup. It’s the gray period of internal monologue that sounds something like this woman we’ll call Mary: “I think he was being flirty when he stole my pencil in class…I would definitely hook up with him, but what if he doesn’t want to…Should I text him to hang out, or will he think I’m desperate…” So, of course, this ends with Mary not texting the boy, Tom, to hang out. Instead, she’ll stare at her phone every 30 seconds, thinking that that call from Grandmom might just be Tom with the pretty eyes, saying he does, in fact, want to “hang out.”
Maybe this sounds like something that would happen with some middle school kids with braces and bad haircuts. Or maybe this sounds like some strange 1950s sitcom. But the truth is, this is what heterosexual college hookups look like much of the time: a girl waiting for a guy to initiate.
A friend of mine calls the strange phenomenon when girls actually go ahead and initiate plans the “power move.” This highlights the unequal expectations of communication for hookups. When a guy texts first, it’s just a move. But if a girl texts first, it’s a rarity, a great summoning of her feminine strength, a “power” move.
For Helena Sanchez ’21, a version of this is often true.
“I think sometimes I’m scared of being too clingy,” she says. “Even if I’m just like, ‘Hey, wanna hang out?’”
Research by the Kinsey Institute on hookup culture suggests that these interactions are dictated by sexual social scripts, which are used to organize sexual encounters into “understandable conventions.” It’s important to note that these “scripts” are generally gender-normative. These are the same scripts that say a guy should pay for dinner, or men have to initiate the first date.
But these social scripts are confining. While this may seem like a shocker, women don’t love the feeling of waiting all day wondering, “Is it weird if I text him now? Do I seem desperate? Is he gonna text me?” And men don’t like the anxiety of this “should I/shouldn’t I” dilemma either.
“I’m sure the thoughts are the same for everyone,” Nathan Baron Silvern ’21 says. “Like, I don’t want to put myself out there. I wish the other person would put themselves out there.”
For Ginger Hollander ’20, a more direct approach works better; she feels totally comfortable texting a guy letting him know exactly her intentions before he says anything.
“I think that even just telling people I do that, they freak out a little bit,” she said. “I prefer to know if the person isn’t interested rather than waste my energy pursuing it.”
However, she does not feel this same sense of confidence and comfort among her friends.
“I think that would destroy a lot of people, putting yourself out there and the other person saying no,” Hollander said.
So we leave that awkward responsibility to the boys, allowing them to feel the embarrassment of rejection or the “victory” of a yes. But more than that, we allow them to hold a degree of control over our hookups.
Ladies, when a guy texts you and you’re not into it, are you making harsh judgments on his character? I’d dare to guess, at least most of the time, no. You’re simply saying you don’t have romantic or at least sexual feelings toward the person. If we put our egos aside, it’s obvious this works in the other direction, too. What are we so afraid of?
This is Wesleyan, where we are constantly and actively thinking about all the ways in which society molds women into passive players in their own lives. We want women around the world to receive an education, to be in control of their futures. We want women in this country to be paid fairly for their work. We want to get rid of unfair standards that women should groom their body hair in certain ways, or wear those breast restraining devices we call bras. But we agonize over initiating our own hookups. We allow ourselves to be passive recipients of our own pleasure. And more concretely, we allow ourselves to be consumed by anxiety over whether it’s “okay” for us to make the first move.
It’s easy to say that society sucks. But we’re the members of a society that challenges norms. We have to be the ones to change the social constraint. Because if we can’t do that here, where can women do it?
Jodie Kahan is a member of the class of 2021. Jodie can be reached at email@example.com.