Students hook up. They have sexual encounters with no implications for subsequent relationships. Far from being the majority of students however, it is a small minority, somewhere around 20% of students. Moreover, these students share other characteristics: they tend to be white, wealthy, and attend elite schools.
While there is not a problem with these students, their activities foster stereotypical hookup culture that does cause problems. Their behavior becomes a norm, assumed to be what everyone on campus is doing and what everyone should want to do. It becomes the expected way of acting, so everyone has to position themselves in relationship to it, even if it is a rejection of it. Students have to conform or explain their divergence, and divergence almost always comes with some social penalties.
This dynamic is clear in the New York Times story “Sex on Campus – She Can Play That Game, Too.” There, Kate Taylor interviewed college women about hookup culture. Those who participated attended Ivy League schools. These women hook up, aren’t interested in relationships, and are primarily focused on their careers. The people who don’t participate are like Mercedes, who was summarized as saying that “at her mostlyLatino public high school in California, it was the troubled and unmotivated students who drank and hooked up, while the honors students who wanted to go to college kept away from those things.” As a result, she felt like she did not fit in with everyone else who “seemed to live life, not really care about what they were doing.”
For me, this story clearly sets out the dynamics of hookup culture. The women who hooked up were not intentionally excluding someone like Mercedes. Rather, they assumed that their behavior was the norm. This assumption, though, made those like Mercedes who acted differently feel like they did not belong. It pushed them to the social fringe. This is true even though, as the story reported, those who didn’t hook up were more numerous than those who did, from 30% of students to 20%.
…stereotypical hookup culture creates a problem that normalizes the behavior of a few and marginalizes the behavior of everyone else who differs.
Thus, stereotypical hookup culture creates a problem that normalizes the behavior of a few and marginalizes the behavior of everyone else who differs.
One group who is different is Catholic students. Catholic students who go to church regularly, pray frequently, have strong beliefs in agreement with church teaching (especially the ones on sexuality) tend not to hook up. Not only did I find this across the campuses in my research, but others also have found this connection (for example see here, here, here, here, and here).
The result of not hooking up, of not adhering to the “norm”, is marginalization. Catholic students feel like they are on the fringes of social life, committing what Donna Freitas calls “social suicide.” They feel ridiculed and ostracized for their beliefs and so tend to hide their faith or hide themselves among students with similar beliefs. If they don’t hide, students proclaim their beliefs, trying to defend them. Both, however, are different responses to the same problem of being pushed to the fringes of campus life.
LGBTQ students are also marginalized by stereotypical hookup culture. To be sure, their experience is more precarious than that of Catholic students. Worrying about personal safety and fighting for one’s basic human dignity outweighs the feeling that one’s beliefs are not being respected. With this caveat though, LGBTQ students experience similar forces of marginalization that Catholic students do. Those in the LGBTQ community tend not to hook up. This is partly because LGBTQ students are unsure that they would be welcomed in those environments where hooking up occurs or that their participation in hooking up would be accepted by others. Thus, they often find themselves pushed to the fringes of campus social life by the assumption that stereotypical hookup culture is the norm. Like Catholic students but with higher stakes, LGBTQ students have either hidden themselves from the broader culture or sought to advocate for their inclusion. The latter has resulted in numerous initiatives and changes on campuses.
How does one undo the marginalization that occurs from stereotypical hookup culture? Scapegoating those who participate in stereotypical hookup culture isn’t particularly helpful. Just changing who is marginalized doesn’t make things better.
Simple tolerance isn’t helpful either. Some activities should not be allowed, like sexual harassment, coercion, or assault. These are not sexual activities but violence done by using sex as a weapon. Respecting others and honoring their human dignity should apply to everyone, with special attention to the marginalized who too often struggle for these basic recognitions.
I do think that student awareness that stereotypical hookup culture is the preference of only a small minority of students, about 20%, can help. Hooking up is not the preference of about 80% of students, including those who are not in the upper economic classes, those who are racial minorities, those who are highly religiously committed, and those who are part of the LGBTQ community.
This awareness can help to undermine the dominance of stereotypical hookup culture as the norm and, in doing so, weaken its marginalization of the vast majority of students. If students do want to hook up, they should be left to do so. If students do not want to hook up, they should not be penalized for doing so. These differences should be acknowledged as strong and viable social possibilities. If this is done, if the social penalties for being different are removed, most students will move from being marginalized to being able to pursue happier, healthier relationships.
Featured image credit: Caldwell Hall at The Catholic University of America by Farragutful. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.