Hook-Up Culture in College

The mainstream media obsesses about American colleges and the college experience. One of its points of interest is the so-called “hook-up culture” among college youth, a phrase notoriously hard to pin down but that basically refers to indiscriminate, casual sexual activity instead of long-term dating with a single partner.

The stories about the rise in hook-ups are almost always breathless and unbelievable. College parties are depicted as Girls Gone Wild retreats. Romantic pick-up lines are out, efficient phrases like “wanna fuck?” are in. Dinner and a movie are out, dark corners at parties in the basement are in.

I’ve never been sure whether the coverage of hook-up culture is extensive because it actually exists or if it’s more a reflection of: a) a journalist’s own voyeuristic desires, b) a journalist’s interest in portraying my generation as hedonistic and materialistic, c) a journalist’s interest in feeding us villains/victims/heroes stories, with teen girls being the victims, or d) shoddy research due to a journalist’s laziness (this includes not being more skeptical of teens’ claims about their social life – they/we tend to overstate sexual activity and drinking/drug use according to studies).

Now that I’m in college, my perspective is that hook-up culture is indeed exaggerated in the popular press, though I’m still unclear as to exactly why. Granted, I go to an academic liberal arts college which probably has less “Girls Gone Wild” flavor than a state school. And my sole perspective shouldn’t, in theory, be as credible as the commentator who checks out many campuses and gathers anecdotes. Still, in talking with people and in my own experience so far, large amounts of sex, drugs, and alcohol happen on my campus and others, but it’s far from the free-for-all that you read about in the papers.

Last week’s Wall Street Journal had an article ($) which epitomized the media’s overreach on this topic. Jeff Zaslow wrote about hook-up culture in the villains/victims vein. It contained one of those classic anecdotes designed to shock:

Obviously, boys no longer have to call girls on Wednesday for a Saturday date. Now, college boys seeking weekend hookups send girls “U busy?” text messages at 2 or 3 a.m., and girls routinely rouse themselves and go, according to Ms. Stepp’s research. Many girls spend the next day clutching their cellphones, waiting in vain for the boy to call.

Yeah, right. Look, there’s no doubt that hook-up culture is alive and well on college campuses, but exaggerating the case does nobody any good.


Here’s my review of Female Chauvinist Pigs in which author Ariel Levy says girls need to step up and stop perpetuating raunch culture. Here’s my post on “life, sex, and relationships” orientation in college.

13 comments on “Hook-Up Culture in College
  • Ben, while I agree that the case overally is probably exaggerated, I don’t think that last anecdote is at all. That kind of thing happens with grown women all the time, and I witnessed many girls submit to that kind of “relationship” many, many times as I was growing up. I still see it in women my age. It’s not a college thing, it’s a self-destruction thing.

  • i have to ask myself .. did you end up at the CMC that i graduated from in may? because let me tell you, your post does not ring true with what i saw during my four years there. in fact, i would say we were worse than what the media portrayed us. i also remember that i was overly optimistic about this my freshman year, and the truth slowly set on me slowly after the years passed. I strongly encourage you to revisit your comments after spending a little more time at CMC.

  • Ben, I think there may be a reporting bias here. Not because there are exaggerations but because reporters actually know sweet FA about what _really_ goes on.

    They write from a distance because things like this are hard to research; they cite people without names and who is to say they are not made up quotes, and then again, students love winding up journalists who follow them around in campuses.

    But, like Jackie says, the self-destruct “gene” is grossly over-expressed in some people, and you can find such people long after college is over.

    It goes beyond the culture of the college alone. It has a lot to do with “gene”-environment interaction or how a person’s low self-esteem deals with pressures of an environment where everyone says they are doing it with no way to verify or disprove it.

  • A couple of points:

    1. I don’t think the situation is exaggerated at all. I know of plenty of women that would sign up for that kind of “relationship”. Education and background have little to do with this mind set.

    2. Like someone else commented, this is not a “college thing”. A HUGE portion of the 30-something, single (and a few married) adults that I know want exactly this out of their relationships. They may camouflage it by having other social functions to be involved with, but they have this thought in the back of their minds.

    3. I am not sure why this is positioned as a negative “female” quality. Equal rights dictates that both men and women are actively participating in this lifestyle. Don’t men also have a low self-esteem if they are willing to just “hook up” instead of building a meaningful relationship?

    4. As a data point from an Internet perspective, AFF (Adult Friend Finder) is one of the most visited sites on the Web. And the entire point of the site is for 20-50 year olds to find hook up partners.

    5. As a rhetorical point, is this activity bad at all? If people (whatever portion of a society), look for this as their companionship, does it matter? We can take a moral highground and say that this activity is self-destructive and empty, but is it if people freely choose to do it?

  • I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Tom Wolfe’s book, I Am Charlotte Simmons, in which he addresses sexuality on college campuses, and its social context, especially the deleterious effects on young women of the hook-up ‘culture’.

    I’m no friend of Wolfe’s politics, and I think he may be a bit of a prig, but I would admit that he may have some insights worth considering.

    Yet, as a survivor of the drug and sex-fueled ’60s-’70s, I’d say rampant casual sex among young people is certainly nothing new, at least since the invention of the Pill.

    Don’t let your parents fool you– a large proportion of our generation were drug and sex fiends, and some of us are still.;-)

  • “Equal rights dictates that both men and women are actively participating in this lifestyle. Don’t men also have a low self-esteem if they are willing to just “hook up” instead of building a meaningful relationship?”

    That would only follow if men and women were the same. If a guy has sex with a woman, he’s just…had some sex. The woman, in most cases, attaches much more significance and importance to it than that. Men go into it with one major need: to have sex (biological drives and all that). Women are more than likely looking for more: intimacy, love, and closeness that lasts once the clothes are back on. Girls especially make the mistake of assuming that having sex with a guy will bring them closer together, especially before any sort of relationship has started to form. Whereas guys usually aren’t going to get into a serious relationship with a girl who puts out without having her other needs (for love, intimacy, respect) met.

    “As a rhetorical point, is this activity bad at all? If people (whatever portion of a society), look for this as their companionship, does it matter? We can take a moral highground and say that this activity is self-destructive and empty, but is it if people freely choose to do it?”

    It’s bad if it doesn’t work for the people involved. “Relationships” in which one is valued only as a sexual plaything don’t tend to work for most women (whereas I think a lot of guys would sign up without much hesitation). Of course an activity can be self-destructive and empty even if people freely choose to do it – drug abuse, anyone?

    Some things people have to figure out by suffering through them. From what I have seen of many women of my acquaintance, most women who SERIALLY get themselves involved in these non-relationships never really figure it out. Many girls figure out that it doesn’t work for them after the first time or two. I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess at how many ever truly understand why they are willing to put themselves in such a situation and settle for so little.

  • Hooking up is alive and well in Miami, I’ll tell you that much.

    I happen to agree with Jackie’s points, as well. Girls frequently makes themselves quite miserable over having slept with a guy and expected something lost-lasting in return.

    Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, such as the guy looking for something steady only to be kicked out of bed by the girl at the end of the night.

    Personally speaking, many (but not all) of the girls here on campus are very immature. It’s pretty unattractive to any guy who’s looking for something other than a ditz to fuck for the night and leave the next morning.

    Last but not least, I couldn’t always help but think… if she’s willing to sleep with me so easily, how many other times has she done this? Is it a compulsive behavior of some sort, is she mentally stable? Will she snap one night and say I forced myself on her?

    Older women are much better. Then again, being 21 isn’t very helpful; no money and no job isn’t very attractive.

    However, having more energy than other man in their 30s is.

  • Funny, I received *exactly* that kind of text last night. I’m 22, and while I didn’t respond to that particular text, I can’t say I haven’t in the past. However, I’ve also *sent* those texts, so my issue with that article is only with the last sentence. A hook-up culture is a two-way street, and I know many guys who clutch *their* cell phones all day waiting for calls that never come…

  • I think “hook up culture” can easily be defined as “people who are getting more than me”.

    That said, a change in style and a (possible) slight increase in quantity doesn’t mean that young people now are any more indiscriminate than in the past – as evidenced by the lengths many men in college still go to to get women’s attentions and the number who simply think this happens to everyone except them.

    The way it’s described sometimes any guy could just hand out a sheet resembling a petition to collect cell numbers then go through one after another any time they’re bored.

  • I would have to say that it is the media descriptions aren’t completely off. Many of my friends at school have never had a real boyfriend, and complain they don’t know how to get one, but yet these girls; once rejected by a “partner” are “with” a couple new guys in under 2 weeks.

    I never was a part of the hook up scene until January when a friend of mine argued that it was better. I had just come out of a year long relationship and gave it a shot. Now on any day, at any time I could call a girl in my phone and hook up or go to a party and meet someone. 100% chance. I’m not a stud or anything and these girls are respectable by all standards.

    Something is changing, but I don’t have a problem with it, although a relationship is more fulfilling– hooking-up is plain fun.

  • Hi Ben

    I am a young lawyer based in London and, after hearing you on smallbizpod.com, started browsing your blog.

    In the UK ‘hook ups’ are quite common but we call them ‘booty calls’ over here. I don’t think the journalists are exaggerating in their articles. I know a lot of women who want to have no strings attached and just a bit of fun after a night out, especially after drinking. The male stereotype is slowly being taken over by the women……

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