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.

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