If Hookup Culture Doesn’t Exist, Why Did We Invent It?


Towards the end of my sophomore year, a classmate of mine was expressing her frustration with our college’s dating scene. In between the usual complaints about slim pickings and crappy bars, she dropped a bombshell: one of my most conventionally attractive, social friends hadn’t been with a guy for over a year. No relationships, no casual flings, and definitely nothing in the frustratingly ambiguous category of “hooking up.” According to a new study from the University of Portland, that conversation isn’t an anomaly in this trend piece-fueled era of hookup culture hysteria. As it turns out, the emperor has no clothes — or more accurately, he doesn’t take them off nearly as much as everyone seems to think he does.

The raw numbers come from sociologist Martin Monto, who compared national surveys of college students’ sex lives in the early 1990s (1988-1996) and mid 2000s (2002-2010) and found “no evidence of substantial changes in sexual behavior that would support the proposition that there is a new or pervasive ‘hookup culture’ among contemporary college students.” More specifically, kids these days aren’t having any more sex with any more partners than they did 20 years ago. If anything, we’re less sexually active, given that the more recent crop of surveys Monto included in his study included far fewer students reporting they had sex at least once a week. It’s a lot less fun to freak out over than horror stories of drunken Ivy Leaguers getting their freak on in fraternity basements, but it’s also a lot less anecdotal.

Though Monto’s survey is probably the most comprehensive rebuttal to date of the idea that “hookup culture” has successfully corrupted the youth and destroyed college dating, it’s also far from the first. In a piece for Slate that urged the blogosphere to take a few deep breaths after Kate Taylor’s New York Times piece briefly set the media on fire, Lisa Wade reminded readers that the median number of hookups among college students is just seven in four years. Only 14% hooked up over ten times in four years, and fewer than half of said hookups actually involved having sex. (Wade’s numbers were pulled from a paper with the less-than-promising title “Is Hooking Up Bad For Young Women?” Fortunately, the answer is a flat “Nope.”) And more than a few bloggers have pointed out that ten partners in four years isn’t a shockingly high number if it’s averaged out over an entire college career. One partner every two or three months is far from the twice-a-weekend nightmare scenario that had parents clutching their pearls.

This isn’t to say there hasn’t been some change in college students’ relationship habits. Monto found that today’s coeds are more likely to have sex with a friend or casual acquaintance and less likely to have a regular partner, let alone a spouse. But all that’s in line with the less apocalyptic view of hookups I described last month: they’re just one kind of the increasing variety of relationships college students are comfortable with. College relationships aren’t a zero-sum game between singledom and pre-marriage monogamy anymore, and while hookups are part of that change, they certainly aren’t all of it. So where does all the manufactured outrage at hookup culture come from if not, well, reality?

There’s the simplest explanation, which also happens to be the easiest: older generations always like to tell themselves that their kids are taking society to hell in a handbasket, and in the absence of hard evidence, there’s nothing left to do but simply make something up and manufacture outrage accordingly. After all, the ideal against which “hookup culture” is implicitly contrasted — chaste, long-term relationships on the fast track to 2.1 kids and a house in Westchester — was blown to bits in the 1960s, not five years ago. As Monto’s study suggests, college relationships have been this way for quite some time. The key difference is that Gen Y has aged into college dating while Gen X has aged into writing about it, leaving us with a textbook “do as I say, not as I did” generational dialogue.

But chalking up the myth of hookup culture to age gap alone ignores a few very real differences between the way millennials (sigh) approach relationships, both romantic and platonic, and the way our parents do. For one thing, the rhetoric surrounding our experience of casual college relationships lacks the idealism that accompanied the so-called Sexual Revolution, when hookups truly were a novelty. No one’s trying to couch friends with benefits or one-night stands as an act of resistance against staid social norms or a post-patriarchal romantic utopia. The reality, to us, is far more prosaic: hookups are a fact of life, something we accept as part of our social fabric before we even step foot on campus. We’re the first to see casual relationships not as a revolution, but the status quo. It’s that attitude that sets us apart from those who upended the conventional wisdom about college dating in the first place, and what might strike Baby Boomers as a little discomfiting.

We’ve also been given a whole new set of tools to broadcast that attitude to anyone who’ll listen. Anyone who’s ever been stuck in a Facebook-stalking time suck knows the paradox of social media: tweets and Instagrams and status updates are the virtual highlight reels of people’s lives, exaggerating the exciting parts and conveniently leaving out the bad or boring. While it’s easy to acknowledge that reality for oneself, it’s equally difficult to shake the nagging feeling that everyone else really does live like their online persona. That principle applies just as much to hookup culture as it does to girls’ nights out and weekends at the beach — people tend to talk about it a hell of a lot more than they participate in it.

A cursory look at the half-dozen feeds I keep up with yields plenty of oblique references to booty calls, drunken make-outs, and past flings. Two anonymous Twitter accounts that bill themselves as semi-satirical accounts of life on my campus constantly refer to hookups. There’s even a now-deleted blog of nothing but couples spotted making out at local bars (then photographed, presumably without their consent, and posted to the Internet for all to see). If one took all this at face value, and most of us do whether we admit it or not, it’s easy to see why, even though hookups aren’t particularly common, Wade reports that 91 percent of college students still claim that hookup culture “dominates” their campus social life.

What’s changed for college students isn’t our sex lives, then: it’s the way we talk about them. But while the average freshman could be forgiven for thinking his or her oversharing classmates speak for every one, the legions of trend piece writers eagerly feeding into tired stereotypes of the sex-crazed coed should know better. “Hookup culture,” or at least the version of it that’s touted as something novel and therefore threatening, simply doesn’t exist. Now that we know it, it’s time to move on.