“Hookup culture” has become a normalized term to describe casual sexual relationships. Millennials and Gen Zers are having more “meaningless” sexual relationships than our predecessors, but hooking up isn’t new and with the rising usage of dating websites and apps, it’s easier than ever.
Factors like dating apps, easier access to birth control, surplus outlets to purchase condoms and readily available emergency contraceptives make casual sex almost too easy.
Despite that, it seems as if young people are having less sex. In 1991, 54 percent of high school students were sexually active. In 2017, that number dropped to 40 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Sex is common among college students, and it’s ingrained in collegiate culture, where there are often clear-cut expectations about what “college life” will bring.
Hookup culture doesn’t have a cut and dry definition; rather, it means different things for different students.
“It’s a little fuzzy now in college,” said Pablo Lemus, a third-year chemical engineering student at UC. “I would think it means sex in college, in high school it means making out … It’s usually a weekend and means they’re drunk.”
“It’s one night stands with people who don’t care about who you are at all,” said Allie Cole, a first-year dance student at Florida State University. “One night and they never talk to you again. Guys here, all they want to do is hookup. They don’t have the notion of talking to you, getting to know you, taking you on a date — anything like that. It’s definitely more prominent with guys, but girls do it too.”
For some, it’s about having a person who functions as your “booty call,” meaning the relationship doesn’t exist outside of the bedroom.
“I think [hookup culture] is expected,” said Jasmine Jay, a fourth-year psychology student at UC. “It’s getting on an app and then meeting up pretty abruptly. You don’t even hang out, you just have a drink, and then immediately get to business. The worst experience is when they expect it right away.”
In “What’s So Cultural about Hookup Culture?” Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College, said, “When students arrive on campus, they don’t just encounter the opportunity to hook up, they are also immersed in a culture that endorses and facilitates hookups. Ceding to or resisting that culture then becomes part of their everyday lives.”
It’s undeniable that hooking up is a huge part of the culture on campus. Seventy-two percent of men and women surveyed reported participating in at least one hookup by their senior year of college, according to the article “Is Hooking Up Bad for Young Women?”
“By senior year, roughly 40 percent of those who ever hooked up had engaged in three or fewer hookups, 40 percent between four and nine hookups, and only 20 percent in 10 or more hookups,” the article reads. “About 80 percent of students hook up, on average, less than once per semester over the course of college.”
Many of the students interviewed for this story described moments where they found themselves in the arms of a stranger after a night of drinking or partying — particularly younger college students who are still learning how to manage and embrace sexuality.
The potential problems with hookup culture might remind you of a high school sex education class. There’s the potential for STIs, unplanned pregnancy, rape and “catching feelings.” But despite fairly easy access to contraceptives, many students don’t seem concerned about it.
“Personally, I experienced hookup culture, and it made me feel pathetic and ashamed while other women I know feel liberated by it,” said Natalia Sezer, a third-year peace, conflict and justice studies student at DePaul University. “I would say there’s a lot more predators out there [than] people who would like to spend genuine quality time with you as a woman.”
Gender plays a substantial role in hooking up, too.
“Men often find they have more leniency when it comes to casual sex,” Sezer said. “It’s entirely viewed on gender and sex. It’s very much rooted in patriarchal society. Hookup culture has been around for awhile. On the other side of the coin, when women are at play, it’s a different story.”
Wade said hookup culture offers a toolkit for embracing casual sex, but it does not offer much explanation for navigating other kinds of sexual engagement — including abstinence. For students who feel ambivalent, she says, many may decide to give hooking up a try.
The average age of marriage for women in 2017 was 27. For men, it was 29. In 1991, women were getting married out of college at age 23; men at 26. Since people are getting married later, finding a lifelong partner in college is not necessarily a priority for most.
“I want to have as much as fun as possible before I settle down,” Lemus said.
Regardless, experiences and perceptions of hookup culture are fluid and adaptable. Some want sex and hope it will turn into something more. Some hope they’ll never see the other person again. Some were taken advantage of, and it forever impacts their ability to casually hook up. Some look for a sexual epiphany that isn’t destined to come.
One thing is clear: Hookup culture has evolved over the years. The ways that college students are having sex, finding partners and hooking up is drastically different from generations that came before us. For better or for worse, students are freer than ever to explore their sexuality on college campuses. Whether it has “meaning,” whether it’s casual or frequent or even if it only happens once, the choice is always ours.