Hookup Culture Week

This week, we dive into the inexplicably ridiculous social system that is hookup culture. In college, most of us experienced dates that were "group hang outs with his entire friend group" and commitment seen as a four letter word. For many women, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

College and early adulthood is a selfish time in life, one that encourages you to better yourself and prioritize your own ambitions. Opting for more casual romantic relationships hypothetically allows you to do it all. Sadly though, our personal choices are damned if we do, damned if we don't. Wait for a serious relationship before getting physical? Prude. Have sex with zero expectations for a follow up? Slut. This sexual double standard, one that says while men are expected to desire and pursue opportunities regardless of context, women are expected to avoid casual sex, complicates an already frustrating scenario. We're told by gendered beliefs that women should be in a committed relationship (find Prince Charming) and by class beliefs that prioritizing self over relationships is the key to success (find Prince Charming but only after graduating, landing a job as a Fortune 500 CEO, and freezing your eggs.)

Holly Wood is a sociology doctorate student at Harvard currently studying what happens between graduation and marriage for women. When it comes to hookup culture, she knows what's up.

"I think it's reductive to say women 'choose' the hookup culture because based on what I've read on the subject, what I knew from college and from what I can tell talking to undergraduates, there doesn't seem to be a lot of 'choice' at all," she says. "While my research isn't on the subject of hookup culture, many of the women I interviewed felt they had little opportunity to have the kinds of relationship experience they wanted in college. In their own view, it wasn't on the table for them to 'choose.'"

When you think of college hookup culture in that context, the blaring lack of control is obvious. Rather than creating the culture ourselves, we have to work with what's available and juggle the clashing expectations society puts on us as women. In a four year study, Dr. Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura Hamilton tracked a group of female students through college and found that the hookup culture was rooted deeply in social structure. The pressure wasn't always coming from the students, either. Rules and "normal" behavior at each house, enforced by the administration and the Greek organizations at a corporate level, furthered the double standard:

The notion that hooking up is okay for men but not for women was embedded in the organization of the Greek system, where most parties occurred: Sorority rules prohibited hosting parties or overnight male visitors, reflecting notions about female behavior. In contrast, fraternities collected social fees to pay for alcohol and viewed hosting parties as a central activity.

"It's tricky because we are living in a culture that wants to frame everything as a choice and to hold the chooser fully responsible for any choices they made," says Wood. "I don't think 17-year-old women think they're 'choosing' to attend a college where the prevailing sexual culture is organized around hookups with few alternatives. More accurately, the college is what they chose and the hookup culture is what they accept."

Hookup culture arguably begins in college and continues into early adulthood, until suburban dreams of serious commitment make finding Mr. or Mrs. Right a priority. That being said, hookup culture hasn't exclusively replaced what we think of as good old fashioned commitment - when England surveyed more than 14,000 students from 19 colleges and universities, they found that 69% of heterosexual students had been in a committed relationship of six months by their senior year. So while hookup culture is the prevalent influence and option in our society, commitment in college hasn't completely gone out of the window. We're made to think that hookup culture is what we're supposed to be participating in and so, depending on who you fall for, the desire for a committed relationship might not be mutual. After all, there's plenty of time for committed relationships later in life, right?

When you graduate, there's suddenly a realization of how much of a bubble college was. There was less pressure of a timeline and close proximity made meeting potential partners easier. In the real world, life is much harsher. "You have to make friends with virtual strangers hoping some of them will stick around long enough to be friends," says Wood. "Our precarious careers demand that we stay flexible, movable, and adaptable so we know better than to commit ourselves and make promises."

And as crazy as it sounds, Wood says, women are resolving a contradiction in their twenties between building a career and building a family.

"People don't think single women are family-planning, but they are definitely are. They are extraordinarily conscious of how much time they have to do both before turning 35," she says. "Most single, professional women have a tight itinerary for how their twenties need to go to pull them both off. I call this the 'reverse timeline.' If society makes you feel like you need to be married by 30, allowing for the equally normative two-year courtship and a one-year engagement, this means you need to—at the latest—meet your partner by 27. This schedule, then, allows women only a 5-year window before she feels she is falling behind. I just don't think college-educated women in their twenties feel like they have the luxury of deferring commitment to a later age."

Talk about pressure! Most of the men Wood interviewed spoke of marriage as an inevitability, something they assumed would happen, rather than a time frame they had to meet before all hope was lost.

"I don't think their male peers experience the next five years out of college under this pressure and that difference, I think, really affects how they approach dating and relationships," says Wood. "I think men allow themselves to be more romantic and serendipitous while women feel they must be more purposeful and mindful of their time."

While we'd love to give you the full toolbox to take control of your dating life and say sayonara to the haters, it's not quite that simple. The double standard is pervasive and the idea that you (somehow) have to be both high achieving and happily dating at all times is stressful. So, this week we'd like to remind you that you have the power to feel validated in your choices. If you choose to take time for yourself and a break from the (somewhat depressing) bar scene, do it! You won't miss out on meeting your next significant other because you opted for a night in over a night out. If you want to go on a date with someone, ask them out. And if you don't feel the need to date seriously and are enjoying exploring your options, that's ok too. From an article about enjoying the single life, to the hilariously honest perspective of a guy, to an interview with Dr. Eve, we hope this week empowers you.

And when it comes to accepting the occasional Saturday-night-alone-on-the-couch-with-Ben-and-Jerry reality that is part of dating, Wood puts it best:

The emotional pain that comes from dating is real. I feel like a lot of experts, when they talk about dating, they are so removed from what it's like to feel hopeless, lonely, and scared. But I think there's a lot of empowerment to be had in being able to accept that dating sucks. You realize it's not you. You're not bad at dating. Dating itself sucks. If it hurts, it's not because you suck, it's because it's a fairly poor way of finding connection.

Feature photo by Umberto Corisco.