"U Up?" - A Reflection on College Hookup Culture
The high school boyfriend narrative: it’s one that an overwhelming number of my friends identify with, and one that works its way into common discourse. It was easy. You date, you spend time together, and you ultimately decide to sleep with one another. Dating my high school boyfriend never brought uncertainty; we liked each other and it was easy. My own experience was one of mutual respect, which came as a result of a small-town upbringing. We had grown up together, and when we decided to lose our virginities to each other, my nervousness was alleviated by the trust I had for him. I knew that he cared about and valued me. My high school relationship was never plagued by ambiguity or dishonestly, and I was always an equal player.
I went into my freshman year of college unaware of what I would learn to be Hookup Culture: casual sex free of emotional involvement. During my first weekend, I started seeing an older boy who was from my same town. This relationship was my first source of comfort in a place where I knew no one. He was the second person I ever slept with, and soon after I realized the severity of my naivety. Although we shared similar upbringings and many mutual friends from home, he ultimately still treated me the same way he would have treated anyone else at school. After weeks of hanging out, I watched him leave a party with another girl. I walked home shocked, hurt and confused. Due to this experience, and many similar ones, I began to refine my expectations.
Through being conditioned by Hookup Culture I no longer demanded respect, nor did I feel like an equal player in my hookups. If I ended up going home with a boy, everything would be on his terms. He would be the only one to finish, the one to decide if we would spend the night together, and the one to control what would happen beyond that night. I was rendered powerless, but truly believed I was living my most liberated life. I learned to suppress my feelings, my desires, and ultimately, my needs.
There is an element of social policing that accompanies Hookup Culture, for women must act within a certain framework. If we sleep with too many people, we experience slut shaming. If we don’t hide our emotions well enough, we are referred to as “psycho” or “clingy.” You begin to reduce yourself to a number and hide your intentions. If I developed feelings and wanted more than casual sex, I would lie to myself keep going along with it anyway. I conflated vulnerability and honesty with rejection. I gave all the power to the other player.
What I neglected to acknowledge was my loneliness. I was willing to put up with feelings of inadequacy and disempowerment to feel wanted and adored for even a couple of hours. I would feel happy for a short while, until that feeling was replaced with confusion. I would ask myself: “Why I hadn’t I heard from him?” I would then transform into my largest critic and overanalyze everything about the hookup. “Had I said the right things? Was I good enough at sex?”. My first two years at college consisted of this pattern of self-loathing and disappointment, yet I perpetuated it anyway just for one night of feeling a connection with someone.
And I truly believed I was getting what I needed from these boys. I didn’t think twice when a hookup constituted forty-five seconds of lazy foreplay with no intention to make me orgasm. I ignored the fact that no one attempted to get to know me as a person, but rather liked me for my physical attributes. Not that there is anything wrong with being sexually attracted to someone, but neglecting to acknowledge their personhood is. I gave so much power to boys for the sports they played and for their “social capital” due to the culture within my school. I gave so much power to sports and social capital because Hookup Culture demanded it; it demanded those attributes above my very own being. Certain athletic affiliations were commended more so than others, just as certain friend groups were praised more so than others. I wasn’t alone in all of this. All my best friends understood this as well, but we pretended not to care. We just accepted Hookup Culture for what it is and for how bad it made us all feel. I also believed that ambiguous “things” with guys were real relationships. I didn’t expect to receive a text during the week, but would rather go out on the weekends with the sole intention to see the guy I was “hooking up with.” I waited for “are you out?” texts, without stopping to acknowledge the motives behind them.
Then, I fell in love during my semester abroad. I met someone who appreciated me for aspects of myself that no one had ever observed before. He noticed that my eyes turn from brown to green in the sunlight, that I play with my hair incessantly when I’m nervous, and that any degree of airplane turbulence makes every muscle in my body tense up. He held me closer when I told him about facets of my life that I had become accustomed to hiding. He also showed me the capacity that intimacy has, and he disproved my belief that I would never orgasm. Before I met him, no one had made the effort to understand my needs or my body. I felt beautiful and I felt loved.
Coming back from abroad during the my second semester of junior year was an adjustment. I was surrounded by this culture that I couldn’t get myself to participate in anymore. My first week back, I went home with a boy I had fantasized about going home with for quite some time. As we walked into his room, I realized I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t share myself with someone who hadn’t taken the time to get to know me, who didn’t love me, and who didn’t appreciate me for every quirk and flaw. I couldn’t give him my own sense of confidence and empowerment in exchange for awkward sex and ambiguity. I couldn’t give up being someone’s everything to be someone’s last resort on a Saturday night, especially when he was my first choice. I couldn’t do it.
I am grateful that I participated in Hookup Culture because of what it taught me about myself. There is nothing wrong with engaging in casual sex, but lack of reciprocity and consideration is what I find to be problematic for me. Additionally, my emptiness came from a lack of communication, as I was so afraid to tell anyone how I actually felt. If I was unhappy, I bottled it up and went along as if I didn’t care. I feared rejection.
It’s worth it for young adults to engage in this culture if they are being true to themselves and feeling dignified. It’s possible to hook up with people and not engage in the toxic elements of Hookup Culture; however, I sometimes find it quite difficult, especially at my school. It’s crucial to communicate your feelings and your needs, and to recognize when you’re not happy. Casual sex is not ruining us, but this sense of disconnect is. I found that I am my biggest advocate, and that if I don’t stand up for what I want then I perpetuate this cycle of feeling inadequate.
Ultimately, you should feel empowered, respected, safe, and heard in your sexual relationships; anything less might be worth reconsidering.