Like most Gen X mental health professionals, my exposure to youth culture has waned over the years. The one direct experience that’s kept me in touch is that I teach an undergraduate course at Northwestern University called Building Loving and Lasting Relationships: Marriage 101.
As a former student shares the story of her first first date, I’m struck by how the whole concept of dating is brand new to this girl and her friends, though sexual experiences are not. On college campuses across the country, “hooking up” has all but replaced traditional, old-school dating rituals, and I can’t help feeling uneasy that for many young adults, getting naked with someone you barely know is less newsworthy than meeting up for a drink and a conversation. After all, this is exactly how she’s been living since she was in her early teens. “My generation is really public,” she explains. “We put it all on Facebook and Instagram. It’s how we live.”
Donna Freitas, in her book The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused about Intimacy, offers this definition of a hookup.
Of course, not every student participates in hookup culture. Some are indeed in committed relationships, while others remain single but take sexual relationships seriously. Many students are like Sasha, a bubbly and warm 20-year-old, who struggles with conflicting emotions around the hookup culture she’s immersed in. “This is what I always say about the hookup scene,” she tells me. “During the day I feel like a human being, and at night I feel like a sexual commodity. I’m focused on who might want to hook up with me, and not thinking about my personality or my aspirations.”
- A hookup includes some form of sexual intimacy, anything from kissing to oral, vaginal, or anal sex, and everything in between.
- A hookup is brief---it can last from a few minutes to as long as several hours over a single night. The hookup may be a drunken makeout on the dance floor or involve sleeping over and taking the so-called “walk of shame” in the morning.
- A hookup is intended to be purely physical in nature and involves both parties shutting down any communication or connection that might lead to emotional attachment.
As she speaks, I’m struck by just how sad and scary her behavior seems to me. When strangers (or near-strangers) mix sexual activity with copious amounts of alcohol, giving and receiving sexual consent becomes a tricky business. A 2007 study in The Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that 90 percent of the unwanted sex reported by college women occurred during a hookup. But beyond the physical danger is the emotional one. Rather than focusing on who and what she desires, Sasha moves through her social life wondering who’ll desire her, removing herself from the driver’s seat of her own love life.
What Kayla, another student, shares next feels typical as well. “We were getting to know each other a little, and then one day I asked him what he’d done the night before, since we were at different parties.” She leans toward me as she shares this next piece, but her voice stays steady and sure. “Turns out, he slept with some random. I was so upset and disappointed, but I wasn’t surprised. I told him that he needed to be either with just me, or not me at all. Then he turned the whole thing on me, calling me crazy and saying, ‘We were fine until you got all weird on me.’ But I could tell by the way he’d broken the news to me that he knew I’d be upset. I was embarrassed that he chose to have sex with someone else when I know he liked having sex with me. But the worst part was that I felt so brokenhearted about it---and so dumb about feeling so brokenhearted.”
Are Millennials Really So Different?
Again and again, I talk with young adults whose actions don’t line up with their stated intentions, desires, and beliefs. They seem to have difficulty quieting the outer noise, tuning into their inner values, beliefs, and emotions, and using that awareness to guide their behavior in their intimate relationships. In other words, they’re loving out of alignment.
When I ask the students in my class how they’d like their relationships to unfold, their preferred narrative goes something like this: we hang out as friends, get close over a period of months, and then once there’s trust and closeness, we start having a sexual relationship. I suspect it indicates that young adults are craving some safety to balance their adventure.
Calling All Rebels
Meanwhile, hookup culture continues to thrive, even though most therapists would love to see young adults create something more fulfilling than ambiguous, drunken, unsatisfying sex. Here’s the problem, though: today’s college students tend to be awfully compliant when it comes to hookup culture, and I find myself wondering why. Is it that as a culture we no longer encourage young people to question the status quo? With our cultural insistence on a narrow and meritocratic path to success, it feels awfully unfair to expect young adults to manifest romantic coherence when our culture seems to reflect back to them anything but.
Unless you’re working at a college counseling center---or happen to have learned more personal lessons about the struggles of Millennials in your own family---the world of hookup culture may seem a bit like a foreign country, filled with strange and sometimes off-putting customs. At this point, most Millennials don’t have the income or the inclination to frequent our offices or engage in the custom of regular psychotherapy appointments, which may seem strange and archaic to many of them. But one thing is certain: in the coming years, therapists will be getting an increasingly close-up look at the long-term consequences of what it meant to learn about the possibilities of love and commitment at a time when technology and changing cultural norms were transforming the way young people connected with each other. Whatever changes lie ahead in our cultural rituals for coming-of-age relationally, we’ll be seeing in our therapy practices the emotional legacy of hookup culture, in all its rawness and frantic incoherence, for many years to come.
This blog is excerpted from "Inside Hookup Culture." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today! And check out more FREE blogs from our authors on Sex & Sexuality.
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