Dr. Donna Freitas (COL ’94) spoke about the current hookup culture and how it shapes the national conversation about sexual assaults on college campuses in an event titled “Blurred Lines: Sexual Assault and the Hookup Culture” Tuesday in White Gravenor Hall. The event was co-sponsored by Love Saxa, the Office of Student Affairs, the Tocqueville Forum and the Leadership Institute.
Freitas is a non-resident research associate at the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. She is also a fiction and nonfiction author with works appearing in national newspapers and magazines including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
Freitas took a holistic stance on consent, sexual assault and the college hookup culture, differing from the staunch assertions and rigid definitions that often frame the national conversation about sexual assault.
“Part of why we need to rethink the way we talk about consent and sexual assault in light of the hookup culture is because hookup culture is a culture where we are learning to be ambivalent about sex, ambivalent about our partners, to be ‘whatever’ about them,” Freitas said. “We are learning to not communicate around sex because ideally, the best way to stay unattached is to not pay attention or care about your partner. This does not mean that a hookup is sexual assault. It means that consent is often very murky in a hookup. It’s very, very blurred.”
College students are not content with the current hookup culture according to surveys of students from four-year college institutions — including Catholic, evangelical, public, and private-secular schools. The findings were presented in Freitas’ books “Sex and the Soul” and “The End of Sex.” After countless conversations with students about their hookup experiences, Freitas said she was able to define the social contract of the hookup.
“A hookup is a competition of who can care the least, and whoever cares the least wins,” Freitas said. “You are not supposed to care about your partner. Everybody sort of knows this — the social contract of a hookup — but in reality, it’s really hard to not get attached. However, you are not supposed to become vulnerable or emotionally invested to be sexually intimate. One of the tricks I kept hearing over and over was to not communicate with your partner.”
While almost no students in Freitas’ research were anti-hookup in theory, they felt overwhelmingly frustrated that the disconnected hookup seemed to be their only option in college. This self-imposed separation left the majority of students desiring more and raised warnings for Freitas during her study.
“One of the things I kept hearing was, ‘The best way to not get attached is to not communicate,’” Freitas said. “For me, I saw this as a big red flag. In order to consent, you need to communicate. In a culture of hooking up, what people are learning [is] that the best way to survive being sexually intimate is to not communicate at all.”
But conversations about consent usually disregard the fact that college students want to hook up and that alcohol often facilitates this. Because of this shortcoming, talk of consent does not reach the ears of students.
“We aren’t really looking at what consent means in the context of hookup culture,” Freitas said.
Freitas also said that the current conversation about casual sex is too simple and that hard questions are not often asked, while the very clear line between casual sex and sexual freedom is forgotten. Hooking up enables a culture of casual sex to settle in, leaving many feeling disempowered, according to Freitas.
Freitas’ message appeared to resonate with the group of students in the room, though Martha Strautman (COL ’18) said she was left searching for answers after the talk.
“I thought the talk was spot on,” Strautman said. “Dr. Freitas really captured how I have experienced the freshman college hookup scene so far this year. But, I found myself leaving the room feeling a little discouraged — I wish she kept talking. She outlined the issue and her research behind non-communication with partners and the competition to care less, but when students asked how we should act to change this, she didn’t really give an answer.”
Gabby Johnson (COL ’18) said she wishes that the extent of the talk could have reached a greater Georgetown University audience.
“I think that the workshops at the beginning of the year did not do such a great job about providing a good definition of consent,” Johnson said, referring to sexual assault awareness discussions that premiered at this year’s New Student Orientation.
“I don’t blame them because consent is so hard to define, especially when alcohol is brought into the equation,” Johnson added. “Dr. Freitas acknowledges this and really did a good job of focusing on the importance of consent, while allowing us to still hook up if we want to.”