The start of college is an exhilarating time. Students enter their freshman year expecting to be challenged academically, to establish meaningful friendships and to develop the skills necessary for the “real world.” Despite these serious expectations, there is one facet of college that often seems to occupy a large role in students’ lives: hookup culture.
While the definition of a hookup is vague — ranging in meaning from kissing to sexual intercourse — it seems that the culture of hooking up is embedded in campuses everywhere.
Research from Georgetown alumna Donna Freitas (COL ’94), a research affiliate at the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, reaffirms the prevalence of hookup culture in her book “Sex and the Soul.”
In Freitas’ online survey of 1,230 undergraduates, 80 percent of students at Catholic universities and 78 percent of students at nonreligious private and public universities described their peers as either being “casual” or “too casual” about sex. Among all undergraduates surveyed in the study, not a single student said that they felt their peers valued saving sex for marriage, and only 7 percent said that their friends valued saving sex for committed, loving relationships.
This perception of a casual undergraduate approach to sex appears to be supported by research from the American College Health Association. An aggregate of results from the ACHA’s National College Health Assessment from 2004 to 2017 shows that 40.3 percent of surveyed Georgetown undergraduates had sex within 30 days before taking the survey.
But this statistic fails to tell the whole story, according to Carol Day, director of Georgetown’s Health Education Services. Students from the same survey also reported having an average of only one sexual partner per year.
“I think there’s a lot in the culture in general that leads people to the perception that college is a hookup place,” Day said. “When you look at our data in terms of numbers of students and numbers of partners, it does not necessarily support that.”
Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, spent five years researching hookup culture on various college campuses. In doing so, she discovered that most graduating seniors reported having had only one hookup per semester, half of which were with previous hookup partners. “There’s a lot of consternation about the students’ sexual activity,” Wade said in an NPR interview. “But it turns out that they are no more sexually active by most measures than their parents were at their age.”
Students may not be hooking up more than previous generations did, but it seems that they are viewing their actions differently. A key component of current hookup culture is emotional detachment: the idea that romantic feelings are to be completely removed from sexual intimacy.
Rather than fulfill a need for sexual satisfaction, hookups have begun to serve a more social role and occupy an important place in the college party scene.
“There always has been hooking up. Hooking up has always been an option, but now it’s considered sort of the right way to do college,” Wade said in an interview with The Hoya.
Hookups have asserted dominance on college campuses, but some studies suggest that many students wish this were not the case. Freitas found that in a group of 589 students, 41 percent appeared profoundly upset when describing how hookups make them feel. Additionally, 23 percent of surveyed students expressed ambivalence while 36 percent described feeling “fine” about hookups.
“It can feel pretty callous and hard and cold,” Wade said. “And so, a lot of times, students feel like it’s really emotionally difficult.”
Here at Georgetown, student reactions to hookup culture vary. A new student group, Love Saxa, has emerged in recent years to combat hookup culture and promote chastity and marriage between man and woman.
Amelia Irvine (COL ’19) and MyLan Metzger (COL ’19), president and vice president of Love Saxa, respectively, expressed frustration at the rise of hookup culture on campus.
“The hookup culture transforms people into objects because a human being becomes a means toward an end,” Irvine and Metzger wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We strip out the humanity of fellow Georgetown students, seeing them only for their sexuality. Because of this, the hookup culture damages all students, not just those who engage in it.”
Michaela Lewis (COL ’18) and Annie Mason (COL ’18), co-presidents of H*yas for Choice, disagree and feel that there are too many negative stigmas associated with hookup culture.
“Negative discourse around ‘hookup culture’ precludes the possibility of healthy, liberating, non-monogamous expressions of sexuality by privileging long-term, romantic relationships,” the two wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We hold that this sexual hierarchy is rooted in rigid heteronormativity and in the institutions historically responsible for the social and sexual repression of gender and sexual minorities.”
As far as the administration is concerned, Georgetown faculty want to encourage students to consider their values and make sure that they feel comfortable with their sexual decisions, whether it be before, during or after a hookup takes place.
“We encourage students to reflect on what is best for them when they make decisions about sexual activity with a partner,” Laura Kovach, director of the Women’s Center, said. “We hope that students take their sexual health and wellness seriously. We also want students to feel safe and that consent is given and received every single time, no matter the sexual activity.”
But, ultimately, it is important to remember that although hookup culture is available to students who are interested in participating, it does not have to be the norm.
“The advice I would give to an individual is: If hookup culture is unsatisfying or unappealing, then you need to start actually telling the people you like what you want from them,” Wade said.
As for the future of hookup culture, Wade does not see it changing anytime soon, especially because it has now started to extend beyond college campuses and emerge in society at large.
“No sexual culture is permanent,” Wade said. “But if anything, I think it’s been growing in power over the past 20 years on college campuses.”