The hookup culture: Having casual relationships is the new dating

It’s Friday night – how many students are out on bona fide dates? You might find more people at the library.

For older generations, Friday night in college was date night. Now, Friday night is dance club night, party night, movie night or whatever night students want it to be. There’s a big, obvious reason behind the downfall of dating: it’s called hooking up.

Today’s college students live in a hookup culture marked by casual sexual encounters – hookups – often accompanied with a no-strings-attached attitude. As a result, old-fashioned dating has fallen by the wayside.

What’s in a word?

So, does hooking up mean getting to first base, rounding third or making it home? The answer: yes.

From kissing to consummating, “hookup” is the college kid buzzword for everything and anything physical.

“It is intentionally ambiguous because your generation can describe anything they want under that umbrella definition,” said Laura Stepp, a reporter for The Washington Post who is conducting extensive research on the hookup culture for a book she is writing. The book, published by Penguin, is set to come out within the next year.

To research the hookup culture, Stepp has talked to developmental psychiatrists, neuroscientists, sociologists, historians, young people, parents and teachers. She also taught a journalism special topics class at GW last semester on gender in the media and focused the class on the hookup culture and gray rape. (see story “A gray area,” p.9)

Hooking up has largely replaced the term dating, Stepp said, with one important distinction: a sexual connotation.

“A non-sexual term like dating had been replaced with a sexual term,” she said. “When you say you’re dating, no one knows about a sexual relationship.”

“Dating” has taken on a different meaning for today’s generation of students. And for many, it means too much commitment for comfort.

“Dating is way too serious. Dating is like being married,” Stepp said. “Your generation doesn’t have a good word for between hooking up and being married.”

Stepp, 53, said her generation’s in-between word was “going steady.” For today’s generation, “going steady” is as out of style as poodle skirts.

These concepts can be baffling to parents, professors and members of older generations who are used to a courtship culture, not a hookup culture. But, the truth is it can be confusing for young people too. When so much can be defined as hooking up, people are sometimes left in a relationship limbo.

This hookup haziness is why the culture is an upcoming topic in the R.E.A.L. Conversations series, student-organized discussions about subjects that are relevant to college life. The discussion, which will take place next semester, is called “More than a hookup: Exploring college relationships.”

“We all kind of have these different relationships with whoever our partners are, but when does it become something more?” said senior Trinh Tran, who helps organize the R.E.A.L. Conversations series. Other upcoming discussion topics include interfaith dating, abortion and affirmative action.

“It’s really hard to define – whether you’re boyfriend and girlfriend,” Tran said. “There’s a difference between what a guy thinks and what a girl thinks about a hookup.”

Tran, who said she only has two friends in committed relationships, is single, and that’s the way she likes it. “I don’t believe in exclusive dating,” she said.

Grace Henry, a Student Activities Center assistant director who oversees the R.E.A.L. Conversations series, said students now have more pride in participating in casual relationships than when she was a college student in the mid-90s.

“I think there was always a hookup culture, it just wasn’t as celebrated as it is now,” Henry said. “Now, it’s a badge of honor to be dating and not attached. It used to be an act of deviancy.”

Exclusivity aside, some college students just want to go out on a date. Based on that idea, 24-year-old Alan Danzis started a blind date show for his school’s television station when he was a student at Maryland’s Loyola College in 2002. Pairing up students and filming their first dates, Danzis said the show’s aim is to revive the idea of dating. The show became so popular that it is now filming blind dates at schools across the country and airing nationally on The U Network, a college cable station.

“At least at our school, there was no dating atmosphere,” Danzis said. “For the pilot episode, we asked students what dating on campus was like and everyone basically said ‘there is no dating.'”

For the first episode, Danzis and the shows’ other producers held auditions and asked students why they wanted to go on blind dates. Most of their answers, especially from the girls, went something like this: “We don’t go on dates and it sounds like fun.”

The Independent Women’s Forum conducted an 18-month study in 2001 called “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Dating and Mating Today.” The research team interviewed more than 1,000 college women from schools across the country. Only 50 percent of women said they had been asked on six or more dates since they came to college. One-third said they had been asked on two dates or fewer.

Junior Jason Hipp, president of the Out Crowd, a group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, said the hookup culture is comparable within the gay community. He has few friends in committed relationships, but as many of them are heterosexual as homosexual.

Honing in on hooking up

There are a lot of reasons why hooking up has become the name of the game and old-fashioned dating is sitting on the bench.

A big reason involves the changing social roles of women and the evolution of female sexual freedom.

“In our generation, if you didn’t have a date, you didn’t dare go out on a Friday night,” Stepp said.

Now, young women cannot only show their faces on Friday night sans dates, but they are also less likely to be considering men as marriage prospects. With improved gender equality, many women in college are preparing for self-sustaining careers and are more likely to be scoping out Mr. Man-for-the-moment rather than Mr. Marriage material.

“I was expected to go to college so I could get my MRS degree. Your degree was something you went back to after your kids grew up,” said English professor Jane Shore, who went to college in the 60s.

Another reason hooking up is commonplace – 24 hours in a day doesn’t leave much free time for the modern student.

“You have plans for graduate schools and careers and you have financial burdens to make good on your parents investment and you really don’t have time for a relationship,” Stepp said. “Hooking up is a kind of weigh station for you as you prepare other plans.”

The hookup culture has its pros and cons. Among the pros: “It’s allowing women to go out and have a good time,” Stepp said. “The girl doesn’t have to sit at home at night waiting for a boy to call.”

Today’s students also have closer friendships with people of the opposite gender than was commonplace in older generations.

“In high school, I had a boyfriend and he was the only guy I knew – he and my dad. As a result, I had a very skewed perception of young men,” Stepp said, adding that the opposite-sex friendships in today’s generation are promoting better understanding between the genders.

The hookup effect

Hooking up happens, so what happens after hooking up? It isn’t always as carefree as it seems.

“What happens is usually one of two partners becomes attached,” Stepp said. “It becomes for that person more than a hookup. But, they won’t call it something else.”

Stepp added that the attached person is normally the female in a heterosexual hookup.

“The culture really benefits men. It gives men what they want without women getting what they want,” said senior Anthony Moniello, who took Stepp’s class. “A lot of times, a girl will hook up with a guy, but then she’ll want to see him again. For men, it will be a more physical thing.”

Moniello said Stepp’s class opened his eyes to the negative aspects of living in a hookup culture. He said the class, which sometimes would feel more like “a psychiatrists’ office,” made him want a girlfriend.

“We talked a lot about companionship and why people want it and why people neglect it,” Moniello said. He estimated that only about 5 percent of his friends are in committed relationships.

A serious effect of the hookup culture involves the implications of greater female sexual freedom.

“If girls are freer to be sexual, guys assume they are going to be,” Stepp said.

This is a topic students often talk about – what does it mean when a girl wears a short skirt to a club? Is there a difference between acting like a slut and being one? If a girl seems promiscuous, can you blame a guy for trying?

“It’s a positive thing that girls are able to express their sexual desires in a way they haven’t been able to. What’s hard for girls in learning how to control that. It’s fun to flirt, but there’s a line where flirting becomes something else,” Stepp said. “Women being able to express sexuality is a good thing, there just need to be boundaries. The difference is you have to set those boundaries yourself – society set them for me.”

Generation gap

Between “going steady” and “hooking up,” older generations and today’s generation aren’t just used to different social norms – they’re speaking different languages.

“Adults don’t know what’s going on,” Stepp said. “They’re confused by it and I don’t think they know how to begin the conversation. I just don’t think they have the vocabulary.”

It’s no surprise that many students and their parents aren’t on the same page about relationships, and this lack of understanding might be fueling the hookup culture even more. Young people, particularly young women, need “guided conversations” about setting individual boundaries, Stepp said. And these types of conversation just don’t happen very often.

Older adults can be na?ve about what really happens in a promiscuous hookup culture, and in some cases, they are less knowledgeable about sex than their children. Shore, the English professor, said her 17-year-old daughter recently taught her about contraception.

Sex aside, young people aren’t getting a lot of relationship training either. Stepp said adults can have an even harder time talking to young people – a generation jaded by high divorce rates – about love.

“Frankly, I think a lot of people are not in very happy marriages,” Stepp said. “They’re in marriages that are kind of so-so. So, they don’t know how to even talk to young people about what a relationship is because they’re not in one. And they don’t want anyone to know that.”

What’s missing in a hookup culture?

For a generation that’s not very familiar with dating, people might wonder what they’re missing.

“Dating, for all its shortcomings, allowed a couple to practice true

intimacy. It allowed you to get to know each other,” Stepp said.

Jeff Scheller, who graduated last year, went on his first date with his wife in September of freshman year. Neighbors in the Hall on Virginia Avenue, the couple started dating soon after and got engaged right before beginning their senior years at GW.

Being engaged in college and getting married months after graduation was typical for students’ parents, but is anything but typical now.

“It was really unusual – definitely not the norm,” Scheller said, adding that the hookup culture is “a ridiculous atmosphere that we’ve put ourselves into.”

“Society has changed to an on-demand culture,” Scheller said. “We want everything now, and we don’t want to wait to build a relationship.”

Rather than hanging out in large groups of friends and participating in random hookups, Scheller and his wife would frequently socialize with other couples when they were at GW. Most of his friends in college, however, were not in serious relationships.

While it’s certainly not the norm anymore to get married right after graduation, it is unclear what future marriage trends will be. The hookup culture may be showing that young people have an aversion to committed relationships, but research shows that marriage is still important to them.

An Institute for Social Research Monitoring the Future study in 2001 found that 88 percent of young men and 93 percent of young women consider it quite or extremely important to them to have a good marriage and family life. The study surveyed about 50,000 eighth, tenth and twelfth graders.

What future marriage trends will be is one of Stepp’s biggest inquiries as she researches and writes her book. The hookup culture is a topic that she said has not been extensively written about.

“My hope with this book is that your classmates will read this book,” she said. “I’m working very hard to make it reflective of your generation without being judgmental.”

In her research of the hookup culture, Stepp has concluded that there are both positive and negative causes and effects of “this new form of relating.”

“You haven’t created the perfect relationship, but you’re on your way.”

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