Hookup Culture May Define Millennials, But It Is Not The Only Option

The term "hookup culture" is used to describe a casual, unattached and promiscuous approach to dating and sex that shuns "the emotional entanglement of a relationship." The Millennial generation is defined by this hookup culture, but Millennials' parents can't seem to make sense of it.

While pop culture and the media certainly promote this culture of hooking up, just how accurate are their portrayals? Hookup culture has undoubtedly replaced traditional dating for Millennials, as casual sex with strangers and friends-with-benefits arrangements have become more prevalent than long-term romantic relationships. In fact, according to an article in Slate, "91% of college students agree that their lives are dominated by the hookup culture." That said, there may be less pressure to join in on hookup culture than pop culture suggests. 

For many older people, hookup culture seems grim, and represents the end of romance and chivalry. Donna Freitas's popular book The End of Sex suggests that "hookup culture is leaving a generation unhappy, sexually unfulfilled, and confused about intimacy" or consider the New York Times article "The End of Courtship." Members of Generation X, who were more prone to long, meaningful relationships, and often married earlier, simply do not understand the appeal of a dating culture that centers around hooking up and going your separate ways. 

Last week, a New York Times article about hookup culture went viral. It was written by Kate Taylor, a student at the University of Pennsylvania who defended hookup culture, and challenged assertions that it constitutes a man's game. One anonymous female students interviewed by Taylor said that she "enjoyed casual sex on her terms." Sociologist Elizabeth A. Armstrong, of the University of Michigan, told Taylor that, "many privileged young people see college as a unique life stage in which they don’t — and shouldn’t — have obligations other than their own self-development." Busy schedules, a focus on work and extracurriculars, and the unwillingness to commit the time and energy to build a serious relationship have caused many Millennials to embrace hooking up, and abandon traditional dating. 

There are also people won't don't embrace hookup culture, but accept it as a fact of life. I have many friends who are disappointed and tired of the college dating scene. When relationships fail, many people participate in the hookup scene simply because it is there. By the time senior year rolls around, many people are ready to settle down in a meaningful relationship. Given that hooking up has become so popular, finding that relationship can be extremely difficult. 

While hookup culture has undoubtedly become the norm, pop culture is not doing a good job of capturing the reality of it. A film titled The To Do Liststarring Aubrey Plaza will hit theaters next week. The synopsis reads, "feeling pressured to become more sexually experienced before she goes to college, Brandy Clark makes a list of things to accomplish before hitting campus in the fall." Movies like Easy A and Superbad, and shows like Greek and Girls go to great lengths to portray hookup culture at its extreme; they depict college and post-graduate life as an environment in which everyone is sexually experienced and constantly hooking up. 

Recently, a mother took to Craigslist in order to find a "sugar baby" for her "extremely smart but socially awkward" Harvard-bound son. She started off with the disclaimer "this is going to sound strange," and went on to write an ad seeking a girl to take her son's virginity and give him the sexual experience he so desperately needs before going to college. The post, as absurd as it may be, reveals the common conception that if you aren't hooking up and having sex at college, you're an outsider.

Slate's article suggests that hookup culture is not all that it is hyped to be. According to the piece, the average graduating senior has hooked up with seven people, which boils down to fewer than two hookups per year. Even more eye opening is the statistic that "only about 40% of those hookups include sexual intercourse." Contrary to common conceptions of college as a time for students to be promiscuous and sleep around, "the typical student acquires only two new sexual partners during college," according to Slate.

Slate's article also revealed that characteristics such as race and socioeconomic status influence attitudes toward hooking up. According to one study of hookup behavior, those who hook up more than 10 times over the course of college "are more likely than others to be white, wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied and conventionally attractive." Those who do not fall into these categories not only hook up less, but "are more likely to disapprove of or be uninterested in the whole endeavor." If this is the case, then "people with privilege" are setting the terms of what is considered standard. "Their ideologies dominate our discourses, their particular set of values gets to appear universal, and everyone is subject to their behavioral norms," the article concludes. 

But the testimonies of those who embrace hookup culture often drown out those who willingly opt out. The New York Times reported that, according to an Online College Social Life Survey of campuses, "by senior year, four in 10 students are either virgins or have had intercourse with only one person." One junior at the University of Pennsylvania who was interviewed by Taylor said, “Sharing that side of myself with a stranger just seems very strange to me,” describing an unease that sociologist Armstrong called "common among students from relatively modest backgrounds."

For the time being, hookup culture is real and appears to be here to stay. But exaggerated and stereotypical depictions of college and post-graduate life in the media reinforce the idea that hookup culture is the only option. The prevalent casual attitude toward having sex and hooking up does not appeal to everyone, nor must it. Many underrepresented people are making conscious decisions to reject hooking up, opting instead for stable relationships or even abstinence.