Hung Up About Campus Hookup Culture

Image courtesy of Creative Commons Zero

Nearly every evening, no matter how frigid the air outside, a warm, enchanting glow emanates from Le Majestique Montreal: a popular bar in the Jewish Quarter of St. Laurent. Beneath a row of incandescent light bulbs, couples sit on eclectic, mismatched stools, dining on oysters and white wine. 

Le Majestique is one of Montreal’s many bars, restaurants, and museums that give the city an aura of romance. In recent years, travel brochures and magazines have commented on Montreal being a nexus of love and charming date spots. Between ice skating on Beaver Lake in the winter and strolls through Atwater Market in the summer, it is not surprising how many view Montreal as the ideal weekend getaway for lovestruck couples.

And, considering how McGill’s campus is sandwiched between these art museums and hipster bars, dating culture for young people on campus must surely exude that same, intimate “Le Majestique” atmosphere, right?

Well, not exactly.

“Dtf?”: The Culture of Casual Hookups On Campus

Whether by virtue of its enormous size or its young, achievement-driven student body, McGill today facilitates a culture of anonymous, casual sex, more so than it does intimate long-term relationships. Young people today are not only having less sex than they have in the past, but this sex is becoming increasingly transactional. Students regularly “ghost” unwanted partners after a sour date, and they use dating apps that distill an individual’s complexities into simplistic profiles to rapidly swipe through. 

The dimensions of McGill’s dating climate can contribute to a sense of alienation and anonymity. The expectation of immediate physical gratification with intimacy as an afterthought pervades colleges campuses across North America today. Whether this culture of casual encounters is harming or empowering our generation is up for debate.

Hookup Culture Makes Us Doubt, “Am I Having Enough Sex?”

In her 2020 book, Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity, journalist Peggy Orenstein interviews dozens of young men in liberal arts colleges across North America. Orenstein describes how these young men on American campuses feel overwhelmed by the pressures of casual sex.

a lot of this fear is perceived, but not reflective of reality.

Hookup culture feeds into a mythos that other young people are having more sex — and better sex — than you. This comparison can foster a feeling of inadequacy, especially among young, heterosexual men, who often discuss sex and hookups with the language of conquest. One-time flings become another measurable commodity to amass and compare with peers, not unlike one’s GPA or number of Instagram likes.

Ironically, a lot of this fear is perceived, but not reflective of reality. According to the Online College Social Life Survey, a database that compiles research from over twenty U.S. colleges, the average undergraduate college student only has about seven to eight sexual partners over the course of a four year degree. Further, a sizable 25% of college students do not hook up at all.

A sexual partner every semester or so does not exactly sound like Bacchanal hedonism. Yet, the competitive culture of casual dating fosters unrealistic expectations and FOMO: a feeling that all college students are going at it like rabbits, and you’re excluded from all the freewheeling fun. 

Are Students Too Busy to Have Relationships? 

Between our executive meetings, the three midterm papers that have yet to be written, and our morning classes, it may feel like we just don’t have time for a dating life. In the face of a more competitive job market, students are under a lot of pressure from their parents and mentors to “do it all” with the hopes of securing a brighter future. And make no mistake, this pressure has been instilled in us since high school and remains persistent for years.

Students ultimately have to find time within their busy schedules to pencil in a possible date, and this does not come without any guilt. 

In Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millenials, Malcolm Harris argues that a “decline in unsupervised free time” is an important reason why young people are dating less and having less sex. Gone are the days when students had an entire Saturday to themselves; hangouts with friends have turned into group study sessions in the library. Students ultimately have to find time within their busy schedules to pencil in a possible date, and this does not come without any guilt. 

Young people are always going to have sex — it’s the when and how much that tend to differ throughout the generations. When we finish class at 5:25 pm, only to realize that we need four hours to catch up on some readings, that no-strings-attached, late-night “u up?” text does not seem too bad, and just may be the thing we need to take the stress off. 

What’s Scarier Than Vulnerability? “Ghosting” and Why Young People Do It

We’ve all been there — the moment you realize that it has been three whole days that the person you’ve been texting hasn’t responded. You can no longer try and convince yourself that they’re out with friends, that their phone is off, or that there is a family emergency; it’s clear that you’ve been ghosted.

 For those who are unfamiliar with the term, Urban Dictionary defines it as a situation in which “a person cuts off all communication with friends or the person they’re dating, with no warning or notice [beforehand].” 

Ghosting has unfortunately become a common practice among young people. To understand why, psychologist Dr. Jennice Vilauer points to the overwhelming amount of choice that accompanies modern dating that’s making us emotionally numb. Online dating is a very good example of this phenomenon. It seems easy to ghost someone when you’re talking to many people at once and are active on both Tinder and Hinge. The reality is that we are more likely to ghost people when the spaces that we are operating within are structured in such a way that do not make us feel accountable for our actions. 

thus, not responding seems like the easy way out.

Vilauer goes on to explain that ghosting ultimately reveals a lot about the person who perpetrated the ghosting and their capacity to deal with confrontation and their emotions. People would rather resort to ghosting because they’re too afraid to send a courtesy “I’m not really into this” text for fear of being questioned. Thus, not responding seems like the easy way out. 

However, the reason why ghosting hurts so much is due to both the ambiguity and abruptness that come with the practice. While the “Ghoster” may feel as though they have successfully avoided confronting an uncomfortable conversation, their actions only reveal their immaturity and their incapacity to take things head on.

Swiping Through Some Pitiful Partners

A culture of casual dating has its merits, too. Orenstein describes one male interviewee discussing how sifting through a string of casual, one-time flings helped him solidify his sexual preferences. Sociologist Lisa Wade echoes this sentiment in her 2017 book, American Hookup. As Wade describes, a series of one-time partners can solidify a person’s aversions in sex: a rapid-fire, trial-and-error method of determining what traits you don’t want in a significant other. 

Yet, unlike the slow process of serially dating as a young person, hooking up circumscribes the usual psychological benefits that accompany the ebb and flow of love and heartbreak. Psychotherapist Robi Ludwig argues that the agonizing pain that accompanies heartbreak is in fact useful, because it builds one’s emotional resilience and increases one’s self-awareness.

By avoiding intimacy altogether, one is cheating a natural process intended to improve one’s behaviour and interpersonal skills. Exclusively hooking up may protect you from becoming emotionally vulnerable, but it may also stunt your maturity long-term.

Hold Up! Feminists Fought So We Could Date Like This.

Still, Wade acknowledges how casual hookups can be liberating. After all, a culture of casual, consensual sex can be construed as the outcome of 1960s and 1970s North American sexual liberation movements. Activists fought for greater gender equality and the acceptance of sex outside traditional notions of monogamy and marriage. 

As grimy as a Tinder or Grindr one-night stand may feel, at least it demonstrates how society is starting to view sex as a means of pleasure, rather than strictly a method of reproduction. For hetereosexual couples, hookup culture has indeed subverted the narrative of the good woman who is in constant search of her future husband, and shows that women can enjoy a night of no-strings-attached fun and assert their independence in a similar way to men. 

Gayle Rubin, a feminist activist, argues that we still live in a culture that is seemingly “sex-negative,” in that it only endorses and promotes women’s sexuality if it remains within the confines of dominant heteronormative cultural practices, such as long-term monogamous relationships or marriage. This sex-negative worldview is still oppressive to women, as it places moral restrictions on their right to be sexually experimental and to have multiple sexual partners. In many ways, the defense of hookup culture contributes to the normalization of female sexuality.

…no one should feel “less cool” if they disliked their experience of casual sex.

While some might find our campus hookup culture empowering, it is definitely not for everyone. No one should be embarrassed if they are looking to be in a committed relationship and turn down a late-night invitation; no one should feel “less cool” if they disliked their experience of casual sex; and no one should ever feel pressured to partake in campus hookup culture just because it is the norm. While we are moving towards a more sex-positive world, it is still important to acknowledge that sex is individual, and, of course, consent remains of utmost importance.

Traditional Dating is Dying, But Is It Even Worth Resuscitating?

Walking along St. Laurent, one cannot help but feel instinctively envious about the happy millennials lounging underneath Le Majestique’s red-and-yellow marquee. Several years older than today’s undergraduates, they roamed lecture halls at a time where dating apps were still in their infancy, and their college years were marked by less FOMO and perceived inadequacy. 

Yet, as one continues walking, one gains a greater understanding of what we are gaining through our culture of casual hookups, too. Our generation is experiencing sex with less frequency, sure, but we are also doubling-down on the importance of consent and questioning traditional gender norms. The competitive culture of LGBTQ+ dating apps may damage mental health among queer youth, but our generation is also increasingly tolerant, and we are seeing sexuality as fluid rather than a fixed label throughout life. As Generation Z veers away from traditional notions of monogamy and courtship, we are also rejecting some outdated, patriarchal values.

Once our final papers have been submitted and our graduation caps tipped, it is unclear how this climate of casual dating will affect our generation’s ability to forge meaningful relationships in the future. Time will tell if our preference for sloppy one-night stands in college will eventually mature into oysters inside Plateau bars, or if our culture of drunken flings and ghosting will haunt the way we treat each other in the adult world.  

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