Sex Column: How I Stopped Caring About Not Caring

A black and white graphic of two students sitting at a desk, turned away from each other.
Graphic by Nina Potischman

From the end of freshman year of college through the beginning of sophomore year, I hooked up with the same boy a handful of times. He cut things off abruptly, texting me that he wanted to stop hooking up since he was worried it would “complicate” our (nonexistent) friendship.

I had not spent enough time with him to develop any feelings above a crush, but was still sad to receive the text, and often obsessed over the situation. I thought constantly about our most recent interactions, trying to figure out what had changed.

One night when I was particularly consumed by this obsession, I came across a book entitled  “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.” Over the next few days, I inhaled the book, which helped me make sense of much of what I have experienced and heard surrounding hookup culture since starting at Pomona College.

The author, Lisa Wade, wrote a compelling description of hookup culture as something that developed as a result of particular historical conditions, rather than something inherent to human nature.

Feminist activists in the 1970s wanted women to embody masculine traits, while simultaneously retaining their supposed femininity.

Unfortunately, the significant focus on granting women rights that formerly belonged exclusively to men led to the rise of androcentrism — the valuing of masculine over feminine traits.

Though androcentric attitudes give women some flexibility to move beyond traditional expectations of womanhood, which is a privilege for many, they still cause harm.

Androcentrism can be seen in many stages of life. For example, many (but not all) parents are thrilled if their daughter takes an interest in toy dinosaurs rather than dolls.

In middle school, the coolest girl in the grade is often both beautiful and sporty. In high school, many people try to match or exceed the attitudes of male peers, whether that attitude be carefree or hardworking.

Androcentrism also hurts men, who are frequently chastised for carrying out stereotypically feminine behaviors, like crying. It also impacts gender non-conforming people because androcentrism is based entirely on a gender binary.

So, by the time college comes around, many students have been taught to value stereotypically masculine qualities over feminine ones. People learn that becoming sexually liberated means adopting a stereotypically male attitude towards sex and sexuality.

This attitude prioritizes emotionless, pleasure-focused sex with no strings attached. When both partners are performing this apathy after a hook-up, the goal is about making clear you care less about the other person than they care about you.

A few months ago, I consulted a drunk freshman sponsee living in my dorm about a text message I intended on sending to the boy I described earlier. He advised me to take out most of the vowels in my text message, to make clear I was just trying to “nut and get out.”

This care-free attitude takes work. In “American Hookup,” Wade describes the process of trying to “monitor” another person’s level of friendliness, and then making sure to come in “below that level.”

She argues this results in “avoiding eye contact, and pretending the other doesn’t exist” and that “non-exclusive relationships are assumed to lack not only love, but all the kindnesses that come with it, both small and large.”

Hookups are expected to include less respect for one another than the baseline that would already exist for two acquaintances. I speak, wave, or at least half-smile to anyone I have ever spoken to directly for more than a few hours.

However, even though I spoke to him for much longer than just a few hours, and the hookup did not end for any reason other than his finding a girlfriend, I actively avoid acknowledging the first person I hooked up with at Pomona.

I have never really questioned why I do this. It is just something that I do.

Not only do I fail to say hello, I pretend to not see him at all. I can see his general shape and where he floats across the dining hall in my periphery, but that is where it ends.

I would consider saying hello, but it is difficult to say hello to someone who appears to be ignoring you as much as you are ignoring them.

He performs not seeing me so well that it seems natural. At the unfortunate times when our eyes accidentally meet, his stare is so blank and momentary that I genuinely question if he even knows who I am.

So, when I see that boy in dining halls, I want to make clear that I am unaffected by his presence, and what is, ultimately, his rejection of me. This would make sense when the largest fear around hooking up is, as Wade argues, appearing desperate.

The fear is doubly challenging for feminine people, who already have a reputation of being overly attached, lacking control of their emotions, and stuck with a constant need for a relationship.

For me, appearing desperate to this boy in the dining hall not only seems like a social loss, but also is me openly conceding some sort of interpersonal, gendered power.

If both parties base their behavior purely on fear of showing more interest than their partner, that forecloses the possibility of a more meaningful relationship, which I find extremely depressing.

By the time I finished Wade’s book, I was set on being honest about my feeling towards sexual partners. I committed to having a conversation with the boy who called things off in the beginning of sophomore year.

I was going to unabashedly expose the fact that I thought about him in my spare time (God forbid). However, he evidently avoided all requests I made to speak about what had happened earlier in the year.

It certainly is humiliating to see or interact with someone who rejected me on multiple, if not many, occasions (even if this one waves to me… score!), but that’s okay.

Though I had failed to live up to androcentric ideals around sexual freedom, I paradoxically felt liberated by my commitment to honesty. It’s possible to break at least some parts of hookup culture; it just takes a lot of bravery to do so.

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