Sex for Dessert, Conversation for Breakfast: Hook-up Culture at the 5Cs

The media’s seemingly cyclical concern over an out-of-control hook-up culture among the nation’s undergraduates tends to be misguided (e.g. college students are actually having less sex now than they did 20 years ago) and/or sexist in its subtle reiterations of the ‘slut/player’ dynamic. Nonetheless, I agree with the underlying premise behind such “reporting”: the hook-up culture is a problem.

More precisely, I think the predominance of the hook-up culture is a problem. Spend enough time reading the “for students, by students” sub-genre of college review literature, and you pick up on the near universality of the following phrase: “There’s not much of a dating scene here.” Now, if most students at most colleges didn’t desire a dating scene, this piece of information would not be problematic. But they do, and it is.

Sociologist Lisa Wade, a professor at Occidental College, studies the hook-up culture among undergraduates. She finds that the majority of both female and male students are deeply dissatisfied with the norms of this culture. (Interestingly, she finds that this same majority assumes their own views to be in the minority, a rather striking example of pluralistic ignorance.) Specifically, they dislike the expectation of carelessness when it comes to sexual encounters. According to the perceived sexual script of a college hook-up, the particular character of a partner is not “supposed” to be of much interest, except in a superficial sense (e.g. “she was hot”). Drunkenness is helpful in both communicating and justifying such disinterest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sex is largely disappointing.

Again, the problem here is not necessarily the hook-up culture (after all, approximately ten percent of students interviewed by Wade entirely enjoyed the hook-up culture), but the perceived lack of an alternative. Outside of a relationship (around two thirds of both male and female undergraduates report wanting a committed relationship), I suspect that what many dissatisfied students want is a degree of deliberateness in their sexual encounters—that is, a sexual encounter based on more than drunken dance floor geography—and desire (maybe even a sober desire) for a particular person.

For many students at Pomona, the social culmination of many Friday and Saturday nights involves a dance party. These parties tend to be loud and crowded; social interactions are necessarily brief. We often arrive with friends and hook up with near-strangers. Pomona as an institution may stress the singularity of its students, but our parties sometimes work to celebrate anonymity. In theory, there is nothing wrong with these types of events. However, there is something wrong with our social environment if they constitute the only perceived opportunity for intimacy. Perhaps I am overstating the issue, but perhaps we should also consider hosting or attending more social gatherings in which getting to know someone is the night’s ambition and not just a preliminary activity. Dorm rooms can be the site of more than just pre-gaming.

Last year, our sex columnist (whom I thought was very good, by the way) gave advice on how to discreetly leave the residence of last night’s hook-up. But maybe we should stay and talk, despite the awkwardness. I don’t know. I do know that sex can be more than just sex—it can be meaningful.

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