Corin Hamilton wrote a very good article on the hook-up culture last week—so good that it deserves a follow-up. I thought Corin was right in asserting that the hook-up culture causes us to miss out on experiences that could be special or meaningful, and I thought he was equally correct in proposing that the lack of alternatives is an issue, too. For me, the article’s most interesting point, which comes from Occidental sociologist Lisa Wade, is that the majority of people are dissatisfied with the culture even while they continue to believe that they are in the minority. With the groundwork in place, I want to deepen the analysis. I want to add that the hook-up culture at our consortium and nationwide is fundamentally backward. I also want to explore the hook-up culture’s specious attractiveness. It’s incredibly easy to hate on the hook-up culture. Most people aren’t going to sit and argue with you that it’s ideal—at least not soberly. They’ll call it stupid, senseless, herd-minded, and unsatisfying. If people are willing to argue that they wouldn’t want things any other way, they’ll often do so self-consciously and defensively, as if they’re talking about a guilty pleasure or justifying a friendship with someone from the lower rungs of the social ladder. At first glance, such measurements of student sentiment, in tandem with what Wade’s research uncovered, appear to bode well for what must be hook-up culture’s eventual fate: the diminishment of its centrality on campus. Paradoxically, however, the complaints directed at the hook-up culture only serve to sustain it. I think that people either like the hook-up culture or aren’t motivated enough to actively gather momentum to change it precisely because of how blatantly senseless it is.
Let me explain. Maybe I’m giving Pomona students more than their fair due, but I believe all of us at some point have sensed the absurdity of what we’re doing when we stumble into these parties. Something about that feeling, the irony of it all, is reassuring. “So what if I don’t hook up with a girl tonight? So what if a guy doesn’t go for me? Look how dumb this is—300 sweaty, drunk people packed into a room, grinding on each other.” We all realize that nothing about the scene can reflect upon the self, because it really doesn’t. Well, some parts of the self are accounted for: looks, aggressiveness, dancing skills. But we know that these components of our person aren’t enough for a member of the opposite sex to reject us in a way that’s going to count as an assessment of who we are. So we go to the parties. Most of us have at least a moderate level of success and a good amount of fun, too; it’s really not that hard of a scene to master.
We hope that maybe one of the girls or guys remains in our lives for longer than a single night, or longer than a few nights, or maybe presents an opportunity to transition into the sober Let’s Watch a Movie one-on-one, and then the sober Daytime in the Village one-on-one, and eventually permits us to check off that Meaningful Relationship Box on our lives’ to-do lists. This is all in contrast to the conventional dating scene, which by all accounts is exponentially more difficult and pressurized than the hook-up or the extended hook-up.
Choosing between hooking up and dating represents a choice between exposing yourself to real judgment and the ever-hedged bet, which admittedly is hedged slightly less with each subsequent encounter—there’s more on the line during the trip into the Village than the return walk from Foam—but hedged all the same. For us rational, intelligent American youth, taught to live at a constant distance from our sentiments, we who favor abstract and detached rather than passionate decision-making, it doesn’t seem like we’re missing much. Parties give us the opportunity to meet way more people than dating would, we reason, and it’s still possible to find someone we truly like and make that person our girlfriend or boyfriend.
Caught up in this thought process, we fail to notice that romantic affairs aren’t utilitarian affairs. Love may be a formula, but that formula only works with so many initial inputs, and one of them most definitely isn’t a shady, drunken, from-the-rear approach in a dark room. I’ll go so far as to say that there is no dignified, self-respecting way for a relationship to get started at one of these parties. Most guys go into the parties with a single-minded focus: they want to hook up with someone, preferably someone hot. As a guy, if it looks like a girl’s not going to go home with you on this very night, you’re going to give up on her and try your luck elsewhere. In the event of success, you’re not likely to value the girl with whom you hooked up. You’ll ask yourself: What good reason does an upstanding person have to go home with me after a few dances and displays of affection? None. The girl who goes home with you, whoever she is, is usually going to feel the same lack of respect for herself and her decision. (You can question the paradigm I’ve set up here—that of the guy struggling to like the girl he’s with and the girl struggling to be liked by the guy—and you would probably be right in doing so when we’re talking about relationships in general, but this is the dynamic that the hook-up culture endorses.) Point being, right off the bat, no one’s feeling great about the relationship. Romantic relationships aren’t quite friendships; shaky foundations are more often than not their death knell.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, when relationships don’t materialize out of parties. Their anti-romanticism simply is not a recipe for a sustained partnership. When people talk about love or love-related issues seriously—topics our age group shies away from—they talk about things like mystery, uncertainty, and idealization of the other person. Not only is it the case that the hook-up culture doesn’t promote any of these factors—it flat-out prevents them. If we haven’t yet stepped outside of the hook-up bubble, which can be just as suffocating as the Pomona bubble, we owe it to ourselves not to deceive ourselves regarding its promise and not to blame ourselves for feeling like we haven’t had complete success romantically. Once we realize what it is that we’re missing, however, we can’t continue to play it safe. We’d better take a risk sometime, even if that risk entails judgment.