Hookup Culture is a phenomenon especially prevalent on college campuses that operates through heteronormative sexual scripts. Though at times sexually freeing, the non-emotional, one-sided rules of hookup culture can also be sexually oppressive and damaging to the self esteem of college women.
Casual sex is a sticky subject, especially for college age women. At a school like the University of Michigan with 40,000 students, the prevalence of hyper masculine frat culture and alcohol is no small effect.
It’s no wonder many women aren’t always having their sexual and romantic needs met. Further, sexual stigma and heteronormative gender roles may be creating an oppressive culture for heterosexual women, as well as leaving women to blame and shame themselves.
A study was conducted of 91 college-age women ranging from Freshmen (22%) to Seniors (4.4%) and varying in sexual identity to get a sense of if negative experiences with hookup culture and self-esteem are typical for women on campus.
As for if women even want casual sex to begin with, collectively 71.4% of women surveyed were either excited to have casual sex going into college or were considering/curious about it.
Casual sex, it seems, is having its own movement as young people are decidedly more sexually active than they ever have been.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the age when people first marry and reproduce has been pushed back dramatically, while at the same time the age of puberty has dropped. Changing social and sexual scripts along with these developmental shifts have driven the rise of casual sex.
College women, then, don’t necessarily have as much legroom in determining what type of sexual encounter they’re looking for. When asked if they’ve felt in control of the encounter the times they’ve had one night stands or recurring casual sex, 51.2% of the women surveyed said that at times they’ve felt unheard.
Olivia, who is a Junior at the University of Michigan, definitely felt as though the hookup culture has a power imbalance in that men have the final say, and she learned to not expect anything after a casual encounter. Further, there does seem to be a lack of respect when it comes to women’s expectations and pleasure.
From the 91 women surveyed, when asked if they felt their needs were being met during casual sex, 50% answered “sometimes.” And that “they had to ask for it and were not completely satisfied” if their partner did try to address their pleasure.
There are several factors playing into why some college women are being left unfulfilled in the hookup scene. Because the majority of women represented in the discussed survey are in sororities on the UoM campus, one aspect that may be driving this male dominance is the influence of hyper-masculinity in college fraternities.
Hyper-masculinity characterizes the uber-macho, patriarchal and dominant aspects of manhood that, in the right environment, condition and pressure young men to validate their own masculinity.
Author Alexandra Robbins noted how the prevailing masculine characteristics include being expected to suppress emotions, desire multiple sexual partners, want to dominate situations and have control over women. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of fraternity men want to follow them.
Robbins states that “most college guys don’t endorse traditional masculine norms, but believe that most other men do”. Fraternity men then overestimated aspects of masculine behavior such as how much their fraternity brothers use alcohol and other drugs, how much sex they actually have or want to have, and tolerance of behavior that degrades women.
Another Junior at the University of Michigan, Ali, is also a sorority woman who has recognized the sexual power dynamics on campus. She noted a specific partner whose actions towards her were influenced by the hypermasculine narrative:
“When I was hooking up with this guy, I remember the guys in his frat would make fun of him for being friends with me, but also staying loyal to me even though we were only f**k buddies. That definitely influenced him ultimately disrespecting me and hooking up with someone else because, according to his guy friends, he would be a ‘pu**y’ if he didn’t.”.
Ali knew this partner as a good friend and knew that it wasn’t necessarily in his nature to hurt her as he did. Instead, she said “guys know exactly what they’re doing and do it in front of other guys. They’ll jab each other when it comes to girls, and it creates that dynamic.”.
So, what are all of these confusing standards and rules doing to women’s self-esteem? Hookup culture seems to do one of two things: it either empowers women in their sexuality and autonomy in making sexual choices or can have a judgmental effect that diminishes their self-worth.
Out of the 91 women surveyed, only 6% said they had “never” felt bad about themselves after a casual sexual encounter. 21% of these women- a whopping fifth- said they felt bad about themselves “About half the time”.
Collectively 94% of these women have had poor self esteem from one of these experiences at some point or another.
Similarly, Olivia admitted she mainly has had boyfriends in college because of the poor self-esteem that hookup culture caused her. When asked to elaborate, Olivia touched on the mentality many sorority women have when it comes to monthly Greek Life “Date Parties”.
Date Parties at UofM are events hosted by sororities and fraternities typically at a club in Detroit, in which sorority women or fraternity men invite a date and spend the night with them drinking heavily at the club. Olivia noted how, if you are asked to a fraternity date party, it is almost expected that you ‘hook up’ with your date.
Further, Olivia recalled several mornings after a Date Party or night out and felt almost exposed when re-entering her sorority house.
She noted, “People judged me when I would come back the morning after, and I felt terrible about myself. I would come back the morning after in a dress and we would all laugh as if it were a joke. But it actually really hurt me.”
Interestingly enough, Olivia found a college woman’s body count- or the number of people she has had sex with- is this “dirty little secret” that other women care about. Men, on the other hand, “don’t really care about body count”.
In analyzing this through Robbins’s lens, perhaps this is because a college man’s body count is essential to the validation of his masculinity. Whether or not this is universally true, it certainly plays a part in dictating the inherent roles female and male sexuality play in hookup culture.
Ali also noted that the notorious morning-after “walk of shame” can be a point of deprecation, but has actually used it as an opportunity for her to take back her sexuality. She said, “It can be empowering to do the walk of shame knowing it’s what you want and just being strong and ‘impolite’ with no mercy when guys do that to girls all the time and get no shit for it.”
Ali also found a strategy early on in her sexual experiences at UofM to assert her needs. Ali said, “I knew I had to be non-committal, as well as openly honest and brutal when it came to my expectations”.
Ali “felt empowered” by taking control of her own sexuality in the hookup culture scene, and saw that this was the best way to protect herself and check imbalances of power.
Thus, casual sex in college can cut both ways. This is all not to say that casual sex is bad, or the availability and opportunity to express and experiment with one’s sexuality is always damaging.
Casual sex can actually be extremely beneficial to one’s personal and sexual growth, especially at this age. The root of the problem is the collection of heteronormative, patriarchal, and hypermasculine narratives that dictate how partners should operate in casual sex encounters.
Moving forward, as pointed out by Ali, the most important thing in casual sex relationships is to “be upfront, confident, communicative, and unapologetic”.