To Hook Up or Not To
Armed with large suitcases and nervous parents, I was yet another wide-eyed first-year moving away for college. What underscored this new phase in my life was freedom– I could eat whatever, sleep whenever, go wherever and wear whatever. This newfound freedom called for an exploration that would whet my palate intellectually, socially, fashionably, and even sexually. However, expanding my sexual palate in college spaces came with conformity to the dominant sexual culture on campus. And this dominant sexual culture left a sour taste in my mouth.
On a small liberal arts campus in the middle of nowhere where everybody knows each other, romantic relationships only operate in extremities. On one hand, there were joined-at-the-hip monogamous relationships, in which a sexually active couple spent every waking hour with their significant other. On the other, there were the more often- occurring casual sexual encounters or “hook-ups.”
Dorm room parties with loud music, dimmed lights, smuggled alcohol, and drunken college students created the perfectly conducive atmosphere for hookups. “Hooking up” lay on a spectrum. When a college student says they hooked up, it could mean anything from a brief 10-minute make-out session to an entire night spent having intercourse. Similarly, a hook-up partner could have been a friend- with- benefits or it could have been a complete stranger that you drunkenly ground on at a party. Anyone who took part in hook-up culture had already signed a social contract that there were no feelings involved within sexual intimacy. God forbid someone developed feelings, they were definitely clingy and crazy!
A residential college like Ashoka that admits a large numbers of like minded students, cuts them off from the wider society, and provides for all their needs, often becomes a perfectly polished bubble. In such a bubble, a culture as widespread as hookup culture echoes within the chambers. Irrespective of whether one wants to partake in casual “hookups” or not, students are forced to conform to the culture. As someone looking for an exclusive romantic partner, I was forced to put myself through the harrowing exercises of no-feelings-involved “hookups,” while consciously looking for a lot-of-feelings-involved college sweetheart. I accomplished this through a series of exhausting mental gymnastics including– “Do they have feelings for me or are they just hooking up with me (no feelings, of course!)”.
Sexual liberation has historically been fundamental to female agency. Naturally, hook-ups were touted to me as a form of sexual liberation. As a young, ambitious woman in college I must refuse to be “tied down” by one man because an overly serious suitor would be a threat to my future. Hook-up culture was framed as an empowering token of sexual freedom to me– after all, I was taking ownership of my body and defying the patriarchy!
However, the sense of empowerment and agency that hook-up culture bragged of, was definitely not equally shared between women and men on this campus. I found that hook-up culture undermined the freedom, equality, and safety of the women on campus– irrespective of whether they took part in it or not. After all, it did create the social pressure to conform, and operated with a lack of commitment, ambiguous language and alcohol use. This gap in the agency was wider in heterosexual hook-up culture, leading it to pan out in a largely sexist fashion.
What still baffles me is the lack of consensus on how to define a hookup, even among college students who partake in its culture. Underneath all of this ambiguity, however, I found a well crafted intention. The strategic ambiguity of hook-up culture allows students to endlessly evade communication on consent and disown agency. The suppression of clear communication practices, including the culture’s heavy reliance on non verbal cues, works in tandem with alcohol usage to create a passive culture among participants. Such avoidance of communication contributes to negative outcomes such as lower rates of contraception usage, higher rates of emotional distress and most alarmingly higher rates of sexual assault. This passivity in hook-up culture seemed like nothing but a well- camouflaged sexual predation to me.
‘Strategic ambiguity’ is also used as an impression management strategy to maintain sexual and social identities that lay within the existing gender order. Women protect their social identities as “feminine” and men maintain their social identities as “masculine.” However, this sexual order rests on a sexual double standard, where women on campus are forced to walk a fine line between hooking up "enough" but not "too much," to maintain their “femininity.”
When a female student ambiguously claims to have “hooked up” she served to downplay the sexual act to the lower end of the spectrum– just a couple of minutes of making out. However, for men, similar claims of “hooking up” served to exaggerate and imply greater promiscuity. Thus, men saw these acts as enhancing their “masculinity” while women saw them as diminishing their “femininity.”
This double standard felt like a lose-lose situation.I found that many women like me partook in hookup culture to conform to the dominant sexual culture, or in hopes that sexual intimacy would be a stepping stone to emotional intimacy and eventually, commitment. The truth is that, engaging in hookup culture while wholeheartedly craving love and commitment was perhaps the least feminist action I could take. I was deluding myself into believing I was acting like a progressive feminist while actively denying my needs and denying myself agency. I have come to understand that independence and co-dependence are not mutually exclusive– I can seek committed love, express emotions, and still be ambitious and successful.