Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hooking Up

A couple months ago, my good friend sent me this talk (which was featured on one of our favorite blogs, Sociological Images) on hooking up. It's 37 minutes long (and then longer with questions), so hunker down (or read the transcript). It's really interesting!

Common Hour: The Promise and Perils of Hook-Up Culture from Franklin & Marshall College on Vimeo.

At the beginning of this talk, Lisa Wade references Hooking Up by Kathleen Bogle.

And so, thanks to Border's going out of business sale, I picked up a copy, and it was fascinating. And what I thought was particularly fascinating about it is that it explained so much about the culture I was living in. As a college student, I not only participate in hook up culture by (very occasionally) hooking up, but talking about my hook ups or my friends' hook ups. And one of the things that I thought was really interesting in Bogle's book (and that is reverberated in Wade's talk) is that although hook up culture is the dominant relationship culture on many college campuses, it's not a huge "epidemic." In fact, only about 40% of students will participate in hook up culture. And within that 40% there's a huge variance of practices. Some people are going out and hooking up with someone new every weekend, while others might only hook up once a semester.

And just to define "hooking up," since it is a purposefully ambiguous term, in my use of the term, it refers to "making out +..." So hooking up could be making out with a dude at a party for 20 minutes or bringing someone back to your apartment/dorm and having sexual intercourse and anything in between. Bogle goes into the ambiguity of "hooking up" and college students actually do have different definitions of it, but the fact that it lacks a truly concrete definition is in part utilitarian. If I say to my friends that I hooked up with someone, I don't necessarily have to go into details. They will assume on their own, so I can present myself as more or less promiscuous according to how I want my image to go.

Among the other fascinating things about Bogle's and Wade's studies is how hooking up has different gendered implications and outcomes. And sort of overwhelmingly, women get the short end of the stick. In Wade's talk, she relates the story of a female student who had sex with two guys when her friend passed out drunk. She had rationalized this because one of the guys had started touching her friend when she was passed out, and so she took it upon herself to "satisfy" the desires of both guys to protect her friend, even though she was only interested in one of the guys. It did not occur to her that she could say no to the whole enchilada.

This is an extreme example, and I would say that most hook up situations are not so insidious. Most of the time they occur between two drunk people, and are consensual (although not always pleasurable). Hookup culture is so culturally dominant that at times it seems compulsory. My freshman year of college, I wrote out my first experience making out with a guy (who I called "No Name" since neither of us inquired about the other's name) at a frat party for my friends, and here's a sentence that I think says a lot about hookup culture (this was like, my second month of college, I still did not drink alcohol, and I had a much more basic understanding of hookup culture and gender relations):
I didn’t particularly want to stop dancing with him because I knew that if I did I would be back to being awkward by myself, so as songs ended and the frat boy DJ put another song on, I kept dancing with No Name.
I had no emotional connection to this dude, but I knew that dancing with him (and this was before we started making out) was preferable to not dancing with him, since all of my friends at that point were off with their own random dance partners. I also knew hooking up with someone was perceived as ideal, though prior to this I had only only ever been sexual in the context of a relationship, I was aware of hookup culture as something that was very exciting and very "college" and that the random, casualness was just very cool. And it was OK. We made out in this frat, it was very college, I was very excited about it, and then I went back to my dorm (alone). And what I've found since my freshman year through my own experience and my friends' experiences, is that hooking up is sometimes quite exciting and satisfying, but other times it's mediocre and just functions as "something to do." So hooking up shakes out as something that is just sort of average. But my friends and I, and this is also what Bogle and Wade found, even though we have these average experiences, continue to hold "hooking up" as something like a fun release to hope for some weekend because it will be fun and satisfying. (Even though it might not be that way, and also is never guaranteed. So you can hope for it, but it might not even happen.)

Which brings me to a point that Wade makes about pluralistic ignorance. Hooking up is the dominant culture although it is not always sexually pleasurable (and according to Wade and Bogle, especially for women), not always equal, and not always emotionally enjoyable because students (myself included) do not challenge it. We look at bad hook ups and say to ourselves and our friends that it was just the situation, and hope for a better hookup/hotter guy/more satisfying experience in the future. And I think Wade makes a really good point in her presentation about the need to challenge hook up culture. We don't have to pretend that hooking up is the best thing ever, because it's not, everyone knows that, and since we know this, we don't have to continue to do it.

Anyway, I really recommend watching Lisa Wade's talk and reading Kathleen Bogle's book! Wade has some really interesting social observations and is a little more recent, and Bogle has a really interesting historical take as well as observations about hook up culture and post-college life (hint: it dies).

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