Earlier this week, I got a frantic call from a friend whose daughter has been away for her first semester at college. “She’s not bringing her boyfriend home,” my friend wailed. “In fact, she says he’s not really her boyfriend at all!”
The “he” in question was a male my friend’s daughter had repeatedly mentioned she spent time with socially: going to the movies and out to dinner, seeing concerts, once spending an entire weekend camping at a state park. Oh, there were always other people around, but the regularity of their contact led my friend to believe her daughter was involved in a relationship of romantic significance.
What my friend failed to understand is that her daughter hasn’t been actually serious with this boy; rather, they’ve been “hooking up,” a social norm that some blame for the demise of dating since it involves participation in group social activities often followed by couples pairing off for some form of commitment-free sexual activity at the end of the night.
Of course, not every instance of hooking up involves actual intercourse. The author of a recent New York Times op-ed piece on the matter explains that’s not the case:
I should point out that just because more young people seem to be hooking up instead of dating doesn’t mean that they’re having more sex (they’ve been having less, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) or having sex with strangers (they’re more likely to hook up with a friend, according to a 2006 paper in the Journal of Adolescent Research).
So if they’re not having sex every time they hook up, why don’t they just call it dating? The answer comes down to recognizing that the attitudes of this generation of college students toward sex and relationships — specifically that the two aren’t necessarily related — is the direct legacy of previous generations.
For those who remember our cultural heritage, this is nothing new. Legalization of the birth control pill in the 1960s precipitated a sexual revolution and an era of “free love.” Cocaine fueled public sex in discos throughout the ’70s and morphed into the rave scene of the 1980s when club-goers popped ecstasy and humped like bunnies.
But while previous generations still followed the dating paradigm — becoming increasingly sexually intimate as their emotional intimacy grew over a series of one-on-one encounters — there is no expectation of emotional intimacy before hooking up among 20-somethings. It is, in that sense, the epitome of the “free love” and sexual liberation their parents sought during their own college years.
Of course, that’s not something easily explained to this generation of parents who are so accustomed to hovering like helicopters and micro-managing their children’s lives right down to enticing their teens into signing purity pledges. Sure, they may have had their wild years in college, but the thought of their children experiencing the same thing brings on panic attacks. Never mind that their kids might be opting to hook up because they know they’re not ready for relationships, or that they’re more interested in focusing on their studies and future careers than finding a future spouse.
Perhaps parents should take comfort from one of the largest studies of the sociology behind hooking up. In her book Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus (New York University Press, 2008), Professor Kathleen A. Bogel explains that even after years of hooking up on campus, college students ultimately follow the same traditional paths their parents did, even if they continue to find it a bit confusing.
When students leave college, there is a discernable shift to more formal dating. It was amazing to interview young alumni who were very much a part of the hookup culture in college who now say that they almost exclusively go on dates (except when they are “down the shore,” i.e., at beach resorts during the summer in a very college-like atmosphere). But the transition to the post-college dating scene was not necessarily an easy one. Many of the 20-something-year-old men and women I spoke with were confused over how to act in certain scenarios after college, not knowing if they were on a date or just “hanging out and hooking up.” Some of the people I interviewed had never been on a formal date until after college, so figuring out the rules for the “new” system was a big adjustment for them.
Just as their parents managed to figure out that “new” system, so will today’s college students; they’re just going to do it in their own time and at their own pace. But if there’s one benefit to all of the hooking up they’ve been doing in college, it’s that they’ll have a better idea of the type of person they do want to settle down with since they will have tried out so many other types. Also, for all of their experience, they’ll probably be pretty darn good in bed.
Not that I’m about to tell that to my friend.