Is campus hookup culture actually empowering?

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When I began my freshman year of college this fall, I was newly single. I considered myself empowered and ready to live life to the fullest, and therefore decided to unabashedly embrace hookup culture. Forget relationships — I was determined to feel nothing. Hookups would be hookups and nothing more. I found myself in the midst of a culture of drinking, in which long nights spent at crazy parties in frat houses are not just common but widely embraced. This drinking culture in turn fuels a culture of hookups. I threw myself into a world of pre-gaming with friends and morning walks back to dorms across campus.

Not long after the semester began, I broke the cardinal, unspoken rule that not only dictates how hookup culture functions but is also essential to its survival: I failed to remain emotionally unattached. I “caught feelings.” It was a classic situation: I fell for a boy I met at a frat party. The situation had seemed perfect — my friends liked him, we had similar interests, and we got along incredibly well.

Yet when I expressed to my friends that I was interested in something more than hooking up with him, I was met with a mixture of confusion and apprehension. “How would you fit an actual relationship into your schedule right now?” one friend wondered. Another asked me if I had considered being friends with benefits. A third expressed concern that this boy wasn’t really “looking for a relationship right now” and that I’d be better off forgetting about all of it.

This experience showed me that with hookup culture come types of behavior and a set of expectations perhaps just as repressive to college women as any of the traditional gender norms or societal gender roles entrenched in our communities and institutions. I believe my friends really do want the best for me, and I don’t think their comments came from a place of negativity but rather one of support. But I still felt like those conversations invalidated what I wanted. I felt like I was wrong — weak, somehow — for having feelings at all and that I had inadequately acclimated to existing within this culture of ephemeral, often meaningless relationships.

Many an op-ed has been written about the hookup cultures prevalent on college campuses across the country. These depictions overwhelmingly portray hookup culture as one of apathy, in which men and women alike take advantage of the anonymity found in the dimly lit basements of frat houses, where vulnerability is feared and intimacy scorned. One Atlantic article argued that hookup culture is an “engine of female progress — one being harnessed and driven by the women themselves.” A controversial New York Times piece took an in-depth look at the hookup culture at UPenn, concluding that female students simply have no time to pursue both meaningful relationships and professional success. “In today’s hookup culture,” yet another article, this time from NPR, states, “developing an emotional attachment to a casual sex partner is one of the biggest breaches of societal norms.”

What these articles often fail to relay, however, are the powerful — and even at times, debilitating — feelings of self-doubt and shame that can come with breaking this most important of rules and catching feelings; wanting something more. It’s so much easier to pretend you don’t care about something or someone than it is to let yourself feel. Because if you don’t care, then you can’t get hurt, right? And for many young people in the present day, the drive for professional success is both more realistic and more desirable than the pursuit of boy-meets-girl happily ever after. Love is contingent. Work is commitment. Hookup culture seems to provide an easy shortcut for integrating our romantic lives with our professional ones.  

I thought that to fit into the societal mold of an “empowered, independent woman,” I had to embrace hookup culture for everything that it was. But I personally found that true empowerment is found not in conforming to the expectations of any type of culture, but rather in understanding what you’re comfortable with in your relationships with others and acting accordingly.

Today, thousands of students across the country wear stickers saying “Fight Apathy.” (Mass amounts of these stickers have been distributed in schools by the Junior State of America.) While the stickers reference fighting political apathy, I believe that we need to take the same attitude toward our personal relationships. The apathy of hookup culture is a nationwide epidemic with the potential to be just as harmful to our mental health and emotional well-being as political apathy can be to the state of our union. True empowerment does not and should not necessarily mean trying to feel nothing.

I’m not advocating for the end of hookup culture, but for a change in how we view it. If you’d rather not take part, that’s totally fine — no one should feel weak or uncool for having or wanting to have feelings for their partners. If you’re comfortable with the standards of hookup culture, that’s great: Those feelings are valid, too. If you’re somewhere in between and still figuring out what you want — take all the time you need. Each stance is equally valid. Just as women shouldn’t be slut-shamed for their sexual choices, they shouldn’t be made to feel inadequate for their feelings.

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