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“When we graduate, this is over”: Young Women’s
Experiences with Hooking Up and Relationships
NOVEMBER 30, 2011
SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL SATISFACTION OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR HONORS IN THE
The University of Kansas, a large public university in close proximity to the more metropolitan Kansas City, finds its 30,000 students engaged in a diversity of activities on any given Saturday night. Lawrence, Kansas provides worthy grounds on which to study social life and its constantly changing organization; this college town’s Midwestern values coexist with no shortage of places to look for a good time. Greek life, a thriving panorama of downtown bars, the social hubbub surrounding Division One sports, house parties up and down every block of the “student ghetto,” and a bevy of options for more sober leisure comprise the social scene for Lawrence’s young people. Though the outward appearance of social life has remained much the same, one facet has undergone tremendous evolution throughout the last 50 years – the way students interact sexually.
The Genealogy of Hookup Culture In the 1960s, the advent of the birth control pill changed the social landscape far more than anyone could have imagined. Access to the pill radically reduced concerns about unwanted pregnancy and allowed women freedom from planning sexual encounters far in advance. The new reproductive autonomy it afforded paved the way for women to surge into universities in record numbers. College enrollment soared – up 78% between 1970 and 2000 with more women than men graduating in 2000 (England et al. 2008). The age at first marriage rose, now 28 years old for those with degrees (Fry 2010). The women’s movement had a huge impact on romantic interactions, leading to “reproductive and attitudinal changes” that ushered in “changes in sexual behavior” (Bogle 2008: 21). While in the past, college dating was characterized by prearranged activities initiated and paid for by men, college students in the late 1960s began spending time together in larger mixed-gender groups, often consuming alcohol.
Although plenty of college students today date and form committed romantic relationships (71% of students report at least one relationship lasting at least six months), dating is no longer the primary way by which men and women begin relationships (Armstrong, et al. 2010). Instead, according to Armstrong and her colleagues, 72% of college students have participated in at least one casual sexual encounter, widely dubbed a “hookup.” A hookup can involve any sexual activity ranging from making out to sexual intercourse. The current literature defines hookups as sexual events (ranging from making outto oral sex or intercourse) that occur outside of exclusive relationships and involve varying degrees of interest in a relationship. Recent studies have found that 38% of students report having sexual intercourse on their most recent hookup (Armstrong, et al. 2009).
Many journalists have chronicled their fears that by participating in hookup culture, a culture they describe as sex-centric and commitment-light culture, women ultimately lose out. Social scientists are debating if this is the case. Some, like Armstrong and her co-authors, identify several advantages for women participating in hookup culture. They assert that hooking up provides an outlet for sexual desires without a serious time commitment or emotional investment (Armstrong et al. 2010).
This affords many college women the opportunity to concentrate on schoolwork and personal development, forming strong personal identities and setting career goals.
England surveyed more than 14,000 students from 19 universities about their hookup, dating, and relationship experiences. She found that women without boyfriends touted the ability to form and strengthen friendships on campus (Armstrong et al. 2010).
Armstrong and her colleagues report many of the women they interviewed alluding to the isolative nature of relationships, complaining that being in a relationship can make it difficult to meet people. Avoiding committed relationships also minimizes the likelihood of experiencing the physical and emotional abuse that occurs at a surprising rate; about 22% of the women interviewed by Armstrong and Hamilton reported boyfriends using abuse to keep them in relationships (Armstrong et al. 2010). A feminist argument for hookup culture posits the woman in a greater position of autonomy and control over her body and social relationships.
The Gendered Hookup Despite the benefits women participating in hookup culture may enjoy, it is in some ways an anti-woman culture, especially in regard to the high risk of sexual victimization for women. Research has found that hooking up very often occurs in the context of heavy drinking at parties or bars, and women often lack the resources to extricate themselves from situations that could lead to sexual victimization. Stombler points out that alcohol is certainly not the cause of this reprehensible behavior on the part of college males; many commonplace features of fraternities, and specifically the overarching narrow conception of masculinity (“competition, athleticism, dominance, winning, conflict, wealth, material possessions, willingness to drink alcohol”), creates an environment that encourages sexual violence (Stombler 434). Date rape and other forms of sexual violence are among the most serious detriments to women attempting to navigate and participate in hookup culture (Luke 2009).
In addition to the physical dangers to safety posed by hookup culture, gender scholars find marked inequality in the rate of men and women’s orgasms in hookup contacts. An examination of rates of orgasm within hookups and relationship contexts finds that women are much less likely to receive cunnilingus in hookups than in relationships, with the lowest occurrence of cunnilingus in the first hookup (46%) and incidences escalating in repeat encounters (55% in second and third hookups, 59% in repeat hookups, and 68% in relationships). On the other hand, men receive fellatio at a roughly equal rate (about 80%) in hookup and relationship contexts (Armstrong et al.
2010). The authors suggest that these differences stem from the sexual double standard; women feel obligated to give fellatio and men entitled to receive it, where the opposite is not true. On the existence of men’s ambivalence about women’s pleasure outside of relationships, they write: “Men’s lack of respect for women who will have sex outside of a relationship seems to translate into a sense that hookup partners are not owed the same level of sexual reciprocity as girlfriends—both in terms of what sex acts are engaged in (e.g., giving her oral sex) and in the care and attention to her sexual pleasure” (Armstrong et al. 2010: 371). Sexual satisfaction and rate of orgasm is much higher in relationships, suggesting not only that women feel more comfortable communicating their desire and taking responsibility for their satisfaction, but also that men feel more obligated to reciprocate sexually. Some of the women interviewed by Armstrong and her colleagues expressed that unsatisfying sexual experiences within a relationship were definitely grounds to end the relationship.
The sexual double standard is as prevalent within college hookup culture as within wider Western culture. While Western women enjoy high levels of sexual autonomy, they are nonetheless constantly evaluated for their sexual choices. The phenomenon now commonly known as “slut bashing,” whereby a woman is ridiculed for any number of facets of her sexuality, is an exemplar of this constant evaluation. An alarming number of women engage in this behavior, perhaps to divert attention away from their own sexuality or attempt to diminish the value of other women in some way.
In her path breaking collection of women’s and men’s reports about their sexual lives and attitudes, Shere Hite (1992) found that 92% of college men and women agreed the sexual double standard is unfair but practiced it in overwhelming numbers (cited in Tanenbaum 2004). Tanenbaum argues that teenage girls today experience a damning Catch-22 of sexuality with “conflicting pressures to have sex and maintain a ‘good’ reputation” (Tanenbaum 2004: 405). She suggests that shame is a primary reason for women’s insecurity with their sexuality and the feelings of guilt and squeamishness about sex.
There are other gendered aspects of the sexual double standard: “The double standard may also lead women to feel ambivalent about enjoying hookup sex, or not entitled to pleasure within it. While we typically think of the double standard as involving how men and women are differently judged for participating in sex, double standards also often involve gendered notions about appropriate degrees of enthusiasm, pleasure, or initiative” (England et. al. 2008). Perhaps in an attempt to displace this double standard, “some girls have parlayed their post-feminist assertiveness into ‘girl power’...
A few think they can achieve equality by imitating guys’ behaviors” (Kimmel 2008: 14).
The respect and equality these women seek to garner (whether or not they do and consciously and deliberately) will be hard-won, though, utilizing this approach.
Hookups, Youthhood, and Anomie In Guyland, an eye opening work filled with fascinating insights on masculinity and the changing landscape of the ambling post-adolescent trajectory toward adulthood, Michael Kimmel delves into the ways hookup culture can abet delaying the passage into adulthood. He calls this life phase “youthhood,” a term coined by
sociologist James Cote to describe the anomic, directionless period between 18 and 29:
“Perhaps the chief characteristic of this stage of life is its indeterminacy.
There’s a massive mismatch between the ambitions of this group and their accomplishments. They graduate college filled with ideas about changing the world, making their contribution, and makings lots of money, and they enter a job market at the bottom, where work is utterly unfulfilling, boring, and badly paid. Extremely other-directed, they perform to please grownups, but exhibit little capacity for self-reflection or internal motivation.
They have high self-esteem, but often little self-awareness. Many lack a moral compass to help negotiate their way in the world. For these young people, the world is unstable and uncertain. They drink more than they think they should, take more drugs, and probably get involved in more hookups and bad relationships than they think they should. And they also get more down on themselves, because at this stage they also think they should know better” (Kimmel 2008: 39).
If Kimmel’s astute insights reflect the true social realities of many young adults, frustration and even self-loathing must run high among this group. Often mistakenly believing their efforts would be rewarded in the “real world” following graduation, the obstacles impeding adulthood – career achievement, financial security, marrying and starting a family – seem insurmountable. The changing global economy has irreversibly altered the ways people reach adulthood, and consequently the relationships they participate in along the way.
Understanding the ways in which individuals relate to one another, interact, and make sense of their experiences at the micro level can lead to developments in understanding more about behavior in wider culture. Very few college students escape at least limited exposure to the many nuances and implications of hookup culture on campuses today, and as hookup culture only recently (within the last ten years) began to receive scholarly attention and become the topic of academic inquiry, many people of all ages have unanswered questions about what hookup culture is, how it works, and how those participating in it feel about their experiences. My Honors thesis seeks to provide some answers to these questions and additionally address a more specific question: Do women appreciate the benefits hookup culture can afford them, risks and inequalities notwithstanding, or are they simply “bargaining with” hookup culture until they have a better set of alternatives?
Methodology I conducted qualitative interviews with twelve heterosexual female residents of Lawrence, Kansas between April and October 2011. These women are students and alumnae of the University of Kansas ranging in age from 18 to 28 years old. I designed the study to include student and alumnae cohorts because I believed the perspectives of the older women, likely operating in different social worlds within Lawrence, would be instrumental in discovering whether undergraduate women prefer the interactions hookup culture offers. If the alumnae had largely moved away from hooking up as the primary organization of sexual interaction, I could more safely conclude that the college women merely tolerate hookup culture.
I identified ten of the interviewees using snowball sampling, asking friends and acquaintances to refer me to a person outside my social network. I ultimately elected to interview one close friend and one acquaintance because I believed their perspectives would be valuable. The final sample includes six women aged 18 to 21 and six women aged 22 to 28 who graduated between 2009 and 2011, comprising the undergraduate cohort and alumnae cohort respectively (See Table 1). The interviews lasted between 30 and 100 minutes and were recorded, transcribed, and coded using standard practices for ethnographic interviewing (Weiss 1994, Sprague 2005, McCracken 1988).
At the outset of the interview, the interviewees already knew my focus was social life in Lawrence, as they all signed the informed consent sheet I drafted for the IRB, which contained some details about my project. In attempting to find out a little about each interviewee’s background, educational and career goals, personality, and attempt
to generally establish rapport, I began each interview by instructing the respondent: