«“When we graduate, this is over”: Young Women’s Experiences with Hooking Up and Relationships EMILY PAGE ...»
The younger women have more mixed romantic goals than the alumnae; still navigating the murky shallows of dating and hooking up in the larger context of campus life, most indicated no rush to find or enter a committed relationship. They reveal their ambivalence about the possibility of entering exclusive relationships, but indicate a fierce desire to avoid the isolation that is too often par for the course in an exclusive relationship.
“Having fun” is a common euphemism for avoiding serious commitment and seems to be the objective of most undergraduates, especially those in their first two years of study. Hookup culture can serve as a viable recourse for women looking to avoid the pitfalls of committed relationships, like isolation. When they do participate in relationships, the phenomenon of isolation seems to be an occurrence that women identify and learn from in real-time, eager to escape from isolation as they recognize it and to avoid repeating the decisions that led to these situations in the future. However, the women from both cohorts are also generally willing to give relationships a chance, armed with the knowledge gleaned from previous experiences, when a promising new romantic liaison presents itself.
The Frequency of Abuse in Committed Relationships Less common than the all but universal isolation marking relationships during the university years, instances of emotional and physical abuse are also alarmingly common, reported by two women in each cohort. In the cases of three of the four women (two alumnae, one undergraduate) reporting abuse, the abuser’s intention was to keep the woman in the relationship, as it often is (Langhinrichsen-Rohling, et al.
Shauna, a 28-year-old woman who completed her degree in May, recounted the most outright instance of abuse I learned of; the tactics her former boyfriend employed to control her and coerce her to remain in the relationship included physical abuse, property damage, and stalking. On ending her first serious relationship at the age of 20
upon recognizing a pattern of abuse, she said:
So it was just a process of me trying to get out of there, but he had been kind of emotionally and psychologically abusive, so I was still kind of attached in that way; I couldn’t quite let go. And it got to the point where I had a place to go, but there were no screens on the windows and I had a cat, and they were putting those in and I ended up having to stay back at the apartment [one night]. And we were both drunk and I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut one night, kind of thing, and he was trying to get a rise out of me and so he tried to throw the cat against the wall is basically what he tried to do. And then I kind of went after him too, and I told him I was going to call the cops and he took my phone and he broke it in half, and then I was trying to stop him some more and he just turned and started hitting me instead. And I eventually got away, but the cops had come and they found me somewhere else in the neighborhood, you know. But I didn’t end up reporting it because I was more embarrassed than anything, you know. (Shauna, class of 2011) In an incident following their breakup, Shauna’s sister’s car sustained “over $3000 of damage, he was charged with a felony, felony property damage.” He has continued to attempt to contact Shauna for the better part of a decade following their breakup;
following which, Shauna describes a period of several years:
just trying to figure everything out, and I just had learned to be kind of distrustful of guys too, and just trying to deal with a casual relationship at that point was not… good for me, and I knew that. (Shauna, class of 2011) She recently entered her first exclusive relationship since the aforementioned abusive relationship ended in 2003. On the new relationship, Shauna repeatedly emphasized, “the reason [my current relationship] works out so well with us is that we constantly communicate with each other.” Like Shauna, Bryn moved on to a new relationship some time after ending her first serious one and quickly realized that she had made a
mistake in “rushing into that”:
I don’t think he’s smart enough even to like calculate any kind of manipulation thing, but it was pretty much a pattern of abuse – an abusive pattern. Because he would never do anything that I said, never do anything that I asked him to do, didn’t respect anything that I asked him to do ever – just took and took and took and gave relatively nothing, and then, you know, just treated me like a piece of shit basically. And then the second that I would start standing up for myself and be like “No, get out of here, we’re breaking up” he would fucking throw himself on the floor crying like “You can’t leave me,” you know, and just turn it around on me like I was doing something wrong. And he’s like “You can’t leave me, I’ll do anything” and I’m like “Well I’ll do anything to get you to stop doing what you’re doing right now, so if that means not breaking up, okay.” Like, it became that – (laughs) I’m talking less than a month in. Like, I tried to break up with him three weeks in.
(Bryn, class of 2010) Bryn acknowledges her emotional “unavailability” and went on to discuss the criticism of this trait directed at her by friends and boyfriends alike. She agrees with their assessments that her detachment makes forming and sustaining intimate relationships – platonic and romantic – more difficult, but admits that it’s not an aspect of her personality she seeks to change. As Bryn sees it, her ability to compartmentalize her feelings has contributed to her academic success; she does not think it is a coincidence that she is a star student who will earn a Masters degree before her 24th birthday and that men and romance do not occupy much of her energy.
Sarah, the 18-year-old woman who ended an exclusive relationship a month after beginning college, described the difficulties she has encountered and the emotional
abuse she has sustained in establishing boundaries following her breakup:
…Both living on campus and everything makes it really difficult ‘cause he’s right there. But he knows my schedule front and back… he’s been sitting out on Wescoe beach waiting for me to get done with a class, and it makes it really difficult, but I’m not going to change my schedule or my pattern of life just so I can avoid him at all times.
So has anything he’s done to react to the breakup…ranged on kind of abusive or a little bit crazy?
Um… I’d say it’s a little bit crazy and a little bit abusive. He likes to tell me how terrible of a person I am, that I am “such a slut” and that all I want to do is go out and have sex with lots and lots of guys, and that I don’t know what’s good for me and that I have problems and issues and “need help”… And I would definitely say that’s abusive; that’s definitely verbal abuse. (Sarah, class of 2015) Sarah’s traumatic experiences throughout her first serious relationship and the hardships she has encountered in extricating herself from it have made her weary of pursuing a future relationship. Though her ex-boyfriend’s suspicion that she wants to explore her sexuality outside of their relationship is not unfounded, his reaction - sexist language and paternalistic treatment – is troubling and seemingly common. The experience of Heather, the subject of similar ridicule regarding her sexuality, illustrates why many women might feel compelled to misrepresent or lie about their sexual
This last boyfriend that I had that I broke up with in October, we dated for like a year and a half, and there was like a phase in our relationship where he, like, didn’t want to have sex with me. So after a week he was like, “okay I’ll just say it: I feel weird that you’ve had sex with so many people”… And he was like ‘I just hate that you’ve fucked two of my friends.” And I was like “Are you kidding me? That’s before we even knew each other, like what do you want me to do about it?” And so there was just this phase where I just felt like really bad. I felt like I was damaged goods or something. (Heather, class of 2012) Though my sample size is not large enough to draw generalizable conclusions, abuse took place more frequently during the university years than after graduation (three of the four abusive relationships or instances). Of the four women reporting abuse, three have not been involved in subsequent committed relationships and one, Shauna, began a relationship with much trepidation after many years. The other three women have enjoyed more casual relationships and hooking up in the wake of experiencing abuse.
For women, this type of emotional abuse serves to reinforce the attitude widely held by men and women alike that the college years are not the time to be bound up and weighed down by an exclusive relationship.
Sex as Currency – “worth it” Though the majority of the interviewees were happy to “hook up” outside of an exclusive relationship, several either expressed reticence or refusal to have intercourse with a man they are romantically interested in without this type of commitment. They do not believe that the benefits of having sex will outweigh the perceived risks – loss of power or control over their partner, the social discomfort of subsequent encounters with a previous hookup partner, loss of his respect, the health risks that always accompany intercourse, and other perceived risks. Others do not believe that as women, they must act as “gatekeepers,” but convey that in their opinion or experience, beginning a committed relationship sexually is not ideal. And morality aside, many of the women who have acquiesced to the enticement of hookup culture have found that the sex is not even particularly good.
Upon leaving her first serious relationship, Bryn was eager to explore her sexuality with new people. After gaining sexual experience and confidence inside the margins of a committed relationship, Bryn was disappointed when satisfying sex did not
transpire as naturally as it may have seemed to with her ex-boyfriend:
We’d been having classes together, you know, scoping each other out for like two years and then finally started… it was more like that “finally,” I guess kind of thing. But yeah, that backfired, and then he came in like 60 seconds and I was like “I’m gonna fucking kill myself, this is so not worth it.” And then it was so awkward because he was my friend, sort of. I bang my, like, sort‐of friends, so then if it’s horrible, it doesn’t really matter. (Bryn, class of 2010) Here, Bryn implies that the less than satisfactory sexual experience was not “worth” the awkwardness she expected to encounter when subsequently seeing this acquaintance.
Many women expressed that they are not the “type of girl” or “type of person” to have sex outside a relationship and indicated their belief that every girl is different and that the mores governing this depend upon “how she was raised.” Despite this widespread belief that intercourse is off-limits with hookup partners, five of six alumnae and five of six undergraduates directly or indirectly conveyed their (past or present) willingness to engage in non-intercourse sexual acts in hookup contexts. Bryn reflected
on her observation of this phenomenon in her sorority:
Was hooking up spoken about openly in the sorority house even though there was such a diversity of beliefs and behaviors?
Oh yeah. Because even the ones who won’t fuck give, like, mad blowjobs.
A lot of girls seem to have a very well defined division in their minds between oral sex and actual sexual intercourse. Is that something that has definitely been the case in your experience?
Oh, for other people for sure. The girl I met from the sorority who befriended me was the type who, like, gave tons of blowjobs but… you know, had some weird guilt complex about like, actually doing it… (Bryn, class of 2010) Bryn’s perception that “even the [women] who won’t fuck give, like, mad blowjobs” suggests that women might believe they must be somewhat sexually available to a man before he will consider a relationship with her. This expectation seems to change for both men and women as they leave college and progress through
their young adult years:
…I think when you get older, you kind of realize that, you know, getting drunk and like waking up with someone that you don’t know the next morning probably isn’t such a good idea, you know? And that you maybe need to start heading in, like, a certain direction, even with you own life.
(Bethany, class of 2009) The nebulous nature of hookup culture compounds all of the confusions inherent to any type of intimate human relationship; both women and men often learn how these interactions work without a rulebook. According to Unhooked, “Hookups are very scripted. You’re supposed to know what to do and how to do it and how to feel during and afterward. You learn to turn everything off except your body and make yourself emotionally invulnerable” (Stepp 2007: 243). As one might expect, the process of making oneself “emotionally invulnerable” is far from easy and in many cases, requires the dehumanization of others. After Heather’s ex-boyfriend shared his evaluations of her perceived promiscuity, she recounts seeing her sexual choices and behaviors
differently and altering them accordingly:
…Because before [my ex‐boyfriend expressed his discomfort at the number of men I’d slept with] I never felt like I’d had sex with too many people or been too promiscuous – I think in some ways it was good because I have realized that I don’t think it’s worth having sex with someone unless there’s something more, because I think that sex should be a little more intimate and special. And I mean it’s risky…and I don’t think it’s worth it to… and I think there’s also a level of emotional connection that kind of biologically comes with it....If I’m interested in pursuing a relationship with [someone], I would want to wait to have sex.
How long do you normally, ideally want to wait once you’re spending time with someone on a regular basis?
I don’t think I could probably wait more than a week or two.
Long enough to make sure you can enjoy each other’s company?