«“When we graduate, this is over”: Young Women’s Experiences with Hooking Up and Relationships EMILY PAGE ...»
Yeah, that it’s worth it. Because I hate seeing those guys around that I had little flings with, I hate seeing them around now and being like “God, I fucked you, what the fuck!” (laughs) Ugh. You know? And I feel like there’s this certain way that they look at you too. It’s like “fuck you!” Can you describe it at all?
I feel like they feel like they’ve possessed me in some weird way or something. (Heather, class of 2012) Though her actions do not always align with her new mentality that there should be “something more,” Heather does not see casual sex as “worth” the severity of the potential repercussions. In addition to judgment from her boyfriend, she also voiced her uneasiness when encountering men she had previously slept with. The very definition of a hookup indicates no expectations of future commitment, and many respondents described discomfort similar to Heather’s when subsequently seeing or interacting with a man they had hooked up with. The hookup “script” did not prepare Heather for future experiences with these men, and her reliance on profanities to explain the emotions stemming from their unkindness and indifference might indicate her acknowledgement that culture does not legitimate these experiences (Jay 2009). Despite the ostensibly casual nature of hookup culture, it is important to acknowledge that this can be a façade; hookups frequently have lingering consequences, feelings, and emotions.
Some women like Nancy, a 20-year-old student athlete, struggle to eke out arrangements with men reluctant to agree to a committed relationship. After twice unsuccessfully attempting to translate repeat hookups into relationships, she has resolved to withhold intercourse from the man she is currently “talking” to until he succumbs to her definition of commitment. Given that both of her past partners as well as her current love interest are athletes – high status men who “can literally hook up with a different girl every night” – procuring this commitment is likely an even greater
struggle than for women interested in more “average” college men:
Like, I’m not hooking up with you until you are either committed to me or you claim me when you’re out – you know, holding hands, like a kiss on the cheek. Like, I’m not a clingy girl at all. But I just want reassurance that, you know, you’re proud to be by my side. You know what I mean, like, for someone that didn’t know us, to be like, “oh you know, they must be together” type thing. That’s all I want. Especially if, like sex gets involved.
Like I told him... I just kinda, gave him rules, you know what I mean, like, “I’m not having sex with you until like this is happening. Like, I’ve heard you are talking to other girls and that’s fine, we aren’t anything, we’re just starting to get to know each other, but that better stop and I better stop hearing about it if you want to [have sex],” you know what I mean? And, like, I feel like it’s working, because, I feel like… like I have so much control over it and it’s going so well. And I feel like I have control over this boy until I have sex with him. And then I lose my control because it’s like, “Does he want me or does he not? Does he want me just for [sex]? Does he like me?” (Nancy, class of 2013) Nancy’s conflict is a familiar one for many women. How can she foster a committed relationship with a man who has access to sex with countless women? It is not difficult to see why she believes withholding sex can serve as a tool to differentiate herself from the other “easy” women her love interest has slept with and for whom he has indicated his lack of “respect” (demonstrated verbally to Nancy and undoubtedly to the “easy” women through his actions). Sex clearly has currency value when it’s withheld and can diminish a woman’s status or “value” when it’s relinquished, illuminating one of the most troubling gendered aspects of hookup culture: withholding sex has little to no currency for most men.
My conversations with the 12 respondents revealed a troubling affirmation of Shere Hite’s findings from nearly two decades ago: people of both genders internalize and reproduce the pervasive sexual double standard. Even women who hook up frequently and ostensibly enjoy sex without imposing society’s Madonna/whore dichotomy upon themselves described other women as “whores” and “sluts.” Women widely condemn others’ practice of hooking up in subtle ways, but this has not translated to their complete abstinence from the practice. Elizabeth, 18, was the only undergraduate I spoke with who professed no experience with hooking up and no
interest in doing so:
In my sorority, it’s really different. Like, everybody is so different. There are those girls that, like, shack up with like different frat guys and I think that’s disgusting.
When you say “shack up” do you mean just have sex – Er, like, kind of like a one night stand. It doesn’t always have to be sex, you know, just like – Do you think that girls who hook up, and especially girls who hook up with different men frequently, are subject to open judgment?
Yeah, I definitely think so, but that’s just kind of like human nature. You know? But you say that about them or whatever but that doesn’t make you like them any less. You judge them on how they [act] to you. But the fact that they do that, you might not agree with it. You know, just like, I’m sure from another point of view it’s like “oh my god that girl doesn’t hook up with guys, like what’s wrong with her?” But like, you still like her. It’s not something that makes or breaks a friendship. (Elizabeth, class of 2015) Both cohorts have varied ideas about sex and in what contexts they engage in it, though the actuality does not always align with their idealized notions; several women described having sex with men they likely would not have chosen had they been sober.
Though most women will engage in some level of physicality with men who are not their boyfriends, sex occurs at different points in different contexts. Some simply require that they “feel comfortable” with a man regardless of their relationship status. For some, the more romantically interested they are in a man, the longer they prefer or intend to “wait” to have sex with him, while other women reject having sex outside of a relationship in all circumstances.
The decision to have sex outside of a committed relationship can have a variety of social outcomes for women: a relationship (as was the case for Krista and Claudia as undergraduates), stigma and judgment from both men and women, no change in their status quo, or a repeat hookup, described below.
The Ambiguity of Hooking Up Both cohorts recollect instances of miscommunication in the overwhelming majority of hookups and casual relationships. Open communication is perceived to be one of the most positive aspects of an exclusive, committed relationship while miscommunication or utter lack of communication is universally perceived to be one of the most considerable drawbacks of participation in hookup culture. Two key areas that seem to be universally fraught with confusion include determining precisely when committed relationships began and ended and a lack of universality in meaning of specific terms: hooking up, talking, dating, friends with benefits.
Krista, the 24-year-old woman who reflected happily on her participation in hookup culture, described her involvement in several casual relationships during that
Would you say that it was normally that you were seeing or dating one boy at a time, or maybe you had some” friends with benefits” situations?
Yeah, I’ve never been one to have multiple boys in my life at once. Um, I’ve definitely surrounded myself with guy friends, like I definitely hang out with guys a lot and have attractions to them and connections with them, but it’s never been like, a “friends with benefits” thing.
After realizing that her descriptions of the relationships seemed to belie the claim she
had made a few moments earlier, I asked:
Would you call those situations between the ex‐boyfriend and the current boyfriend sort of like “friends with benefits” situations or was that more like dating…. There was always a romantic element to it?
Um… I don’t know how to answer that. (laughs) Like we would start out as just friends, you know, and then as we hung out more we would get attracted to each other and I guess fool around every once in awhile, but we would never like officially be exclusive or dating so I guess you could call it “friends with benefits”, I just like, never thought of it like that. (Krista, class of 2009) When Krista stated that she had not been involved in a “friends with benefits” relationship, she had no intentions of dishonesty or misrepresenting her experiences, she simply had not conceptualized her liaisons in those terms. She was content to enjoy the benefits of these arrangements and did not feel compelled to ascertain the terms of the relationship with any of these men because she was not seeking commitment from them. However, in some cases women avoid defining their relationships for a different reason: the fear that pushing too hard on the men in their lives by probing for commitment will have the opposite effect and lead to the present arrangement’s dissolution.
Throughout the five-year break in her education at KU, Shauna became involved in an ongoing repeated hookup situation that in many ways typifies the confusion and
ambiguity resulting from a lack of communication:
Um, there was this other guy; we had this on‐again/off‐again relationship for like six years. And when it started he was actually seeing someone and it got to the point where he was trying to tell me he was going to break up with her and stuff. But I actually was smart enough to know better that if he did break up with her, they’d just end up getting back together. We kind of kept things going for longer than we should, kind of thing, and he would really confide in me in a lot of stuff and he’d want to come over and watch movies and hang out. And, you know, it was a strange relationship in that it didn’t fit into any neat category, and I think that that was a huge miscommunication between us. It was just like, you know, “if you want to come and hang out and watch movies and stuff, are we dating or not?” You know? And the thing is, we never talked about it, so it was just a huge miscommunication in that regard – absolutely no communication.
So you really didn’t understand what the relationship was and he was uninterested in addressing it, or neither of you made any effort to address it?
Yeah, it was pretty much neither of us made any effort to address it, and when we did, it was just kind of like, you know, I would try to ask him questions about stuff and he would shut down. …I think that, you know, people – even if they know what the answer to the question is going to be – they still don’t want to ask it, kind of thing, because they’re afraid of “what if it’s not that” kind of thing. (Shauna, class of 2011) Kylie, a senior studying Communications, did not explicitly express confusion; rather, her confusion became apparent to me as she described the process of entering into her
Um, it is [stressful to define the parameters of a relationship] to me, more so me than [my boyfriend] because…my friends are always like “oh you’re gonna go see him? Like, are you guys dating?” And so, my friends, they’re wanting me to take him to date parties, stuff like that. And it’s like, I’m not gonna make him do anything he doesn’t want to do, like if he doesn’t want to, like, officially call me his girlfriend but doesn’t want to be with anybody [else], like, I don’t really care, you know? But…I felt like, pressure from my friends – To define the relationship? To define, yeah. (Kylie, class of 2012) Kylie relates the stress of the ambiguous, purgatory-like sphere existing between “dating” and a relationship and the coexistent stress of attempting to secure the verbal commitment and accompanying behaviors assumed to follow. Later in the interview, Kylie disclosed that she does not enter a sexual relationship without first discussing and ensuring monogamy – for her, acknowledgement and implications of a serious, committed relationship were of relative unimportance but the sexual exclusivity was non-negotiable. At least for her, the expectation of an ensuing emotional commitment seemed implicit. Though she and her now-boyfriend at some point conferred about the official status of their relationship, she seemed uncertain about which conversation or event might have marked the beginning of their emotional commitment and proclaimed status as a couple. When Kylie initially began describing her relationship, I asked, “So how long have you two been together?” to which she responded with hesitation, “Um....
probably since February. January, February.” A few minutes later, when describing another aspect of their relationship, said “So we didn’t really get serious until – I mean I guess we’re still not really that serious, but you know – didn’t really start dating until April, May.” Because the blurry distinction between repeat hookups and the initial phases of a committed relationship often lies in the emotional value assigned to the interactions by one or both parties, the interviewees often struggled to isolate when these relationships began, especially because the change in relationship status does not necessarily alter the actual relationship immediately.
None of the single alumnae described sexual relationships that meet the description of a repeat hookup, though two women described occasional sexual encounters that have been ongoing since high school. Nancy was the lone undergraduate to detail a current repeat hookup relationship – the one she hopes to channel into a committed relationship.
Hope for Committed Relationships and Hooking Up as a Pathway Into Them Gender and sexuality scholars write that hookups not only substitute for committed relationships, but also serve as the inroads to them (Armstrong, et al. 2009).