«“When we graduate, this is over”: Young Women’s Experiences with Hooking Up and Relationships EMILY PAGE ...»
As a result of the ambiguity and confusion detailed above, both parties of a repeat hookup may often experience confusion about what kind of relationship they are participating in and whether it will evolve into a relationship. As described in the section on ambiguity and confusion, many women feel hesitant to broach the topic of monogamy or exclusivity with a hookup partner for fear of upsetting the present arrangement.
Shauna did not describe any concern or urgency about conferring with a man she has recently begun to refer to as her boyfriend during the initial phases of their relationship because of anxiety about his reaction, though she was perhaps hesitant to enter her first committed relationship following the abusive relationship she left several
years ago. Her present relationship began as a repeat hookup:
I mean, we definitely had a great time talking to each other and I knew that, but I was just like “Whatever. I don’t know about this guy.” …And toward graduation time, we had started to hang out more, and then a week or two after graduation, we’d been hanging out a whole bunch and I ended up letting him come home with me one night, you know. Because the way he would talk about stuff and the way I would talk about stuff, it’s like, “well, I know we work together, but maybe we can just have fun and do whatever.” And, it was, you know at first we both didn’t know what we wanted. And we kind of talked about that, like “I don’t know what this is.” I just thought, “well, we’ll just have this fun casual relationship and whatever happens, happens.” (Shauna, class of 2011) Claudia’s former relationship began with some similar ambiguity. Determined to remain single but gradually and accidentally falling in love with the son of a family friend, her
plans began to change:
It was really frightening and I remember having all these conversations with my sister and not knowing if I could do this. I think it really horrified me and I avoided a lot of things, but when he asked me to hang out I just genuinely wanted to spend time with him, so if you’re going to allow yourself to spend that amount of time with them obviously [a relationship] is going to happen. I was still in the crazy PTSD place, so after the first time we had sex I made a point of being like, “Listen…obviously there are feelings here…but I’m not ever, ever, ever trying to be in a committed relationship.” It was stupid in hindsight and it was just pretending there is any difference, like it’s all in a title. Clearly it was exclusive, clearly it was committed, we weren’t just hooking up, we were spending lots of time together, but I was still pretending like it wasn’t a thing. So one day in March he was like, “Claudia, listen, I know what we are and I know this is committed, so I don’t need you to call me your boyfriend, but [my mother] does. For her sanity can we just have the fucking title?” I knew he was being funny and that was half of the truth, but… he needed to know for him. And I was like “yes, Mark, we are boyfriend/ girlfriend.” (Claudia, class of 2011) Like Claudia, many women articulated their best-laid plans to steer clear of the myriad complications relationships can present, but related the coexisting lure of exploring the possibility of a relationship when someone special comes along. Bethany,
now working in retail, shared her impressions of this phenomenon:
I feel like when people say they’re not looking, I feel like that’s not true. I feel like nobody’s ever not looking, it’s just if it’s not you, it’s not you. Because if someone really knocks you off your feet, you’re not going to let them get away. (Bethany, class of 2009) Krista is an artist now cohabiting in a sustaining and positive relationship that began as
a “hookup” and illustrates Bethany’s perceptions of relationship formation:
And like, we were really casual about it at first, we would like get really wasted together all the time and like, have sex and stuff and it wasn’t until maybe, like, a couple months after we were doing that that I was like “we should just date” because he was like, the best guy that I had hung out with.
(Krista, class of 2009) Victoria, the woman now in a long-distance relationship, disclosed that her only completely random, unanticipated hookup (with a member of her intramural sports
team) left her feeling confused:
We were all out for someone’s birthday one night and he was there and we were dancing…randomly he kissed me and I was like, “Oh! That’s strange.” I spent the night there and we didn’t have sex, we just made out. That was basically it. We were kind of in contact after, but it was more of…it ended up just being like more of a drunk thing. I think maybe I was expecting more from it just because I was looking for something local…it ended up not being that, so it was fine.
What were your subsequent interactions, how did you sort of realize that nothing was going to come of it?
Just like any attempt I made to get in touch with him was just kind of met with silence or it was just awkward, it was awkward when we were sober. I was like “if we can’t be sober around each other then maybe I don’t want this to turn into anything.” [After a semester abroad] I had to throw this massive tournament and party and it was a huge undertaking… we slept together the night of the tournament.
And you both had been drinking?
Yeah, I mean that was a huge thing with us, anything that happened with us was under the influence of alcohol, so it was just like…I didn’t feel dirty or weird about it, but it just was like this is not really what I would have done had I been thinking straight. After that, I was just like this is silly, I’m just trying to find other people to replace this person… (Victoria, class of 2012) Victoria learned much more quickly than many other women that she is wholly uninterested in pursuing these types of uncommitted liaisons. She recognized immediately that she did not like the way these encounters made her feel and has since avoided them in favor of exclusive relationships.
Unlike Victoria, some women appreciate what hookups can offer in certain contexts. Sarah has no qualms about participating in hookups with certain men, but indicated that she does not foresee the possibility for a committed relationships with
So do you think most people see hooking up as a “just for fun” kind of thing or more as a pathway into a relationship?
I think here, it’s both. You ask me, and I’d say… for me it’s just for fun. When I start a relationship, I don’t want to start it with having sex with somebody.
That’s never good. That’s how my ex‐boyfriend and I started ours, and obviously you can see how that worked out. Whereas like the guys that I’m talking to and hanging out with now, that I’m like “I don’t have to have sex with you” it’s like, if they like me for who I am without the physical aspect, then maybe later on we can add that in and we can work toward something greater. Which, I know it’s a little hypocritical of me to be like “yeah, I’m okay with hooking up with a random guy but keeping other guys on the side” but that’s just… (laughs) (Sarah, class of 2015) Though Sarah seems to have a clear idea of what she wants and expects in her intimate relationships, other college women frequently lack experience in negotiating and advocating for themselves in intimate relationships. They also may lack the emotional resources, like self-esteem and communication skills, to clearly convey what they want. Additionally, these women may find themselves in the same unsatisfactory hookup situations repeatedly because they believe that they do not have any desirable alternatives; unfortunately this assessment often seems accurate. Nancy describes her
perceptions of her peers’ unfulfilled desire for committed relationships:
I don’t think they’re afraid to admit that [they want boyfriends]… I think they don’t give themselves enough credit and they don’t want to wait. But I have to kind of slow my roll too sometimes, ‘cause I know what I want, I want it so fast, and I’m so impatient about it. So like, a month is fine, “alright, let’s do it and let’s be boyfriend and girlfriend.” But like, good things take time. And I don’t think people really realize that and I think that’s where the hooking up thing comes into play so fast. Like, girls do want boyfriends, like, girls want to feel special, and be wanted. At least the ones I talk to about it, like the ones that are in that like hookup group, like they want [relationships]. They’re looking for that so bad and they want to be wanted so bad that [hooking up’s] what they do. And the consequence for not being patient…so, no, I do think that girls want that. (Nancy, class of 2013) The binds and predicaments in mining hookup culture for relationships reveal serious gender disparity. Especially as they gain experience and solidify their “selfhood” (as Claudia called it), women discuss wanting committed relationships in overwhelming numbers. However, college women seldom feel empowered to take initiative in defining the terms of a relationship and appear to largely understand and accept this element of hookup culture as sexist.
Of the four single alumnae, none described any hookup relationships. Two indicated their vehement opposition to hooking up and are currently “talking” to men in hopes of forming relationships. Of the three single undergraduate women, one explicitly acknowledged her desire to convert a repeat hookup into a relationship and one coyly conveyed that she is “seeing” (but not having sex with) several men and would consider a relationship with one of them at a later time. Another, whose parents met at KU, indicated that she anticipates meeting and forming a relationship with a man who is “marriage material” at some point in college, but intends to avoid commitment in the immediate future.
Post graduation, women don’t suddenly develop an aversion to the casual nature of hooking up, but perhaps cease to see hooking up as a viable route to relationships.
Hookup culture might in some ways lay the foundation for not seeing committed relationships as an ultimate goal. Like Bethany said, women become more interested in “taking a certain direction” that does not include the compromises, bargains, and ambiguities of hookup culture but also does not fixate upon entering a committed relationship. Undergraduate women still enmeshed in hookup culture (seemingly the only game on campus) cut their own deals with it and sometimes decline to participate altogether.
In many ways, hookup culture pushes gender equality further out of reach:
pandering to a male definition of pleasure, exposing women to greater risk of sexual violence, ingraining the sexual double standard deeper into the cultural fiber, and ultimately leaving no desirable alternative for college women who would rather opt out of hooking up. Both the current literature and my observations confirm that women participate in markedly fewer hookups following graduation; one interviewee recounted that “even by the end of college”, she saw her friends “hooking up on a more mature level.” Though casual sex certainly does not cease altogether, hookup culture’s implications for absolutely no commitment do not generally characterize these interactions.
Hooking up represents what sociologist Deniz Kandiyoti termed a patriarchal bargain. “Like all terms coined to convey a complex concept, the term patriarchal bargain represents a difficult compromise. It is intended to indicate the existence of set rules and scripts regulating gender relations, to which both genders accommodate and acquiesce, yet which may nonetheless be contested, redefined, and renegotiated” (Kandiyoti 1988). For women enmeshed in hookup culture, the ostensible equality of the arrangement can obfuscate the fact that in this bargain, men get the better deal.
The anomie and ambiguity characterizing this institution largely prevent communication at the micro level and impede our ability to collectively move toward an organization of
sexual relationships reflecting and embracing gender parity. The task is difficult:
conceptualizing a system of sexual relationships that enables men and women to focus on developing identities and goals in a benevolent space that neither necessitates the devaluation and dehumanization of the very people with whom they are shared, nor mandates that sex occur exclusively in the context of monogamous, emotionally committed relationships.
In the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, Western women have progressed toward sexual equality in a multitude of ways. In our personal lives, some have seemingly sailed into harmonious arrangements that accommodate needs, while some have floundered, unsure how to harness their newly won power. While every woman’s solutions, concessions, and negotiations will ultimately look different, it seems that very few would choose the relationships hooking up offers (especially beyond graduation).
Hookup culture reflects little evolution since Elizabeth Janeway’s assessment of the society’s sexual situation in 1980: “The ‘casual’ sex of today is much deplored, but it seems to be that if we could be truly casual about it – enjoying self and other, noting trauma, rejecting it, and choosing pleasure – we might be on the road to getting over both the binding chastity of Mary and the excesses of Eve. Then the female self, the ego-person who has never figured in past paradigms, might be able to find her way to a valid sexuality that would grow from herself and her own needs and urges” (Janeway 1980). Her vision of a female sexuality that accounts for and encompasses women’s needs (in the case of college women, the need to form personal and sexual identities while striving and achieving academically) can be realized only when men and women reach a bargain of benevolence, respect, and communication, leaving hookup culture’s patriarchal bargains in the past.