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The Myth of the Senior Scramble: Talking to Brown University students about 'hookup culture'


Judy P. is an art history student at Brown University who is interested in the intersections of art, politics, race, class, and gender. Check out her other posts here.

For years, we've been hearing hookup culture bashed in the media for promoting dangerous behavior, cheapening sex, and encouraging meaningless relationships. The latest example is Donna Freitas' book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy. In her Washington Post Opinions piece from two months ago, Freitas asserts that hookups have become:

"so common, so obligatory, that it leaves little room for experimentation that bends the rules [...] When students are expected to hook up with lots of people, doing so becomes dutiful, not daring. Older ideas of sexual exploration – be it same-sex encounters or one-night stands – have become a basic expectation."

Part of me read that and thought it felt pretty honest in the way that hooking up feels like a necessary rite of passage (although I really don't agree with her conclusion that we should instead abstain from sex altogether).

I'm taking a year off before completing my senior year at Brown, so on a weekend visit back to campus, I decided to investigate. Now that my girlfriends were graduating, what could they tell me about their sexual experiences of the past 4 years? About college hookup culture at large? Were they participating in the infamous "senior scramble" (last-ditch attempt to get with somebody, anybody before leaving undergrad life) now that they were graduating seniors?

My friends defined hooking up in a variety of ways, from making out to having intercourse, but they all agreed that it was casual. Here's what some of them said:

On relationships vs. hooking up: 

M: It's weird for me to be here and be in a serious relationship. Personally, just being single and hooking up with people would be unsatisfying.

C: The only guy I hooked up with freshman year who I didn't really like was D. My mentality was, classes haven't started, this is what you do in college. It was all kind of really stupid. You enter college and think you have all this freedom now.

M: There's this pressure to do this when you enter college. I went to an all girls school, so I didn't really have a chance to do any of this stuff before.

C: I've done it, and I'm over it. I've had the "college experience." Being in a 3-year relationship then breaking it off and hooking up with someone was weird. But I had to get it out of my system.

M: In the same vein, I've already had this hookup experience [freshman year], so I prefer to be in a relationship. [My boyfriend] has only had sexual experiences in serious relationships, no random hookups, so if he hooked up with anyone else, he'd feel really attractive. I wouldn't need that kind of affirmation the way he kinda does since he's never had that before.

On not experimenting enough:

C: I see a lot of girls complain that they don't want to hook up with anybody because "everyone at Brown is gay or a girl."

T: The options are so slim that people feel like they have to hunt down new prospects like prey. It's easier to just stay out of it.

On not hooking up (or having any kind of sex) at all:

J: I'm just not interested in the culture. I don't find anyone attractive enough, nor do I want to hook up. Hooking up casually involves going to crowded places with people you don't know, drinking a lot, and meeting lots of strangers. I'm just not into that, I'd rather hang out with my friends.

On the potential dangers of hookup culture:

E: I don't have the evidence, but I get the impression that frat boys/ athletes try to get girls drunk and then sleep with them, then they call it a "hookup."

Y: During residential peer counselor training, that's a huge topic. Safe-sex groups and Health Services come in and talk about how that's a huge issue because it can be really dangerous, all that alcohol tied into hookup culture. We have to address going to parties "properly," respecting each other's bodies/ spaces, and most importantly, consent.

On the perks of hookup culture, from a queer male friend's perspective:

L: I think there is a huge hooking up culture at Brown, or rather, it is a sex-positive space. I think it's a place where if you want to hook up, there are people–and if you don't, then there is not much pressure. But this is from my own experience, so there's not much I can say about the straight scene. Hookup culture has influenced how I treat others' bodies, and it has definitely pushed me to think more about consent in my relationships. It's allowed me to be more sex-positive, something I'll carry on outside of Brown. That is, I'm able to treat others with more respect and be much more considerate of their desires and boundaries.

As for me, I feel like there's a whole, complex spectrum of sexual experiences on my college campus. We have the freedom to choose to hook up or to not hook up. Even if we hook up uncomfortably with the kid down the hall, refusing to acknowledge each other the next day, we learn from those mistakes. As long as it is consensual, there shouldn't be anything wrong with experimenting. I have certainly learned from the highs and lows of my previous sexual encounters to make more informed, intentional decisions.

What's your experience of campus hookup culture? Does it even exist? Tell us in the comments!