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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Truth About Hooking Up, Dating, and Doing Relationships While Feminist

By Liz - Guest Writer

The way most Western education is framed, I think, is very strange. I didn't actually think this until I studied abroad in Ecuador, where most university students live with their parents, and actually often live with their parents until marriage. The fact that I lived in apartments or dorms with friends was very strange to my Ecuadorian friends, and when I thought about it... it is pretty weird.

At 18ish, many Western young adults head off to college, where many experience "independence" for the first time. Although this involves a lot of good life-skillsy things like learning to pay bills and manage a budget, one of the more significant things people experience in college is a phenomenon called hookup culture. And if we're not calling hook up culture weird and bizarre, we have a problem. It's been normalized and become hegemonic! Nooooooooo!

For those of you who are too young/old/cool to fit into said culture, let me explain briefly:
Hookup culture tends to be defined by a casual approach to sex (and sexish things). The term "hookup" takes on a lot of meanings and there is no one definition, but I think about it as "making out +." So anything that happens in that realm may be referred to as a hookup. As this is the dominant relationship script in colleges there develops the culture: we do it, we talk about it, and then we listen to other people talk about it.

How widespread hooking up is is somewhat up to debate. Kathleen Bogle, who wrote the book Hooking Up, found in her study that 91% of female college students believed that hookups occurred fairly to very often, while only 40% reported that they had actually participated in a hookup during college. This is why hooking up is significant. If fewer than the majority are actually doing it, it might not seem so big, but this is what most people believe is fact. That is culture.

So what of it? Well, some people believe that hookup culture is the devil, while others fetishize it, and others still that it has its place because of its benefits.

Unfortunately, most of the studies so far on hookup culture are on heterosexual couples, and as a cisgender, heterosexual woman, my experience is also in line with what information is already out there. Gay hookup culture on campuses is something that I know about through friends, but is not something that I know enough about to really speak on. (--> Perhaps there is someone out there who can? Because those are voices/experiences we need to hear from as well.)

I feel somewhat conflicted about hookup culture. I've always felt a little conflicted about it, but it wasn't until I read Bogle's book this summer that I really started to question it. Here are most of the arguments for/against hooking up (that exclude like... religious ones):

Point 1: Hookup up is positive because it allows women to have a sexual experiences without distracting relationshipy things. Not all people want a long-term, monogamous relationship. For college students, hooking up can give the positive things (fun sex stuff) without the downer things (boring relationship, commitment things).

Point 2: Hooking up is negative because women trick themselves into thinking that hooking up is what they want. Bogle found that some women who sustained hookup relationships believed that these may one day turn into a traditional boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, however that is not how most hookups work. Believing hookups to be fun and/or advantageous to starting something else, women engage in hookups despite actual ambivalent results.

Point 3: Hooking up is positive for women because it is erasing some of the sexual stigma women face. As a culture that expects (heterosexual) hook ups to happen, women have more sexual freedom and are encouraged to participate in a culture that allows them to enjoy sex.

Point 4: Hooking up is negative for women because it doesn't actually get rid of sexual stigma, and in fact encourages men to take advantage of women without emotional commitment. Without that emotional connection, it is easier to delegitimize women and call them "sluts" for analogous behavior from men, which goes unpunished.

Thing is... I think all of these 4 points are true to some degree. As a college senior, I have participated in hookup culture all four years of being in my university, through hookups as basic as making out at a frat party to having a sustained hookup relationship with a friend. Personally, I'm really busy and sometimes barely have time for my girlfriends. Imagining factoring a relationship into this gives me a headache. I am glad that my friends and are at a point in history where our sexuality is somewhat encouraged, and we do encourage each other. However, I think the days of slut-shaming are far from over, and it's difficult to say this when I know that there are some people who would still judge me for my behavior, no matter how tame or wild it is.

Earlier this semester I wrote about this on my blog, and I talked about something called pluralistic ignorance, which is something that Lisa Wade, another sociologist who studied hooking up, found is an issue with hookup culture. Hookup culture has become somewhat hegemonic. I think in general, monogamous relationships are somewhat hegemonic, but that's a subject for another post. But when we (college students) accept hookup culture as fact without questioning the results (kind of ambivalent... it's good, it's bad, sometimes it's fulfilling, eh) we're creating an environment that makes hookup culture bad because no one is questioning it.

College students, whether or not hooking up is personally satisfying (and for a lot of college students, hooking up is not as satisfying as they want it to be), continue to participate in it because that's what we believe to be the norm. Since the post I wrote earlier this semester, I joined an online dating site and have been experimenting with that a little. I don't have to participate in hookup culture. I have options. Honestly, I don't have a lot of time for meeting up with guys I've met online either, but I've been on a couple dates and it hasn't been a negative experience. I'm concerned with fundamentally having equality between me and whatever man I go out with, so I have found it interesting that the simple switch from being an undergrad (*cough*: in a state of extended adolescence) to being a grad student or post-grad for dudes switches their mindset from hookup culture to traditional dating.

Where feminism comes in, is I think it is possible to have whatever kind of relationship works for you, whether it is hookups or a sustained casual relationship, or dating, or a relationship, and still be feminist. If you feel like you're not being valued enough as a person, or that your position in the relationship is somewhat marginalized or unequal, just get out of it. Don't waste your time. College students have the opportunity to experiment with their sexuality without the awkward parent-thing, so I think that's something that should be taken advantage of. If that means just going on dates... that's fine! I have lots of friends who have never hooked up in college, and it's not like it's something they're particularly pining after. Sexuality is a personal experience and can't be defined by what we see on MTV or ABC Family or whatever. Everyone experiences it differently, but maintaining a critical mindset allows us to evaluate whether or not what we're doing makes us happy and determine whether or not what we're doing is a feminist act.

Liz blogs about feminism, current events, pop culture and teens at Our Turn: Feminism for Newbies.

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