Happiness and Hooking Up

I arrived at Emerson College my freshman year newly rid of twenty inches of hair and excited to fill all of that high school weight I’d just cut off with new, interesting, and exciting collegiate experiences. My first night in college I met a nice boy—let’s call him Teddy—who had curly hair and loved the same stupid guitar-folk lo-fi band that I did. We chain smoked outside of Piano Row and commiserated about the dread of our mutual first “real” winter impending. We kissed outside of NYP and spent the night together in his dorm room, yet-unpacked suitcases, my Birkenstocks, and new striped dress littering his floor.  It was sweet, I thought.  I did not think, Sweet, a boyfriend! I did not think, Since we spent this time together, Teddy now owes me future time and affection. I did not even think, This may happen again. But I did think this was a person I had shared time and a connection with, and that warranted some kind of common decency. Wouldn't you?

The next day, I saw Teddy while I was drowning my Peet’s iced coffee (RIP) in cream in Em Caf.  I waved, and asked him how his first day of classes had gone. A seemingly common thing to do if you run into someone you know. Teddy was with a pretty redhead I remembered as the Journalism major who sat in the back row of my Making Monsters class. He looked at me and said, “Sorry, do I know you?” My brow furrowed in confusion. He rolled his eyes at me and walked away.  

That weekend I saw Teddy at a party in JP—my first nighttime venture south on the Orange Line. He was with yet another girl, his hands grabbing her waist and ass roughly as the pair chatted with some others. He saw me, whispered something to the girl, and came over, pulling me aside into a room out of view of the friends he had been with.

“Hey babe,” he said, and kissed me. “What the fuck,” I said back. He was genuinely confused.

I asked him why I should give him the time of day now considering the other day at Em Caf. He gave me a face, one of those, “aww, come on” faces guys give girls when they’re trying to excuse their bad behavior as an overreaction on the girl’s part. “Babe,” he said. “It was nothing. Why did that upset you? We’re just hooking up.”

This was my first real experience with what is known as “hookup culture.” Between sexting in middle school, counting people you’ve slept with and comparing numbers with friends, and often times not remembering the names of many people you’ve spent the night with, we are a generation that has come of age at the height of hookup culture--and are fully immersed.

Picture any weekend: you grab Fajitas & ‘Ritas with friends, maybe pregame a little if the waiter forgets to ask for ID. You gush about the boy in your comm class who has been making eyes at you. You trudge back to your dorm and get dressed for the night, smuggle a bottle of peach Nantucket Nectars mixed with vodka into your half-zipped purse and scurry past your RA when he attempts to greet you enthusiastically in the hallway. Cut to: the D Line, where you and your friends slurp down your mixed drinks and stumble tipsily off the train and into Allston proper. Party time. The setting is some trashed clapboard belonging to a group of upperclassmen boys you don’t know. Fetty Wap is blasting. You all scream, rush in, mingle and dance. Strobe lights and sweaty bodies make for an ideal atmosphere. As you dance with your friends, your eyes dart around instinctively, scoping out the attendees for anyone fuckable. You secure a few prospects, and make a point to surreptitiously scoot your group toward their corner. The lights are low, one guy is dancing on you, and soon, you’re making out.  BJ in the closet, someone opens it and everyone sees, you’re embarrassed, but not too embarrassed because you’re sufficiently fucked up, then you’re in an awkward Uber back to campus and, before you know it, getting it on in his Piano Row double. You crash on the couch in his suite, too drunk to stumble home, but too sober to share an xl twin bed with a boy you only vaguely know from your Intro to College Writing class. Sure, maybe for you it was Genki Ya, not F&R, but it is safe to say that this “hookup culture” plays a prevalent part in the lives of most sexually active college students.  

Casual hookups are a staple, and not one that is ever really questioned.  It is the way it is, the status quo of sorts, meaninglessness over meaning, brevity over anything that lasts longer than the morning after. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that the majority of college students experience “sadness or anxiety,” often reporting feelings of loneliness or disconnection, with up to 30% of college students feeling “too depressed to function” on a regular basis, which is a higher percentage than any other study on a specific community. There are many factors that contribute to these elevated statistics, such as being away from home for the first time, or the pressures of making new friends and performing in more difficult courses.  But the hookup culture that saturates most college campuses seems to add an additional, unnecessary level of pain and stress to the equation. Many of the aforementioned factors are an unavoidable part of college life, but hookup culture is not! So why are we so complacent with a culture that may only be furthering us from happiness and contentment in ourselves and in our interpersonal relationships?  

The pressure to conform to the standards of this culture are certainly tangible.  Most college students are not looking for serious relationships or commitment, so, if that is a value you hold, it can be easy to feel like the odd player out. I am certainly not suggesting that that sort of commitment is the route for everyone (and I definitely don’t find it to be the route for myself), it just doesn’t make sense why hookup culture is the default lens by which we, as young people, are encouraged to view relationships. Take, for example, the way that, for many high school students, college is the only logical next step, and other options are seldom encouraged, or even a real consideration. The same goes for young people with hookup culture. It is the go-to, what we think we are supposed to be doing, without a second thought, the natural next step in our personal lives, as is college the natural next step in our academic lives. But a post-secondary education is an extremely valuable opportunity, and we are all reaping in the benefits of that opportunity. And this is where the two diverge. The same does not seem to be true of hookup culture—we are not reaping in any benefits of this path to intimacy, and, as a result, many college students find themselves feeling more lost and confused than they would otherwise.  

Hookup culture is a culture that is failing its participants, whether they know it or not.  It does not meet the needs of those participants, although the participants might claim that it does. There seems to be a prevalent stigma, especially in college-aged women, to affirm that they are not interested in experiencing emotional or romantic validation from their physical encounters, and that physical encounters are sufficiently rewarding as such, in order to disassociate themselves with any unfairly imposed stereotypes about women being clingy, or irrationally emotional, particularly in the wake of what a man might consider to be a meaningless sexual encounter. There is also immense pressure to (rightfully) cast off somewhat ridiculous notions of Arthurian romantic comportment that is antithetical to any modern relationship. Some women also often feel that in order to be “good feminists,” they must subscribe to hookup culture, because it is easy to conflate seeking out an emotional connection with dependence on a man. But, when this fight for both internal and external justification takes prevalence over one’s actual feelings toward an encounter, it ends up that all parties, regardless of gender, are robbing themselves of the most remarkable part of sharing physical intimacy with a person—the intense emotional bond that can precede or succeed such an encounter.  

To those who might disagree and argue that casual sex is a liberating, enthralling release, I agree wholeheartedly. Casual sex has it’s place in the wide spectrum of sexual encounters, and can certainly serve a wonderful purpose within that place. The concern arises when this type of sexual encounter becomes the go-to—and often only—mode of sexual intimacy that young people experience. Successful, meaningful, excellent sex is so heavily contingent on chemistry, which is usually cultivated, and sexual preferences and habits are all so idiosyncratic and people are all so complex, that it can often take a while—take practice, for lack of a better manner of phrasing—to have experiences that are wonderful in all the sorts of ways sex is meant to be wonderful. Experiences that fill you up and make your chest expand, and your breathing and your heart slow in true, unbridled fulfillment, actualization, and satisfaction. Those are the kinds of self-caring, pain-lessening feelings for which sex is such an incredible catalyst, and why it is so important for our generation to realize all that sex can be outside of a standard hookup model.

I realize now what I didn't know as a freshman about why my encounters with my lovely, freshman year hookup, Teddy upset me so much. It wasn’t that he didn't want to date me, or see me exclusively. Hell, I certainly didn’t want to date him! It was the fact that he seemed to feel like since we were only “hooking up,” he didn't owe me even the most basic common courtesy in a normal realm of life. That hooking up and sustaining an actual interactive relationship of any kind were on two totally disconnected planes, and one had nothing to do with the other. And as a result, it was okay to treat me, and probably the other girls he was sleeping with, like total shit whenever we encountered one another in the daylight. I realized very quickly that I did not want to have any kind of relationship—sexual or otherwise—with anyone who did not regard me with enough respect to literally say “hello.” Hookup culture seems to breed this sort of disregard and disrespect for personal connection, as if that connection negates the purpose of the hookup as a standalone. But this sort of intense interaction, coupled with total emptiness and unfamiliarity in other lights, quickly becomes extremely draining.

This is certainly not a call for a change of ways completely, or a PSA for exclusively committed relationships. I am not even suggesting monogamy. I am just suggesting reflection. I am suggesting to a generation of young people—myself included—who I have experienced so often battling with intense feelings of self-doubt, self-loathing, and often, depression, and who, more often than not, coalesce those feelings and experiences with only the usual causes—school, work, family, etcetera—to also take possible participation in a hookup-based culture into consideration as a potential influence in larger pain or unhappiness. To consider how meaningful and purposeful the physical interactions—which are by nature very vulnerable interactions—in your life are. And maybe, if you are feeling a sort of lackluster, on-and-off empty gnaw in your stomach with regard to some of those interactions, think about what might change in your life and your wellbeing if you sought out meaning in more of the relationships prevalent in your life—sexual encounters included.

In The Magazine, RomanceM Lakatos