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The Sociology of 'Hooking Up'

January 29, 2008

Many researchers rely on college undergraduates as subjects for studies of human behavior. For Kathleen A. Bogle, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at LaSalle University who trained her scholarly lens on the students themselves, focusing on that cross-section was part of the design.

When people talk about "hooking up," they're referring to a subculture with a complex set of rules and expectations. Not surprisingly, most of what they know about student "hookup" culture comes from alarmist news reports of "risky sex" and the American Pie movies, not serious scholarship. In her new book, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus (New York University Press, 2008), Bogle wields the tools of the sociologist, employing in-depth interviews with students and graduates from two unnamed universities -- one a large East Coast public university, the other a smaller Roman Catholic institution in the Northeast -- and placing the culture of hooking up in a historical context. She answered questions via e-mail, shedding light on what she calls the "center of college social life."

Q: Your book is a scholarly take on an issue with popular appeal. Who's the intended audience?

A: I wrote this book with several audiences in mind, including college administrators, parents and college students. I hoped administrators and student life personnel would read it to figure out what is going on in the lives of their students and how the hookup culture is related to some of the major residence-life issues, such as alcohol use and sexual assault. I also believe Hooking Up is ideal for adoption in a variety of courses because it will engage students and help them to understand how personal experiences are tied to larger issues in society.

Q: You note that the vast majority of students and alumni you interviewed were white and heterosexual. Was that unavoidable? How does your sample, and how it was chosen, affect your findings?

A: I chose a primarily white, heterosexual sample for two reasons. First, most of the students at both universities I studied fit into those demographic categories. Second, my research and previous literature indicates that how men and women form sexual and romantic relationships varies by race and sexual orientation. Therefore, I had to limit the scope of my study in order to be able to draw conclusions about the dominant culture on campus. Although I do touch on how non-whites and other marginalized groups form sexual and romantic relationships on campus in my book, fully exploring this issue is an entire study itself.

Q: How much of your interviews reveal what students perceive about hookup culture -- that is, what they hear from their friends and expect from popular culture -- as opposed to what actually happens on campus? Are their responses reflecting personal experience, wishful thinking, or both?

A: I asked students about their general perceptions of college students, perceptions of their peer group and their own behavior. What I found is that students tend to overestimate what their peers are doing. In other words, students often perceive that others hook up more often and go farther sexually during hookup encounters. These misperceptions, in turn, affect their own behavior because students make decisions about their own lives based on what they believe is “normal” for college students. I hope that my book can help clear up these distorted perceptions so that students can make choices based what is really going on.

Q: Recent reports about the hookup culture and "friends with benefits" have been seen by some as a cause for alarm. How does your study differ from previous accounts?

A: I tried to take a more evenhanded approach than previous commentators have on this subject. Where others have focused primarily on the most extreme behavior, I found that hooking up represents a wide range of behavior. I tried to present a realistic view of the hookup culture by including the voices of those who participate in moderate degrees and those who do not participate at all. Although I agree that some of what is going on in the hookup culture is cause for alarm (or at least concern), it is unfair to characterize the entire system, much less “all college students,” by what we see on MTV’s coverage of spring break.

I also think that in comparing hooking up to dating, other commentators have shown the dating era through rose-tinted glasses. Research on dating indicates that it was less than ideal. So I tried to present my findings about hooking up in a more accurate historical context.

Q: Is today’s hookup culture fundamentally different from campus sexual norms 10 or 20 years ago?

A: This is really an empirical question that I cannot answer given that I did not interview students who went to college 10 or 20 years ago. What I can say is that the term “hooking up” has been documented by those studying college slang terminology as being very common since the early to mid-1980s. Furthermore, several studies of college student social life noted a major shift away from traditional dating to group “partying” in the 1970s. This research suggests that it was common for men and women to “pair off” at the end of a night of partying in order for a sexual encounter (including anything from kissing to sexual intercourse) to occur. So, while I cannot answer if it was fundamentally different in the past, I can say hooking up was happening 20 years ago.

Q: Do instant messaging, Facebook and text messages play a significant role in your assessment of hooking up on campus? Are such tools altering the way students meet potential sexual partners?

A: Hooking up existed long before instant messaging, Facebook or text messaging became part of how young people interact. However, these forms of communication do make it increasingly easy for students to interact in a more informal way. For example, in the dating era, interaction was very formal and required a certain amount of planning. Typically, a man placed a phone call to a woman several days in advance to ask her on a date to a specific place at a specific time. In the contemporary hookup culture, activity is much more spur-of-the-moment and casual. Tools like text messaging allow students to get in touch “late night” with potential hookup partners to meet up if they did not happen to run into one another at a party or bar in the course of the evening.

Q: Is there something unique about colleges and universities that fosters the kind of sexual climate you describe? Were there any particular differences between the Roman Catholic institution and the state university you studied? What about fraternity and sorority settings versus dorms and off-campus housing?

A: The college environment is very conducive to hooking up. On campus there is a relatively homogenous population of young men and women living in close proximity to each other with no strictly enforced rules monitoring their behavior. Students generally socialize amongst themselves, which fosters a sense of safety or comfort and they share the mantra that college is a time to “let loose” and party. All of these things factor into why the hookup culture flourishes on campus.

Regarding the faith-based [Roman Catholic] versus the state university in my study, both institutions were the same in terms of hooking up being the dominant script for forming sexual and romantic relationships on campus. However, some of the students I interviewed believed that there were more “anonymous” hookup encounters at the state university due to the larger size of the student population. When I asked students at the faith-based university if they believed that the religious affiliation of their university affected hooking up in any way, most of them believed the religious connection did not make a difference.

Regarding fraternity and sorority settings, fraternity members were among the most likely to hook up frequently with a large number of different partners. Given that fraternity houses often host parties where vast quantities of alcohol are being served, it is not surprising that fraternity members find themselves in an environment particularly conducive to hooking up. As other researchers have noted, both the pledging process of many fraternities and common fraternity practices (e.g., freshman females are admitted to a party for free; freshman males are not allowed to attend the party unless they are a fraternity member) foster a conquest mentality towards sex among many members and certainly shapes the hookup culture on many campuses with an active Greek life.

Q: Some recent studies have suggested that hookup culture more negatively impacts females than males. Did you find any evidence for differing effects on the genders?

A: The hookup culture definitely affects the genders differently in at least two important ways. First, women are far more likely than men to get a bad reputation for how they conduct themselves in the hookup culture. Women can get a bad reputation for many different things, including how often they hook up, who they hook up with, how far they go sexually during a hookup, and how they dress when they go out on a night where hooking up may happen. Men who are very active in the hookup culture may be called a “player”; women, on the other hand, get labeled a “slut.”

Second, women are not getting what they want from the hookup system. Women often want relationships and most are dissatisfied with how often hooking up leads to “nothing,” i.e., no ongoing, stable relationship. There are certainly many cases where a woman does not want a hookup to evolve into a relationship, but on average women are far more interested in a hookup turning into “something more” than men are. This puts women in a difficult situation. If they do not hook up at all, they are left out of the dominant culture on campus and will likely have difficulty finding opportunities to form sexual and romantic relationships with the opposite sex. However, if they do hook up, they have to walk a fine line to make sure they do so in a way that makes them a part of the mainstream on campus without crossing the line and getting negatively labeled.

Q: How does all of this manifest itself in the classroom?

A: Although hookup encounters generally occur at night after students attend parties or go to local bars, several students I interviewed mentioned feeling like they had to be “on” 24/7. This fishbowl existence is all part of what I call the “sexual arena” on campus where students are constantly watching one another, gossiping about one another and judging one another for how they look as well as how they conduct themselves in the hookup culture.

Q: You devote a section to how the hookup culture morphs after college. Does hooking up in college handicap students for post-graduation life?

A: It is really difficult to measure how hooking up affects people psychologically as they age and move into post-college relationships and eventually marriage; however, I do know what happens behaviorally. When students leave college, there is a discernable shift to more formal dating. It was amazing to interview young alumni who were very much a part of the hookup culture in college who now say that they almost exclusively go on dates (except when they are “down the shore,” i.e., at beach resorts during the summer in a very college-like atmosphere). But the transition to the post-college dating scene was not necessarily an easy one. Many of the 20-something-year-old men and women I spoke with were confused over how to act in certain scenarios after college, not knowing if they were on a date or just “hanging out and hooking up.” Some of the people I interviewed had never been on a formal date until after college, so figuring out the rules for the “new” system was a big adjustment for them.

Q: Can traditional dating survive alongside "hooking up"? Should the two paradigms coexist, or are they merging into a single overall "script" that students follow?

A: I think traditional dating is surviving alongside of hooking up in the larger culture, but on campus hooking up has replaced dating as the primary means for students to meet and form sexual and romantic relationships. This does not mean that students never go out for dinner and a movie. The “date” still exists among college students, but it is couples who are already in an exclusive relationship who do it. In other words, the pathway to a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship where a couple might go on a date begins with hooking up. In the dating era, students would go on a date, which might lead to something sexual happening; in the hookup era, students hook up, which might lead to dating. This is a reversal of the traditional order of things. The problem is that many college men are pleased with the status quo; they can hook up and if they want to pursue an ongoing relationship they can, but they are under no obligation to do so. Women, on the other hand, get increasingly frustrated after freshman year with how often it seems that hooking up leads to “nothing.”

Q: Was anyone willing to talk openly about the "walk of shame"?

A: Several of the students I interviewed mentioned the “walk of shame,” which refers to a college student, usually female, walking home the next morning after a hookup encounter in the same outfit he/she was wearing the evening prior. Given that students dress differently for “going out” at night than during the daytime, it is obvious to onlookers when a student is doing the walk of shame. One of many interesting things about this phrase is that students use the word “shame” at all. If students accept hooking up and believe that “everybody’s doing it,” then why do they use the term shame when referencing a hookup encounter? I think that phrase actually underscores an important issue: Many students are struggling with the hookup system. For those students who are having trouble making sense of it all, I hope my book will help shed some light on both what is happening and why it is happening.

 

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