Hooked Up: College students navigate social pressure to participate in casual sex

Sexual education about consent, safety is essential for student wellbeing

· May 16, 2023 Tweet

Caroline Crowley/The Badger Herald

CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of rape and sexual assault. If you have been sexually assaulted, experienced domestic violence, or are not sure, there are several ways to get support. View options on campus through University Health Services.

Beginning college means leaving things behind — high school, childhood, constant parental supervision. For many, it also marks the beginning of a number of adult experiences — independence, new friendships, responsibility. And sex.

Movies, TV shows and social media often make college out to be a four-year installment of sex and alcohol — especially at a “top party school” like the University of Wisconsin.

This environment, where students are encouraged by the media, their peers and other groups to participate in brief sexual interactions, is where hookup culture thrives. 

Hookup culture can be a polarizing topic of discussion — is it empowering, degrading to women or dangerous for everyone? According to the chair of the UW–Madison chapter of Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment Dani Rosen, hookup culture lands somewhere in between all three.

“I think it can be empowering, and you’re allowed to hook up with as many people as you want to and feel safe,” Rosen said. “It offers a lot of people an outlet… It becomes a problem when it feels forced, coerced by either school culture or the individual you’re having relations with that can be a huge issue.”

When hookup culture intersects with the popular ideas surrounding parties, alcohol consumption and sex on college campuses, it can create unhealthy pressures to participate in hookups and place students in dangerous situations.

Brief sexual interactions on college campuses are largely facilitated by dating apps, parties and bars. Alcohol consumption, along with dangerous social norms, can intersect with hookup culture to create a dangerous environment.

Underage drinking, alcohol consumption, hookup culture and sexual assault are intertwined in a very complex and problematic fashion,” associate professor of sociology and gender & women’s studies at Louisiana State University Sarah Becker said.

As the environment and ideals surrounding casual sex shift and change, education is the best solution available to ensure the safety and wellbeing of everyone enveloped in hookup culture.

“People need to understand that hookup culture isn’t inherently a bad thing, but when it becomes coercive and affected by other measures, that is when it is an issue,” Rosen said.

Defining Hookup Culture

For me, a hookup is kind of just like sex without strings,” UW sophomore Alyssa Bhoopat said. “You’re not dating the person. You’re not in love with this person. You guys just kind of had sex, and you moved on … the hookup itself, it’s just two randos having sex and that’s it.”

“In everyone’s mind it’s something different,” Annabelle Thalken, an athlete at California Polytechnic State University said. “But I think making out with someone at a party isn’t necessarily a hookup. I think it’s like if you go to a different location, and it doesn’t really matter what you do — whether it’s just making out or if you have sex, I think that’s still a hookup if you go somewhere else.”

“I think a hookup is something that usually just involves two people doing something pleasurable in a very routine place,” UW sophomore Guillermo Rojas said. “[Like] just going over to someone’s house and having sex, I guess, or hanging out with each other.”

“My notion is that a hookup is anything that involves physical contact, like making out or anything beyond that,” UW sophomore John Rouse said.

Even for the experts, it’s difficult to define a hookup. Becker said her research team uses existing scales about people’s beliefs on the makeup of hookup culture.

I would conceptualize [hookup culture] as an environment in which people are encouraged to believe that it is common, acceptable or fun to engage in brief physical interactions for physical sexual interaction with other folks that they may or may not know,” Becker said.

In college, this environment is largely facilitated by the idea of exploration. When students leave their parents and arrive at their freshman year dorm room, it’s as if they’ve entered a whole new world.

“A lot of people are still exploring themselves,” Rouse said. “You don’t even know what you like at this age. So it’s hard for anybody to discover that.”

The media further supports the idea that college is the time to figure out who you are in the bedroom.

But in real life, hookups are not as common as they are widely believed to be. Even in 2008, a study found that students believed their peers were having sex 50 times each year — this guess was 25 times the actual rate.

In fact, the rate of young people having sex is only on the decline. One study found that the percentage of sexually active men between the ages of 18 and 24 decreased from 81.1% to 69.1% between 2000 and 2018. Over the same period of time, the number of sexually active women in the age group decreased from 84.9% to 80.9%.

“The beliefs are really powerful,” Becker said. “But the degree to which people actually engage in the behavior is not necessarily mapping up well on how common people think it is.”

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Social Pressure

The widespread belief that hookup culture is an integral and common aspect of college life applies social pressure on students to participate.

“The belief that hookup culture is more common in terms of behavior than it is [puts] pressure, I think, on young people to think that they’re supposed to be participating not only in having sex, but in having sex in that way,” Becker said.

Movies, news articles and TV shows all contribute to the perception that casual sex and hookups are an integral part of college. Classic films and shows like “American Pie,” “Superbad,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Euphoria” all depict young people engaging in casual sex as a common activity.

When new college students arrive on campus, they are highly aware of the social pressures to hook up. Conversations about sex and partnerships can dominate the halls of dorms, corners of bars and even seats of classrooms.

Even small circles on campus can place pressure on students to hook up. 

“Whenever I meet a new girl, I feel like some of the first questions people are going to ask if you ever go home are, ‘Oh did you guys have sex?’” Rouse said. “So I think in some ways there’s this unconscious pressure that you need to [hook up].”

Large social groups and communities also may influence college students to engage in a hookup.

Athletes, often viewed as celebrities on campus, can often be limited to hanging out with — and hooking up with — the athletic community.

“I feel very limited to the athletic community,” Thalken said. “They’re a little douchey, and they definitely have an ego about them because they play a sport … they’re all just looking for hookups.”

In one 2019 study, athletes hooked up 5.64 times on average, while non-athletes had an average of 3.93 hookups by their senior year.

Greek life is another major proponent of hookup culture engagement. Those involved in Greek life hooked up 6.77 times on average — nearly double their non-affiliated peers.

Social media also plays a role in pushing false perceptions of sex in college. Dating apps which allow people to scroll through hundreds of potential partners at a fast pace promote fundamental beliefs associated with hookup culture.

“The swiping of folks as though they’re an item, an object, rather than a human being — the ability to get onto an app and seek out an informal hookup, explicitly stating, that’s what you’re looking for, of course, is a piece of hookup culture,” Becker said.

Dangerous Norms

While hookup culture can be empowering for some of its participants, it can also be extremely harmful.

“I think the most important part of it is agency, and when that’s lost, that’s when it’s no longer safe and any form of empowerment from it can be lost,” Rosen said.

Around half of students at UW have experienced sexual harassment, and more than a quarter of women were survivors of unwanted sexual contact, according to the university. Transgender and gender-diverse students faced higher rates, as well.

Social norms and beliefs about gender roles can contribute to harmful behaviors.

“Just walking up to somebody and grabbing them is seen as normal,” Becker said. “The ways that those two things fold upon each other to me is very disturbing and worth trying to disentangle.

Alcohol is another major player in the lack of safety on college campuses.

According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly half of sexual assaults on college campuses occur after alcohol consumption. In 2022, the perpetrators and/or survivors of sexual assaults at UW had consumed alcohol in over three of four sexual assaults.

Drinking does not cause or lead to sexual assault. But many people believe it’s normal, acceptable and even legal to provide someone with drinks to remove their ability to consent, Becker said. Because this belief is so normalized, some people may not understand that the conduct is illegal and qualifies as rape. Education must be put into place to protect student safety.

The prevalence of sexual assault rises for students involved in party-heavy environments. Research shows that men in fraternities are three times as likely to sexually assault a woman than students who are not involved in Greek life. Women in sororities are 74% more likely to be raped than women who are not in sororities. These astounding numbers are partially linked to the rates of alcohol consumption within fraternities and sororities, according to Becker. 

“A lot of people also kind of gaslight themselves out of the idea that they’ve been assaulted because they’ve been drinking,” Rosen said. “But at the same time, that is still a huge form of sexual assault as huge form of coercion and inhibits decision-making ability. So it makes it so people at a certain threshold can’t say yes at all.”

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Education

Education is essential for ensuring the safety of college students immersed in hookup culture. Not talking about consent, sexual health and healthy sexuality with young people leads to adverse outcomes, according to Becker.

“When we’re not having these conversations about consent being something that young people can give or not give, and what does it mean, and how does it play out, I think [it] just creates a situation where the outcomes that we’re seeing at colleges around hookup culture and sexual assault are unsurprising,” Becker said.

For many students in the country, an adequate sexual education is hard to come by. According to Planned Parenthood, under half of high schools teach all of the CDC’s essential components of sex education. These components include STI transmission, pregnancy prevention and communication skills. Under half of teens participating in penetrative sex received sex education before having sex for the first time.

In Wisconsin, schools are not required to provide sex education — only education about STIs. Any sex education is left up to districts and must stress abstinence. It does not require discussions about consent or instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“[My school’s sex education] was taught by the high school baseball coach,” Rouse said. “So you can guess it was not very good.”

Despite the potential lack of information about sexual health, consent, pregnancy prevention, sexual orientation and gender identity in schools across the country, young people are using social media and campus organizations to improve education efforts about safe, consensual sex.

Sexual health organizations like Planned Parenthood, professional sex educators and peer sex educators alike use social media to engage with young people. These accounts focus on unintended pregnancies, STIs, sexual violence, sexual pleasure, gender diversity, sexual diversity, sexuality and chronic illness or disability, consent and more.

“I get the sense that there is more conversation about this [recently],” Becker said. “There’s more dialogue, and that’s the sort of upside of social media.”

As a result of limited sex education in high school, continued sex education is extremely important on college campuses.

First-year and transfer students at UW must complete one 90–120 minute module for GetWIse@Home training. The training provides three options for students to choose from — modules about healthy sexuality and sexual assault, respectful relationships and dating violence, or how to support a survivor of violence.

Student organizations on college campuses also strive to improve sex education outcomes for college students.

At UW, students in Sex Out Loud use activism and sex-positive education to empower students and healthy sexuality through programming, events, resources and safe spaces.

Students in PAVE work to prevent sexual assault, dating violence and stalking through activism, workshops, campaigns and support for students. These efforts seek to promote awareness and education about standard intervention, deconstructing rape culture, body politics and more.

“With that attempted awareness, the goal is to eventually have a safe space on campus for people to feel like they can really understand when they’re in a safe situation for sex and if they’re not, and what they can do about it, and also what they can do for others if they see that,” Rosen said.

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