A spate of articles and research has been looking with concern at the hookup culture on college campuses. But it isn’t just the adults looking on who are concerned.
“I think that very few people are actually legitimately happy with the way things are. I sincerely think that,” Ann Chou, a Yale senior, told the Yale Daily News in a story published in the campus newspaper last month. “I don’t think very many people are satisfied.”
The paper was taking a look at the hookup culture, and explaining how it works.
Sarah Matthes, a Yale freshman, said it often starts with a “DFMO,” short for “dance-floor makeout.” Kissing these days is “trivial,” she said.
Another freshman, Josh Ruck, said a hookup “crescendos” when the girl invites the guy back to her room, or vice versa. Such an invitation is a signal that more will follow.
That “more” could mean any of a number of levels of sexual contact. The traditional trajectory of young relationships — dating, then possibly engagement, then marriage, then consummation — changed first in the 1970s and 1980s. It became dating, then sexual activity, then living together and then possibly engagement.
Now, the shape of many young relationships has changed again. Today, say recent studies, it often starts with hookups — kissing and “more” — and that can possibly lead to dating. The “engagement” and “marriage” parts are more remote than ever.
A recent Stanford University study cited by The Week magazine suggested that three in four students experience a hookup during their college years — for that group, the average number of partners is about seven. More than one in four of that group have 10 hookups during their college years, with about a third of those involving sexual intercourse.
And it’s not just college kids getting in on the act. A 2006 Bowling Green State University study found that 30 percent of teenagers reported having experienced intercourse, and 61 percent said it was with someone they did not consider a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Dawn Eden understands this phenomenon. She has been there. Joe Wurtz — who helps college students keep on the straight and narrow — still is.
Eden is the author of “The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On” (Thomas Nelson, $13.99), a memoir about her rejection of a lifestyle of casual sex. Wurtz has worked on college campuses for years, including Christendom College, in Front Royal, Va., and now as dean of students at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
Eden said that one significant difference between 1970s-style casual sex and 21st-century hookups is that today’s young people come from difficult backgrounds.
“Today, young people are surrounded by broken families, and so to them the normative relationship is a relationship in which they are looked upon not for who they are but only for what they do,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “That’s why hooking up seems natural to them.”
Eden said children of divorce often have the perception — even if it’s false — that they are unloved.
“When I was in college and in my 20s, during the period that I write about in my book, I felt groundless,” she said. “I felt that I had no base of unconditional love in my family from which I could then understand that I had value for who I was.”
Wurtz said current cultural realities have dehumanized human interaction.
“The hookup phenomenon takes a consumerist approach to human relationships,” said Wurtz. “Young people always and everywhere desire happiness, love, friendship and affirmation. Every hookup becomes a chance to ‘try out’ a type of person. Sadly, the youth today will spend more time researching what cell phone to buy than discerning the right qualities one should look for in a future mate.”
Roadblock to happiness
Apart from the moral issues involved in the hookup culture, it fails at the basic level of being able to allow young people to find what they really want: a future with a spouse they love.
“The problem for today’s youths is that the hookup culture is the wrong means to these ends, for it seeks immediate gratification and self-indulgence, not virtue, which is the true path to happiness.”
Eden said that hookups hijack happiness in different ways for men and women.
“With men, hookups damage their ability to maintain a faithful, committed relationship and put them in the habit of objectifying women,” she said. “It’s not as if a man can go from having hookups to then just having a happy marriage. In the marriage, he is going to be emotionally stunted, lacking the ability to be giving of himself and faithful to his wife.”
She said with women the difficulty goes just as deep. Women who engage in casual sex and then separate from their partners, that freedom comes at a terrible cost.
“After repeatedly attempting to separate her emotions from what she’s doing sexually, a woman can lose not only the ability to bond, that will allow her to remain bonded for her partner, but her ability to be bonded to anybody, which is a terrible thing to lose when one hopes to be a mother.”
At Catholic schools, there are more opportunities to prevent the hookup culture from happening — if there is an alert student-life office, said Wurtz.
“In student life, we persuade through reasonable policies and by giving good examples. We have a number of policies, such as a visitation policy and alcohol policy that clearly state our expectations of our students,” he said. “More importantly, we enforce our policies so students understand that we take their development seriously.”
Policing students cannot, ultimately, solve the problem, he said. “The policies and enforcement of those policies are important, but not sufficient,” he said. “Where we have really excelled is in staff training and selection. Leadership is about investing in people so that they, in turn, can teach others.”
The staff helps students respect themselves and understand the role of sexuality in their lives. For instance, while Yale was running its “Sex at Yale” study in its Valentine’s Day issue, the residential life office inserted in the Valentine’s Day paper information that taught about sexual morality in an upbeat, engaging way targeting young people.
But even that is not enough, said Eden. It has to start in the home.
Before the 20th century, kids “learned about sex through witnessing the processes of birth and life and death in the home,” she said. “While the physical act of sex was rightly private, the love, commitment and fidelity that undergirded it was present in every aspect of the parents’ lives.”
Eden warned that even extraordinary education can’t take the parents’ place when it comes to learning about sex. “Even if kids are getting the holiest presentation they can get outside the home, it will not give them anything approaching what they could learn from the godly example and teaching of a parent,” she said. “And this, in fact, is what the magisterium has said and continues to say: that a child’s education in everything pertaining to the Christian life — including relationships, marriage and what transpires in marriage — should begin in the home.”
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
By The Numbers (sidebar)
75 - Percentage of college students who hook up by their senior year, according to a Stanford University study
28 - Percentage of students who have 10 or more hookups during college
6.9 - Average number of hookups among college students
Source: The Week