The shifting dynamics of college hookup culture

The shifting dynamics of college hookup culture

SU students share how they approach relationships and sexual autonomy on a campus where casual sex is common.

Woman whispering in a man's ear

“During my sophomore year, I was wild,” said Jennie Bull, a senior majoring in marketing and retail management and co-founder of Moody Magazine, a sex-positive publication centered around self-love. “I was like a little freak in the sheets. I would go to the frats, dance, and choose my play toy for the night.” 

When the hookup was over, Bull and her “play toy” would only talk for a week, at most. Then they would both forget it even happened and move on, eager to see what the next weekend had in store. 

This is the reality of hookup culture — it’s a liberating, no-strings-attached, temporary arrangement, and the idea of casual sex goes hand-in-hand with the idea of college. Or, at least, that’s what a lot of SU students think.   

In a 2023 national survey conducted by Axios and Generation Lab, 978 college students from both two and four-year U.S. schools revealed their dating habits. Almost four out of five students weren’t interested in hookup culture and preferred to meet a significant other in person, as opposed to on an app. 

The survey also found that “79% of respondents told Axios and Generation Lab that they do not use dating apps or use them less than once a month. The most commonly used dating app for students is Tinder, with 12% of college students using it at least once a month.” The survey showed that 45% of students said they’ve never hooked up with anyone, and 15% said they had hooked up with someone within the past week of being surveyed.  

Magazine, news and digital journalism senior Britney Kirwan’s experience with the hookup culture at SU doesn’t quite align with this data. She sees SU as a place where hookup culture is alive and thriving.

“I feel like this is just a horny campus,” said Kirwan. “I can go to the bar, or I can go to a frat, and if I want to hook up with someone tonight, I could.”

To Kirwan, SU’s hookup culture is part of what drives the social scene. It’s fun and liberating. 

“The way frat parties and Orange Crate are set up is so club-y and dance-y,” she said. “You’re not talking and meeting new friends. You’re getting dressed up to look attractive and get attention. Now that I’m single, that’s what I do.”

When she had a boyfriend last year, Kirwan noticed that going out had lost some of its appeal. She wasn’t going to get dressed up, get drunk, and hook up with someone. To her, that made the experience uninteresting. 

The act of getting dressed up to feel attractive isn’t a foreign concept to most girls. For magazine, news and digital journalism senior Katie Hill, dressing up and looking stereotypically feminine to go to the bar goes hand-in-hand with finding a potential hookup. 

“I feel good about myself in a sweat suit and no makeup, but I'm not gonna go to a bar like that,” she said. “I tell myself I don't care what other people think, but I also would love a guy to come up to me. So, I guess I do care what people think.”

For men, hookup culture expectations manifest in different ways.  

“It's almost like you should be trying to get as many girls as you can, and unless you have a girlfriend like you should be actively pursuing,” said broadcast and digital journalism senior Braden Reed. “For guys, it’s almost seen as an impressive, demonstrative thing.”  

If he’s platonically talking to a girl at the bar, his friends will shoot him a knowing glance or text him the next day, assuming they’re hooking up. Reed describes a sort of switch that happens once the new-found college freedom hits. 

“You've seen it in movies and TV shows, and your parents have talked about it,” he said. “There's this expectation that builds up in your head of all these parties when there will be all these girls and you’ll have a great time.” 

These hookup culture norms highlight the difference between masculine and feminine behavioral norms in today’s society. 

“These norms emerge at puberty when you're trying to figure out what you have to do to be a man or to be a woman, and masculinity and femininity are historically structured as opposites,” said Charisse L’Pree, assistant professor of communications at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “Women are supposed to be submissive, and men are supposed to be dominant.”

In that same vein, L’Pree notes that, with conversations surrounding sex, there is a lack of middle ground. Stereotypically, men are taught that they should be having a lot of sex, and women are taught to abstain from having a lot of sex.   

“There's no in-between. For women, it’s either you're a prude or a slut, and this is the nature of how we marginalize and stereotype people,” said L’Pree. “It's either A or B and so those two extremes get a lot of coverage because that middle ground is hard to sell.”

The confines of these two extremes call into question whether hookup culture is actually liberating. 

“A sexual liberation is ultimately not adhering to what you've been told you're supposed to adhere to, so for men, if they're told they should have a lot of sex, it might be liberating to say, ‘I don't want to have a lot of sex,’ said L’Pree. “For years, women were told to not have sex, so it's liberating to say, ‘I want to have a lot of sex.’”

For religion and magazine, news and digital journalism sophomore Olivia Boyer, casual sex is liberating because it’s unserious and fun. 

“It’s awesome for the stories,” she said. “The amount of times I've had with my friends where we’re all hungover on Sunday talking about the night before … oh my god, it's amazing.” 

Boyer sees hookup culture as a game. It’s an excuse to fake her name, lie about her life story, and ask about boys’ relationships with their fathers. She’s not trying to build a relationship, so why should either of them care? 

On the other end of the spectrum, the no-strings-attached sentiment that accompanies hookup culture and casual sex can leave those who choose to engage with it searching for a deeper connection that oftentimes doesn’t exist.  

“It's not that I didn't try to get into a relationship, but the people on this campus did not want that,” Bull said. “I tried to make this guy who I met on Tinder into my boyfriend, and then he friend-zoned me after we would go on literal reading dates in the park.” 

An active participant in hookup culture until she got into a relationship last year, Bull resented the fact that she was seen as solely a hookup. Now that she has taken a step back from casual sex, Bull acknowledges that it negatively affected her self-respect and self-worth.  

“I just didn’t respect myself. I would just keep hooking up with more people,” Bull said “I was trying to use hooking up with people as solace to make up for the people that were friend-zoning me that I actually liked.” 

The “celibacy era” trend, popularized within the last couple of years, is a response to the idea that casual sex diminishes self-worth, especially for women. The trend centers around Gen Z women rejecting the idea of hookup culture by not having sex, addressing how the patriarchy influences their sexuality. 

On TikTok, the #celibacyjourney has 40 million views. Most posts describe it as opposition to men who value them solely for sex and their bodies. If casual sex is one extreme, the celibacy era trend is the other. To Boyer, those extremes aren’t liberating, and she holds firm that sexuality isn’t something that should be viewed as a trend. 

“I think it can be restrictive,” she said. “That's like where the disconnect between the celibacy trend and just choosing not to have sex comes in. It takes away from the actual power you have to make the choice.”

L’Pree acknowledges that the conversation surrounding casual sex versus celibacy is fraught with societal tensions because both extremes are valued uniquely by different groups. If being hyper-sexually active is seen as problematic, purity norms are pushed. If sexual liberation is valued, those norms are pushed.   

“The United States is such a Puritan society,” L’Pree said. “We cannot have complex conversations about what sex is because it’s either you're a whore and have too much sex, or you don't have any sex. It would be fine, in my opinion, if different groups valued them differently, but different groups then use them to attack whoever their enemy is.” 

Self-agency is integral to any form of authentic liberation. For some, like Kirwan and Boyer, engaging in casual sex and hookup culture in their early 20s serves as a way to explore sexuality without commitment. 

Others, like Bull, might find that hookup culture calls into question the ways in which they value and respect themselves.  

“Physically distancing myself from hookup culture was my biggest escape,” Bull said. “For a while, there were fun aspects of it, but there were so many more aspects of it that made me emotionally drained.”