Coming to a Campus Near You: College Hookups Gone Digital

Administrators and parents are upset with students for the recent proliferation of popular hookup sites, but it's campus culture, which has made sex feel obligatory, that's really to blame.
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(PHOTO: KONSTANTIN YOLSHIN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: KONSTANTIN YOLSHIN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

When you think of Internet hookup sites, you might imagine an older crowd too busy for dating; college students, with opportunities for interaction everywhere from the classroom to the local pub, are not likely the first demographic that comes to mind. Co-eds, however, aren’t willing to be left out of the action as the recent proliferation of college hookup sites attests. Titillated at the prospect of “no strings attached” sexual encounters, students across the country are increasingly joining college hookup networks, the majority of which are modeled after the original site, UChicagoHookups.com.

Chagrined by their school’s unofficial motto, “where fun comes to die,” a handful of University of Chicago undergraduates created the first college-only site to help fellow students “find casual sexual encounters and campus entertainment events,” according to their Web page. Rebranding the school as a “place where fun comes to thrive,” and promising that,“chastity is curable if detected early,” the creators enjoyed immediate success after UChicagoHookup’s launch in March 2011.

Both men and women in relationships of at least six months reach orgasm at much higher rates than during first-time hook-ups.

Within a week, the site had over 300 registered users and has only grown since, eventually boasting a network of thousands. (The site rebranded as EduHookups in 2011, and is currently down, but promises to “be back in action in no time flat!!”) More important, perhaps, than this site’s popularity at the University of Chicago, is the number of similar hook-up networks it has spawned at other institutions of higher learning, including Northwestern, Brown University, New York University, the University of California-Santa Barbara, and UCLA, to name just a few.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook was not left untouched by this hookup craze gone digital. Many students at premier universities have launched Facebook Pages dedicated to facilitating sexual encounters with numbered personal ads. These ads typically include a brief physical description, year in school, sexual orientation, and race, accompanied by hobbies and a description of one’s ideal partner. For example, #389 (male, straight) on NYU Hook Ups writes: “Green eyes, 5'7”, brown hair, athletic. Loves to watch and play sports... [Seeking] A girl who is adventurous in more ways than one! ;) Would love to find a girl who enjoys going to baseball games in the summer and who also enjoys traveling. Hot Jewish girls should apply :).”

The appeal of these sites is two-fold. First, there is the sexual solicitation component. Second is the platform for public pillow talk these sites make possible. While #389 may want more than just a freak in the sheets, many users seem to relish the opportunity to write about their sexcapades more than the sex itself. Posts include, as one might expect, the raunchy recounts, as well as users’ musings on his or her university’s sex scene: “I just got a blow job from an asian girl. I must go to UCLA,” #6 on UCLA Hook Ups Facebook Page quips. Some posts have even taken on a congratulatory tone—“To the girl at BZ00 last night—Good work. Absolutely incredible,” #16 on Brown Hook Ups writes.

It should come as no surprise that college students, even the brightest among them, may be as salacious as they are smart. Nevertheless, the existence of hookup sites and Facebook Pages bearing a university’s seal—usually situated just centimeters from students’ often crude come-hithers and bawdy retellings—has proved too hot to handle for many administrators, alumni, and parents. The breaking point, however, did not come until racist and sexist comments began appearing on these forums. As a consequence, these sites, particularly Facebook Hook Up Pages, have come under increasing scrutiny for “hate speech” and a general lack of safety, which critics cite as sufficient reason to shut down the virtual hookup communities.

Although some students might be pleased by the prospect of Internet-free intimacy, users and free-speech advocates are not taking this criticism lying down. UCSB recently faced the controversy head on in a meeting with the school’s Associated Student board, debating a bill calling for university administration to moderate and potentially shut down the popular and sometimes-controversial UCSB Hook-ups and UCSB Confessions Facebook Pages.

Administrators and A.S. advocates of the bill quickly found themselves embroiled in a battle over First Amendment rights led by the national student rights organization FIRE. Ultimately, UCSB felt it had no legal power to intervene as a long as the Pages did not officially represent any department or university entity. “We’re not looking to do anything necessarily official,” Katya Armisted, the associate dean of student life, told theDaily Nexus, UCSB’s student-run newspaper. “We can’t demand that it be taken down. It’s happening on all schools, all campuses. So we recognize that that’s not something within our ability.”

But why have hookup sites taken off among college students in the first place? Aren’t school campuses already hotbeds of commitment-free fornication? Or, as Tonight Show host, Jay Leno put it, “We already have a place where students can hook up for casual sex—it’s called ‘college.’” But perhaps it is precisely the prevailing hookup culture that puts the onus on less-forward students to fulfill a new-found expectation that explains the recent proliferation of digital networks for casual encounters. That expectation, according to religion and sexuality scholar Donna Freitas, has made sex among college students “dutiful, not daring.”

In her book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, Freitas suggests, based on her eight years of on-campus research, that the hook-up culture, instead of paving the way for gratifying sexual exploration, has made sex feel so obligatory that it can be “just as oppressive as a mandate for abstinence.” While not all researchers have so harshly condemned hooking up, other academics that have studied the subject report similar findings.

Paula England, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, found that hook-ups, defined as “a new social form in that something sexual precedes rather than follows dates or other expressions of relational intent,” don’t usually lead to the most gratifying sexual experiences. England’s research, which is based on interviews, focus groups, and online surveys with students from 18 public and private universities conducted since 2005, revealed that both men and women in relationships of at least six months reached orgasm at much higher rates than during first-time hook-ups (85 percent versus 31 percent for men and 65 percent versus 11 percent for women, respectively). She also found that this word’s sexual ambiguity may be giving college students an undeserved wag of the finger: for 32.1 percent of students surveyed, hooking up means any kissing or touching, while 39.2 percent define the term as vaginal intercourse.

Both Freitas’ and England’s work suggests that when sex feels obligatory and is had outside of a relationship, its quality suffers. These studies, though, aren’t necessarily describing a strictly hook-up culture, but rather one that has a negative attitude about relationships and dating.

But even if research suggests the hook-up culture is responsible for unfulfilling sex among co-eds, is that reason to condemn it? Maybe for some. But who are scholars (who aren’t exactly known for their sexual proclivities) to tell a bunch of 19-year-olds that the only sex they should be having is “good” sex—whatever that means—within the confines of a monogamous, committed relationship? College is a time of freedoms, including the freedom to make mistakes without real-world consequences.

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