Google defines hookup culture as “one that accepts and encourages casual sexual encounters, including one-night stands and other related activity, which focus on physical pleasure without necessarily including emotional bonding or long-term commitment.”
In recent years, the media has portrayed this “hookup culture” as an emerging sexual revelation that is sweeping college campuses across the nation, but how prevalent is it really? Should hopeless romantics be concerned that the era of courtship and dating is over? Are romance and commitment dead?
Associate Professor of Anthropology Holly Dunsworth explained that observing multi-partnered, casual sexual encounters begs the question of whether this allegedly new wave of sexual liberation is a part of our shared evolutionary history or is it merely cultural?
In global terms, this observed phenomenon of promiscuity is “a privilege afforded to us by the abundance and accessibility of contraceptives and prophylaxis,” according to Dunsworth. “As long as there has been human knowledge on the correlation between sex and reproduction, our sexual behaviors have been restricted,” she said.
While the word promiscuity carries a negative connotation in our lexicon, Dunsworth defines the word from an anthropological standpoint as “engaging in sexual behavior with different partners at different times.”
Among primates that we share common ancestral traits with, such as chimpanzees and bonobos, promiscuity is very common. Dunsworth said that in nature, primatologists that observe the sexual behavior of bonobos have coined the term “bonobo handshake,” which essentially refers to how bonobos use sex as a greeting. It is so casual and integral to their everyday lives that it’s as common as shaking hands.
“Of course, in our society sexual intimacy comes with a heavier connotation and stigma,” Dunsworth said. “And while it is becoming more casual with the increased abundance of birth control—reducing the very costly consequence of reproduction—there has always been and will continue to be exclusivity and commitment with pair relationships.”
Anyse Carey, a junior nursing major and gender and women’s study minor, views hookup culture as partially freeing and liberating, but also potentially detrimental to one’s own mental health.
“After having been in a committed, monogamous relationship my freshmen year, it felt freeing to be able to go out and explore my sexuality with different sexual partners,” Carey said. “College in general, but especially with the added element of alcohol, creates an environment of open sexual desire and strictly physical connections.”
However, Carey also said that afterwards she began to miss the emotional connection that had always been a part of sex before. She added that stereotyping of what women’s sex lives should be versus that assigned to men also played a role in her reflection.
“I think I would have had more fun if there wasn’t a stigma surrounding women having casual sex,” Carey said. “It’s like even though I knew I was doing it to have fun and feel liberated, it upset me to hear people talk about me in demeaning ways. This was the first time that I really ever experienced slut shaming and how emotionally damaging it is… Hookup culture is definitely based off pleasure for men, and creates a dangerous environment in which men are given an excuse to objectify, dehumanize, and disrespect women.”
This issue of a male-centric hookup culture is not a new phenomenon with the diffusion of chivalry as one might think, but something that has always been prevalent. “Casual sex might not be enjoyable for women, because women tend to have more orgasms in a committed relationship,” Dunsworth said.
This is not saying women need emotional intimacy for good sex, but that “women have better odds achieving orgasms with themselves, a female partner, or within a committed relationship where their sexual partner is more open and actively willing to satisfy their partner,” Dunsworth said.
Women can also enjoy penetrative sex, as Carey explained that strictly physical encounters were often times very enjoyable and freeing. However, the casualness can lead to a lot of self-doubt, guilt and shame.
“Everyone is different,” Professor Dunsworth said. “With the stigma that surrounds sex in our culture, it takes a certain level of open mindedness to explore a sexual relationship devoid of emotional attachment, because certain aspects such as shame and guilt or even a longing or attraction to the person can interfere with the level of casualness the encounter is supposed to contain.”