Hooking Up as a College Culture

This month in Slate, Jessica Grose tells us that college hookup culture is a fiction (click here), that despite a series of recent, high-profile media articles, hooking up, or casual, spontaneous sexual behavior outside of relationships, is far less prevalent than we might imagine. Research based on the Online College Social Life Survey with over 20,000 students nationwide backs this assertion. Elizabeth Armstrong and colleagues report in Contexts that, “About 80 percent of students hook up, on average, less than once per semester over the course of college” (click here).

But what if instead of studying who does how much hooking up, we think about hooking up as a college culture? My own research with Barbara J. Risman shows that however much students are hooking up (if at all), there is widespread belief that if you aren’t doing it, you are missing out on an important part of the “college experience.”Allison_blogimage

We interviewed 87 undergraduates at the University of Illinois at Chicago, an urban, 4-year university where more than half of our students commute. Not surprisingly, we found that where you live matters. Although the majority of undergraduates we talked to reported at least one hookup, lively hookup scenes emerged where students lived in dorms and apartments independent from family, close to same-aged peers, and mostly among those who did not work as well as attend classes. What this meant is that middle class students, the majority of whom were white, were able to drink, party, and hook up far more than their working class peers. Working class and minority students were acutely aware of an existing on-campus party culture from which they were excluded.

In late 2010, I sat down with Amanda, a 23-year old working class Latina college senior who lived with her parents in the city. Amanda worked part-time at a women’s clothing store in downtown Chicago. Her daily travel between home, work, and school left her little time to take part in campus party culture. In addition, her parents imposed a strict curfew that Amanda respected. Amanda reported that she had seen evidence of an on- and near-campus party and hookup culture since her freshman year, and had always wanted to take part.

She said,

“So I remember for my [freshman] orientation it was pretty cool, you’re a first comer and you’re like wow a party life, college finally, ya know! I mean all the time you see like flyers and requests on Facebook, like parties going on at UIC either in dorms or things like that. I remember the beginning of my freshmen year, it was just like, I wanted to go out but then I had school, you know, to handle, and things like that but the temptation was there, it was always there.”

For Amanda, the inability to take part in drinking, partying, and hooking up was connected to time, money, and familial constraints. However, the realities of her life did little to dislodge the dominance of partying, drinking, and hooking up in her cultural image of what college should be.

Where students live, as well as how many hours they work outside of class time, shape the peer groups and social opportunities of both men and women equally. However, families constrain women and men somewhat differently, with women’s leisure time more closely policed by parents.

We find clear divides in college students’ social lives, with white, middle class students at the center of hookup culture. Poorer students and students of color hover around the edges of what most believe would be the full “college experience,” including hooking up. Let’s move beyond  debate about how much hooking up goes on to ask just who is included and who is excluded from the hookup scene and why. Perhaps new research ought to study when and how hooking up came to be seen as the “real college experience.”

By Rachel Allison on her article with Barbara J. Risman, ““It Goes Hand in Hand with the Parties”: Race, Class and Residence in College Student Negotiations of Hooking Up,” published in the Spring 2014 issue of Sociological Perspectives.



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