When I picked up the Style section of The New York Times last Sunday, I was excited to see the front-page feature, "The New Math on Campus," a look at how the gender imbalance on college campuses (60 percent women, 40 percent men at some schools) is affecting the dating scene. I research, write, and lecture on sex, romance, and abstinence on college campuses, and especially on how these life experiences relate to students' quest for meaning in general and spiritual and religious commitments in particular. The article quoted young women bemoaning the dearth of datable guys at UNC Chapel Hill, which they say means all the guys get to be players—at least for a while, living it up with any girl they want because the girls are desperate:
"A lot of my friends will meet someone and go home for the night and just hope for the best the next morning," Ms. Lynch said. "They'll text them and say: 'I had a great time. Want to hang out next week?' And they don't respond." Even worse, "Girls feel pressured to do more than they're comfortable with, to lock it down," Ms. Lynch said.
This kind of talk from women on campus is something I hear all the time during lecture visits to university campuses and in my research. So I wasn't surprised when reporter Alex Williams mentioned hookup culture. He turned to sociologist Kathleen Bogle, author of Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, for more information.
"Women do not want to get left out in the cold, so they are competing for men on men's terms," [Bogle] wrote. "This results in more casual hookup encounters that do not end up leading to more serious romantic relationships. Since college women say they generally want 'something more' than just a casual hookup, women end up losing out."
Yes, this is true; women do say this, and my research supports it. But there is another side to the story that we don't hear often enough. It's something many college men say when safely behind closed doors, about how they like hookup culture about as much as the women do—which is to say, they don't like it one bit. They just feel pressured to say they do in public. While it's socially acceptable for women to admit that hooking up is not for them, it's generally considered social suicide for a man to say the same thing.
While I was reassured that Williams quoted a few guys on campus who said they didn't simply want to take advantage of all the "bed-hopping" available, overall I worry that this front-and-center NYT piece about dating on campus is going to exacerbate what is likely mostly myth: that not only are college students hooking up all the time and loving it, but that at colleges where there is a greater gender imbalance, guys go even crazier with hookups so it's even better for the guys, and girls just have to live with it and join in. My guess is that your average guy on campus is not interested in bed-hopping and would rather go on a nice date and find a long-term relationship. But articles like Williams's help to perpetuate and even ratchet up the pressure to hook up all the time and pretend you are loving it, even if you are not.
Which brings me to my last and most important point, one I always make when I am talking about the topic: Hookup culture on college campuses is a culture of pretend.
People hook up, sure. And the chances that students at Catholic, private-secular, and public institutions will hook up at least once during college are high. (The chances are substantially lower at evangelical private colleges.) But the reason I talk about hookup culture as a culture of pretend is because students believe their peers hook up far more than they do, and the feeling that everyone is hooking up all the time and loving it is pervasive, even oppressive. What drives the pressure to hook up, to pretend you are hooking up if you are not, to say you like hooking up (even if you don't, especially if you are a guy), is not so much the desire to be sexually intimate as the sense that everybody is doing it, and I need to do this too, because it's part of what it means to be in college.
So take "The New Math" with a grain of salt. Hookup culture is everywhere, and its effects are dramatic on the college experience, but it is always more talk than action. It's the effects of all the talk that we need to really address—getting a handle on that side of things will do more to transform hookup culture than anything else.
Donna Freitas is a visiting religion scholar at Boston University and author of Sex and the Soul. She wrote about one way to encourage abstinence among young people in the January 2010 issue of Christianity Today. She spoke with associate editor Katelyn Beaty about her research in August 2008. Her.meneutics contributor Lisa Graham McMinn reviewed Sex and the Soul in the same issue.