True Love and the Hookup Culture

By T.R. Robertson

You’re drunk. You’re at a party, sitting on the couch. It’s three in the morning. You’re looking around. You don’t know where your roommates went. You’re tired. You don’t know how you’re getting home. You look next to you, at this person. They look at you. You say to yourself, “All right . . . ”

02_Robertson_JNYou won’t find lines like that in your average romance novel. They’re a college student’s description of a typical college hookup situation, quoted at the 2014 Q Conference by sociology and religious studies scholar Donna Freitas.

Freitas is the author of two books about the hookup culture: Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses (Oxford University Press, 2008) and The End of Sex (Basic Books, 2013).

In the spring of 2006, Freitas launched a study of the relationship between the religious and spiritual leanings of college students and how those beliefs relate to their behaviors and feelings about their sexuality. She surveyed more than 2,500 students at seven colleges and universities across the country. She also collected journals and conducted one-on-one, in-depth interviews with 111 students on those campuses.

Her books are a treasure trove of data about the spiritual and religious lives of college students. Her description of the differences between the culture of secular colleges vs. Catholic colleges vs. Evangelical colleges will be valuable to any adult or student involved in college or ministry to college students.

What has garnered the most attention, though, is all she learned about the college hookup culture.


Understanding the Hookup Culture

“Hooking up, I would say, is anything involving kissing, touching, feeling, or any kind of sexual activity,” a junior male student at a private secular university said in chapter 1 of The End of Sex. “It could be as small as kissing someone for a few minutes, or as much as having sex with them.”

In that book, Freitas describes a universal social contract of the hookup that involves three constants, plus one unsurprising additional factor.

First, hooking up can include anything from kissing to sex.

“Students like a broad umbrella for what hookup is,” Freitas said, “because there’s so much pressure to claim that you’re a part of it. So many students, especially young men, feel they need to be able to claim high numbers.”

It’s important to realize that hooking up isn’t just about college students having sex. College students have been having sex for generations.

But the hookup culture is about the students’ feelings about sexuality and their approach to it. They describe it as a purely physical thing, satisfying a bodily need, like eating and drinking.

Thus, the second criteria: a hookup is brief. It could be as little as five minutes making out on a couch at a party. At most it’s no more than a one-night stand, although that phrase is looked down upon because it implies waking up the next morning still in bed with the other person.

“I feel the situation is a little more awkward because you don’t go out with the intention of something happening, and then if you happen to wake up there the next morning, you have to do the walk of shame back to your place in the clothes you wore the night before. That’s where the embarrassment part comes in,” said a senior female at a private secular university (from chapter 7 of Sex and the Soul).

According to the hookup code, the shame doesn’t come from having hooked up. It comes from having stayed too long, potentially violating the third and most essential criteria for the hookup: no emotional attachment is allowed. This element is what separates the hookup from other types of sexual interaction. In the words of a student, the point is to “feel zero emotion so you don’t get attached,” Freitas said at the 2014 Q Conference. There should be as little communication as possible, and no connection that could lead to an actual relationship.

If either of the people involved in the hookup tries to follow up during the following days, they’ve committed the ultimate hookup faux pas.

Freitas added what she calls an unofficial but ubiquitous component: alcohol. As Freitas related at the Q Conference, one student said, “Without alcohol, nobody would ever get together; without alcohol, nobody would ever kiss.”

“The appeal [of parties] is . . . that you lose self-consciousness. You aren’t always regretting something, you are not planning for the future, what am I going to do afterward. For those moments when you are intoxicated, you are just not self-conscious,” said a junior female at a private secular university (from chapter 2, The End of Sex).

Hooking up often takes place at one of the alcohol-soaked theme parties that have become common on campus. Guys and girls are expected to dress according to the theme, such as CEOs and secretaries; dirty doctors and naughty nurses; maids and millionaires, housewives and handymen.

These themes echo the sexual fantasies played out in porn videos, to which today’s high school and college students have access like never before, via the Internet. Young people arrive on the college campus having learned the porn industry’s version of sex. They’ve tried out these ideas in online discussions and sexting.

In the newfound freedom of the college campus, students feel enormous pressure to act out everything they were forbidden or restricted from doing before.


Responding to the Hookup Culture

The conservative Christian response to cultural ideas about sexual relationships has most often been limited to one word: abstinence.

Biblical teaching is fairly clear: there is God-blessed sex between married people and then there’s everything else. While the Bible hasn’t changed on that subject, believers need to see that the complex issues of the hookup culture require a complex response.

Freitas, raised a Catholic, makes a sincere effort to offer practical suggestions to Evangelicals. A self-described liberal feminist, she confessed at the 2014 Q Conference in Nashville that she first tried to look for the “loopholes” in the biblical teachings on sex, but understands why Evangelicals value abstinence and the “purity culture.” She reminded the audience, though, that being a faithful Christian is much bigger than abstinence.

“If you see someone lying in the road,” she said, alluding to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, “don’t just hold up a sign, ‘Abstinence Until Marriage,’ as you walk by. Set aside your sign and go to them. There’s a lot of suffering in the hookup culture. Don’t destroy the sign, just set it aside for a moment.”

Some will turn a deaf ear to our offers of help, but she said we shouldn’t give up. “They are still lying there, waiting for someone, anyone to respond, to extend a hand. Try something new. Be creative. Meet them where they are.”

This is where a “thou shalt not” response falls short. Young people embroiled in the hookup life aren’t just being disobedient to God. They’re also suffering.

They’re suffering from a fear of marriage, or of bad marriage. Virtually every young person has experienced the effects of dysfunctional marriages, divorce, and mixed families, either in their own family or vicariously through their friends and neighbors. Even students who grow up in the Evangelical church culture aren’t immune to this.

They’re understandably not eager to rush into the risky arena of marriage. They prefer to put it off longer than previous generations. As a result, they put off developing close emotional attachments, effectively extending the number of years they have to find an alternate way to deal with their sexual urges.

They’re suffering from the shame of what they’re doing, even though they work hard to deny it. The majority of students in the survey admitted to negative feelings the morning after, using words like degraded and empty.

They’re suffering from a culture that demeans them and blurs the line between consensual sex and rape.

They’re also suffering from their inability to find their way to the kind of relationship-rich experience they secretly crave.

Freitas calls it a “pretend culture.” The majority of the students who participated in the study were, at best, indifferent about the hookup culture. In interviews, students confessed they longed for a different approach to relationships, but think nobody else feels the way they do.

If the Evangelical world has focused too narrowly on abstinence as the pat answer, the nonreligious world has focused too much on clinical sex education. Today’s students are highly educated about the mechanics of sexual acts and how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. What they need most is a different sort of education, one that helps them reconnect their spiritual selves with their sexual selves.


Three Steps

Freitas offered Q Conference attendees a three-step response to the hookup culture:

First, teach young adults to slow down.

Students live in a fast culture; they constantly jump into action without conscious thought.

“Anytime we can get students to pause,” she said, “to take a step back, and just sit for a minute, give themselves the time, the space, the silence, stepping out of the chaos to think, we are challenging hookup culture.”

Second, encourage them to press “pause” on participation in hookup culture, if only for a weekend.

“Often, when they take that weekend,” Freitas said, “when they take a step back, they start realizing that hookup culture isn’t for them and actually they might even want to challenge their participation in it in their life.”

Finally, train young people in the skills they’ll need to develop relationships in a way counter to the hookup culture.

Perhaps the best way to respond to the pretend culture of the hookup is to educate students about Freitas’s research, bursting the bubble on the conventional wisdom of the college crowd.

For the church and for Christian families, this means being willing to have open and honest conversations about romance, love, dating, intimacy, and overall relationship skills. Talk about basics, like how to ask somebody out, how to treat someone with respect. Provide practical ideas for using the love-based actions of 1 Corinthians 13 during all stages of a relationship.

The biblical model of transforming culture has always begun with transforming the hearts, souls, and minds of individuals. Emphasizing rules and limits on behavior has never been as effective as leading with love.


T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri. 

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  1. Joan Krueger
    February 10, 2015 at 7:17 am

    Excellent views expressed here! Bravo! I’d like all the college students to read this. I feel strongly that the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol seriously impairs one’s ability to make good decisions. Can we reduce the alcohol usage? If only…

  2. February 14, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    Thanks for your post! I think the part about teaching this millennial generation about relationships is vital. In another study, more than half of the respondents had hoped that the hook-up would turn into a traditional relationship. Everyone is seeking something deeper, something more fulfilling–and the hook-up culture does not provide it. Great post!

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