Everyone is Having Sex Except For Me: College Students, Sex, and Hookup Culture

by Lily Walter

WINSTON-SALEM, NC—Despite the common misconception that college is a time of rampant sexual promiscuity, and the belief amongst older adults that this generation is the worst yet, college students are actually having less sex today than their predecessors. Some might chalk it up to better awareness of the consequences of risky sexual behavior. However, the state of sex education nationwide, and especially in universities, is at an all-time low. Meanwhile, STI rates continue to rise, and a quarter of collegiate women will experience a sexual assault, a number that has remained steady for many years. Somehow, sexual activity has declined, while the negative aspects of sex are on the rise.
Wake Forest University is no exception. Proudly rated number 14 on the list of top party schools last year, students talk openly about the party and hookup culture on campus. What students may not realize is the permanent effect hookup culture has on our concepts of intimacy, health, interpersonal relationships, and beyond.

What’s Hookup Culture?

Ask five different people in a room what the phrase “hookup” means, and you’ll likely get five different answers. For some, the term is a catch-all phrase used to describe any and all romantic interaction. For others, it only refers to sex or could mean just a kiss on the dance floor. “Hookup culture,” on the other hand, has a universal understanding. Urban Dictionary explains hookup culture as “the era that began in the early 1990s and has since prevailed on college campuses and elsewhere when hooking up has replaced traditional dating as the preferred method of heterosexual liaison.” The American Psychological Association describes hookups as “uncommitted sexual encounters” and hookup culture as “a marked shift in openness and acceptance of uncommitted sex.”

Conner Song, a senior, explained his perception. “There’s a mutual understanding that physical intimacy is the priority,” he said. “It’s not overtly stated or explicitly communicated, but when alcohol is involved with both parties then it’s kind of expected.” Some students expect their nights out to end with victory through sexual conquests or defeat marked by the lonely walk back to their rooms.

The ambiguous use of the term “hookup” captures both the breadth of what hookup culture encompasses and the indeterminate nature of physical intimacy in our world today. As we distance ourselves from real connection with technology and choose to enter into the realm of “hookups” instead of “going steady,” physical intimacy has become an area of confusion for many. Understanding consent is becoming a difficult process we are sorting through. The controversy surrounding Aziz Ansari is an example of the gray area we find ourselves in. Were his actions simply unchivalrous and disappointing, or criminal, degrading, and ultimately assault?

As more college students move away from traditional dating and into a world “without labels,” describing someone as a hookup can sometimes be the easiest, fastest way to explain that things are complicated.

Wake is certainly not the only college to lay claim to hookup culture. Read through any of the submissions to the New York Times Modern Love College Essay Contest to see these themes of ambiguity and confusion running through campuses nationwide. As we grow more distant from each other and the gray area of acceptable behavior grows, real intimacy continues to be replaced by much simpler “hookups.” As one student described it, “dates don’t happen at 7 p.m. over dinner anymore. Instead, you get a text at 11 p.m, during the pregame asking where you’re going out tonight.”

So Who’s Actually Doing It?

Data from the biannual National College Health Assessment (NCHA) survey supports the notion that students are actually having less sex and experiencing less traditional intimacy than previous generations. Suzanne Hunt is the Assistant Director of Wellbeing, Health Promotion in Wake Forest’s Office of Wellbeing, and oversees the NCHA survey. According to Hunt, the data from Wake’s campus suggests hookup culture may not be as ubiquitous as it seems. “When the survey asked if students had intercourse in the last 30 days, the number of no’s far outweighed the yes’s,” Hunt said. Nationally, this seems to be the case as well. The NCHA found that in 2018, over a third of respondents had not had sex in the past year, while roughly another third had only one sexual partner. In 2008, just a third of students had not been sexually active in the past year. While the increase in abstinence is only slight, the national pattern for all adults follows the same trend. According to an article by Kate Julian in The Atlantic titled The Sex Recession, adults in the U.S. have gone from having sex 62 times a year to 54. Millennials, college students, and baby boomers alike are having less sex than their age cohorts did twenty years ago.

Despite decreasing sexual activity, a small subset of the population seems to account for a lot of the sexual activity. According to the NCHA, only 9.7 percent of students reported having 4 or more sexual partners in the past year. This suggests that a small number of students are more actively engaged in the hookup scene, leading to a perception that casual sex is more prevalent than it actually is.

Additionally, the aforementioned ambiguity of the term “hookup” lends itself well to its own propagation. Song, a member of a fraternity at Wake Forest, explained that social pressures, especially in Greek life, can contribute to this ambiguity: “It’s a lot easier for some guys to say ‘oh I hooked up with her last night’ and just letting people decide for themselves what that means instead of explaining ‘oh yeah we kissed,’” he said. “Everyone is so concerned about what everyone else is doing and they just want to look like they can keep up. It’s frustrating because people are afraid to be honest.”

Perceptions can often be distorted. When everyone in a small social group is engaged in a particular activity, it may seem as if everyone on campus must be doing the same.

Unsafe Practices

Dr. Cecil Price, the Director of Student Health Services at Wake Forest University believes the higher rates of STIs in the college-age population makes logical sense. “College students are at risk because they are sexually active and they’re having recent new partners,” he said.
While levels of sexual activity seem to be falling, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are rapidly increasing. A 2017 CDC report found almost half of all newly diagnosed STIs to be among the 15-24 age cohort. 45 percent of all chlamydia diagnoses were among 15-24 year old females. The NCHA survey also found that only 49.6 percent of sexually active students reported using a condom. Students are engaging in high risk sexual behavior, and aren’t taking the necessary steps to prevent disease spreading. College students aren’t using barrier contraceptives and they aren’t being tested for the STIs that, statistically speaking, they are at high risk for.

Cameron Waters, a senior, believes the willful ignorance has to do with campus culture.“I understand how easy it is to get an STD at Wake Forest,” she said. “People run around and have unprotected sex all the time and no one thinks that they have an STD.” Waters believes Wake students have a cavalier attitude towards their bodies and the bodies of others. “A lot of men at this school, their behavior has been encouraged without repercussions, so the idea that something bad could happen to you is unfathomable,” she said.

There is an unwillingness in the student body to take responsibility for their actions that extends beyond deciding not to use a condom. In a culture that values hookups as an easy way to feel good, some of the humanity of intimacy is being lost. Without a meaningful connection to the other person, sex doesn’t signify love and commitment, but is instead an intense form of physical pleasure. In many ways, one night stands or hookups seem easier than the emotional energy it takes to sustain a long term relationship.

A student from South Carolina who preferred to remain anonymous for privacy reasons began getting tested regularly after a previous sexual partner told her he had contracted an STI. “He wouldn’t even tell me which STD it was,” she said. “He said ‘I really don’t want to talk about it.’ He was too embarrassed, he couldn’t even tell me.” Now, when she asks partners if they’ve been tested, the responses she receives range from outrage to insulted. Responsible behavior is treated with surprise. “Asking someone if they have STDs is like an insult kind of. I asked one guy if he had STDs and he was like ‘no, do you?’” she said. “This is not that outlandish of a question for me to ask you.”

Hookup culture extends deeper than pursuing a series of sexual flings after drunken nights out. It appears to have permeated deep into campus culture, affecting every part of physical intimacy and creating a disregard for the care of our bodies and the bodies of others. Is hookup culture the cause of our separation from each other, or the result of technology shaped gap in our interactions? Either way, the legacy of hookup culture isn’t truly a sudden increase in sexual activity, but rather a decrease in meaningful romantic connections. As it becomes easier to interact from a distance, actual physical, proximate intimacy is on the decline. It is easier to keep up a Snapchat streak than a relationship. It is impossible to ignore the long-term ramifications this detached relationship to intimacy has had on college sexual assaults.

Sexual Assault

Among women on Wake’s campus, there is a common understanding that, by senior year, they will know at least five other women who have been sexually assaulted. Although this is certainly not true for every woman on campus, it does track with the national statistics that show roughly 1 in 4 undergraduate women will experience a sexual assault.

According to the annual Clery report on crime and fire safety, 14 rapes were reported on Wake Forest’s campus in 2017, an increase from the five in 2016. However, campus officials say that the actual number of sexual assaults were most likely far higher. Nationally, this is the case as well. Over 90 percent of college students do not report their sexual assaults.
More than half of all assaults occur with an acquaintance, and party and hookup cultures seem only to compound the problem. Three separate female students, all of whom asked to remain anonymous in order to protect their privacy, had almost identical stories. They met someone at a party, hit it off, danced together, and he asked to come back to their room. All three women said yes, but informed their “dates” they weren’t interested in having sex. All three were later sexually assaulted by those same men that night.

The intersection of intoxication, hookup culture, and assault is a recurring theme. In the fall of 2018 students organized a Speak Out in support of survivors of sexual assault. In the weeks after the Speak Out, organizers covered the campus in flyers reading “Wake Ignores Survivors.” The flyers and the speak out were reactions to sexual assaults that were reported at a particular fraternity house in the fall semester. Despite the alleged assaults, the fraternity retains both its house and its charter. Later in that same month, a public art installation went up in a food court, consisting of a map of campus and a journal. Students could put push pins on the map to mark where their assaults took place, and write the story of their experience in the journal. By the end of a day, the map was covered.

The Title IX office and the SAFE office were designed to help survivors of sexual assault on campus. The vast majority of their job consists not of punishing assaulters, but rather finding coping mechanisms for survivors. Often, they strategize with the survivors on how to avoid the assaulter. The accused are given restraining orders, made to switch classes, and kicked out of dorms. But assaulters on Wake’s campus are not expelled.

The no-consequences nature of hookup culture has permeated beyond rising STI levels and decreasing long-term commitment, instead contributing to systemic issues that create situations where students will experience assault. Although 1 in 4 women will experience a sexual assault, the male students who assaulted them are not being removed from schools at the same rate. Colleges across the country are facing a reckoning with campus assault. Some, like UNC, UVA, and Florida State are facing it publicly, while others, like Wake, must quietly continue to determine the next best steps.

At Wake, there are known sexual assaulters. Older female students tell their younger sisters and their freshman friends which boys to stay away from. Fraternities kick boys out of their parties or cut them from their rush list because they’re “creepy.”

Moving Forward…

The thought of colleges educating their students on sexual health seems absurd, but it may well be a solution. During the four days of freshman orientation at Wake, safe sex is addressed once. Sexual assault is addressed twice. How to register for classes, counseling services, and gym access are discussed so many times, it’s hard to keep track. Students are required to attend orientation, and a follow-up seminar on relationship violence and sexual assault in October of their freshman year. After that, there is a 100 level course on Health and Exercise that does a class period on the importance of using protection. Beyond that, nothing.

Most universities provide some form of Bystander Intervention Training during orientation to teach students about the importance of intervening and preventing sexual assaults. These programs are important, but often address only sexual violence, and not healthy practices concerning consensual sex. Some studies exist showing the positive benefits of trainings and education initiatives, yet most universities continue without a more holistic model addressing every facet of sexual health.

The majority of Wake’s public health and wellbeing resources are dedicated to mental health and substance abuse. Hunt, Price, and other Student Health officials acknowledge that Wake does not do enough in the realm of sex education, but believe they lack the necessary resources to implement new strategies. Many universities find themselves in similar situations. With a nationwide mental health crisis and the ongoing prevalence of substance abuse on college campuses, diverting time and resources to sexual health is not a priority.

The number of students reporting mental illness or signs of mental illness are on an upward trajectory, with 42% of students reporting serious depression, and 63% reporting overwhelming anxiety in 2018. This is an increase from 2017, when 39% and 60% felt depression or anxiety, respectively. These numbers have gone up consistently each year, and colleges have begun to respond accordingly, with new emphases on wellbeing and mental health. Substance abuse has always, is now, and likely will always continue to be a problem on most campuses. Many resources have been diverted towards stemming the drunken flow for a long time; alcohol is linked to other problems, like campus sexual assault.

Some studies have shown, however, that over 50 percent of all campus sexual assaults occur in the first four months of freshman year. Freshman women are the most at risk population during these first few months. As students experience freedom, far from adult supervision, they begin to experiment with alcohol and sex, often without adequate preparation for either.

Briana Powell is a senior who runs a program through the LGBTQ center called Hoe Talks. Her mission is to educate students on campus about anything and everything related to sex and sexual health. In her experience, many students come through her program having zero knowledge or experience with sex.

“I was talking to a first year student about how uncomfortable Hoe Talks made her, but how much she wanted to come,” said Powell. “She was completely in the dark about sex, had grown up in a very Christian home, wasn’t allowed to do or talk about anything, had never kissed a boy at 18, had never interacted with one and felt that my program was very important for her but felt deeply ashamed to be there.”

Powell believes sex education should go beyond teaching students the importance of protection, and extend into deconstructing shame and stigma about sex. “You’ve got this woman who is deeply ashamed but wants so badly to learn and is unable to in this environment, even though she deeply wants to because of how deeply ingrained it is. That’s why we need programs like Hoe Talks. If this young woman didn’t know who I was and didn’t know what Hoe Talks was she would probably feel like this for the rest of her four years here, whether she had sex or not.”

Powell and the student organizers of the Speak Out have begun to take education into their own hands. They recognize the shortcomings of the administration, and its inability to address pressing issues like increasing STI rates and steady numbers of sexual assaults. While students like Powell are passionate about their work, the burden to educate should not fall on their shoulders.

Schools like Wake Forest provides little to no comprehensive training on what consent looks like, or how to respect the bodies of others. Universities across the country are playing a game of catch up, apologizing for sexual assaults and STI spikes instead of preventing them. As the culture continues to change, universities must change with it, adapting to the real needs of students through more comprehensive sex education initiatives. Sex may be decreasing, but the problems are not.

Lily Walter is a Senior at Wake Forest University, where she studies Sociology with a concentration in Criminal Justice, with a minor in Journalism.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The image is courtesy of the Wake Forest University website.

Leave a Reply